What is Yoga?

An essay by Catherine Dagon, RYT

What is yoga? The ancient Sanskrit word translates to “yoke” in English, as in the wooden collar fastened on oxen for plowing. The yoke keeps the animals tethered to the plow, restraining them from superfluous movement. Perhaps restraint is a more appropriate translation of yoga: to restrain from stress, to keep passions under control; to “yoke” myriad emotions, ideas, and values to a single purpose, the purpose of your own life.

Finding a purpose to life is a debilitatingly overwhelming task. Why are we here? What are we meant to accomplish? The practice of yoga is meant to simplify these lofty answers into a series of accomplishable virtues. Aristotle claimed that all of man’s problems have stemmed from his inability to sit still in a room alone. Yoga is this very practice: to learn to be alone with yourself, to listen to what you have to say, and to seek the answers to questions you didn’t know you were asking that were inside you all along.

I found my yoga suddenly after years of searching fruitlessly for flexibility, strength, and balance in my body without regard to my mind or spirit. Being a native New England girl, I have always found a transcendental peace in the turn of the seasons, most stunningly obvious in our incomparable autumn. I was walking through the woods, aimlessly staring at the path below my feet, wondering why I was here, why my life continued when others ended, if there was a purpose to this all. Hearing a bird cry, I looked up, and my breath caught in my throat. In front of me, against the pearl gray sky of a blustery October afternoon, a maple tree was in her full glory: a flaming crimson and ochre mantle covered her branches with startling brightness. Her vivid color against the blank sky and dull pine surroundings literally took my breath away. Here was beauty, purely and simply, with no purpose other than itself; beauty for the sake of beauty. The trail was seldom trod, my own footsteps the only to follow. This glorious picture was mine alone.

I reached for my cell phone, intending to snap a shot to post online to show my seven hundred “friends,” and I paused with my hand in my bag. Perhaps this moment was meant for me; not to be shared, counted as valuable by “likes” from those not present. Perhaps this moment was meant to be savored for itself. I can still recall in vivid detail the feeling of the cool air in my hair, the soft crackling sounds of tiny animals making their winter homes, the warm, sugary scent of freshly shed maple leaves softly dropping from the sky like raindrops of flame. For the first time in my life, I recognized that I was entirely present in that moment. There was no need for anyone else to know. There was no where on Earth I would rather have been. No where to go, nothing to rush off to; simply to be present, alive, breathing, in the midst of such beauty, was entirely satistfying. This satisfaction with the moment, with yourself, with simply being : this is yoga.

In my classes, you will gain strength in your arms; you will find the balance to stand on one foot or even on your head; you will reach your toes and beyond, becoming more flexible than ever before. These are just “side effects.” The purpose of movement in yoga is to find an “asana,” a sweet seat, in which you can stay still in comfort to retreat into yourself. While you will find physical contortions with absolute ease, and, indeed, will impress your friends with your poses, the purpose of yoga is transcendent of these physical benefits. Your yoga is that moment of heart-stopping beauty that always resided inside yourself. My classes can teach you to focus on your breath, to feel the movement of blood through your veins, to recognize the miracle that is your body as you continue to push your edges. These are only tools, given in love, to assist you to find your own yoga.

Perhaps being aware of each breath will allow you to pause more often; perhaps being physically conscious of your body’s motion will let you understand the miracle that is life in all forms; perhaps, as you find your physical edge extending with each hour, each week, you will allow your emotional and spiritual edges to be tested and tried, finding new paths to happiness and contentment. My goal, contradicted by this four gigabyte, over-connected society that can keep you informed of a thousand people’s daily schedules yet utterly isolated from the connection of human souls, my goal is to simply make you aware. You will find, once you begin to seek, that your purpose was there waiting all along; and, when you find your yoga, you will be able to see the beauty of each step along the way.