Learning to meditate.

Someone called up and said she’d been reading about the benefits of meditation. She said she wanted to get started. She said, ‘I want to meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night.’

Great, I said.

The woman said, ‘I have so much stress in my life. I usually work more than 50 hours a week and my husband and I have been going through some conflicts lately.’

I’m sorry, I said.

The woman said, ‘It’s going to be hard for me to get to you, though. So can we meet somewhere? I have to drive a lot for work. Maybe we can meet quickly somewhere or you can just give me some guidance over the phone?’

Hmm, I said.

I wonder if you can guess the issue that will arise if this woman tries to simply sit down on her own to meditate for 20 minutes. Even 10?

Here’s a clue: she won’t. Or she will for about 3 minutes and then she’ll fidget. She may check her phone. She’ll get up and come back. Within a week, she’ll decide, ‘I’ve been trying this for a week and I’m not enlightened.’ And then she’ll stop, concluding, sadly, meditation isn’t for me.

Which is precisely why there’s this gift bag of techniques offered up by traditional yoga.

Does your back hurt? I promise you that learning to meditate with a sore back is unlikely to bring you peace. Is your mind spinning? Same story. Do you struggle to be kind? To tell the truth? To rein in your greed? Yeah, well, deepening the practice of an asshole only deepens the asshole. Which is to say, someone who isn’t looking closely at herself to determine appropriately non-violent, honest and selfless behavior is only going to strengthen the patterns that keep her looking every which way but in. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we’re provided with the yamas, a set of restraints for worldly interactions, and the niyamas, a set of observances for inner processing. Toward others, be kind, be honest, don’t steal, be moderate, and free of greed. And toward yourself, be clean, content, disciplined. Study yourself and be devoted to something.

Not surprisingly, these are the first two of eight limbs meant to guide a seeker from raucous mind to absolute peace. From there, move the body. Then the energy on the wind of the breath. Tame the sense organs. Learn to focus. Become fully attentive on the object of focus. Then, give up the object and remain fully attentive. That’s meditation. By practicing that for a long, long while, with adequate preparation, maybe someday we’ll all comprehend the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the pure potential of consciousness.

In the meantime, we’ll be more peaceful, healthier, clear-minded, less stressed and more compassionate. It’s worthwhile, even if we don’t all become Buddhas.

But it starts with a careful sequence. A series of steps to prepare the body to feel, to relax, to sit comfortably. Another series of steps to prepare the energy to withstand the process. And then practices for the senses. Practices to train focus. For some, mantra japa. For others, chanting. Maybe yantras. Maybe murtis. There’s a lot in the gift bag, curated over millennia to address various personality types, physical conditions and social conditioning. These yoga practices aren’t simply isolated magic tricks or exercise regimens. They’re tools of a system. They help the seeker see herself clearly and complement each other as the we develops her skills. And each tool serves some element of our daily interaction with existence—body, energy, mind, intellect, spirit.

It’s such an incredible gift bag. So thoughtfully compiled. All about you. The greatest gift of all being the compassionate recognition that plopping yourself down in lotus to ascend into mindless absorption isn’t natural after decades suffering and delighting in life.

So. Yoga. A system to know yourself. A system to lead us toward clarity of purpose and calmness of mind. A system to teach us all that we are all Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Mahavira. If we let it.

That woman? To start, I gave her an asana sequence with breath regulation. We did a short visualization before she settled in to rest. She said she had a marvelous experience in savasana. She wants to learn more.

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The technology of Yoga

What an honor it was to spend the last few days at the Yoga Journal Conference in San Diego assisting my teacher, Gary Kraftsow. Curmudgeonly Gary. He has the onerous task of traveling widely to these corporate-sponsored events—for whom poses do a better job than self-inquiry of selling— to say again and again, ‘Yoga is not simply asana.’ He says it kindly at first. And then he repeats himself. And then he take a long, deep breath when someone raises a hand and asks, ‘so should I keep my feet hip-width or not?’ His answer should be trademarked under the American Viniyoga Institute: ‘It depends.’

I don’t believe I run the risk of learning too much curmudgeonry from Gary. For this, I can thank earlier teachers, the law and a healthy few millennia of past lives. But in the spirit of curmudgeonly cooperation—curmudgeonly community?—I offer this little echo of Gary’s broken record and a hopefully helpful metaphor.

