September 22, 2011

Yoga Demystified: The Six Big Ideas.

Yoga philosophy is sublimely simple, profound, and livable.  Yet it can be difficult to grasp because of its unfamiliar language and complex history.

My aim here is to capture the essence of Yoga philosophy in plain English, with a touch of fun. I hope beginners will be inspired to learn more and experienced Yoga practitioners will come away refreshed and energized.

Let’s begin by talking about the Six Big Ideas of Yoga Philosophy.

It took me awhile to fully appreciate the truth and depth of these six simple gems, but now I’ve kind of internalized them and they have made my life immeasurably richer.

1) Each of us is already infinitely wondrous—miraculous, awe-inspiring, unfathomable.  (This is well hidden beneath the distractions and emotions of everyday life.)

2) Our wondrous nature is the same as the infinite wonder of the universe.

3) The way to experience our wondrous self is to fully experience the present moment, since each moment of consciousness is infinitely wondrous in itself.

4) The mind, body, and spirit are inseparable.

5) Experiencing our wondrous self leads to an abundance of joy and goodness.

6) The techniques of Yoga, leading to enhanced awareness, are one method for discovering our true wondrous nature.

Let’s take these one at a time.

1) Each of us is already infinitely wondrous–miraculous,
awe-inspiring, unfathomable.

(This is well hidden beneath the
distractions of everyday life and emotion.)

Ask yourself this question:  “Which is more wondrous, the entire universe or an individual human being?”

Think deeply about this.  Most people can’t honestly choose between the two.  The question is, of course, unanswerable.  The entire universe is so wondrous (miraculous, awe-inspiring, unfathomable–whatever words you choose to use.)  Yet, when seen objectively, so is a thinking, breathing, feeling human being.

The fact that it’s not easy to choose is fascinating in itself.  And it’s a dramatic argument for the most basic Yoga idea that just being alive can be infinitely wondrous, if we let it.

For me this is a blockbuster, mind-blowing insight, and undeniably true.  I had always thought of the individual human being as small and insignificant, like a grain of sand on the beach.  And we are, in a way.

But each of us is also infinitely wondrous–so wondrous, in fact, that it’s hard to decisively declare even the entire universe to be more wondrous.

The universe is complex and unfathomable, indeed.  But a human being, in body alone, is equally complex and unfathomable, and, in addition, we are conscious.  We are able to perceive the miracle of our own being.

(Yoga often uses the word “divine” for this.  The most basic finding of Yoga is that each of us is already divine.  I prefer the word “wondrous” instead of “divine”, because “divine” has too many other religious meanings, some of which Yoga doesn’t necessarily intend to convey.)

According to Yoga, this wondrous, blindingly amazing self is the “true self” referred to in the title of Stephen Cope’s book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, and the process of self-realization, or “enlightenment”, is not the process of “becoming” something, but rather simply “discovering” the joy of who we already are, buried beneath the pressing distractions and emotions of everyday life.

For me the conclusive, objective realization that each of us is as wondrous (“divine” if you prefer) as the entire universe is like a light switch that changes everything about the way I think about myself and my life.

2) Our wondrous nature is the same as the
infinite wonder of the universe.

What fills you with wonder and awe? Is it the staggering beauty of the Grand Canyon? A Mozart opera? Walking through a garden blooming with flowers? A jumbo jet passing overhead? The birth of a child? A Brett Favre touchdown pass?

The big things are obvious. We all know what that kind of wonder feels like.

The wonder of a galaxy is obvious. Think about its hundreds of millions of stars rotating around a central axis, and the whole galaxy itself barreling at an incredible speed through space. And then think about the fact that there are millions and millions of galaxies!

What about a paper clip? In many ways a paper clip is as wondrous as a galaxy.

To begin with, like the galaxy, a paper clip consists of millions and millions of things (molecules, atoms, and the even smaller quarks) interacting with each other in complex ways. Then consider what happens to all these tiny elements and how they have to interact with each other. They’re not spinning around an axis like the stars in a galaxy, but, then again, a galaxy can’t bend and spring back into shape like a paper clip can.

If you were small enough to stand on the nucleus of an atom within a paper clip, it would be a lot like standing on earth surrounded by stars.

