The question ‘What is yoga?’ is one that I have been asked many times by others, and have also asked myself time and time again over the past twenty-eight years of my serious practice. I reflect back on the answers I have provided in that time, and notice how my perception, understanding, and embodiment of the practice have evolved over the years. As far back as I remember, I have always perceived yoga to be a systematic discipline aligning mind, body, and spirit. As far back as I remember, I have always understood that yoga embodies as one what the western world separates into the distinct and separate disciplines of psychology, philosophy, and physiology. As far back as I remember, I have always innately grasped the concept that yoga is a way of life and not simply a session that you attend for an hour or two every other day. And as far back as I remember, I have always “practiced” yoga. Yet, my “practice” has changed over this period of time; it has changed me.
So what does it mean to me to “practice” yoga? This question immediately brings my thoughts back to a Sunday morning not too long ago when I was attending a conference with my yoga teacher, following my morning asana (postures) class. As he delved into some deeper explanation of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga, he explained to us that a student once asked him: “So how many hours a day do you practice yoga?”. There were over 200 of us there in the shala that Sunday morning attending the conference, and from where I was sitting, it sounded as though every single one of us gently giggled, as we knew where our teacher was guiding us with this analogy. He proceeded to give us the answer with which he responded to that student: “I practice yoga every day of the week, 24 hours a day. If it is asana that you are asking me about, then that is a different question.”
Yoga practice is so much more than asana, and yet that is the extent to which yoga is perceived by many people, especially in the western world. Social media has contributed immensely to the increase in popularity and improvement in understanding of the physical and mental benefits of yoga. At the same time, social media is to blame for the misconception that asana is the full extent of yoga. Little does it show that yoga is a systematic integration of all eight limbs: yama (practicing restraint), niyama (self-observance), asana (posture), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (state of joy and peace). Yoga is an art, it is a science and it is a spiritual practice all at once. It requires self-discipline, a desire to change and an ownership of one’s habitual patterns of being. Whether one realises it or not, the practice of yoga turns our focus from our outermost layers to our innermost ones in order to face our fears, limitations and core beliefs with the intention of self-development and self-mastery. Whether on the mat or off, the teachings of yoga become part of who we are. They allow us to remain calm in times of stress, they allow us to show empathy and kindness towards those who need it most and they allow us to remain true to who we really are.
Remaining true to myself has become my lifelong goal through my own practice of yoga. This has allowed me to become aware of my strengths, and of my limitations equally. It has allowed me to reconnect with my felt sense, rather than allowing my citta or my mind to take over. Becoming aware of and following that inner guidance in every aspect of life provides immense freedom and contentment. It allows yourself to feel gratitude and to cultivate detachment, and by detachment, I am not only referring to detachment from the material. I am referring to detachment from outcome, detachment from thoughts and detachment from emotions that do not serve in remaining true to self. Once you have cultivated this ability to remain a silent witness to whatever comes your way, a sense of space is created within and your inner guidance becomes difficult to dismiss. This is what yoga means to me, and this is how over the years my practice has continued to evolve as my life changes.
My outlook on life and the way in which I incorporate yoga into my own daily life has evolved. Reminiscing back to my earliest childhood memories, I have fond recollections of the way I was taught to eat food. Foods were considered to be healing elements, providing the energy required to maintain optimal health. I was taught to show gratitude and to remain thoughtful in how I fuelled my body. I was taught to show kindness, not only towards my own body with my choice of food but also towards those that had prepared it for me. I was taught in my very early years that I am made of energy and that everything and everyone around me is also made of that same energy. Nothing is separate. Everything within our world as we know it is interconnected and it is, in fact, this loss of connection with ourselves and with our surrounds that causes us to lose our true sense of self. These are my earliest memories of my own practice of yoga.
As I continued to grow into my later childhood and early teenage years, my yoga practice became increasingly playful. I would practice asana, pranayama, and meditation with my mother. I would also attend classes with other children of my age. My yoga practice during this time took on a very playful attitude, but also cultivated a sense of respect, calmness, focus, and concentration that I carried with me at home, at school and when out and about. I have continued to carry these aspects of my yoga practice with me throughout my adult life. It is the deepening of my learning of all aspects of yoga that has allowed me to make changes to my outlook in life and fully embody yoga as part of who I am.
In my early 20’s, my desire to delve deeper into my own asana practice allowed me to also explore pranayama and meditation in more depth. It allowed me to move from the outermost layers of my being and start to explore the inner layers. I discovered then a place of stillness, in body, mind, and spirit. I discovered that with this stillness came contentment, stability, and ability to remain incredibly calm in the face of adversity. This was a time when my focus was drawn to the self-study component of my yoga practice, which in turn allowed me to get to know myself and connect with the true essence of my being. It is during this time that I established a serious attitude towards my yoga practice, through daily sessions in asana, pranayama, and meditation. I found that in doing so, I could practice yoga 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by remaining true to myself and continuing to refine my ability to practice detached awareness. I found myself becoming a better person by showing, even more, compassion, empathy, care and kindness towards myself and towards others. Yoga had become me, and I had become yoga. My desire to learn more and to practice more has continued to follow me, now in my early 40’s, with the essence of being first and foremost a lifelong student of yoga, with all that it encompasses. I am now embracing the lifelong study of its beautiful and ancient language, Sanskrit, which allows me to delve even deeper into the philosophical aspect of yoga.
Embodying yoga in such a way is liberating. It allows you to recognise what is important in life, to own your shortcomings and to improve your relationship with yourself and with others. It enables you to acknowledge that yoga is a lifelong journey. It is not about being able to do a perfect handstand, nor any other posture for that matter. It is about being able to adapt to whatever comes into your life. It is about being able to improve the way in which you respond rather than react. It is about learning to accept the impermanence of life as we see it. Essentially, it is about reconnecting with our true inner being in order to dissipate any disparities between what we think we should be and who we truly are. Each of the eight limbs of yoga is there to guide us to achieve this. Through mastery of our body, mind, and spirit, we realign ourselves to reach that place of cohesive stillness that allows us to remain true to our inner being and really practice yoga, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
With warmest wishes,
Sabrina David ERYT500, RN, MHN, DipSc (Biomed)
Author: Sabrina David
Sabrina is a registered nurse, mental health nurse, and yoga instructor who combines her skills in general health planning, counselling and yoga instruction to work alongside people seeking change. She is very fortunate to have been born into a family of yoga instructors and has been practicing yoga (postures, breath work, meditation, philosophy & lifestyle) since early childhood, so yoga is her way of life. She lives it, breathes it, practices it and speaks it. Sabrina teaches yoga to groups as well as one-on-one and is passionate about making all aspects of yoga as a full system of well-being accessible to all. She also studies Sanskrit and Ancient Greek as part of a Master of Arts in the Classical World, and incorporates her ever-growing knowledge of this ancient history into her teachings.