Every time I’m introduced as a yoga teacher, someone is sure to say, ‘oh, you must be really flexible.’ Or they harumph: ‘those poses are for circus freaks.’ Or maybe, ‘I should stretch more.’ Even funnier lately, when I meet fellow yoga practitioners and they tell me, ‘I just can’t get a good workout in your kind of yin class. I need to sweat and get my heart rate up.’

Okay, right. Where to start? Honestly, with a small sigh. And then a little bonk of my heart to jostle my compassion muscle. It is absolutely the case that we are all perfect souls seeking higher consciousness. Our paths need not always converge or even cross. And I’m grateful for the tension that I may practice the discipline of patience. Breathe.

So, what does yoga mean to you?

If yoga means poses, you’re not wrong. You’re just missing the forest for a tree.

(If yoga means racerback tshirts with wacky sayings—’puppies, lattes and yoga!’— you’re totally on the pulse of the Yoga Journal Conference of 2016. But you’re a little distracted. Please pay attention.)

In fact, yoga means union. And the union it seeks is within you—body, mind, spirit— and beyond you. It is you learning how to master your body and mind so that you can be you. Your best you. It is you discovering that you are infinitely connected, absolutely perfect and invested with unconditional joy.

The history of yoga is long, circuitous and complex. The tradition, however, can be viewed quite simply. For several thousand years, humans before you have sought a path to find peace. There have been masters—sages like Jesus, Buddha and Mahavira— and there have been millions of ardent practitioners. The ardent practitioners discovered from the masters that an steadfast effort toward self-exploration and discovery can transform their microcosmic power. With this greater personal power inside, they can spare a little to contribute some positive change to the macrocosm. This potential is the birthright of every individual. And yoga is simply a means of finding it.

Wow. That’s awesome, right? But how?

Around 2600 years ago, a guide book was offered. This is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It’s generally accepted that this small compendium of yoga advice brings much older wisdom into one location. And it’s by no means the only book to consult on yoga. But it’s so well-organized and this post is already going to be way too long. So. The Yoga Sutra. We’ll start there.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lets us know that yoga is a system. Followed diligently and with humility, it will quiet the fluctuations of the mind. It requires discipline and patience, deep self-inquiry and devotion. There are eight limbs that must be practiced. They are, in order, the ethical restraints, internal restraints, postures, breathing practice, sensory control, concentration, meditation and integration.

You’ll note, poses are one-eighth of the practice. And the poses we find familiar were not described in print until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika came around… in the 15th century CE. Which isn’t to say that postures were not taken to assist a practitioner’s ability to sit still for meditation. But they probably weren’t taken in conjunction with an awesome playlist, live DJ or stand-up paddleboard. Although, what do I know?

All of this is to reiterate, as Gary says, the poses have no inherent value on their own. It is the poses practiced for the purpose of self-discovery that come to mean something. The poses, like the ethical and internal restraints on behavior, like the breathing, the concentration, the meditation, all of it, serve as a mirror. These are tools that serve us as we pursue our paths of self-discovery. As tools, they are fantastic. Practiced for the sake of the tool itself, they are meaningless.

Think of it like this: if I show you a bridge between two land masses, do you immediately think of the cranes used to build it? Do you want to know more about the bolts used, the brand of cement and the grip on the wrenches? Maybe yes, if you’re an engineer. But the engineer will see the bridge for its utility, its harmony, its safety and know that its construction required more than a knowledge of nuts, bolts and the wrenches to bind them. And this is precisely how an engineer of the self must think: though we may be fascinated by some of the tools we use, ultimately, we’re building a bridge. It’ll take more than a tool or two to get there and we’re going to need to change our tools as we progress. And age. And learn.

We want to move from the chaos of our minds toward the peace in our souls. If we obsess on the wrench, we’re never going to move beyond the tightening of nuts and bolts. And there’s a lot more to a bridge than nuts and bolts. Just like you are so much more than that beautiful body containing you.

Now, what’s yoga to you?

I know. It’s about the pants.

What was I thinking?