Now, consider what it took to design and make that paper clip–the metallurgy and engineering that led to the precise formulation of just the right flex, the mines that had to be dug to extract the raw materials, the processing plants that transformed the raw materials into the right metal, the machines that had to be designed and built to manufacture thousands of paper clips a minute.

Somewhere in the world, there is a person who is an expert in paper clips, for whom the whole world revolves around the design and manufacture of paper clips. He or she can tell you the entire history of the development of the paper clip, and what people did before there were paper clips, and who invented it, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of all the different possible designs and materials for paper clips, and the future of the paper clip, and where we go from here, etc. etc.

Convinced yet? In reality, everything within our perception is utterly fantastical and pretty much unfathomable. If a paper clip is wondrous, is not everything wondrous? What’s surprising is that we are not in a continual state of gaga just perceiving whatever is in front of us at any given moment.

Really, living is like walking though an incredible kaleidoscope. Consciousness would be like a perpetual hallucination if we didn’t have automatic mechanisms for just getting used to the pure wonder of what we see, hear, and feel. But instead, most of the time we are simply oblivious to it.

Yoga seeks to put us back in touch with the infinite wonder of just being alive, starting with the wonder of ourselves, then the wonder of the universe. And then Yoga wants us to understand that these wonders are one and the same, because our wondrous selves are an integral part of that infinitely wondrous universe.

But if we and the universe are so wondrous, why don’t we experience life like that most of the time? How do we turn this blockbuster insight into an everyday experience?

3) The way to experience our wondrous self is to fully
experience the present moment, since each moment of
consciousness is infinitely wondrous in itself.

One of my favorite Yoga stories is the one about the young American who makes an arduous journey to the farthest reaches of the Himalayas, seeking to learn the secret of life and happiness from one of the greatest Yoga gurus.

Once in the Himalayas, he travels five days up into the mountains, through many trials and difficulties.  Finally he reaches the high mountain pass where the great old man in a white robe and long flowing grey hair sits in lotus position, staring peacefully off into space.

The young man sits down next to the guru and assumes a similar pose, waiting for his words of wisdom.  An hour goes by.  Then several hours.  Then a day, then several days.  Finally the young man says to the old man, “What happens next?”

The guru answers, “Nothing happens next.  This is it.”

Every moment of life is precious and magical.  We experience this not by striving to be happy, but by focusing, in a relaxed way, on the present moment.  Most unhappiness comes from regrets about the past or worries about the future, both of which are greatly diminished by gently focusing on the present moment.

Yoga makes no attempt to change the regrets, worries, or other suffering we face, but merely to provide a different perspective on them by making us aware of the wonder of life beyond our current preoccupations, no matter how important or serious they are.

Focusing on the present moment, we cannot help but become tuned into the wonder that is just being alive and conscious.  No effort is required, just a relaxed shift in consciousness–a simple receptivity to the indescribable wonder of being alive and conscious at this very moment.

We don’t need to try to force ourselves to feel good, as in “positive thinking”.  When regrets and worries occur, we don’t need to fight them.  Instead, feel them just as they are, without judgment, then gently refocus on what’s going on right now in the current moment.  The current moment is rarely unhappy in and of itself.

You might say, this is all well and good if one is already content and happy, and one’s problems are relatively small.  But what about the truly serious pain and anguish that happens in everyone’s life, to one extent or another?

It would appear that the more stressed and troubled one is, the more helpful Yoga might be.  Yoga and Yoga-like techniques are being used today for the treatment of even the most overwhelming grief and health problems, including tragedies like terminal illness and the loss of a loved one.  Like acupuncture before it, “mindfulness” meditation is starting to be studied and proven scientifically in the West.

You might think if one is “present-focused”, one would just sit around like a wet noodle all day and do nothing.

Surprisingly, I find the opposite is true.  Since my regrets and anxieties are reduced to relative insignificance (still all there, but put into perspective by the awareness of continual wonder) I find myself with more pure energy to do everything.

I’m able to give myself more completely to other people in conversation.  I find myself enjoying or easily tolerating things that would have made me very unhappy before.  I am more objective and creative about solving problems.

And, without being false, forced or even effortful in anyway, I do have a much more constant and abiding appreciation of the everyday incredible magic that is being alive.

4) The mind, body, and spirit are inseparable.

