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An Insider’s Guide to the Definition of Yoga

what does yoga mean to you

Anyone who tells you yoga is about aerobics is full of it. Yoga is not gymnastics. It’s not aesthetics. It’s certainly not about stretchy pants. It’s about the mind. Patanjali implies this in his very deliberate layout of the Yoga Sutra.

Atha yoga anushasanam.
Now, the teachings of yoga.
—Yoga Sutra 1.1

The first sutra is simple. You may interpret it as: Here we are, you’ve got everything you need, so let’s get it on. He then moves to the real heart of the matter, the second sutra, where he defines yoga. Patanjali mentions nothing here about touching your forehead to your toes or the fact that your sports bra should match your headband.

Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.
Yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind.
—Yoga Sutra 1.2

Instead, we learn that yoga is stillness. It’s the calming of incessant mental chatter. It’s the reality that you are not your thoughts or your feelings. You are not the sudden angry desire to punch the obnoxious dude in front of you in line at the bank.

You are a serene solid oak tree, and the wind that is your thoughts is just rustling the leaves of your mind, never threatening that strong true trunk that is your Self. Well, if you’re doing yoga, that is.

Yoga is mental clarity

The reality is that most of us are perpetually thinking, planning, pontificating, living in hypothetical futures and imagined pasts. Our minds flit from thought to thought, feeling to feeling, like hummingbirds hovering, never stopping to stand still and taste that sweet pollen for even a second before flitting on to the next seductive flower.

The point of yoga, as Patanjali reminds us, is to anchor our thoughts in our bodies in this particular moment, in this particular space in time, at this particular latitude and longitude while the sun shines. Yoga stills you for a moment, or so we hope. Except it’s not that easy because in a flash, it can all shift.

You suddenly remember that important email you were supposed to send and didn’t. Or the taste of lemongrass rushes you back to that moment 10 years ago when you got your heart broken in that dingy Thai restaurant. Or the scent of jasmine sends you back to that time in fourth grade when your friend threw your favorite slap bracelet in the trash. Or the fear of what might happen if you get sick before your huge work presentation next week throws you into obsessive worry.

And there, right there, in the messy middle of all of it — this is where the yoga starts.

It starts when the breath gets ragged. When you’re not sure why but your chest tightens up, your jaw is suddenly stone, and your mind races. Suddenly you’re worthless and you’ve accomplished nothing and what are you doing with your life anyway, silly?

Choose how to react

When you can catch yourself in that moment, step back and take a long, deep, slow breath. Now choose how to react. That is yoga.

It’s mental gymnastics. It’s not freaking out or running away, but rather learning to be with. It’s surfing the mental waves of all that arises, riding the thoughts as they come and go, staying clear and good and strong in the midst of it all.

It’s learning to make friends with your mind. It’s realizing that you are this moment, this breath. That’s all. And it’s enough.

Rachel Meyer
Rachel Meyer is a Portland-based writer and yoga teacher who believes in keeping things real. She has a heart for the sacred ordinary.