We’ve all heard about the amazing things that yoga can do for us, but try explaining exactly what it is and how it works and you quickly find yourself on shaky ground. There is an innate something at the heart of the matter that simply cannot be measured, only felt. As unsatisfying as this may be, the highly subjective perception of our own experience is the only real basis for any understanding, and the very thing that makes yoga so vital.
I can’t really explain what I do as a yoga teacher. I mean, I try. I write this blog every month. I do a weekly long-form podcast. I do whatever I can to articulate and express why I feel so much passion for yoga, and how I have seen it work for me and so many other people over the years. But it always falls short when you attempt to give it words. The communication of what yoga is, and how it works on us, does not translate well into the murky territory of linguistic subtext that mires us so easily in misperception.
Yoga encompasses more than what can be derived from data.
We have become a largely ‘data-driven’ society. The evidence for our determinations is largely based on our ability to quantify and measure aspects of our experience. Very often, this boils down to entirely subjective factors. If a doctor asks us to rate our pain on a scale from 1 to 10, how many of us actually know how to distinguish between a 3 pain and an 8 pain? And how much of the assessment for that number depends on my mood when asked, more than what is actually happening in my body? The course of treatment will be based on my answer, as ethereal as it is, yet we embrace the diagnosis and treatment as empirically bulletproof.
Our inability to address pain and stress through data and empirical evidence alone is precisely why so many people are looking to yoga for help. Yoga offers the possibility to go beyond the confines of clinical trials and into the realm of the yet-unexplained. There are a lot of doctors recommending yoga without really having any hard evidence for its effectiveness. All they know is what people tell them, whether that is rating a pain scale or whether or not yoga works. And the overall consensus tends to be that yoga does work for people, even if we don’t really understand how or why.
Having goals is not the same as having a purpose.
In parsing semantics, there is an important distinction to be made between having something you are hoping to accomplish in practice, and a reason for doing it. As many of those who throw themselves deeply into yoga find out the hard way, honing the ability to execute intricate body positions, coveted among advertisers and practitioners alike, and the basis for launching Instagram-based careers, has proven a profoundly hollow pursuit. And even if we are not aspiring to do crazy body positions, the mindset of working towards being able to do a pose, or being able to do a pose ‘correctly’, remains commonplace.
A focus on being smarter about how we do poses, and educating ourselves about our bodies, is certainly better than recklessly pushing ourselves into shapes with the misguided notion that we are accomplishing something. But the achievement-oriented nature of our predominant mores quickly asserts itself with notions of ‘proper biomechanics’ and ‘movement diets’ that inadvertently end up making us feel less empowered, and still forever trapped in a loop of minor accomplishments and ever-changing goal posts. Regardless of how statistically safe the forms can be made, until we are able to be clear about what we are doing and why we want to be able to do whatever it is, we will continue to be bound by the same trappings that drive us to yoga in the first place.
The elusive nature of yoga’s effectiveness is what makes it yoga.
The unexplainable something that turns breathing and moving exercises into actual healing and a direction in life will never be adequately articulated in words, or explained through a clinical trial. The power and beauty of yoga invite us to embrace that which is beyond the limits of conventional thinking so that we might unleash our untapped potential. While yoga practice is an ideal vehicle for cultivating an awareness that points to the magic spark of whatever it is, the wisdom we might intuit is spoken only in the language of inward journey.
Yoga is a potential means to untangle us from the systems and structures that make us afraid of the unknown, not just another way of reinforcing the patterns that keep us stuck in seemingly unchangeable circumstances. Contingent in this process is that each person must decide for themselves the course they take. Communications from the outside may effectively point out the direction, as is the skill of a good teacher, but this transference does not extend beyond the directional. The ‘self-empowered’ nature of this process is perhaps the most vital aspect for humanity. When yoga causes us to marvel at life’s wonder, and be awestruck by its miracle, that is when it becomes important.
About J. Brown
J. Brown (E-RYT 500) is a yoga teacher, writer, well-known host of “Yoga Talks” podcast. A teacher for more than 20 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga practice adapted to individual needs, including chronic or acute conditions. He is at the forefront of a quiet yoga revolution, based in healing, that seeks to change the dialogue and direction of yoga practice in the west. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. His podcast is internationally renowned for raising the level of conversation.
Learn more about J. Brown: jbrownyoga.com