Yoga in America is best known as a popular exercise program and health club fitness class.  This is what many people think of as Yoga in the U.S.  However, just because Yoga poses and movements are popular doesn’t mean they’re not important to Yoga philosophy.

Yoga has always taught that whatever we think affects our body, and whatever our body feels affects our mind.  The poses of Yoga are nothing more than a unified meditation involving both the mind and the body.  And much of Yoga literature describes the body as though it were one big brain, with its “chakras” (energy centers) and energy flows.

Today the “mind-body connection” is pretty well accepted as part of our thinking about psychology.  But it was still a fairly radical idea 15-20 years ago, much less 5,000 years ago when first proposed by Yoga gurus.  (Actually, maybe it wasn’t a radical idea back then.  Maybe it just became a radical idea more recently with all our emphasis on the intellect.)

Before this starts sounding too abstract, let me give you a very down-to-earth example.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling a little stiff, stressed, or worn out, I get up, spread out my Yoga mat and just run through some basic Yoga poses for ten or fifteen minutes, focusing on the present moment.

This leaves me feeling completely invigorated in mind and spirit.  My Yoga routine is like a cup of coffee for me.  It works every time, no matter how lifeless I feel before I begin.

Let me give you another simple example, this time how the mind affects the body.

I am a serious tennis player.  You might recall that all this Yoga stuff started for me when I took Yoga classes to improve my flexibility for tennis.  Yoga was great for this.  I did become much more flexible and it did improve my tennis.

What happened next was unexpected.  I found that the philosophical practices of Yoga, especially focusing on the present moment, and detaching my ego from the results, had a far more beneficial impact on my tennis than the flexibility.  The Yoga of the mind had a bigger effect on my tennis performance than the Yoga of the body.

Many religions (and even some Yoga traditions), treat the body as though it is something to escape from, into the purer world of the spirit.  The body is treated almost like the enemy to be overcome in one’s spiritual quest, particularly in the ultra-traditional Catholicism I grew up in and struggled with as a kid.

Yoga is the opposite (at least the branches of Yoga that appeal to me).  The mind, body, and spirit are inseparable and the same.  We are unified beings, and our physical presence and actions are an integral part of our quest for happiness, not separate and distracting.

5) Experiencing our wondrous self leads to an
abundance of joy and goodness.

“What did the Yoga Guru say to the hot dog vendor?”

Answer:  “Make me one with everything.”

Good joke.  But this is, in fact, kind of the way we feel when we’re most happy–one with everything.

The great gurus of Yoga and other Eastern traditions achieve inner peace and experience the ultimate joy in life by cultivating the boundless wonder of a child. For them every moment is the occasion for innocent amazement, even in the middle of the most trying circumstances.  They still experience all the ordinary pain and difficulty of being human.  They just process it differently.

There are certain types of experiences that can suddenly thrust anyone into truly appreciating the utter joy of being alive.  The most dramatic example is a serious illness or a near-death experience, in which we are suddenly on the verge of NOT being alive.  Another example is temporary blindness.  Imagine being blind for a while and suddenly being able to see.

But we can also be moved to this kind of ultimate appreciation of being alive by great music, or overpowering natural beauty, or reading about an amazing scientific discovery, or by the experience of great art.

I’m relatively new to Yoga, but in a way not so new if the subject is “transcendent consciousness” rather than Yoga itself.  One of the reasons I’m so attracted to Yoga is that I’ve had semi-ecstatic “one-with-the-universe” experiences all my life.  They are like the experiences Cope describes in his book as the initial basis for his interest in Yoga, but far more plentiful.  I seem to be prone to them, in fact, with or without Yoga.  I consider this a great blessing.

I’ve had them in music, in nature, in literature, in relationships, in tennis, occasionally in religion, in business, in my family, in windsurfing (especially in windsurfing, where one must focus intently on the wind and the angle of the sail for hours at a time), etc.

I know Yoga is a different kind of pursuit, but I believe it is closely related to, and encompassing of, these other experiences I’ve had with transcendent consciousness.

The practice of Yoga seeks to make this type of ecstatic, wonder-filled, one-with-the-universe consciousness commonplace and readily available in our everyday lives.  In a nutshell, it seeks to give us unlimited joy.  (Sound ambitious enough?)

Yoga knows it doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of joy, of course.  Yoga assumes itself to have discovered universal truths.  If you look at almost any moment of pure joy it usually has this character of total absorption in the present moment, where all other concerns and preoccupations fade into insignificance.

