Approaches to Yoga

May 26, 2020

Yoga as fitness training

The first approach, Yoga as fitness training, is the  most popular way that Westerners practice Yoga. It’s also  the  most radical revamping of Traditional Yoga. More precisely, it’s a modification of traditional Hatha Yoga. 

Yoga as fitness training is concerned primarily with the  physical body’s flexibility, resilience, and  strength. Fitness is how most newcomers to Yoga encounter this  great tradition. Fitness training is certainly a useful  gateway into Yoga, but  later on, some people discover that Hatha Yoga is a profound spiritual tradition. From the  earliest times, Yoga masters have  emphasized the  need for a healthy body. But they’ve also  always pointed beyond the  body  to the mind  and  other vital aspects of the  being.

Yoga as a sport

Yoga as a sport is an especially prominent approach in some Latin American countries. Its practitioners, many  of whom  are excellent athletes, master hundreds of extremely difficult  Yoga postures to perfection and  demonstrate their skills and  beautiful physiques in international competitions. 

But this new sport, which also  can be regarded as an art  form, has  drawn much criticism  from the  ranks of more traditional Yoga practitioners who feel that competition has  no place in Yoga. Yet this  athletic orientation has  done much to put  Yoga on the  map  in some parts of the  world, and  we see  nothing wrong  with good-natured Yoga “competitions” as long as participants hold self-centered competitiveness in check.

The increasingly popular fad of Acro-Yoga, which specializes in acrobatic moves done in combination with a partner, also falls into the  Yoga-as-a-sport category. Only the  fittest and most flexible are able to practice this  modern variation of Yoga without risk of injury.  However, purists find fault with the lack of spiritual and ethical intention behind this  style  of Hatha Yoga.

Yoga as therapy

The third approach, Yoga as therapy, applies yogic techniques to restore health or full physical and  mental function. In recent years, some Western Yoga teachers have  begun to use  yogic practices for therapeutic purpose. Although the  idea  behind Yoga therapy is very old, its name is fairly new. In fact, Yoga therapy is a whole  new professional discipline, calling  for far greater training and  skill on the  part of the  teacher than is the  case with ordinary Yoga. 

Commonly, Yoga is intended for those who don’t  suffer  from disabilities or ailments requiring remedial action and  special attention. Yoga therapy, on the  other hand, addresses these special needs. For example, Yoga therapy may be able  to help  you find relief from many  common ailments. 

Yoga as a lifestyle

Yoga as a lifestyle enters the  proper domain of Traditional Yoga. Yoga once or twice  a week for an hour or so is certainly better than no Yoga at all. And Yoga can be enormously beneficial even  when  practiced only as fitness training or as so-called Postural Yoga. But you unlock the  real potency of Yoga when  you adopt it as a lifestyle — living Yoga and  practicing it every day whether through physical exercises or meditation. 

Above all, you apply the wisdom of Yoga to everyday life and  live lucidly, with awareness. Yoga has much to say about what  and  how you should eat,  how you should sleep, how you should work, how you should relate to others, and  so on. It offers  a total system of conscious and  skillful living.

In modern times, a Yoga lifestyle includes caring for the  ailing environment, an idea especially captured in Green  Yoga. (Check  out the  sidebar “Healing the planet through Green  Yoga” in this  chapter for more information.) Don’t think you have  to be a yogic superstar to practice lifestyle Yoga. You can begin today. Just  make a few simple adjustments in your  daily schedule and keep your goals  vividly in front  of you. Whenever you’re  ready, make further positive changes one step at a time. 

Yoga as a spiritual discipline

Lifestyle  Yoga (see the  preceding section) is concerned with healthy, whole- some, functional, and  benevolent living. Yoga as a spiritual discipline, the fifth and  final approach, is concerned with all that plus the  traditional ideal of enlightenment — that is, discovering your  spiritual nature. This approach

is often  equated with Traditional Yoga. 

The word  spiritual has  been abused a lot lately,  so we need to explain how we use  it here. Spiritual relates to spirit — your  ultimate nature. In Yoga, it’s called the  atman  (pronounced aht-mahn) or purusha  (poo-roo-shah).

