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What Does 'Doing Yoga' Really Mean?

Nadine Fawell
Written by Nadine Fawell

I've had an inner ear infection for weeks now, which means I can't do yoga... Well, physical yoga: which is what most of us mean when we say 'yoga' anyway, right?

But I’ve done a heck of a lot svadhaya, or self-examination. While I’ve been fever-sweating and trying to reconcile myself to not doing asana for a while, I’ve been examining what yoga really means to me.

Don’t get me wrong, the minute I can bend and twist without falling over, I am so back on my mat. Yoga is always going to be pretty physical for me: my mat, after all, is where I feel safe.

Plus, there’s no use having a clear mind if you are ungrounded from lack of exercise. Physical practice is spiritual practice because we are one system -- body-breath-mind-soul. And the breath is what links it all up.

When I was younger, I used to get quite irritated when people asked what my spiritual practice was. Clearly it was my dedicated daily Ashtanga practice. Like, duh. Thing is, that sweaty, athletic, achievement-driven practice wasn’t particularly spiritual. It could have been, but I hadn’t yet learned to put the breath into my practice.

What I mean is that if you practice with your breath as the primary mover, any asana sequence can become your primary spiritual practice. This is because, as TKV Desikachar says, 'the breath is the intelligence of the body.'

If you are ignoring the rhythm of life moving through you as your breath and going too fast through vinyasa, you may as well be doing gymnastics for all the good it is going to do you.

Yoga is both an action and a state of being.

Sometimes that state appears to result from the action, but it is actually always there: sahaj samadhi, the union that already exists. We are in union with that which moves us because we are alive, because we breathe. We can’t possibly be separate from the source. If we were, we would be dead. Simple.

My asana practice is still my primary spiritual practice. I just know how to follow my breath now!

Why move, you ask, when you are trying to experience the stillness within?

Well, we all sit on our asses too much, and that leads to creaky bodies and disrupted breathing patterns. So, moving and breathing brings us back into our bodies and into the body-breath-soul link that is always there but is sometimes hard to experience. Breathing properly is the most effective way I have ever found to participate in the world. Just being aware of our breath makes most of us feel better.

So, for me, yoga is both the actions of asana, breathing and so on, and the experience of just being alive and connected with my world.

Other ways I experience yoga most acutely:

  • On my mat, when I am deep into the experience of a pose, in the rhythm of my breath, and there is nothing else, just that moment. In the last few years, practicing this way, my body has healed from injury, become stronger and more flexible, and my teaching skills have deepened as a result.
  • When I am with friends, laughing, eating, drinking, and, again, just there, just in that moment.
  • When making love. I do not mean just sex, but rather, a deep, and deeply desired, connection with someone who cares about you and whom you care about, or at least respect. Again, fully present, fully alive, and fully connected to that other.
  • Playing with children: there is a way they have of noticing the wonder in small things, of being completely honest, and of remarking on things (often about you) that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. And then they grow up and have to re-learn how to do that.
  • Through music: it’s a direct conduit to yoga.
  • In the mountains and at the beach. Nature just IS. As we are. Except that our fast-paced lives tend to divorce our perceived reality from our animal natures.

So it’s both the action of connecting and the experience of it. That’s what life, and yoga, is about!

Not how many sun salutes you can do, or whether you can stand on your hands. Those things are fun, but they aren’t necessarily yoga.

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