What Yoga is Not: Removing Misconceptions

Sweet is something which is not bitter can help us to understand the nature of sweet more easily than trying to explain what sweet is. Similarly understanding what ‘yoga is not’, can help us to better grasp the meaning of yoga than trying to go headlong to define yoga.

Ancient Origin of Yoga

Yoga originated at times when man used to live a simple life in amity with nature. There were no physical labs or research institutes and statistical methods that we have today to inquire, test, verify, understand and draw results. People would learn observing the surroundings and nature and accumulating experiences. When students used to ask questions to teachers they would answer from their inner experience. Teacher would also instantly suggest to the students that what they have told them should become part of their own experience before they put their faith into it.

Therefore, one’s own life experiences used to be the testimony of valid knowledge. For advanced studies like yoga and spirituality one’s own mind used to be the inner lab of experimentation and findings.

Once a student asked question to the teacher – O venerable teacher please tell me what is yoga? The teacher understood that the young student out of curiosity has asked something of great depth and dimension. Yoga is a subtle science which deals with self advancement, transcending the limitations of body and mind, leading to the union with the Absolute. Hence, answer to the question ‘What is yoga’ cannot be answered as plainly as it is asked. Yoga is a sensitive subject dealing with one’s inner being and hence its meaning has to be transmitted conscientiously – the teacher thought to himself.

The teacher again thought to himself – the student is novice and must be carrying some deformed understanding, ideas and knowledge about yoga. So let me first remove this unripe knowledge surrounding yoga and every other possible attachment to help the young student grasp the meaning of yoga.

This was the turning point of developing the pivotal method of teaching known in Sanskrit language as Neti Neti; or Not this, Not this. Neti, Neti is an analytical method that helps the student or individual to grasp the true meaning of the subject matter of inquiry; which in this case is yoga. It is a method of negation, where we negate all the possible ideas, notions, thoughts and identifications around yoga. When we negate and remove all the unnecessary meanings and misconceptions attached to yoga, we can safely arrive at the true meaning and nature of yoga. 

Coloring of Mind

Most of the times our mind is colored by our psychology. Our education, culture, emotions, feelings, likings and disliking are part of our psychology. Based on our individual psychology we tend to give or create meaning of something – in this case yoga – and preserve it inside us. If we are identified with coloring, the meaning will be lost. Therefore, the old teachers would say Neti, Neti; ‘neither this, nor that’. Let us see what yoga is ‘Not’ to clear some misconceptions and see for ourselves if we have stored similar meanings around yoga within us.

Clearing Misconceptions

  • Yoga is not magic with psychic powers: yoga is related to something supernatural was the most widespread misconception around yoga in recent decades. By practicing yoga I will get some powers or those who practice yoga certainly have something mystical around them, used to be the common theme around yoga. We have to understand that yoga is a systematic method of relaxing our body and mind to get rid of deep rooted stresses, psychological blockages and inner frenzy for self-realization and spiritual-unfoldment and not some magic trick.
  • Yoga is not Hindu religious practice: Many suffer from this confusion and misconception not only in abroad but also in India as well that yoga is a practice of Hinduism. Best way to understand this is from the example of modern physics invented in the west. Almost all scientists who developed physics were Christians but physics is not Christian. Physics is a universal science. Anyone irrespective of one’s background can study, do research and further work for its advancement. Same holds true for yoga. Yoga is developed in India but it is not a Hindu religious practice. Anyone irrespective of their religious background can practice yoga and work for their self-advancement.
  • Yoga is not a philosophy: yoga is also not a philosophy. Yoga does not teach any tenets, morals and commandments based on human reason and speculation. Philosophy is an academic pursuit, which calls for systematic thinking and arrangement of thoughts in order to arrive at some logical conclusion and understanding. On the other hand in yoga we calm down our mind and arrest all modifications of mind by an act of inner witnessing and letting-go. When we are totally relaxed and calm we take shelter in our real Self where there is nothing left to draw any conclusion or explanation.
  • Yoga is not a system of therapy: Many think that by practicing yoga we can cure our diseases and live a healthy life. There is no doubt that yoga way of life is healthy for body-mind complex and most of the diseases can be kept at bay through yoga. But to consider yoga as a system of disease management would be assigning to yoga a narrow meaning. Yoga is a powerful way of life which helps the practitioner to rise above the narrow confines of body and mind to experience the essential unity of life.
  • Yoga is not exercise: considering yoga as some form of exercise is similar to previous misconception of yoga as therapy. Yoga can give some benefits of physical exercise, but it is not a fitness regime. Yoga is a methodical approach to self perfection by calming down the mind and releasing its deep rooted stresses and tensions. This methodical approach is the eight-fold path of: Yama (restraints), Niyama (observances), Asana (postures), Pranayama (breath regulation), Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (focus), Dhyana (de-focus, meditation) and Samadhi (absorption).

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