So You Think That’s Yoga?


You run to the yoga studio twice, maybe thrice a week. You practice handstand, scorpio, kapotasana, eka pada koundinyasana (the pose from the title picture)… Congratulations! You are a hard-working gymnast!

So am I. As most busy city people I have the tendency to rush though my practice. I have to remember myself every single minute to be aware of my breath, my body and its limits. I have to actively slow myself down and bring me back to the point again and again and again. Luckily, I really have to! If I don’t, I injure myself. It has happened so many times. Life teaches me awareness the hard way. And that’s actually a gift.

Yoga is also about the connection to a group of people. It’s not an ego trip. But today in most studios we barely interact with the people around us in the yoga class. Do you know the name of your neighbor in class? We keep our mobiles next to the mat to keep ahead of time. So our attention to our practice is never undivided. We are always somewhere else at the same time. As soon as the class is over everybody streams to the changing rooms, exchanging 2-3 words with our class mates and heading out into our “normal lives”. Sometimes we even skip Sawasana to make it to our dinner date… We just try to squeeze it all in.

It’s not Yoga. It’s Gymnastics!

Most often it’s rather a workout. And that’s okay. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean this in a disdainful way. I do it too! I enjoy to work out and to learn and practice challenging new asanas. My handstand becomes better every week and that makes me proud and happy. And hopefully one beautiful day I will elegantly jump threw to sit from down dog without dragging my feet over the mat. Why not? It’s fun! Fun is good.

Of course, the asanas are important. Hatha yoga is a powerful cleansing practice. It has an effect. It’s a preparation to set up your body to a higher energy level. But the term yoga is used somewhat inflationary these days. I want to point at this discrepancy: How the meaning of the word yoga changed over time. What did it use to mean and what does it mean today?

What does yoga mean today?

When I say:

  • “I go to yoga” it actually means: I go to the yoga studio.
  • “I do yoga”, it actually means: I do asanas (hatha yoga exercizes)
  • “I am a yogi” it actually means: I identify myself with the asanas that I practice more or less regularly.

There are so many yoga studios today. I think it’s about 200 already only in Berlin. So many teachers, so many spiritual offers on the yoga market. Which is great! But it’s also dangerous. You can run from event to event to event and always be busy. The yoga world can be a distraction from the real yoga, the path within. Meandering from this workshop to that workshop, this technique, that technique, bears the danger of losing yourself in the externalities of the yoga world instead of finding your true inner nature. You’re just busy busy busy doing yoga yoga yoga. But are you really doing yoga? That is the question.

What is yoga originally?

The word stems from the Sanskrit root word “Jugit”, yoke: the harness for the draft animals. In the Katha Upanishads the senses are compared to chariot horses that need to be controlled by the intellect:

Know the Self to be sitting in the chariot, the body to be the chariot, the intellect (buddhi) the charioteer, and the mind the reins. The senses they call the horses, the objects of the senses their roads. When he (the Highest Self) is in union with the body, the senses, and the mind, then wise people call him the Enjoyer (The Upnishads, Part II, SBE15, p.12, 3-4).

The yoke is an instrument to control the senses (horses) through the intellect (charioteer) via the mind (reins). But the metaphor goes even deeper: To yoke also means to connect or unify. In union with the highest self (Brahman) the individual self (including body, senses and mind) learns its true identity: pure bliss, the experience of connectedness, of being one, I AM.

Yoga is self control and connectivity

Thus, yoga is self control and connectivity. In fact, it’s connectivity THROUGH self-control. Self control doesn’t sound like much fun, right? But in fact it is the ultimate fun! Think about it! Learning to control the mind and senses enables us to step out of our own patterns and thought habits. It FREES us! Wow! You can finally get rid of your deepest fears. You start watching your own emotional reactions to the outside things but you are not attached to them anymore. Over time we develop strength and clarity. Then we really DO yoga, rather than just practising asanas.

Photo Credit: The Yog