What is Yoga? A simple question which might seem like it has many answers. How could it not? To some it is little more than calisthenics; a way to stay fit. To others it is a fully immersive lifestyle, practiced with absolute constancy, which determines the way they eat, how they spend their time, how they interact with others, how they relate to themselves and how they perceive the world. Ultimately, all the manifold expressions and uses of a yoga practice boil down to one common explanation of what exactly it is: a road map.
But leading where? Essentially, wherever you want to go, though where you want to go tends to change dramatically as you deepen your practice. It’s therefore a strange kind of road map that shifts and conforms to the shape of your life and your being as you change, and reflects the truths of the reality around you.
We all enter into the practice of yoga for different reasons, but if we continue with uninterrupted dedication we all end up pursuing it for only one: freedom. Whether it is freedom from the pains and ills of the body, freedom from the torment of the mind and the attacks of the impersonal society, or the oft-used-and-even-more-oft-over-used term of the total freedom from suffering which is “nirvana,” yoga can take us there. It is a wish-fulfilling tree of a particularly magical variety which not only gives us what we want, but changes what we want as we pursue it.
It is a roadmap inward, that begins with that inevitable gateway to all our experience—the body—but quickly becomes more and more subtle as the practice becomes more internally oriented. Whereas we begin by discovering where our hamstrings are and where they attach, eventually—once that proprioceptive awareness becomes second nature and we are beginning to gain mastery over the terrain of the body—we discover where our anger is and where it attaches, for example. We are confronted with our greed, hatred and impatience; with our attachments and deepest fears. Unlike most of our life, however, which is spent medicating, numbing, suppressing, or denying these truths about us, the container of the yoga practice allows us to sit with what we find, to observe without judgement and therefore truly begin to understand the terrain, just like a map.
It is very important to understand that the map never reflects that which it refers to perfectly; at the top of each summit we will invariably be met with the devastatingly beautiful view of countless, much higher, peaks that still need climbing. Here again, though, the map of yoga helps us pursue the endless climb that is life without ever giving up (abyasa), but always letting go of our expectations (vairagya) that we will somehow arrive at a final destination.