"You cannot call yourself a yogi if you are not a vegan. Real yogis don't use props. Yoga is not calisthenics." This is just a tiny sampling of the attempts I have heard from people to define yoga lately. Ego yearns to establish control of situations by labeling them. In Exodus Moses demands from God a little more information about who God is. Moses needed to be "in the know" and God simply answers "I am who I am". One of my favorite "names of God" is the Ineffable, which simply means the unknowable. In a lot of ways yoga to me is the ineffable activity. Of course, there are parameters of "what yoga is". Yoga is an 8 limbed system of body mind integration that usually but not always includes making shapes with your body, examining your mind and using breath intentionally to effect internal shifts. Usually but not always...
So, to get down to it the word yoga really just means "to yoke" and in this instance the objects being yoked (or integrated) are an individuals mind and body.Sometimes, but not always, this mind body integration leads to spiritual awakening or deepening and sometimes this yoking leads to a tighter bum and stronger arms. Sometimes yoga may lead to weaker arms and a stronger mind. Maybe the yogi in $100 yoga pants performing sweaty calisthenics in a trendy downtown gym is meditating deeply on God in those pricey pants. The thing is "we don't know". We don't know the true nature of much, even ourselves. My faith is a huge component of my life which I cannot imagine living without but I know it would be delusional to insist on labeling God and in the same vein I reject labeling yoga. Yoga is too big and generous to tie down with our tiny ideas.
It took a sixteen hour road trip and a premature return to work to make me blurt out in front of a class "What the hell is yoga anyways?". This outburst immediately followed by the thought "well, I am the yoga teacher and I am supposed to be teaching this very thing". Yikes. Who can teach how the wind blows, or how a soul awakens? Can we teach one another body/mind integration? I mean really? The thing is, I will admit I don't know. And that is OK. Because sometimes thinking we know something stymies our efforts to learn and grow. Buddhists call it beginners mind. Beginners mind asks that we don't assume we know stuff but rather we sit with what is and observe without judgement and perhaps growth will occur.
This need to label and control situations, of course, extends way beyond yoga and religion. We almost automatically do it with every person we ever meet. Glance at someone in the lane next to you going 70 miles and hour down the highway, your thoughts about them will offer a myriad of labels based on a glance. If they have a gun rack in a pick up truck the thought "redneck" may pop in your head, if they have an Obama sticker on a Lexus you will probably assume they are liberal. But the truth is you know nothing about that person save for the fact they can drive. We take a yoga class or two and soon need to label the activity rears its ugly head. But yoga is what you make it. If you need yoga to be a daily three hour chanting, meditating, whirling dervish activity it will be. If you need your yoga to be sweaty exercise it will be. But is the act of practicing your yoga quieting your mind and healing your body? Well, if you are busy labeling what yoga is and judging people who don't practice it like you then the quiet mind is not operating in that moment, is it? So, what if we all quit pretending we know what yoga is and just allowed to it show us who we are instead? The next time you have a thought "yoga is...." recognize that this is your opinion and take a breath. Then the next time you assume you know something about God or about another person simply recognize you are assuming an opinion rather than recognizing a fact. To simply awaken to the idea that the great majority of our thoughts are opinions not facts is to awaken to possibility. With the extreme divisiveness in our society at this moment wouldn't it be nice to lay down some of our labels and opinions and just recognize our fellow humans as just that fellow humans. It can begin on the yoga mat. Quit trying to label and control and set yourself free because the beginning of knowing is knowing you don't know.
Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions. Proverbs 18:12