Why do we do yoga?

This question was raised by the wonderful yoga guru Matthew Sweeney during a workshop that I attended with him recently. Matthew has written many amazing books such as Vinyasa Krama to simplify the Ashtanga series, and has also devised his own sequences including the Moon Sequence, which is especially good for women. He has been practicing yoga for almost 30 years. So if anyone could explain why we do yoga, it would be him. 

 My beloved Matthew Sweeney CDs

My beloved Matthew Sweeney CDs

Answers ranged from physical fitness, to mental balance, to more profound reasons such as breath and spiritual awareness. Of course, none of these answers are wrong. Most of us begin our yoga practice because we want to become physically fit or reduce stress. Once we start doing that we move into our breathing, and how it improves our postures. Because breath is the connection between the mind and body, as we become more aware of it, we also become more mindful. It’s all interrelated. If you practice yoga under the tutelage of a guru who doesn’t just treat it as exercise you will be on this journey - from the body, to the breath, to the mind.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my friend Lokesh who is also a yoga teacher always says that using yoga for weight loss is like using a sword to cut a cucumber. Weight loss, toned glutes, flat abs are all side effects of this wonderful practice. The old yogis did yoga to prepare their bodies for meditation. In fact, in the original yoga sutras there are only two lines on asana practice. And two asanas mentioned - the full lotus or padmasana, and the vrajasana, where you sit on your knees. The new yoga sequences and postures are all devised in the last century. 

So, why do we practice yoga? Matthew says that job of both the yoga teacher and practitioner is to observe. When we begin our yoga practice it's all about what other people are doing. We stretch and pull ourselves into postures that our body isn’t ready for only because we want to compete. The end result is injuries. But instead of observing others, we should look at ourselves. 

Your yoga mat is like a mirror - it will show you your weak spots, bone structure, mental makeup, stamina, strength and flexibility. As you observe your body you learn to work with it. I know my hamstrings are tight and years of practice has only loosened them a little bit. So instead of fighting in a forward fold I keep my knees gently bent, so I don’t hurt myself. I know I’m not naturally flexible (which also says a lot about my mental makeup) but I appreciate my body for its stamina and strength. 

As you observe, you also accept yourself. You work with your weaknesses, appreciate your strengths, find areas of improvement, and I don’t mean this in a strictly physical sense. As you accept, you learn to respect and love yourself. You find that your weight doesn't bother you as much as it did before. You smile every time you find yourself obsessing instead of drowning in the whirlpool of your thoughts. Tight shoulders, weak ankles, heavy hips, obsessive mind - however you may be. The ultimate aim of yoga is to learn to love yourself. 

Image of woman rolling yoga mat: Shutterstock