(Please note! You may also be interested in reading up on Tantra. Which actually means system. And will be the topic of some other post, some other day. For now, I have to go balance in eka pada koundinyasana. Until I find enlightenment.)

(Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, please join me at 8 Elements West on the first Wednesday of every month at 6pm. We’ll chant the Sutra and discuss.)

Here’s a simple little bit about love.

Every morning, I say thank you. First thing. It’s a practice.

When I put my feet on the ground to get out of bed, I take quick account of my many gifts. Legs work. Cognition: check. Hands open and close. Eyes see. I’m fortunate. I love my life. Thank you.

And then the day starts.

I share this because I’ve come to realize a few things in the last year of living alone. Whether you’re fortunate enough to have a love share your bed or if you’re simply growing love in your heart, it’s the love that counts. Not the partner. Not the bed. Not even the legs or hands or eyes that function. It’s the love YOU have. It’s your love.

We may initiate other practices to help us stabilize the love inside us. Some people choose to scrapbook memories; some people bake cookies for their friends. Other people surf, go to church or volunteer somewhere. We might cook or clean or teach or draw horoscopes for people or make necklaces to give away to those who need them. Our practices are usually about being of service, whether to ourselves or others. About taking ourselves out of our routines and offering ourselves to another moment. And in that other moment, we rediscover our connections. To ourselves first. And then with others. And the world around us.

And when we find those connections in whatever idiosyncratic practice we keep, and when we let ourselves experience a sense of gratitude for the connections and the practice itself, we discover a totally cool feeling. The connection we’re feeling is just a longer word for love.

Check it out for yourself. I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong. We all love love. We all have our little ways of cultivating it. I, for one, practice yoga— did you know it means union? Another word for connection.

But my practice doesn’t mean I buy $100 mats or sticky-soled socks. It just means that I do my best to remember—no matter what I’m doing—that I conduct my life honestly, kindly, moderately and with devotion. I take care of my body and my mind. I study myself. I express gratitude. I do my best to be compassionate. I remind myself to see the light inside myself and inside others.

But all this, with all due respect to yoga, is somewhat of an abstraction. A necessary one because it helps to have a practice that guides me. But an abstraction nonetheless. The practice simply helps me remember a very simple thing.

Which leads me to my point. The simple bit. What if you remembered on a daily basis that your entire purpose on this fine earth is the act of making connections? Of creating love? That your highest and best use is to be of service to love. Whether you share love with another, teach others about love, receive love without condition, inspire others to love or help love to grow where it hasn’t yet rooted.

The only important consideration for you and me and everyone else is connection.

Love.

It’s the whole point. And it makes the whole point much, much clearer when you just surrender and accept it.

I love you!

Let your yoga grow up.

For years, I practiced Ashtanga.

With all the enthusiasm of a kid, honestly.

Intermittently, my practice may have been a touch irresponsible. I pushed myself into certain postures for no other reason than I wanted to achieve. So simple; so rambunctious. Urdva dhanurasana, with an ankle bind, is a good example from my old circus repertoire. I knew my body would eventually give into the pose because my hypermobile body does that. And my mind, well, it’s an achievement-oriented mind anyway—anxious to prove and succeed. Very little gets in the way of my mind.

If I’d been a little more thoughtful at the time—or prepared for this kind of thinking—I would have recognized that a better way, for me, would be to challenge myself to be strong enough to forego the pose. Or, let’s say, honor what might be a principled tightening of my body to strengthen the musculature around my loose-goosey ligaments. And that, honestly, might have yielded a better experience in the pose. I might have actually experienced the function of the pose, rather than appropriate the form for one silly purpose: showing off.

And I did show it off. To my teacher, to other students, to my students. I didn’t blow up balloons or throw confetti. But I always knew I could do it. Gold star for me. Woo.

Until I was injured. Whoops! I had to go through 6 months of physical therapy to fix my shoulder. I was 31. Sigh. It sucked to discover mortality.

But a little suffering is okay if it doesn’t get in your bones and sink you. And that experience, honestly, became the catapult that made me learn yoga. It made my yoga grow up.

I’d been practicing for 12 years when I hurt myself. I honestly believed that challenging poses would quiet my mind. And they probably did. Sometimes. But I hadn’t come to understand what yoga really meant for me. That the quiet mind would come with the practice of calming detrimental instincts. Like needing to achieve at the expense of my humility. Like believing I wasn’t good enough if I couldn’t achieve. Like ignoring pain.

