Yoga is at the boundary between physical exercise or movement for health, on the one hand, and self-reflective meditation, on the other. It is precisely because this line, this boundary, is so difficult to define, because it is the borderline between what we think of as the physical, and what we think of as the mental, or psychological, that Yoga is such a powerful practice. Yoga uses the technique of bringing your breathing to the foreground of your attention both during movement and while you hold still in a posture. During practice, you are not repressing or attempting to ignore all the other activity that goes on, but you are focusing on the breath so that everything else becomes the background. This shifts the relationships within physical and psychological systems.
The effect is much broader than on just your physical body, or your emotional state, however. You might find that there is a shift in your physical relationships, in other words, how the body parts relate to one another, as you become stronger and more flexible (but be aware that you can injure yourself as easily in a yoga class as you can in any other exercise class, if you behave irresponsibly and don’t take your own existing conditions into account!). You may also find that you develop more appreciation of how your psychological condition arises, and this can give a much needed space between action and reaction – you may find that you become more honest about how you feel, but that you become less reactive as you begin to recognise different emotional states arising but develop the capacity to step back and compassionately observe how this happens. Again, however, let’s not pretend that this is either a miraculous cure for all our relationships, or that we are on a ladder to harmony. Yoga is the embrace of impermanence, and of imperfection, accepting this state right now, just as it is. It requires tremendous effort to keep our focus on what is happening, as it is happening, and yoga practitioners, just like anyone else, can become overwhelmed. Humility, compassion and forgiveness are, therefore, essential attitudes to cultivate towards yourself and others during formal practice and as you go about the rest of the day.
However, a really effective yoga practice shows its effectiveness in how you relate to a much broader context: your social world, but also the ecological context. By the ecological context, I don’t just mean what’s around us, but also what is within us. So Yoga affects how we relate to what we eat. That doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a vegetarian, but it does mean reflecting on what you eat, and drink, and why. Maybe you hadn’t thought about what is involved in factory farming to produce cheap chicken. Even just beginning that discussion is a start. Can you eat it one less time per week? Can you look at alternatives? I know very well how difficult it is to loosen the ties that bind us to particular habits and activities, and Yoga is entirely about taking personal responsibility, not about judging others. But it’s amazing what happens when people start to look for other ways of doing things, ways that include developing local, humane farming techniques that respect animals and the land, projects that include looking for ways to restore and protect biodiversity, ways to clothe ourselves and use technology that relies less on exploitation and that feeds less into the overall profits of big business, and more into taking part in a discussion about tackling global poverty that is often caused by exploitation and greed.
Is Yoga political? Not unless you want it to be, but it is revolutionary because it turns your picture of yourself as a separable individual who makes decisions that only affect yourself around. You begin to recognise that what you do, every act, has an impact, however miniscule, on every other act, and every relationship. Sometimes people say, Yoga? It’s not for me. It’s too slow. I want to do something fast. Well, OK (but there are so many varieties of class you can take that this isn’t an accurate understanding of what is available). Others say, Yoga? I’d never get my leg around the back of my head! Again, this is a misconception: Yoga is about making you more flexible – but that’s much more about becoming responsive and responsible in your attitude than it is about physical flexibility. Someone once said to me: to practice yoga, all you need is a body, any kind of body, the ability to breathe, and the ability to be aware of your body and your breath. Unless you are unconscious, you have this ability and so you can practice yoga.
One last thing: what I call Yoga might not be the same as what other people call Yoga. I don’t talk about chakras in my class (these are a number – usually seven – of wheels of energy associated with various points along the spine) or if I do, I use them as metaphors for different aspects of our experience. I think a lot of the ideas that have come to us from old texts were ways for ancient peoples to explain our physical experience to ourselves – but that scientific knowledge has developed considerably since then, and we need to include new information in our understanding and not get stuck on tradition just for the sake of it. I’m also unusually non-dualistic for a Yoga teacher. I don’t think there are two states, body and mind, the material world and the spiritual world, the imperfect present and some perfect realm elsewhere (or, to put it in religious language, heaven and earth). I know that a lot of Yoga teachers do believe this, and I know that my understanding is not conventional. But I have thought deeply about these things and even written a PhD thesis about it, so it’s not something I came to without some work.
However, in the final analysis, Yoga, for me, is not a religion, and not a theory about how to live, but a practice. While religions often attempt to convert people to their cause, or say that this way is right, and that is wrong, Yoga says, do what else you want, but the only way to understand Yoga is to practice this way of experiencing your body and your breath. Practice, and understanding, and change, automatically follow. Whether or not you decide to practice is something only you can decide.