So it’s not surprising that one can come up with countless examples of Yoga-type present-focused joy in every aspect of human life.  Yoga is just a powerful way of discovering and exploring this aspect of our existence.  Yoga didn’t invent it.

That’s the joy part.  What about the “goodness” part.  Why would all this self-absorbed consciousness-raising necessarily lead to goodness?

Yoga scriptures have strong and clear moral teachings, which are similar to any religion’s.  Yoga assumes that when we see ourselves and the universe in their true natural wonder, we will be moved to act in a highly moral way.  We are much more likely to do the right thing in any circumstance if we see ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the entire universe as wondrous, divine and inseparable.

6) The techniques of Yoga, leading to enhanced awareness,
are one method for discovering our true wondrous nature.

You might have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned Yoga techniques so far, except in passing.  This is because, while they clearly have a lot of value in themselves, the techniques are also the means to a philosophical end.

The poses, meditation, and breathing techniques of Yoga all have a central aim–to move toward enhanced awareness.  Enhanced awareness is non-judgmental, egoless witness of ourselves and our emotions.  It is what allows us to experience the full spectrum of consciousness–the universe and the “universe within”.  Enhanced awareness is how we experience more fully all the wonder and awe I have been talking about.

If you are unfamiliar with Yoga, try this deceptively simple Yoga approach to see what I mean:

Focus on the current moment – what’s going on right now at this moment.

Breathe deeply, relax all the muscles in your body.

As a thought or feeling enters your mind, let yourself feel it as deeply as it goes (whether it is a regret about the past, a worry about the future, or just a neutral thought).

Accept and completely allow yourself to have that feeling.

Mentally step out of yourself and watch that feeling as though from the outside.

Gently focus back on the present moment.

You can see this is the opposite of “positive thinking”, which involves pushing yourself to think certain positive thoughts, and to push out all negative thoughts.

In contrast, Yoga philosophy involves not trying to think anything in particular, and not controlling your thoughts at all, except to gently focus on the present moment, or to focus your mind on one particular thing.  This is actually not that easy to do at first, hence the many branches of Yoga that teach a variety of techniques.  With time and habit, however, it becomes truly effortless.

When we are able to do this, the magic often just happens on its own because we truly are all already indescribably wondrous (“divine” if one feels comfortable with the term). The wonder becomes obvious when we pay relaxed attention to what’s going on right now, both within us and around us.

You might find, as I have, that this simple habit eventually starts to bring out the amazing nature of everyday existence, without the often counter-productive effort associated with trying too hard to “figure things out” or searching for something outside ourselves to “turn us on”.

Most other Yoga techniques are just expansions and variations of this present-focused philosophy.  Poses help us become more aware of our bodies in the present moment.  Meditation helps us get into the present moment more and more deeply.  Breathing exercises get us in touch with our most primal source of energy–our breath.

Some Yoga techniques have you focus for an extended period of time on just one thing, anything.  It could be your breath, or your heartbeat, or a mantra, or a single leaf on a tree (or even a paper clip, I guess).  By focusing so completely on one thing, you not only become super aware of your object of concentration, but also kind of clear out your brain to be more receptive to every other sensory perception.

Other Yoga techniques are the opposite–they expand your awareness to take in everything at once instead of a single thing.  I call it “ultra-awareness”.  You become very still and allow yourself to be ultra-sensitive to all the immediate sights, sounds, and feelings around you.

Yoga techniques can have a strong impact on everyday emotions.  My own experience, paradoxically, is that I tend to feel an emotion more directly and strongly than I did pre-Yoga, but I don’t struggle with it as much.

This is because, while I’m struggling with it, I can often shift into non-judgmental awareness, and this helps me see the struggle in perspective, and thus deal with it better without diluting it or avoiding it.

In this way, Yoga enhances and informs all our human feelings and actions.  It does not replace them or mask them.

If you decide to delve deeper into Yoga, you need to pick and choose what is most meaningful and useful for you.  The whole picture can be overwhelming and intimidating.  The insights you get are more important than the specific practices you adopt.  And, even though it has a sprawling 5,000 year old history, ultimately Yoga needs to be about simplicity, not complexity.