According to nondualistic (based in one reality) Yoga philosophy, the  spirit is one and  the  same in all beings and  things. It’s formless, immortal, superconscious, and  unimaginably blissful. It’s transcendental because it exists beyond the  limited body  and  mind.  You discover the  spirit fully in the moment of your  enlightenment.

What most approaches to Yoga have in common

Most traditional or tradition-oriented approaches to Yoga share two funda- mental practices, the  cultivation of awareness and  relaxation:

Awareness is the  peculiarly human ability to pay close attention to some- thing,  to be consciously present, and  to be mindful. Yoga is attention training. To see  what  we mean, try this  exercise: Pay attention to your right  hand for the  next  60 seconds. That  is, feel your  right  hand and  do nothing else.  Chances are,  your  mind  is drifting off after  only a few seconds. Yoga asks  you to rein in your  attention whenever it strays.

Relaxation is the  conscious release of unnecessary and  therefore unwholesome tension in the  body.

Both awareness and relaxation go hand in hand in Yoga. Without bringing awareness and relaxation to Yoga, the  exercises are merely exercises — not yogic exercises.

Conscious  breathing  is often  added to awareness and  relaxation as a third foundational practice. Normally, breathing happens  automatically. In Yoga, you bring  awareness to this  act,  which then makes it into a powerful tool for training your  body  and  your  mind.  

Health, Healing, and Yoga

The source of your  health and  happiness lies within you. Outside agents like physicians, therapists, or remedies can help  you through major crises, but you yourself are primarily responsible for your  own health and  happiness. The following  sections show  you how Yoga helps you mobilize the  inner strength to live responsibly and  wisely.

What is health? Most people answer this  question by saying  that health is the opposite of illness, but  health  is more than the  absence of disease — it’s a positive state of being.  Health  is wholeness. To be healthy means not  only to possess a well-functioning body  and  a sane mind  but  also  to vibrate with life, to be vitally connected with your  social and  physical environment. To be healthy also  means to be happy.

Something for nothing?

You get out of Yoga what you put into it. One computer term particularly relevant to Yoga practice is gigo, which means “garbage in, garbage out.” It captures a simple truth: The quality of a cause determines the quality of the effect — what you get out of any endeavor is only as good as what you put in. In other words,

Don’t expect health from junk food.

Don’t expect  happiness  from miserable attitudes.

Don’t expect  good results  from shoddy Yoga practice.

Don’t expect something from nothing.

Yoga is a powerful tool, but you must learn to use it properly. You can buy the latest super- duper computer, but if you only know how to use it as a typewriter, that’s all it is.

Because life is constant movement, you shouldn’t expect health to be static. Today health is increasingly difficult  to achieve because the  environment has become highly  toxic.  Perfect health is a mirage. In the  course of your  life, you can expect inevitable fluctuations in your  state of health; even  cutting your finger with a knife temporarily upsets the  balance. Your body  reacts to the cut by mobilizing all the  necessary biochemical forces to heal  itself. Regular Yoga practice can create optimal conditions for self-healing. You achieve a baseline of health, with an improved immune system that enables you to stay healthy longer and  heal  faster.

Yoga is about healing rather than curing. Like a really  good  physician, Yoga takes deeper causes into account instead of slapping a bandage on surface symptoms. These causes are more often  than not  found in the  mind  — in the way you live and  how you think.  That’s why Yoga masters recommend self-understanding. Most people tend to be passive in health matters. They wait until something goes  wrong  and  then rely on a pill or a physician to fix the  problem. Yoga encourages you to take  the  initiative in preventing illness and  restoring or maintaining your  health. 

Taking control of your  health has nothing to do with self-doctoring (which can be dangerous); it’s simply  a matter of taking  responsibility for your  health. A good  physician can tell you that a patient’s active participation in the  process greatly facilitates healing. For example, you may take  various kinds  of medication to deal  with a gastric ulcer, but  unless you learn to eat well, sleep adequately, avoid  stress, and take  life more easily,  you’re  bound to have  a recurrence before long. You must change your  lifestyle to realize any deep-seated healing.

Yoga points the  way to happiness, health, and  life-embracing meaning by suggesting that the  best possible meaning you can find for yourself springs from the  well of joy deep within you. That  joy or bliss  is the  very nature of the spirit, or transcendental Self. Joy is like a 3-D lens  that captures life’s bright colors and motivates you to embrace life in all its countless forms.