What I realized then was that, as a teacher, if I planned to share yoga with others, I had to figure out how to be safe about it. And it’s taken me another few years (and some really good teachers—Gary Kraftsow, Juris Zinbergs, Neal Ghoshal and Vincent Bolletta, among others— to work my way through this idea. Here’s where I’ve arrived: safety means understanding the principles of yoga as a system of transition. Not a system of achievement.

My teacher Gary refers to Nathamuni’s stages of life when he describes the way yoga should change as we age.

For the first 30 years or so—what Gary calls the sunrise period—we’re growing, cultivating power, learning balance, discovering morality. Through this period, yoga should be rigorous, disciplined, designed to improve character. From this point of view, practices like Ashtanga make sense. Training the body restrains the mind. But then the body starts to change. And so does the mind.

We approach our midstage—midday—and our interests shift. We find that we’re subject to death; we want to delay it. We want to protect our health so we can nurture others. We want to protect our bodies so they carry us along a journey whose distance we start to appreciate. This is when we discover that asana alone isn’t resolving our stress or helping our diet or improving our relationships. If we’re lucky, someone suggests that we might want to refine our asana to move with our breath. We may want to work with our breath. We may start to meditate. Even if we’re not so lucky, we intuit these things and seek our way alone. We age.

By the time we reach our sunset phase, we might be well-oriented toward self-realization. Or not. But inevitably we’re going to have to turn inward. Maybe. Or, at least, we acknowledge the fact of an approaching demise (may the approach be languorous and quiet). Yoga in this phase should focus on meditation, prayer and ritual. On the ways that allow us to manage our impermanence. To resolve our karma. Arguably, this could be the most strenuous phase. Especially if we haven’t learned the discipline of asana and breath.

The thing about yoga? It’s a system. It’s so much more than asana, if we let it grow up.

Yoga offers a practice for every phase of life, for anyone breathing, for everyone willing. From asana to pranayama to meditation, prayer, ritual and conduct, it’s a comprehensive system comprised of discrete, but complementary, elements. And these elements are available at every stage for anyone looking to find them. Someone at 25 may want a more transcendent practice. Someone at 75 may want to keep up their asana. It’s all good. Yoga provides. And it transforms.

Because everything is always shifting. The way we do yoga, and teach it, should respect this by becoming as mature and wise (and generous and playful) as our natures will possibly bear.

Just what does a teacher know?

In the last few months, I’ve had the neat fortune to meet a variety of new students. Cool students. Nice students. Funny students, highly intelligent students, friendly students who daily teach me that I know almost nothing. These students are also generous enough to trust me to work with them. It’s a privilege and I appreciate them. They teach me about my blindspots—about what I don’t know, which is too much—and keep me more than a little nervous that I won’t be able to help. And I want to help. That’s in my nature as much as causing trouble and talking too much.

The truth is: I worry. I worry about these people—body, mind and soul. They come to yoga because they want something. They want for something. It might be a physical yearning for flexibility that gets them in the studio. A hope for strength or balance. Or it might be a suspicion that the life they’re leading could be different. Somehow.

Regardless of how acceptable yoga has become—in gyms, churches, schools—it carries the legacy of mysticism. I don’t write that lightly. Exploring the mystic is at the very heart of yoga. Acknowledging the students’ curiosity into this union between intellect and the divine is probably the greatest, and most delicate, responsibility of the yoga teacher.

And that’s why I worry.

I don’t want to sound precious, but yoga ain’t just moving around. When someone wants a guide to usher them toward something interesting and deep, the guide better have at least a small torch. With extra batteries. And maybe a compass that isn’t broken.

Which increases the responsibility of the teacher, doesn’t it? Because the yoga teacher is helping bodies breathe then move and align as appropriate. From there, she invites minds to notice the breath and movement and alignment so the experience becomes internal. And if she has the will, she invites the spirit to observe the interaction between the body and mind.

