By Colure Caulfield.

While it may seem that in recent years, the practice of yoga has experienced a wild surge in popularity across the U.S., with everyone from famous celebrities like Madonna and Jennifer Aniston, to professional athletes like Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, and even politicians like Hilary Clinton hawking and promoting the seemingly endless benefits of a regular yoga practice, there still remains a great deal of confusion, misunderstanding, and general misinformation among the American public as to what yoga really is. Recent salacious headlines involving the very public downfalls of so-called famous “yoga gurus” John Friend and Bikram Choudry, along with recent challenges in the California Supreme Court regarding the use of yoga in public schools, have only served to further complicate and confuse the general public’s perception and understanding of this ancient mind-body practice.

Here in the United States, yoga is seemingly ubiquitous, appearing in gyms, schools, churches, and private studios in cities both large and small. With so many different styles of yoga to choose from,  ranging from traditional forms of practice such as Ashtanga Yoga, to more modern and westernized forms of yoga such as Hot Yoga, Flow (often referred to as “Vinyasa”) Yoga, and Power Yoga, it can be hard for the aspiring yogi or even those who are merely yoga-curious to know where to begin. What’s more, in Western society in particular, yoga has seemingly been boiled down to little more than a form of exercise – many classes, especially those in most gyms, fitness facilities, and community centers – focusing solely upon the physical aspects and benefits of yoga asana (postures). At least initially, most individuals seek out yoga as an addition to their regular fitness regimen, mainly as a way to achieve specific physical goals – weight loss, improved muscle tone, increased flexibility, and reduced pain, to name a few. Others are brought to the mat out of a need to reduce chronic stress and anxiety, or to rehabilitate an injury.  Interestingly enough, however, these many real benefits of a regular yoga practice come secondary to the originally-intended purpose of yoga.

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Yoga is a truly ancient system – over 5,000 years old by most estimates – with the term “Yoga” making its first known appearance in an ancient Hindu text, the Upanishads, circa 400 BCE, and appearing repeatedly in subsequent texts such as the Bhagavad Gita. The most definitive and authoritative of these early texts, considered by many to be the most important work ever written on the subject, are The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. While Patanjali certainly did not create yoga by any means, he is credited for organizing and describing yoga philosophy in a way that is accessible and understandable. In the Sutras, Patanjali defines “Yoga” in Sutra 1.2 (yogas citta-vrtti-nirodhah) as, “the inhibition (nirodhah) of the modifications (vrtti) of the mind (citta)”, or, in modern terms, we might say that Patanjali meant yoga as a means of stilling our mind’s constant chatter. Patanjali further lays out a path by which to achieve this cessation/stilling of the mind – “Ashtanga Yoga”, or, the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Physical yoga practice (referred to as “Asana”) is merely the third limb on the path to yoga. It is a part of the whole, but it is not the whole of yoga alone.

Ultimately, however, does it really matter whether an individual first seeks out yoga as a means of mental and spiritual clarity, or, what’s more likely, as a way of reducing stress and getting in shape? One of the most beautiful things about practicing yoga is that it truly is for everyone – regardless of where you come from, what you’re seeking, or what state your body or mind is in, yoga has something to offer you. For many, the innumerable physical and mental benefits are more than enough reason to maintain a regular yoga “asana” practice – and it’s likely that the majority of practicing yogis both begin and end their yoga with asana practice alone. Others may eventually decide to take their practice deeper, seeking out The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the deeper underlying philosophies surrounding yoga. But neither path is right or wrong. Yoga is beautiful because it is unique to each individual who practices it. Everyone’s experience is different and yet everyone’s is the same – in some way, whether you struggle to attend one class a week at your local gym, or if you practically live at your local studio, you practice yoga because it makes you feel something. That something is what keeps you returning to your mat time after time. And perhaps, some day, that same something is what will even begin to calm the constant chatter of your mind.