The Semantics of Yoga

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As adults we often fall into the trap of feeling under pressure to perform or achieve in many aspects of our lives and it certainly can be difficult not to bring that onto the yoga mat too. This week I got to thinking, with my ex-English teacher cap on my head, about the semantics of yoga. What does ‘do yoga’ really imply? Is this verb-noun combination responsible for making us feel like we’re failing in an activity where in reality the notion fail shouldn’t even exist?

Throughout my 11-year career as an English teacher I spent a fair amount of time teaching students the difference between ‘to do’ and ‘to make’. In languages such as Spanish – these verbs could both translate into just one verb – hacer, whereas in English we feel the need to differentiate between doing – with the implication of completing a task (achieving a task), and making – the idea of creating something. I therefore find it really interesting that when we talk about Yoga in English – doing yoga – there is this immediate underlying implication that we need to achieve something. And, is this not ironic considering the Bhagavad Gita tells us:

 na hy asannyasta-sankalpoyogi bhavati kascana

For no one can become a yogi (man of union) without renouncing self-satisfaction.

(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6, text 2)

When we practice Yoga, we bring together body, mind and breath, in order to create union between our physical, emotional and psychological bodies, and along with this a sense of peace of mind. Perhaps it might be more fitting then to ‘make’ yoga rather than do it? As a teacher of mine once said: ‘don’t get excited because you got this pose, I’ll just be giving you the next one. There’s no end to the journey that is your yoga practice’. For me this is one of the most exciting things about it; it’s a journey and it’s all about the journey rather than having an end goal in sight. And lets face it – how many journeys do you get to go on where you are not bothered about actually getting to where you are going?!

So if we’re ‘making’ Yoga, rather than ‘doing’ it, I got to wondering what other words I could also substitute. When I teach balancing poses, especially poses such as bakasana/crow – which for most people is the first arm balance they experiment with, I often encourage my students to ‘play’ with the pose rather than ‘do’ it. That way the pressure to not fall, topple over etc. can be put to one side, and people start to feel more like they can ‘be-friend’ these somewhat challenging poses rather than fight them. Personally, I’ve noticed that when I stop caring or thinking about what it will be like to do or achieve a challenging pose, is more often than not the moment when I actually find myself in it (albeit if only for a second, but it still counts!) The idea of play allows us to let go of our adult preoccupation with the notion of what it is to achieve, and adopt that childlike freedom which we automatically brought to activities as a kid.

So if we’re making yoga, playing yoga – what else could there be to add? Last but definitely not least: Be Yoga. Read any of the online Yoga magazines, Facebook pages and unfortunately you can’t help but find a lot of judgment flying around – especially comments on who’s being less yogic than they ought to be; one of the main reasons I no longer bother with one particular online magazine – the bitchy comments far outweighed the text on the articles in many cases. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the first of the Yamas or moral guidelines is ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence. Whilst this is often taken quite literally as not physically injuring another, it extends beyond this to our words and thoughts. Ahimsa is non-harming and non-judgment – whether that is on others or ourselves. In this way, before publicly announcing our analysis on how someone else should be behaving differently, or beating ourselves up about what we can’t do and should be doing better, perhaps a more appropriate action might be to go inside, sit with the breath, and find out what actually is. Whether that be identifying how a person has triggered us, or giving ourself a little loving compassion. Being yoga warrants an article, a book even of its own, but if nowhere else, ahimsa is certainly a good place to start.

So, next time you find yourself ‘doing’ yoga, do a little mental check – are you also relishing in the joy of making/creating it? Are you allowing yourself to enjoy the play of it and most importantly are you Being Yoga?

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