To teach, then, means to be willing to look into these areas personally. And that’s not always easy. I don’t think I’m kicking a sacred cow when I acknowledge that yoga teachers are, with a few rockstar exceptions, poorly paid for their work. Most of them are just a teacher training ahead of their students, and that training may not have included much more than a sequence, a script and a little exposure to anatomy. The first teacher training I attended, in the way back, spent five hours on lining up trikonasana, another hour on music choices but only a short morning session on the Yoga Sutra limited to the yamas and niyamas. (I’ll always be grateful for my disappointment with that course; the utter banality of it got me to India—a trip that taught me to always study the self as carefully as the guru.)

As a teacher, I want folks to find a way in yoga that will endure as long as they do. As long as they have an interest in yoga, I want to provide some insight and knowledge for their consideration. And I find this challenging, to be candid. Because I don’t know everything I’d like to know. And I don’t have all the insight I want. Not for myself, and certainly not for others. But I try to admit what I don’t know. I wish I could chant without blushing and recite the Sutra and meditate really peacefully. I wish I could offer prayer without first questioning its value. I wish I could breathe without losing count, that my body didn’t occasionally hurt and my mood didn’t occasionally sour.

But this is me. And the best thing I can offer, I think, is my absolute conviction that a little bit of yoga, carefully done (no playlist required, folks!), with connection to the breath and a generous and enthusiastic heart, is going to calm the mind. First, a little. Over time, more and more. And then even more.

And I remind myself that it’s a matter of happiness and will and faith and finding stability in what I know. Also, that my own teachers are flawed and funny. And unabashedly aware of it.

We are all a mess with an instinct to become art. As I interpret Patanjali (visoka va jyotismati, 1-36), finding joy despite or because of this may just give us a peaceful place to rest.

 

The yoga of you

The long history of yoga is as twisty as parivrtta trikonasana. In the way back, about 400 B.C.E., Patanjali compiled a how-to book of aphorisms to guide folks on using yoga to attain personal freedom. It’s like a buzzfeed list but way more literate. Also, way longer. Buzzfeed minds don’t seem to fathom more than 30 items in a list. Patanjali gave us 196. (Hey look! 196 minus 190 easy steps to become enlightened.)

Patanjali’s foundational text, while essential to our modern practice, doesn’t present the prototype of yoga in the world. Example one came well before, at some date that no one can agree on but may have preceded Indian Vedic traditions. (That would mean sometime before 1750 B.C.E.) I like to imagine someone slumped at the fire, who, witness to some rancorous back and forth in the family, is distracted by the sensation of breeze on her nose or the welcome settling of a sigh. She becomes gripped by an understanding that she can watch the family politics or she can watch her mind. ‘I just had the weirdest idea,’ she might have said. And someone good and open bothered to answer: ‘Tell me about it.’

Or maybe it was totally different. Some guy looking for immortality. A healer trying to assure patients that despite their inevitable mortality, there’s fun to be had. And here’s a lollypop.

However yoga heaved onto the soft-sand shores of metaphysical ponderings, it was already rooting around in Patanjali’s time. This is not to diminish Patanjali’s contribution. He had the foresight to gather, consider and shape the older traditions into a pretty objet d’art worthy of the pedestal we continue to swarm.

So what does Patanjali say we must do? Broadly, to find freedom, we should cultivate peaceful ethics, a healthy body, a sound breath, and a focused and sustained attention on silence and perceptual awareness. (As for the asana we call yoga, he writes only that our poses should be steady and comfortable.) We do these things in concert until they get the body and the mind into a sturdy chokehold, and then, later, the mind and the absolute. The yogic word for this chokehold is yoke. The more we practice, the better we move under the yoke. The more clearly we understand how much practice is required. Also, how much study. And practice. And more attention.

I write on this today because paying this much attention demands precious means. It has a cost. We are all blessed and burdened with tittering minds. We are all highly distracted, at best. To pay attention we have to dig deep and pull some change from our pockets. That change is often something like yoga.

Yoga can, believe it or not, pay the price. It allows us to enter into a study of our embodied selves, to transcend the impermanence of the body to see the mind, and then… well… to transcend. It’s the believe it or not part that interests me.

