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.