What is Yoga?

This article first appeared on – https://www.rohitghai.com/21-day-sadhana-challenge-day-15/

This seemingly simple question is quite difficult to answer actually. Answers differ – it depends on who is asking the question, and who is being asked. 

Put this question to a traditionalist…and he would surely mention the ‘union’, the melting of consciousness, and a lot more. As a Neo-teacher of yoga, and the most likely answer would involve a lot of ‘posturing’, with a bit of pop spirituality in between. But ask Google, and that’s when it hits the pits. Beer yoga, wine yoga, rage yoga, lamb(??) yoga…the list of quirks is endless. 

So what is yoga?

Is it Hatha yoga, which by some is interpreted as a symphony of asanas, strung together so as to deliver the tunes of fine health (sometimes, in 20 days, or your money back). Of course, there exist many serious practitioners of Hatha Yoga, but most of them are lost in the cacophony of downward dogs and fire breaths. 

Then there is Ashtanga Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, and many many more. 

The last one (yes, Kundalini) has been abused to almost comical proportions, with ‘masters’ claiming to ‘raise your kundalini’ in six days, and articles written on ’15 ways to raise your kundalini today’. Well, its a pity that the sages of yore were blissfully (yes, pun intended) unaware of these superquick and failsafe methods; they must have been pretty stupid to spend years and years trying to achieve what is now ‘guaranteed in 6 days flat’. Ancient inefficiency?

And yes, do throw a liberal dash of chakra mumbo-jumbo into the mix. Phrases such as ‘chakra balancing’ are popular, probably among auto-enthusiasts who must surely see this as a logical and organic extension of wheel-balancing their Mustang Shelbys. 

There are claims of activating, correcting and aligning these mystical chakras, processes that can solve all your problems and take you from the mundane sufferings of this world, to transcendental experiences…all in 432 Hz on You Tube. After all, the Universe does send you back gifts, based on your karma and now enraged kundalinis. Satisfied? Satiated? Enlightened?


I have been asked on how my yoga is different from what’s being offered by existing yoga studios – do I have a new set of āsanās, or a new `vinyāsā flow sequence’, or new breathing techniques? My answer is simple:

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And what do we take with us?

नामुत्र हि सहायार्थं पिता माता च तिष्ठतः । 
न पुत्रदारं न ज्ञातिर्धर्मस्तिष्ठति केवलः ॥ २३९ ॥

nāmutra hi sahāyārthaṃ pitā mātā ca tiṣṭhataḥ | 
na putradāraṃ na jñātirdharmastiṣṭhati kevalaḥ || 239 ||

Manusmriti 4.239

The Manu Smriti tells us: namutra hi sahayartham pita mata ca tisthatah. na putradarah na jnatih dharmas tisthati kevalah. “When you depart from this world, your father will not come with you, your mother will not come with you, your brother will not come, your sister will not come, your husband will not come, your wife will not come, your children will not come, your money will not come, and even your body will not come with you.” 

Then what will come with you? The verse mentions that your spiritual merit alone accompanies you. 

Everything else remains here – life goes on, the assets that we accumulate pass on to the next generation, or wither away. How many of us can recall (or even know) the names of our great-great grandparents, and their parents? Even our names will be forgotten within 2-3 generations, and that is the truth. 

How we live everyday counts – not towards any credit that we can cash out on when we depart, but towards our growth now.

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Raja Yoga

Raja Yoga, or अष्टाङ्ग (Ashtanga Yoga), is an 8-fold path followed as a discipline in Yoga. Ashta is eight, and anga means limbs.

The eight limbs of yoga are: yamaniyamaāsanaprānāyāma, pratyāharā, dhāranā, dhyāna, and samādhi.

Yama and niyama are codes of ethical behaviour and restraint. Yama is ethical behaviour, and niyama is the self-discipline that follows our ethical behaviour. For example, to practice ahimsā, or non-violence (yama), one has to practice santoshā, or contentment. The desire to harm usually comes from discontent, doesn’t it? Without going into too much detail at present, let me just say that as good conduct and restraint are the foundations of any moral society, the practice of yamas and niyamas gives a foundation to the journey of yoga.

Āsanā is the third limb of yoga, one that is the ‘most popular’ and has off late become the face of yoga practice. While āsanās are important, over-reliance on postures without understanding (or working towards) the larger goal merely reduces this powerful practice to a sequence of twists and stretches.

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On choices

We are but a sum total of the choices we make. 

Life is all about choices. From the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to bigger decisions such as the career we choose, to where we live, even our life partners. It is said that we humans are the only beings on the planet who can make a conscious choice – who can think, evaluate a situation and then arrive at a decision. But how many of us truly make conscious choices?

