What is Yoga?

By Jessica Sharry

Sun contributor

Yoga is not exercise, and it is not a religion. “Well then,” you might ask, “It’s clear what it isn’t, but what is it?”

Simply put, yoga is a path of self-discovery. The word itself comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, to unite or to yoke. This union or joining together in the context of yoga practice has to do with balancing and uniting opposing forces within the body and mind. On a physical level this can have to do with strength and flexibility, rest and motion, left and right, hot and cold, etc. Mentally and emotionally through yoga one can achieve balance in life via thought and emotion. How? That is to be learned via the instruction and guidance of a teacher and the various methods of yoga available.

So, what about the spiritual aspects of yoga? Yoga can point practitioners in the direction of spirituality, but yoga is not a religion. Though the practices of yoga have roots in the Indian sub-continent from the region of the Himalayas and south, a place rich in spiritual traditions, yoga is not Hindu nor is it Buddhist, though one can be Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Rastafarian, or even an atheist and be a practitioner of yoga. According to my Tantra Yoga Teacher, Kulavadhuta Satpurananda of West Bengal, India, every religion and spiritual tradition has its own yoga. Another way to view yoga is that it is a practice of activation, a mode to achieve a result. For some the desired outcome might be a matter of spirituality—God-oriented, in-fact. And yet belief in God is not a requirement for the practice of yoga. In my almost 22 years as a practitioner of yoga (first Hatha and Ashtanga Yoga, and later Tantra Yoga) belief has had little to do with it. For me yoga has always been a path of self-discovery, even when I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing—discovering myself.

While it’s true many come to yoga out of an interest in improving physical fitness and bodily health (reducing stress, losing weight, or achieving a better night’s sleep) these aren’t the original aims of yoga as a practice, but rather positive side effects. The real aim of yoga practice is of self-discovery, and I’m not speaking about the discovery of who we are, as in identity-seeking—think career-identity, parental-identity, artistic-identity, intellectual-identity, ad infinitum; but rather the what that we are—the self that exists beyond identities and dwells within a sort of substratum consciousness, a base upon which these other identities can be known and flourish, for better or worse. Just like improved physical fitness is often a side-effect of yoga asana or posture practice (that oh-so-familiar form yoga takes in gyms, yoga studios, and community centers), knowing oneself through and through is also a side-effect of yoga via discovering one’s preferences, talents, gifts, strengths, aversions and weaknesses too.

Through yoga one eventually comes to know the real self, the true self that exists beyond all identities and versions of who we are. This is the self I refer to as the “what” rather than the “who” and as I have come to discover, it is this self we ought to seek and know, for without knowing this self we are missing out on perhaps the best gift of life—the gift of being born human and having the ability to be self-aware. Through knowing the self one comes to know life as it is beyond identities, preferences, aversions and the entire shebang that includes the good, the bad and the ugly. Yoga is a path that beckons practitioners to travel through the body-focused practices of asana and pranayama (breathing practices) toward dhyana (meditation) and eventually samadhi (equal existence or inner equipoise) so that one can discover life as-it-is and the true self that resides there undisturbed, awakened and enlightened.

So if you are thinking “whoa, hold on, this yoga stuff sounds too lofty a pursuit, I just want to strengthen my back muscles,” know that yoga is indeed a good use of your time as you’ll most likely receive the benefit of a healthier back, and maybe even better quality sleep, but be aware you might also start to discover the who and the what that is suffering from a sore back.

Jessica Sharry returns to Empire this summer from Helsinki, Finland, where she lives with her husband Tero, and teaches yoga at studios, gyms, companies, the University of Helsinki, and virtually via her brainchild Yoga Lab Helsinki. You can study yoga with Jessica this summer during July and August, and intensively with her at her Yoga and Meditation Summer Retreat, July 7-11, at Nature, near Maple City. For questions or info about classes or the retreat, contact Jessica at jessica@yogalab.fi or visit her website YogaLab.fi