It has been my experience that the question "What is Yoga?" is answered in various ways, depending on the individuals experience and needs. While I tend to lean towards the Eastern philosophy of lifestyle and self-realization, many of my peers bend towards the Western experience of yoga as physical fitness. Is one a better approach than the other? This depends on what the person is looking for. Is one more complete than the other? My opinion is yes, but again, this is my experience, not every ones. We are all on our own path and each path is special and unique.
So what is this yoga thang? Yoga is the union of the mind, body and spirit. While asana (or the physical postures) is one of the eight limbs of yoga in the Sutras of Pantanjali, Yoga is not asana as is commonly thought in the West. In the West "yoga" and "asana" are used interchangeably. I also wonder if most yoga studios should be called "Asana Studios" rather than "Yoga Studios". As it seems very few offer lessons from ancient texts, history, chanting etc.., but rather focus more on a physical workout.
I am not writing this post to prove my belief system, but rather to encourage people to question what they know as Yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali is the foundation of Yoga. The soul (pun intended) purpose of yoga is Yoga, not physical fitness.
In the West are we practicing yoga or are we mainly practicing asana? Asana aids us on the path to yoga, so it is important, but it is not the point.
The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali begins with threads 1.1-1.4, when combined is something along the lines of:
1.1 Atha Yoganusasanam
1.2 Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.
1.3 Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam.
1.4 Vrtti Sarupyam Itaratra
1.1 "Now the practice of yoga begins".
To me, yoga is not something I do, it is something I practice daily. Do not ask your self, "Do I do yoga?" Ask yourself, "Do I practice yoga?"
1.2 "Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field". Ask yourself if you are aware of your thoughts and do you explore harnessing those thoughts if they do not serve the purposes of uniting mind, body, and spirit? Do you do this while practising asana only or is the something you strive for off the mat also?
1.3 "Then the seer rests in His true nature". We are all Knowers or Seers, not body nor mind. The truest YOU is always the same,but is confused or mixed up due to funky mind-stuff.
1.4 "At times the true Self assumes the form of the mind-field". If you detach yourself from all of your labels and possessions that you identify yourself with, you have the purest and truest you or "I". Yoga , when practiced in it's complete form aids us in self-control and constant self-adjustment in order to keep you from prescribing to false identifications of the self.
I was in a training recently where there topic of "yoga" as a workout and yoga as a way of life were equal. Is a teacher who prescribes more to the physical asana practice less than a teacher who studies to teach a more complete and Eastern influenced yoga class? I would say no, but I would ask if some teachers should call themselves asana teachers rather than yoga teachers. This is not a black or white issue, but it is true that asana alone is not yoga, but only one part of it. Asana does not offer the complete yoga experience. In the West if you can practice handstand you are considered an advanced yogi. I would say you are most likely advanced in your asana practice and I might even ask if you if you have a background in gymnastics because most likely the answer is yes. I introduce the notion that an advanced yogi is one who harnesses the mind and tries to maintain contact with the pure "I". I consider myself, after 15 years to be advanced in asana, but still a beginner in the "true" practice of yoga, but my goal is to at least reach intermediate status in my own spirit by the time I pass from this planet.
So, bluntly, I will argue that in the West we are mainly practicing asana, not yoga. This is simply my opinion and while I do believe this is not a complete practice, I respect that this is part of the path to yoga. I only hope that we do not confuse ourselves too much with the notion that we have "made it" in yoga because we are only starting in asana.
Namaste' and may you find your Sat Nam!