What is yoga?

By: Cynthia Gao, Campus Recreation Services, Group Fitness Instructor

This is usually the place where you read about how yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which translates into “union” or about how it is an ancient Indian practice that dates back hundreds of years.

While these things are true, I want to communicate to you what yoga is beyond surface level definitions — what yoga means to me, how I practice, and why yoga is so wonderful and rewarding to all who practice it.

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Here I am in tree pose on the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico City!

While I was abroad in Italy this summer I took a yoga class in Rome. It was amazing for me to see how love for this practice and way of life has spread to all parts of the world.

Even though we may all be from different places, yoga allows us to come together and become one. “Places” here refers to many different things, whether that be global location, physique, or even spiritual mindset.

Some do yoga for fitness, some do it to release stress, and some do it because they are in search of something beyond themselves.

In the world today it is so easy for us to become disconnected to our inner selves. We get so caught up in our daily routines and never ending to-do lists that we sometimes forget why we are doing what we are doing in the first place.

This is where, I believe, the true value of yoga lies.

Yoga allows us to connect back to who we truly are, recover values that we may have forgotten, and attempt to continuously improve all aspects of our lives from the physical to the spiritual.

Those who don’t know what yoga is, may see yoga as a random series of physical poses that require some degree of flexibility, but those who practice yoga often know that yoga reaches somewhere beyond the physical body.

As an instructor, my hope for every one of my students is that they not only get a workout and know they did something good for their body, but that they walk away more at peace and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.

There are six main branches of yoga articulated in the Yoga Sutras. I personally practice a combination of Hatha and Raja yoga. Hatha yoga is the branch of yoga that is most commonly practiced and views the body as a caisson that cradles the soul.

While Hatha yoga deals with perfection of the physical body, Raja yoga deals with the mind. It centers on meditation and reflection.

Raja is probably my favorite branch of yoga as it teaches intimate self-respect through self-comprehension. Focusing infinite attention on the self and truly accepting all that we observe, we teach ourselves appreciation, love, and gratitude. This ethereal awareness nourishes respect for the self and then transcends into respect for all creatures.

In my classes, I utilize the pranayama (breath), as a metronome, to guide the gentle flow of asanas (poses) I create. When I practice, I may be able to hold a plank for a long time but that’s only because I have set free my mind.

I have allowed my mind to wander to the far reaches of my imagination, while keeping complete control over the balance and composure of my body. These are the subtleties that emerge as we improve ourselves through our practice.

Yoga has so much to offer us and such delicacies can only be discovered by oneself through the physical and mental experience of yoga.  While the definition of yoga may vary between every yoga practitioner out there, these are the reasons I practice yoga and the meanings it brings for me in my life.

As I have seen in all of my travels from places like Italy to places like Dubai, I know for a fact that ANYONE can do yoga — you just have to have the willingness to try. So don’t be shy – check out a yoga group fitness class to release some stress, have some fun, and begin to build a little inner peace for the soul.

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