For a broad discussion of Yoga techniques, just pick up a copy of Kripalu Yoga–A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat.  And remember what I just said about picking and choosing.

In a Nutshell: Continual Wonder and Awe

For a simple renewing meditation, I often just recite these same six key points in my head as I relax all my muscles and breathe comfortably:

1) Each of us is already infinitely wondrous—miraculous, awe-inspiring, unfathomable. (This is well hidden beneath the distractions and emotions of everyday life.)

2) Our wondrous nature is the same as the infinite wonder of the universe.

3) The way to experience our wondrous self is to fully experience the present moment, since each moment of consciousness is infinitely wondrous in itself.

4) The mind, body, and spirit are inseparable.

5) Experiencing our wondrous self leads to an abundance of joy and goodness.

6) The techniques of Yoga, leading to enhanced awareness, are one method for discovering our true wondrous nature.

As persuasive as I hope these cosmic truths are after reading this essay, it really takes considerable (but relaxed) practice to work them into one’s habitual everyday life and consciousness.

I once wrote to a friend:

Just relax, breathe deeply, and experience each moment, non-judgmentally,
as it’s happening, no matter what is happening.

That’s a summary of 5,000 years of Yoga wisdom in a single sentence.

The central message of Yoga is that just being alive contains infinite and unlimited wonder (and meaning) all by itself, regardless of what else is happening in your life.

Yoga reduces the complexity of our lives to the elegant simplicity of continual wonder and awe, without losing any of the other things we treasure about being human.


The Ancient Texts

To further explore Yoga philosophy, I urge you to go directly to the ancient texts.  Although they have a reputation for being difficult, I personally find them to be exceptionally direct and inspiring, often mind-blowing.

It does take a little getting used to the rich metaphorical language they use. And they contain some ancient beliefs that won’t necessarily make sense to you today.

But it’s well worth the effort, and you’ll find it very useful to refer back to The Six Big Ideas as you read these texts.

A great place to start is Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas & Best Quotations, which is my own loving thematic overview of this most central of ancient Yoga texts.  It will work with any translation, but is based on Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation by Stephen Mitchell. 

Whatever text you choose, it’s important to find an accessible version with great commentary.  They are not all the same.  These are my preferred versions of the other two most important ancient texts:

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, beautifully translated and explained in Part III of The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar.  ( The rest of the book is good, too, but I’m including it here for the Yoga Sutra.)

The Upanishads, lovingly introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran.

For a quick feel for what these texts are about, see What Is It That Brings Us Happiness? 

Yoga Practice

Yoga postures and techniques are best learned in classes.  But reading can be very helpful, too.  These days you can also find a wide variety of videos on the Internet.

If I had to recommend a single book for Yoga practice it would be the one I mentioned earlier:

Kripalu Yoga–A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat by Richard Faulds and Senior Teachers of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.  The title is self-explanatory.  It covers a very wide range of topics in an accessible and “browsable” manner.  You can get whatever you need from it right now, and it will continue to serve you for a long time to come.


My favorite Yoga philosophy website is Rod Stryker’s parayoga.com.  This is a rich and wonderful synthesis of ancient Yoga for modern devotees.  Click on LEARN and thoroughly explore all the menus there.

Rod also now has a wonderful book The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Prosperity, Happiness, and Freedom, which will soon be the subject of a new online book club on Elephant Journal.

I highly recommend Georg and Brenda Feuerstein’s Traditional Yoga Studies for college level distance learning courses on the sprawling history of Yoga and in-depth analysis of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra.

See the delightfully rambunctious Yoga 2.0 for a  revolutionary contemporary interpretation of traditional Yoga, created by Matthew Remski and Scott Petri.

Other Great Books

Here are some other books you might find interesting and useful:

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self  by Stephen Cope.  An inspiring exploration of Yoga philosophy, and its relationship to Western religion and psychology–the book that got it all started for me.

Babar’s Yoga for Elephants by Laurent de Brunhoff.  Now the truth can finally be told–Yoga was originally developed by elephants in prehistoric times, and only adopted by humans many years later.

Effortless Wellbeing by Evan Finer.  My favorite book on meditation.


I always enjoy talking about Yoga philosophy with anyone.  If I can be helpful to you in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact me.


See also:

Yoga Demystified: Poems & Articles.

Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas & Best Quotations.


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