This bit of contemplation has come about from repeated questions about the difference between Āsana and exercise, Āhāra and the diet culture, Vairāgya and disinterest. They are interesting questions, ones that I have had myself before others asked me these things. For the longest time, I did not have an answer; I did not know how to even begin answering and that was because I didn’t understand enough to even attempt a response.
But over the years, I have observed myself and others, read about what others have to say, and contemplated question over and over. What is the difference? Is there a difference at all? It was, in fact, quite disheartening at one point as I wondered if it is just nomenclature and a difference in language because I always somehow believed Yoga was different, more.
Do write to me or comment below if any of this resonates with you because I would love to broaden my understanding of this subject and you can help me by sharing your insights or your thoughts when reading this. If there is something that does not make sense or you do not agree with, definitely let me know so I can use that to contemplate and further my understanding!
Is Yoga really different?
Well, yes and no is the answer I received from what my teacher calls “sitting with the question”. Yoga is different in many ways from modern/popular exercise and diet culture. When we say modern here, it does not mean the last few years; we are stating the difference between ancient texts that have been around for millennia and modern practices and beliefs from the past few hundred years.
- Yoga focuses on the mind rather than the body in most traditional practices described in ancient Yogic texts. Even physical practices are geared towards the mind rather than towards physical fitness and such.
- Yoga is a way of living, a lifelong endeavour and not something that is done for a while a few times a week or something that is practised for a limited period of time and then stopped.
- Yoga does not discriminate between people because of how they look, speak, dress, or what they are able or not able to do; it is inclusive at its core.
But I do also see similarities and overlaps in the ancient and the modern.
- Both Āsana and exercise can ensure good physical health with regular practice. Both require immense dedication and discipline. Both demand pushing physical limits and testing the boundaries of resilience.
- Both Āhāra and diet culture tell us what we should or should not eat. Both tell us what foods can help us with our goals and what foods can hinder us on that journey.
- Yoga, just like most modern wellness systems starts from the point of knowing we can be better and we can better ourselves through effort.
So then, what makes Yoga unique? Is it that unique after all or is it just the use of an ancient language that makes it exotic and fascinating and different?
Intent and intention
This is where my contemplations and my learning pleasantly surprised me. This is where I began to understand what had made Yoga survive over millennia as a philosophy and a set of tools to live better. I share my understanding of this uniqueness and why Yoga slowly started making so much sense to me in my life.
It all narrowed down to a single word when I wanted to understand what made Yoga different – INTENT. Why we do what we do, why we begin a journey and why we keep going on that journey; why we stay on a path or change paths in life; why we choose to live a certain way. It all comes down to the WHY.
The magic in the understanding for me is this – when the intent is right for you, everything becomes Yoga!
What is right intent, then? It is the thing that is right for you. It seems right when you think about it; it feels right when you decide to do it; it gives you the results when you act on it. These things may not happen right away but they always do, eventually. They may come about in an unexpected way or may take a long time, but that is where Yoga helps.
Right intent looks something like this:
- It is dependent on you and you alone.
Nobody can tell you what your intent should be. Only you know what it is that you need. If you do not know, there are ways to slowly figure it out but that has to be your journey and your decision.
- It is something you decide for yourself; no one else can make that decision for you.
If somebody else is telling you what you should intend to do, they are essentially telling you their intent for themselves or some version of it. Nobody knows you and your life better than you and that is why your intent has to come from within you.
- It starts in a place that is motivating, inspiring, and full of positivity.
This, for me, is where things got really interesting and where the uniqueness of Yoga really stood out. Unless this point stands true, it is not the right intent and it is not a yogic way of thinking and being.
Let us take an example of wanting to be better physically – lose/gain weight, gain muscle, be able to do a certain movement, be more flexible, and so on. Why do we want to do this? When we ask ourselves this question, the answer could be something on these lines:
- I look fat/skinny and people tease me about my appearance.
- Clothes don’t fit me well or look as good on me as they do on others.
- Everyone I know can do this movement and I am the only one who cannot.
- I am not good enough the way I am and so I want to change.
The common thread running through all of these answers is a lack – something that is missing, something that we are not, something we see ourselves as lacking when compared to others. And this can never bring us the results we want or make us happy because someone will always be better than us – thinner/bigger than us, more flexible, stronger, better looking, etc. We will always feel a lack no matter what we do. And if we fail at something, no matter how small, we will struggle to deal with it and put ourselves down over and over again for it. It will not be easy to move forward from failure.
Now, if we ask the same question and the answers look something like this, we may be onto something:
- I feel good but I think losing/gaining weight will make me feel healthier.
- Better muscle definition will mean better functional use of my muscles.
- Everyone around me can do this movement and I am so inspired to keep trying to be better at it myself.
- I love myself the way I am but I think making some changes will make me even happier about myself.
The common thread in all these responses is that we are starting from a place of abundance, positivity, completeness, joy. When we succeed, we feel absolutely amazing about ourselves. We feel radiant and blessed and wonderful. But if we fail at any point, we still have our positivity and our completeness to help us pick ourselves up and keep moving forward without losing heart. Even if we feel beaten down, we will be able to pick ourselves up and find the way forward, whatever that may be for us.
Yoga and intent
Yoga is a two-pronged approach, where it first teaches us how to develop a positive state of mind and find the right intent for everything we do and are as people. It then helps us do what we need to do keeping this intent as the foundation of everything.
Once this happens, everything we do is Yoga. Every exercise becomes Āsana because we do it with awareness and without feeling the need to punish ourselves and our bodies. We act from a place of love and kindness. Every diet becomes Āhāra because we do not use food to feel guilty or punish ourselves but we eat mindfully to give ourselves pleasure but also to keep our bodies and minds healthy. We take interest in everything we do but understand not to become too attached to anything in the process.
Every action becomes more meaningful and intentional; every act, every word is well thought out and reasoned. We become less reactive to people and the world around us and we become more balanced in our responses to them. We become more empathetic because we give ourselves the time to understand, think and respond rather than impulsively react to people and situations.
And that is Yoga. Ahimsa and Dharma form the basis of everything Yoga teaches, no matter what text we look at over the years. Ahimsa is abstaining from violent thoughts, words, and actions towards ourselves and the world around us. Ahimsa teaches us to be tolerant, patient, kind, empathetic towards the self and the world. Dharma is our duty towards ourselves, our loved ones, to society, and to the universe. Dharma means standing up for our own rights and taking responsibility for our thoughts, words, and actions; once we have done that for ourselves, we do it for those around us.
Yoga is right intent, and there is no Yoga without the right intent. Without that, it is only exercise and actions and tasks without a solid foundation behind them. A pullup or a plank done with the right mindset and right intent is Yoga. A breath drawn with awareness is Yoga. A morsel of food eaten mindfully and with careful thought is Yoga. All of life becomes Yoga when we live it with the right intent.