You are browsing Zomato to look for options for dinner tonight. As you scroll through, images of succulent burgers and cheese-filled ‘delicious’ pizzas waltz by. An occasional healthy bowl of salad drops in, but you quickly pass it, since today is a ‘cheat-day’. A burger it is!

These seemingly innocent options may just give you an introduction to Preya and Shreya

The Kaṭhopaniṣad (Katha Upanishad) says that the human body is like a chariot drawn by five horses, which represent the five senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch. We run behind what appeals to these senses, for short-term gratification. This is preya. Attractive, delicious, much like that juicy burger that you got tempted to order. Shreya, on the other hand, is not as appealing, but is good for you – gives you long-term benefits (like the salad you passed by). 

Eknath Easwaran describes preya as ‘the passing pleasure that seems pleasing to the senses but soon fades into it’s opposite, is what we choose when we indulge in injurious physical habits or retaliate against others. Shreyathe good that leads to lasting welfare for the whole, is what we choose by cultivating healthy habits…by putting the happiness of those around us first.’

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Nature

Why is it that we think of a retreat, of going away from it all, we always tend to go closer to nature?

I am fortunate enough to live in a community that is very close to nature. We have low-rise buildings, larger terraces, trees all over and abundant green spaces. I wake up with the chirping of the birds, and this continues all through the day, until they retire at sunset. A couple of bowls of fresh water, a few pieces of tomato and a smile in the heart is all it takes to connect with these birds. They have nested many times, and I’ve been privileged to see more than a dozen eggs hatch, and young ones being fed by their parents…

We are all extensions of nature – hence the term ‘Mother Nature’. We are born from nature, we live by nature, and when we are gone, we become part of nature again.

This cosmic bonding with nature is why we feel so calm and composed when we are surrounded by nature in it’s abundance. Take a walk in the morning sun, feel the green grass under your bare feet, run your fingers through the flowing water of a stream, hear the sounds of birds and crickets – being in nature, and with nature, is the antidote to any level of stress that you may experience. Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.

I just heard about the art of Shinrin-Yoku, or the Japanese art of forest bathing. Shinrin means forest, and yoku means bath.

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New Beginnings?

And so it has been announced. a 21-day lockdown. Unprecedented in India, and anywhere else in the world. Reactions have varied, from support for the move, to criticism, to despair. After all, we are a generation that has largely seen growth and prosperity for most of our lives. 

We have’t met a challenge of such enormous proportions yet. It is natural to fear the unknown…

Today is Ugādi — the first day of Chaitrā māsā, or the beginning of the new year. Largely celebrated in South India (where I am from), Maharashtra (as Gudi Padwa), Sindh (as Cheti Chand), and Manipur (as Sajibu Nongma Pānba). It is also the start of Navaratri. 

Unlike New Year’s day as per the Gregorian calendar, the start of a new year in Indian calendars is largely marked by ritualistic celebration — early morning bath, followed by prayers and visit to the nearby temple. Celebration is characterised by new clothes, sweets and social gathering.

Ugādi is a derivative of yuga-ādi, which means the dawn of a new age. So, in a way, the festival celebrates new beginnings. 

And today is the first day of a 21-day lockdown. Do we despair…or is there an opportunity lurking in the shadows?

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Love in the times of a curfew

I witnessed something amazing today – a billion people came together to celebrate humanity. 

Janta Curfew – how does that work?

A clarion call by the Prime Minister – rather, a request to all Indians to observe a self-imposed curfew today, and another request as well – to stand at balconies, terraces, doors and windows at 5 pm – and celebrate our healthcare and sanitation professionals for 5 minutes. Celebrate them, since they are at the forefront of the fight against Corona. 

And boy, did we observe the curfew. Roads in India were deserted the whole day, shops were closed, people were indoors. And what happened at 5 pm?

Do see for yourself.

A prayer for humanity

Group Sadhana for 11 days – Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra, 108 times – for the country, for humanity. 

From home, but not alone. We all can – collectively, harmoniously, pray to nature, recognising our true place in the scheme of things. We are just a fleeting glimpse in the unending vista of images – let us be part of nature and not against it. 

ॐ द्यौः शान्तिरन्तरिक्षं शान्तिः 
पृथिवी शान्तिरापः शान्तिरोषधयः शान्तिः ।
वनस्पतयः शान्तिर्विश्वेदेवाः शान्तिर्ब्रह्म शान्तिः 
सर्वं शान्तिः शान्तिरेव शान्तिः सा मा शान्तिरेधि ॥
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