The Meaning of Yoga

I spend a lot of time around yogis and yoginis. My husband Adrian and I are both yoga teachers; he teaches yoga full-time, while I specialize in meditation. We teach yoga and meditation workshops together. And we lead 200-hour Yoga Teacher Trainings under our Warrior Flow® yoga school.

What Adrian and I aspire to do by teaching yoga and meditation together is to rejoin two things that (from my point of view, at least) were never really meant to be separated in the first place.

The way yoga is often taught these days is mainly as a physical practice, a fitness routine, a series of postures designed to strengthen and lengthen and relax the body. And then, once the body is stretched and strengthened and the heart stops racing, and you lie there in savasana for a minute or two, the class is over. Bye! See you next week.

Because of my years of training in Buddhist meditation, including two years as a robed monk, I tend to approach things from the opposite end of the spectrum. I love a good, challenging, physical yoga practice. But I look at the physical training of yoga as merely a prelude, a method of preparing the body for meditation practice.

I'm always somewhat amazed to see people go through all the trouble of learning to twist themselves like pretzels and balance on their elbows, and then roll up their mats and leave before the main course is served.

From the Buddhist point of view, all the elaborate asanas and pranayamic breathing techniques and bandhas of yoga are really just appetizers. The main course is sitting down and relating with your own mind in meditation. The whole physical practice is really about helping you put your body into the proper state for optimal meditation to happen.

If you can stand on one leg and grasp your other leg behind your head with both hands, or balance on your hands in crow pose, well, that's awesome. Congratulations. You're a good primate. Any monkey can do those things. But if you can do them and then sit down and be still in body and mind, and listen to the sound of silence within your own vivid awareness — well, now you've leveled up. You're a real human being, relating openly to the divine mystery of your embodied existence. That’s yoga as I understand it.

When you get deeper into the study of yoga philosophy and Buddhist tantra, you learn that there's actually an ancient “science” behind all of this. Yoga is a sophisticated system of methods for opening and aligning the channels of the "subtle" or "energetic" body so that energy can flow efficiently and be directed where the mind wants it to go. And the underlying purpose of this ancient science is not to get more bendy and flexible, to be able to post better Instagram yoga selfies; it’s a soteriological path, a path that is meant to lead to spiritual liberation and freedom.

People new to meditation often wonder why meditation teachers place so much emphasis on sitting in a proper meditation posture. It’s the same principle. It's about straightening the channels and optimizing the pathways along which energy flows throughout the body, which has a correlative effect on the way the mind rests (or doesn't rest) in meditation.

I’ve heard some people say that “yoga is working with the body and meditation is working with the mind.” That may sound, at first, like a useful way of looking at it, but if you think about it for a hot minute, you realize it’s absurd. All yoga involves working with the mind, and all meditation involves working with the body. In fact, some of the most profound meditation techniques I’ve worked with are meant to lead us to question our assumption that the body and the mind are really two separate things to begin with.

And that, to me, is the real meaning of yoga. "Union" is how the Sanskrit word "yoga" is often translated into English. Union, or oneness. Union of what? Well, among other things, the union or synchronization of body and mind. The rejoining or realignment of two things that were never really separate in the first place. It's the practice of awakening, here and now, to what it really means to be human. The hero’s journey.

Enjoy your practice.

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Dennis Hunter, RYT-200, is a meditation teacher and the author of You Are Buddha (2014) and the forthcoming The Four Reminders (2017). He lives in Miami with his husband. Through their Warrior Flow school they lead workshops, international retreats, and teacher trainings. Follow Dennis on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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