Over the millenia since Patanjali, yoga has been variously used to become supernatural and super strange. For a decent amount of time in the middle ages, it gave itself over to fancies of the flesh— that is, to challenging the body with extreme sensuality or pain in order to commune authentically with the base instincts of life. At some point, the classical yoga abridged by Patanjali would have been a tame and esoteric excuse for a spirit quest. Without mortification and extreme renunciation of all things fairly normal—like, say, not hanging oneself by the skin— it would have been argued, the spirit has no chance of triumphing over the spell of the body.

And then it happened that yoga was rebranded. Not entirely to the classical form that Patanjali described but to something rational, beneficial, palatable to those without chaotic leanings. An upstanding path to an upstanding body. Swami Vivekenanda, who lived until the turn of the 20th century, championed an abandonment of all the carnal and promoted yoga as a method for strengthening the body. Anything mysterious or mystic about the practice should be rejected, he cautioned. Thus detoxed of its depravity or delight (you decide), yoga could be a source of national pride for a nation withstanding colonial rule.

Which is how Krishnamacharya, the modern-day source of most of the yoga practiced in the West, thought of the practice. He called yoga ‘India’s greatest gift to the world.’ And though he was adamant that yoga should be responsive to the needs of an individual—combining breath, meditation, asana and Ayurvedic principles as required— it was his playful, rigorous sequencing for young men that created the yoga spectacle now firmly entrenched in the universal consciousness.

He pushed his young students into backbends so arched that their heels framed their heads. And spindly arms and legs found no skeletal resistance to twisting over on themselves repeatedly. Though most bodies, and certainly most bodies over 30, wouldn’t find any of Patanjali’s ease or stability in these positions, the sight of them might have inspired some greater hope. That these moves, so easily done, might freshen our aging bodies and turn them into the temples we’d like them to remain. Yoga, these exuberant demonstrations shouted, may be the elixir we’ve been seeking.

Which is a lovely misapprehension. Or, at least, a sweet though short-sighted analysis of the power of yoga. It is the case that an asana practice that works with the breath and the mind will serve to improve the body. But, just like temples, the body will not last forever. It will, one day, expire. The greater work of yoga, whether you like it or not, prepares you for this.

And that’s the charm of yoga. Or the clever power of it. You can like it or not. You can believe it or not, but yoga— that idea of creating a union between the body and the mind so the mind can release itself from the body—is profoundly capable of undermining doubt. Even if you don’t think you’re paying attention, yoga makes the payment for you. And still returns the benefit to you.

The simple act of moving with the breath relieves the mind of its often spastic control of the body. The anxious mind, depressed mind, perseverating mind can retreat to rest; the body’s intuitions can then communicate with a mind more willing to listen. As the mind hears the body, the body heals and finds health. As the body finds health, the mind becomes calm and clear. And whether it makes buzzfeed or not, we all know how captivated we are by the presence of a healthy body housing a calm mind. That is a wondrous spectacle.

And so we haven’t quite come full circle, but maybe it’s becoming more clear where the border of the circle lies. Yoga circumscribes us, like a really good hug, and if we stay in the circle, the embrace—the union, the yoke, the chokehold—becomes something we provide for ourselves.

It speaks to the flexibility and integrity of a practice that it can be reformed and recast but never lapse. It’s precisely these two qualities that a yoga practice can instill in a person—body and mind. The yoga of you is what will bring you peace. And that means following the sage advice at the heart of all yoga and transcribed by Patanjali: live ethically, move gracefully with breath, focus your mind and pay attention.

Please note: the other parts of the show—the rotated headstands and birds of paradise and circus crows— are for play and wonder which does not discount them in anyway.

To joy! Until we die!

 

 

 

When was the last time you did yoga?

I occasionally mount a pretty high horse to scowl upon some trends in yoga classes. If you want to see my gnarliest bitch face, tell me that you love power yoga. I’ll mellow some (but not entirely) for this: I don’t do yoga because it’s for acrobats. And while my face may look peeved, I promise the anger is not for you when you tell me you won’t go back to yoga because the teacher pushed you too deep.

Like a bell ringing, every time I hear these things—which happens surprisingly often—a devilish yogi sheds another ounce of bodyfat.

