What’s all this Yoga For, Then?

“Yoga is Self-Illuminating”  – me, feelin’ right proud of meself. Ironically.

I have lost track of the number of times I have heard a sentence that started with the word, “What yoga is really about is… ”

Of course, each of those sentences ended with something different. Also, (as I suspected), the more I study, the more I realize that there isn’t a correct way to end the sentence.

Saying, “Yoga is about…” is kind of like saying, “Western medicine is about… ” or, “Philosophy is about… ” (1) The word “yoga” points to an enormous world of practices, thought, philosophy, and ethics – many of which are internally inconsistent. Also, what has been brought into the mainstream tends to draw from only a small portion of this world, often superficially, and then say, “This is what it’s all about!”

I have over here (next to my left hand), a book titled, “How to Know God,” which is a translation and illumination of the Patnajali Sutras. These are a poetic summary of teachings that date back to ~ 400 CE. I also just finished reading The Science of Yoga, Hell-Bent, and a book simply called, Hatha Yoga in the same week. The first takes a look at the physical challenges and outright dangers of the practice of bending one’s body into extreme positions, as well as benefits that have been replicated in scientific studies. The second includes the words, “competitive yoga” in the sub-title, and takes place almost entirely inside the Bikram school. (It made me very glad that I didn’t fall into the hot yoga… um… soup?) It was a compelling and terrifying story in equal measure. And the third took a look at the origins of Hatha, while choosing in the end to focus on the less-controversial forms of asana (what most modern students consider “yoga”),

That is to say, my title is misleading.

Yoga is neither “for” nor “about” something. Yoga is… well, I use the words, “self-illuminating.” By which I mean, “The practices reveal their own purpose. That is, you have to do it to get it.” (2)

It is a vast and contested space.

So the only thing I can do is tell you, “This is the current state of my own yoga practice, this is why I do it this way, and these are the things I have been taught that have turned out to make a difference for me.”


Most North American yoga classes are focused almost entirely on posture. Maybe a bit of breathing. We shall do a sequence of poses, bend this way and that, get some exercise, and call it yoga. Is it?

Arguably, no. (Other people argue yes. [citation needed])

But it’s still useful, and I would argue, a good idea. Maybe. If you do it right. (You can really hurt yourself if you do it wrong.)

At its most basic, the difference between asana and calisthenics is how much attention you pay to them. “Bend down and touch your toes.” or “Bend forward from the hips (not the waist), stretch through the crown and, if you can do so without curving through the lower back, place your hands upon the floor… ” “… here are some ways that you can find the maximum extension without over-straining.” “Go only as far as is appropriate for your body today. If that’s different than it was yesterday, just take note. Be gentle with yourself.”

I don’t teach “flow” yoga. Before I taught yoga, I taught physics. In my mind, I can see force diagrams where other people see… well. I don’t know what other people see, because I learned to draw force diagrams when I was a teenager, and I don’t remember not being able to see that.

As a result, I can see things going wrong in flow yoga, over and over. I see people whose joints are misaligned then trying to bear weight on those joints, roll through an unfamiliar range of motion repeatedly, and I don’t know how to stop them from doing that. So I won’t teach flow practices, even though I enjoy them from time to time. (Maybe after a few more years of sun salutations?)

What I do teach is one pose at a time. One joint, stacked on another. Pay attention to the right hand without losing track of the left. Where is your foot? Have you forgotten that you have a forehead? Are you breathing? Is it comfortable? Are you holding tension where you don’t need to?

My goal is that you use your time on the mat to become aware of these intelligent edges so that when you are in the middle of picking up a box when somebody calls to you from the next room, your awareness stays where it belongs (in your body) and you don’t overtwist, overbend, or drop the box on your foot. Attention must be paid! (I know, I know. Completely out of context. But, still.)


Now, asana is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. I’m not even going to start down the other seven limbs… hey! Yoga is an octopus! (3)

OK. Setting aside the yoga octopus and the inevitable demise of my career… if yoga is really “about” anything, it is in the second verse of the Patanjali Sutras: yogash chitta vritti nirodhah “Yoga is the control of the fluctuations of the mind.” (From the translation I mentioned earlier.)

As one of my asana instructors put it, you get into the mind to get into the body to get into the mind.

But the key here is that the body isn’t the point. It’s the tool. There’s so much more to be gained, here… but you should probably come to one of my classes to find that out!

hatha yoga print

  1. I’m having a bit of trouble with this analogy… got any suggestions that encompass, “A broad and disputed field of both study and practice that incorporates a range of different ontological positions and concomitant technologies”?
  2. Also, I now note, it illuminates the Self, which is a happy poetical moment. (I love those.)
  3. I’m so getting disbarred. Or excommunicated. Or whatever it is that yoga does to you.


2 responses to “What’s all this Yoga For, Then?”

  1. Have you ever seen/read/listened to Katy Bowman’s work? She is a biomechanist and her work/teaching revolves around the force diagrams of your body. So when you say you see force diagrams it reminded me of her. I don’t do much yoga, but the last time I went, after having been studying Katy’s work for a year, I understood more, and was able to accomplish the poses better, and recognize my limits more clearly.

    • Oooh! No, thank you for that. I’m always interested in gathering more resources for doing this well.