The literal definition of “Yoga” is “Yoke.” A yoke is the harness that attaches Oxen to the plows that they pull. It is the thing that attaches them to their work. Some define Yoga as work. I think “discipline” is the best translation. The yogis and most of our greatest philosophers believe that discipline is the only thing that can free us from suffering.
Yet how can a harness possibly free us? Well, without the yoke, the oxen are wild and uncontrolled. They fail to benefit us. They will roam the farm, trample the crops and create more damage. If we can’t harness our impulses, they will destroy us.
Think of it this way, if you want freedom from your physical limitations or pain, you need to do hatha (physical) yoga. This consists of physical therapy, mindful exercise and proper breathing. All of these actions, if done diligently and habitually have been scientifically proven to reduce pain, increase strength, increase endurance, lower the risk of disease, lengthen one’s life and prevent mental illness. If we want these things, we must discipline ourselves to do our hatha yoga. I will use the term hatha yoga very broadly as I believe that any exercise done with mindfulness can be seen as hatha yoga.
Without a habitual exercise habit, high blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, weakness, disease and pain set in. We become a victim of our own lack of discipline.
Look at the most skilled dancers, athletes and acrobats. Its as if they can fly. We often wish we can move with just as much freedom. We forget to account for all the hours of discipline it took to achieve that level of mastery. Athletes of this caliber did not mindlessly move to achieve this level. They have had to focus on every element of their art and use their minds as well.
This brings us to Jnana (mindful) yoga. This is the yoga of knowledge. We must constantly be educating ourselves or fall in the trap of ignorance. Ignorance, our inability to know what is real; can harm our relationships, make us more susceptible to scams and ruin our opportunity for a better life. Disciplining our mind helps us focus which is great for alleviating stress and helping us improve any skill. Lack of knowledge or mindfulness might cause us to act stupidly and do things that we regret which brings me to the next type of discipline or yoga.
Karma (action) yoga teaches us to be mindful of what we do as everything has a consequence. If we want to be free from poverty, we must discipline ourselves to work at a job that pays us well. We must also watch that we aren’t spending more money than what we earn. if we want people to like us, we have to take actions that are kind and not rude. Knowing which actions to takes a certain level or jnana yoga. After all, most people don’t intend on doing harm. Many do it unconsciously.
Karma yoga can go much deeper. Ghandi came up with a method of karma yoga called satyagraha. This was a way of resisting unjust authority without enacting any violence. Ghandi disciplined himself to accept going to jail and even abuse as he worked in his quest to end racism and free India from English rule. When the government wronged him, he did not retaliate in violence, he instead allowed them to victimize him until they they realized their own wrong doing. This path of action was very well thought out and it took a ton of discipline to see it through.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a follower of Ghandi and used this exact same method to end segregation in the U.S., disciplining his people do peaceful protests. They trained themselves never to fight back. As a result, the media was able to record many blacks being abused at the hands of white law enforcement without them fighting back. It made the government look awful, the way they abused peaceful people and it brought sympathy to the blacks, who were once thought of as the barbaric race.
Ghandi was the only one who succeeded in overthrowing a government without having to go to war. This is a tremendous achievement as it taught us that violence isn’t the only answer. MLK used this same method of Karma yoga to bridge the great divide between whites and blacks and to make our laws more just during a time when everyone thought that civil war would break out.
In order to achieve “freedom” from an unjust government, these men had to be extraordinarily disciplined in how they acted and reacted, so disciplined that they didn’t even fear death.
The fourth style of yoga is bhakti (devotional) yoga. This is the yoga of the spirit. Sometimes the only way to overcome great odds is to connect with our own spirituality, whatever that may be for you. Ask anyone who has had to battle addiction or found hope under extremely trying circumstances. Life can be terribly complicated. We are often plagued with questions we may not have the answer to and we have to rely on a higher power to find them. Whatever your spiritual views, we all have to meditate on our values in order to make sense of our lives. Without our moral foundation, we succumb to our lower selves. This can be a trap that can lead to unhappiness. We can’t always control the slings and arrows that life throws at us but we can control how we respond to it, as Ralph Waldo Emmerson said, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
In the classic Yogic text, “The Bhagvad Gita,” Arjuna was lucky enough to get the advice of Krishna, the human carnation of a Hindu God. Arjuna was very hesitant and unsure of what he was about to do, go to civil war as a last resort against a very corrupt government. Krishna told him that he should freely follow his path. He could do it because he had been practicing yoga. Because he diligently practiced strong physical health, mindfulness, right action and spirituality, he had the tools he needed to make the right choices.
Without discipline, we are lost. We live in a culture where it is so easy to let go of one’s health, to lose touch with one’s loved ones and where the incidence of mental health is skyrocketing out of control. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who are unhappy and have fallen into terrible physical health because they stopped being mindful of what they were eating or how they managed their lifestyle. I’ve seen people lose their families because they failed to be mindful about what was truly important to them. We have tools such as smart phones to help us sort through our lives yet I’ve seen people become slaves to the very tools that were supposed to free them in the first place. Without mindfulness, yoga and discipline, we become slaves to our own culture. Freedom is possible, but it takes diligent practice and great discipline.
If you can’t come up with a resolution this year, a good idea is to look at the different paths of yoga practice. Are you still mindful about your physical health (hatha yoga)? Are you doing your best to keep your mind focused and learning new things (jnana yoga)? Are the actions you take day to day benefiting your life and those in your sphere of influence (karma yoga)? Do your thoughts and actions vibe with your deepest spiritual values (bhakti yoga)?
Someone once said that regardless of your beliefs, the definition of a “spiritual person” is someone who is just trying to be the best they can be. When I teach class, I’m fully aware that everyone is at different skill and fitness levels, but I encourage my students to just to their best. This is why I take some time to be mindful of my practice especially at the end of the year. I’m not the same person I was a few years ago. Every year, I chip away at myself and try to be the best I can be and I’m hoping that this encourages others to do their best as well.
Happy Holidays. Looking forward to an awesome New Year!
If you are interested in learning more about the different paths of yoga or learning more about the deeper philosophies of yoga, check out these blogs: