What Does it Mean to Nurture the True Spirit of Yoga?Jul 13, 2022
Do you know the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant? It’s a traditional Indian story about a group of blind men who’ve never encountered an elephant before. They learn what the elephant is like by touching it.
One puts his hand on the elephant's side and says, “Now I know all about an elephant, he’s just like a wall.”
The second feels the elephant's tusk and responds, “No, you’re mistaken. He's not at all like a wall. He's more like a spear."
The third takes hold of the elephant's trunk and argues, “You’re both wrong, an elephant is like a snake."
The fourth takes hold of the elephant's ear and says, “You’re all wrong, he's like a huge fan."
The fixth grabs hold of the elephant’s tail and concludes, “He’s not any of those things, he’s like a rope."
This story is usually told to illustrate the tendency to make false assumptions based on our limited perspective, but I think it can also apply to how we think about the true spirit of yoga. Like the elephant, the true spirit of yoga can be described in so many ways depending on your vantage point.
Yoga is a tremendously rich and deep tradition of practices, understandings, and perspectives. Yet, the common goal of all the wonderfully diverse expressions of yoga is the same - to recognize a core of unchanging awareness within us that transcends the limited nature of the body-mind, and to allow this experience to change the way we see ourselves and live our lives.
Given this awesome (and lofty) goal, what makes the physical practices we do into yoga rather than just a set of exercises?
In my experience, it's two things: developing your capacity for self-reflection and incorporating yoga philosophy into your practices on the mat as well into your everyday life. This is when yoga expands into a journey of inner evolution and personal growth.
In other words, yoga isn’t just what you do, it's how you reflect on what you do and how you contextualize your experience within the principles and teachings of yoga philosophy that allows you to nurture yoga’s true spirit.
It’s seeing yoga not just as something you show up for an hour or two each week, but as an opportunity to be in relationship with yourself—your body, your breath, and even your mind—a relationship you can take into your everyday life.
Many of us might start practicing yoga for a simpler reason, like the physical or mental health benefits. But after a while, we discover that yoga can be about so much more than we might have initially thought.
For example, if you start practicing yoga to help you manage stress, you’ll likely be introduced to a variety of physical postures, breath exercises, and awareness-based techniques. By practicing them and reflecting on their effects, you’ll be able to assess what is working for you and do more of that and in the process, you’ll also develop greater self-knowledge.
Furthermore, by learning about how the yoga tradition views the human being, you’ll discover the principles underlying the practices you are doing. You’ll gain insight into why yogic practices are so effective at managing stress. In this way, you’ll enrich your understanding and be able to amplify the benefits of yoga in your life.
My experience is that as we reflect on the practice and learn about principles of yoga philosophy, we start to recognize how and why yoga changes us for the better. We might also begin to expand our ideas of what yoga can be about and the many ways it can serve and support us in our lives.
For example, I have a student who initially came to yoga to manage his back pain and became a committed, once-a-week practitioner. Reflecting on his yoga practice, he recently shared the following with me:
What has been communicated to me is that my body is not just a tool for me to perform in the world but the precious repository of a dimension of LIFE. Yoga brings me back to my unique core self and opens me up to what is bigger than me.
Like this person discovered, with the right perspective we can tap into vast and exciting possibilities for how our practice can serve us in our lives.
My upcoming workshop, Nurture the True Spirit of Yoga, is all about what it means to cultivate a deeper, more expanded approach to your practice. You’ll leave with tools to enrich your yoga practice and how it serves you in your life. If you’re interested in broadening the bandwidth of what your yoga practice can be about, I hope you’ll check it out.