Yoga has become a million different things to a million different people. It’s flying on scarves attached to steel supports. It’s choreographed to acoustic guitars. It’s floating in the bay. Why not? Somehow, the western audience hasn’t been content to let yoga guide them from movement to mindfulness to breath to study. Instead, we’ve morphed yoga into activities that border on the absurd. For example: ever wonder if there’s yoga on horseback? I looked. The answer is Yes. Nascar Yoga? Sure. Yoga for dogs? Absodogalutely.

To do yoga these days, you don’t even have to do yoga. You can hang upside down or jump on a stand-up paddle board or probably take a rocket ship to the moon. Then you can call it yoga. Ta-da! Yoga! I’m riding my bike and calling it yoga! I’m sitting on the couch. Yoga. You, my friend, reading this: nice yoga.

Except. Something’s missing. In all that yoga, where’s the yoga? You can turn on the hose and call yourself a fireman but you aren’t putting out fires. Throw flour in an oven but you won’t make bread. I hate to bear the news, but just because someone calls it yoga, even a member of the lululemon cult, doesn’t make it yoga.

So what, then, is yoga? And why am I such a formalist prig?

While the history of yoga is long—dating back millenia—and the methods of its practice have varied, it was consistently a mechanism for unifying the activities of body, mind and senses. In Hindu philosophy, it is one of six philosophical schools for the acquisition of knowledge, systematized by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. It was Patanjali who defined yoga as a philosophy, as citta vritti nirodah, or a way to still the fluctuations of the mind. His system to accomplish this includes eight limbs— or passages, maybe—that carry the student toward this goal. This is the very definition of Ashtanga—eight-limbed.

Patanjali’s contribution to yoga was not simply formative but advancing. Millenia of consideration preceded him, including the Mahabharata, one of two epic tales of ancient India containing the legendary Bhagavad Gita. It was in the Mahabharata that the idea of nirodha or cessation—of attachment, senses, thoughts—is described as an avenue toward realizing the true self. Then Patanjali set about a checklist of efforts that could withstand a little cessation. Right conduct, for example, can be thought of an exercise in restraining ourselves. He suggests we stop with the harming, the lying, the stealing, the lusting the greed. He complements these imperatives with various observances: thinking clearly, being content, keeping austere, studying the self and surrendering to greater forces. Only after these guideposts for proper conduct does Patanjali suggest that we take a steady and comfortable seat, that we breathe, withdraw from the senses, attend to a single object, contemplate intensely, and then merge our consciousness with the object of our meditation. Phew. It’s a lot to do. Probably not manageable if all our time is taken up swinging on ropes and calling it warrior.

Then again, maybe we aren’t all interested in catching the mind in its perpetual bounce. Maybe.

Which brings me back to lunges and why I’m a formalist prig. After 10 years of practice, I hurt myself doing a deep, deep backbend I didn’t need to do. After 12 years of practice, my pain was still occasional. After 14 years, I still sometimes regretted that backbend. So in the last six years, I altered my practice. I stopped attending classes unless I knew the teacher and knew he or she was great. I read the Sutras. Again and again. I learned anatomy. I learned to breathe. I learned the physiology of breathing. And I learned to sit steadily and comfortably so I could meditate on my behavior and actions. I tell people I’ve practiced yoga for 20 years, but it might be more honest of me to say my yoga practice truly started six years ago.

Am I saying yoga is more than lunges? Yes. Way more than lunges on a surfboard or lunges on a trapeze. Unfortunately, if a lunge on the ground seems boring to people, then leaving the lunge behind for something quieter might be even harder. But the truth is, the challenge of yoga becomes greater when the exercise becomes quieter. And it’s more interesting. More sincerely fun than anything trying so hard to impress you. Imagine your mind is a superball. Now remember how awesome it felt to occasionally catch that damn thing. And to watch it soar. And how disappointed you were when the superball rolled into the gutter. And how you got over it?

Ah, impermanence.

The western approach to yoga has focused on the physical postures—the asana—and flirted with breath and maybe meditation. But asana is only one limb of the yogic path. It is intended to prepare the body to sit in contemplation, and then meditation, for as long as it takes for the mind to stop its incessant chatter. Not to sleep. But to find freedom. Like a superball. Except a superball at peace.

Freedom from all thoughts of I and mine; that man finds utter peace.

From the Bhagavad Gita.

So when was the last time you did yoga? And are you ready to start?