Some people think of yoga as just a stretching practice that combines breath-work for stress relief. Others may see it as a bunch of people in funny poses - especially from seeing photos of "instayogis" doing strange contortions, funky arm balances and inversions - and conclude that yoga is simply not for them. However, yoga is much more than the asana practice (the practice of physical poses). Asana is one of the 8 limbs of yoga as set out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (a compilation of 196 Indian sutras that define not just the purpose of yoga but also the means to achieve this purpose) and asana (postures) ranks after the yamas (self-restraints) and the niyamas (personal observances).
My own yoga journey began with the asana practice. Like many others, I had initially used the asana practice as a means to an end (to get healthier and to lose weight). However, my practice deepened when I realised that the physical practice is secondary to the highly personal journey of self-discovery.
Much as Outta Hatha’s outdoor events have broadened my horizons and opened me to new possibilities, I write this article to shine more light on yoga beyond the asana practice, with the hope that people will open their hearts to the realisation that yoga can be much more than just a physical practice.
The journey inward
Much has been said about being present on and off the mat. What does being present off the mat entail? To me, such ‘presence’ goes beyond mere consciousness to encompass awareness and mindfulness, not only about the intra-physical body (body, breath and mind), but also about the continuous relationship between one’s thoughts and actions, and the extent to which they are consistent with the yamas and niyamas.
Much of the transformative power of yoga involves an oftentimes uncomfortable exploration into our kleshas. (Kleshas is Sanskrit for ‘afflictions’ – a collection of undesirable mental states (such as anxiety, fear, jealousy, etc) that cloud the mind and manifest in undesirable actions.) The journey inward is actually a misnomer in that it probably consists of a lifetime of innumerable, intensely personal journeys inward – journeys which no one can undertake on our behalf, and journeys which promises no immediate rewards. One must be prepared, if not entirely determined, to abandon old and comfortable thought patterns, challenge fears, or even confront demons from the past, before there can be any closure. And it is entirely possible that a ‘closure’ may be temporary in nature, and that there is still the rest of our lives to continue an active, inward investigation of our kleshas.
Nevertheless, I strongly believe we miss out on so much if, instead of using the spaces and silent times in our lives to investigate our kleshas, we focus on everything else external to ourselves all the time. For example, we miss out on developing the 2 niyamas, tapas (Sanskrit for ‘self-discipline’ and ‘perseverance’) and svadhayaya (Sanskrit for ‘self-reflection’ and ‘introspection’), if we procrastinate on the things that we know we need to do in order to elevate our practice, be it the physical practice or beyond. If we use our yoga practice solely as a means to an end and/or to achieve a superficial agenda (e.g. weight loss, more friends, more social media likes), we face the prospect of missing out on the experiential quality of pratyahara (Sanskrit for conscious ‘withdrawal of energy from the senses’, i.e. ‘sense withdrawal’), which is a valuable counterbalance to enable us to regain perspective and continue the inward inquiry.
Your true identity
It may be the case that in the course of your journey inward, more questions than answers may be thrown up about your real identity. By ‘identity’, I don’t mean your name, ID number and passport photo look – I mean the observer left behind after all the layers of social conditioning and repression are peeled away.
Personally, I have 3 main identities - my professional identity, my practitioner identity and my very nascent teacher identity. But on closer examination, these identities are just roles I play, at the workplace, at the yoga studio, etc. They are just illusions. If I confuse them with who I really am, and/or if I identify with them so much that I am unable to differentiate these identities from who I really am, I know I will have an ego issue to deal with!
If we know that our ego is motivated by external validation, and if we know that our ego therefore needs to construct and maintain an identity on which it can rely and equate as "I", then we will know that a healthy detachment from our assumed identities is vital.
When you peel away the identities, your ego disappears. You become an inquiring observer of the physical sensations in the body that you inhabit (beginning with the quality of your breath), the thoughts that arise in your mind, and the emotions that you feel. You will also slowly start to notice the real, inquiring, observing you – and not confuse yourself with the thoughts that run through your mind. This may have a positive knock-on effect on the quality of your interaction and relationships with others. Eventually you will know how you and I (and just about everyone else) are just sentient players in this cosmic phenomenon called life. Why hang on to any preconceived notions of your identity or who you are, when the real you is seeking to be discovered under all those layers of conditioning and repression?
At the end of the day, a yoga practice will always be a personal journey. The journey differs for everyone, since we all have different backgrounds and are at different stages in our lives (and our yoga practice). A yoga journey can definitely be more than just the asana practice. Know that you're not alone, and that there are communities of shimmeringly radiant souls out there who have overcome their personal struggles and who harness their knowledge, effort and passion to be of service to (and inspire) others. At the same time that we may pay tribute to their inspiring presence, it is my hope that we also inspire ourselves to practise yoga off the mat, embark on this journey inward (and do the necessary work), and in the process find who we really are. And in the process, I hope we all live life consciously, and love life passionately!
There’s no better time to begin than now, and it’s never too late. Namaste!
I am honoured to write this article for Outta Hatha Yoga as an attendee of their regular pop-up classes and pop-in workshops. This article was conceived over numerous attempts to truly investigate and define what yoga really means for me personally. Special thanks to Shu Ting for her invaluable and useful comments on the first draft, which truly helped me to identify and express the message I wanted to convey.
Outta Hatha recently celebrated their first anniversary as an independent yoga collective, with a track record that they can definitely be proud of. Not only did they pop up everywhere in the past year - from Customs House to Red Baron to Mandarin Gallery - they also hosted Mahayogi Jani Jaatinen and conducted yoga events for charity. They even managed to hold some novel pop-in events in the thick of the 2015 haze season. The most memorable for me being Theresa Shan's Universal Yoga workshop.
Outta Hatha's events have a certain je ne sais quoi that I enjoy - the community vibe, the lack of ego and judgment, the focus squarely on ensuring that everyone gets what they want out of the practice. Everyone is welcome regardless of their background, level of experience or what they went through that day before attending class. You really don't have to feel that you need to pass some unspoken test or measure up to some ideal standard in order to be part of this community. There are no expectations whatsoever. You only just need to show up and be present in your practice.
Their second year promises so much more, with a special focus on building community and advancing your practice! I look forward to being part of this growing community! Namaste!"