Why There’s so Much More to Yoga than Just Stretching and Handstands

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Photo: Courtesy of Wesley Tingey

Yoga historians tell us that yoga has been practiced for at least 6,000 years, but probably much longer. In India, some would argue that it has been practiced since the beginning of time. 

Over the past decade, yoga has experienced a huge growth in popularity around the world, but not many of those who practice this ancient art are familiar with its origins. Indeed, the term “yoga” has today become synonymous with the physical practice that involves moving between asanas, but that was not always the case.

What Is Yoga?

When we think of yoga today, we often think of asana practice, but yoga is about more than just that. According to the Sage Patanjali and classical yoga philosophy, yoga is the practice of stopping the movements of the fluctuating mind. It is in this stillness, when the mind is quiet, that you will experience your true Self. Yoga is all about answering the questions: Who am I? Am I this body? Am I this mind? Am I these thoughts? Am I something more?

There are eight main branches (or systems) of traditional yoga practice. These traditional systems are: Raja yoga, Hatha yoga, Kundalini yoga, Laya yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, Mantra yoga, and Jnana yoga. Each system is informed by classical yoga philosophy. You could think of these different systems of practice as the spokes on a bicycle wheel, all leading to and meeting at the center of the wheel. They’re all different paths moving in the same direction and ultimately having the same goal or destination. Each of these systems of yoga will take you on a journey to the center of your Self. Two of these systems, in particular, put an emphasis on asana as part of the practice of yoga. They are Raja yoga and Hatha yoga.

The Differences Between Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga

Raja yoga emphasizes meditation and lays out a systematic path for you to concentrate and move into deeper states of meditation. The ultimate goal of Raja yoga is for you to achieve samadhi, which is the deepest state of meditation. The systematic path of Raja yoga is called Ashtanga yoga, and it consists of eight limbs. Ashta means “eight,” and anga means “limb.” The third limb of the Ashtanga yoga practice is asana, which translates to “posture” or “pose” in English. In the Raja yoga system, asana prepares your body to concentrate and meditate.

Hatha yoga, on the other hand, emphasizes asana practice, deeper practices of pranayama (breath control and extension), and other practices such as the bandhas (yogic locks) and mudras (seals or energetic positions), which involve working with the energetic body. Asana practice is a big part of the Hatha yoga system of practice, where the goal is not to use asana practice to prepare your body and mind for meditation, but to rather use it as the meditation and to use the different asanas to find the perfect balance in the body. Hatha yoga is all about finding balance because, when you’re in a state of perfect balance, your mind will automatically become still, and you will move into a deep state of meditation, or samadhi.

The Benefits of Yoga

You can use asana practice to prepare for meditation, or your asana practice could be your meditation. You could also be on your mat just doing yoga exercises and not practicing yoga at all — it’s important to understand the difference. There are tremendous benefits of doing a yoga asana practice, but if this is your only goal, then you are missing the bigger picture.

The real benefit of yoga is getting to know who you are at the deepest possible level. When you change your relationship with your Self, you change your relationship with everything and everyone around you. This is why yoga can be so powerful; it is helping people all over the world change their lives and find their true purpose. By going inwards and experiencing who you really are, you will find that everything around you changes.

How to Successfully Practice Yoga

Classical yoga philosophy lays out a simple formula for how we can practice yoga (not just asana). Patanjali encourages yoga practitioners to practice concentration and detachment. He defines successful concentration as doing it consistently for a long period of time. This means that you can’t just practice concentration while you are on your mat, in your yoga asana class, or during your meditation practice — you have to practice concentrating all the time. This is not easy. We’ve become accustomed to letting our mind wander all on its own. It’s like our senses are directing our mind where to go and we are just being dragged around — whether we like it or not.

Yoga is the practice of taking charge of your mind again or, as a metaphor, taking control of your car. Are you driving the car, or are you just sitting there, letting it lead you this way and that way? Are you in control? Have you ever ended the day and wondered where all the time went? You had a plan in the morning. You had things to do, but nothing got accomplished; you got distracted along the way. You got tossed and turned around by your fluctuating mind.

Patanjali describes detachment as “letting go of the distractions.” Your practice on and off the mat becomes a practice of concentration and letting go. Focus your mind on things you are choosing to do and let go of the unconscious patterns that are ruling your life and tossing you around in every direction. Yoga begins when you are outside of your comfort zone, and it’s not an easy journey. It’s not easy to break those old habits and patterns that aren’t serving you. It’s not easy to concentrate on one thing at a time. The good news is that whatever you practice will get stronger and grow. If you want to get really good at concentrating, practice concentrating. If you want to get really good at letting go of distractions, practice letting go of distractions.

Practicing Yoga: What to Expect

When we first try to concentrate on something new, there’s an internal battle that takes place. It’s a battle between you and your mind. Every time you win this battle, your will power increases. And every time you lose this battle, your mind and the pattern you are stuck on becomes stronger. Practicing concentration is practicing yoga. Practicing letting go is practicing yoga.

When you are on your mat in your asana practice, the teacher will probably tell you where to concentrate. In my Shiva yoga classes, I encourage my students to concentrate on where they feel the pose in their body. Go towards the intensity. Feel the stuck energy. Breathe into it. Don’t avoid it. Concentrate. Now, stay present. Look at the distractions that come up for you. These are your patterns. This is how your mind is getting in your way. The things that come up for you while you’re on your mat are the same things that will come up for you when you’re off your mat. Try not to get involved in them and practice letting them go. Use your body and the sensations you feel as anchors for your mind. Then, concentrate — over and over again.

At first, your practice will just be on your mat and in your yoga class. But then, as your concentration improves, you will be able to apply the yoga technology off the mat, too.

I’ve watched students radically change their whole lives after they got into a deeper relationship with themselves. Are you ready for radical transformation? Are you ready to live the most incredible life you could ever live? Are you ready to take charge and start driving your car? When you understand this yoga technology, you can practice yoga anywhere. You can practice yoga on your mat. You can practice yoga in a meditation class. You can practice yoga in anything you are doing. Just concentrate, stay present, and let go of all of the unnecessary distractions. After you have accomplished these things, you will truly be free.

Garth Hewitt is a 500hr E-RYT, Teacher Trainer, Yoga Therapist, Certified Yogaworks Teacher, Certified DharmaYoga Teacher and has led Classes, Workshops, Retreats and Teacher Trainings in Los Angeles and around the world. His signature Shiva Vinyasa® and Shiva Power® classes focus on setting intentions, practicing gratitude, concentration, surrender, balance, non-attachment, and quieting the mind.