Okay, let’s get one thing straight. Yoga is NOT about the body! The yoga poses, and other physical practices (such as pranayama) are just one aspect of yoga. In fact, yoga is all about the inner experience, and the knowledge of the Self. The physical practices are just one aspect of this path. The most important text on yoga, Patanjali Yoga Sūtras is most predominantly a text on the mind (because the whole problem of the human condition is essentially traced to a problem of perception).
One such text, is in fact the primary text on yoga itself, is called the Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Patanjali codified the complex teachings and practices of yoga into a short, concise collection of sutras. A sutra is a compact, concentrated statement that gives a profound and expansive view or teaching that must be unpacked with more detail and context in order to be understood.
Two sutras near the very beginning of this text, essentially define yoga. Much, much more can be said about yoga than what is offered here… however, in the midst of the inner openings you are getting from your yoga practice, and the quiet mind that is cultivated within, a brief contemplation from an ancient text can sink in deeply and have a transformative effect on your perception of yoga (and of yourself).
Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Foremost Text on Yoga
Sūtra 1.2: Yogash Citta Vritti Nirodaḥ
- Translation: Yoga is the resolution of the vrittis of the mind.
- What this means: Yoga is the process (and the experience) of the resolving of the mind’s activity (thoughts, experiences, moods, imagination, feelings, identities, etc.)
Sūtra 1.3: Tadā dṛaṣtu svarūpe-avasthānām
- Translation: And then, you abide in your true form.
- What this means: And then (when the mind’s activity resolves), you abide in the Truth of your being (the changeless Self.)
To sum it up…
What happens is, the minds excessive activity distorts, or covers up our ability to see the Self as it truly is. Yoga is the process of settling this mental activity so that what remains is the clarity to simply see what is and always has been, the true reality of your existence.
The Rope and the Snake
A common analogy in the yoga tradition is known as “rope, snake”… if you walk through a dark alley and see something that appears like a snake laying across the ground, you will 100% see a snake. The snake is absolutely real, true (and terrifying!) to your perception. If you were to suddenly shine a flashlight on the ground and see that in fact, the “snake” is a rope (and was never not a rope) you immediately “come to know” the truth of the snake, which is rope.
Self-knowledge is like this. I believe I am my body, mind and personality. I believe I am my thoughts, my personal history, my roles. But… if all of those identities (and all of the mental activity associated with those identities) were to suddenly resolve, the way the snake resolved in the light, what would remain is the TRUTH of my being (the rope, if you will). Yoga is the practice of turning on the light!
“Yoga is the resolving of the vrttis (thoughts, moods, imagination, feelings, identities, etc.) into the very truth of your being.” Of course, much more can be unfolded… but this will support your ongoing learning, experience and understanding of yoga. Want to know my favorite Patanjali translations? They are this one, and this one. If you want something a little lighter on the brain… try this one.