What is yoga for? What is the good of yoga and who benefits?

What comes to mind when you consider the question, what is yoga for? Before you answer, take a few moments to consider the alignment of your spine and the base of your body. A broad base, a good foundation, and an aligned and even spine and balanced skull, and a sense of balance in what is inside the skull, conscious relaxation of any unnecessary tension, these are key skills, aren’t they? Think about it. In all postures. And then there’s your breath. There’s a sense of effortlessness there too. After all, you can’t help but keep breathing. I mean, you can try to stop, but after a while, the urge to start will be overwhelming, I hope!

In the midst of everything that is happening, and there’s always stuff happening, can you get a sense of peacefulness, a sense of being open, softening around the edges, around the eyes and mouth, even around the breath, however you can let that happen?

Now go back to the question, what is yoga for? What is significant about the practice? When I did this exercise myself, I came up with a few things: self transformation (physical, emotional); we want to look good, feel good, be happy, and be free from worry! We want a sense of connection, relief from pain, or stress, freedom from anxiety. We want self-respect, and most of us also want to be able to respect others more fully, recognising that the boundary between them and us is somewhat fuzzy. We might recognise that we also want to remove unnecessary limits, and some of us might dream about total freedom from all boundaries and expectations, a kind of limitless sense of joy. That’s what they talk about in the old texts, after all: Sat, Chit, Ananda, Truth, Awareness, Bliss….

When I thought about the list I’d made of the benefits, I realised that these are the problems of human suffering that we are all attempting to solve. Philosophy is about identifying problems, too. It identifies big questions that can’t be answered by science or maths or other quantitative methods, questions like, what is a good life, and what is good, anyway? Philo means love, or I love, and sophia is wisdom. So yoga combined with a philosophical approach is an attempt to work out, not just in the mental arena, but through what I’m doing, physically, and not just on the mat but all day long, how to approach questions like, who am I? Is there a right way to live? Is there a wrong way? How can I discover the answer to these kinds of questions?

Philosophy can challenge the ways we deal with things because it asks us to reflect on why we do things, think things, talk about things, in the way that we do. If you don’t know why you’re practicing, you will lose motivation. You need to keep in touch with why you practice. Find your why. You also need to challenge the idea that your practice is only beneficial to you. You also need to challenge the tendency that we all have to talk about practice, look at other people practicing, judge others, but not practice ourselves. Philosophy is a practice, and yoga is a practice, and a teacher without a practice is like a tree without roots.

If you want to find your why, you can begin by thinking like a system. The circulation is a system. Why is there circulation? To bring nutrients in and to remove what is no longer serving the system, which, in the case of carbon dioxide, goes on to be useful to trees, for instance. So to think like a system means to think in cycles, not in straight lines. My breathing out allows others to breathe in. My acceptance of an in breath is my acceptance of the gift of the exhalation of trees. See if you can put this into practice. Think like a mountain.

What I practice creates the kind of person I am. My physical shape changes as a result of practicing asana, and practicing awareness, or realisation, while eating. My relationships change as I practice awareness or realisation, or mindfulness, while speaking. If I can inspire my students to practice, then their lives change in ways that benefit not just them, but the whole sphere of their interactions. You can see that this kind of impact is potentially huge. I want to inspire them to practice off the mat, to practice connection, relief from pain, stress relief, kindness, and addressing their own problems which are the problems of human suffering. This means that more systems benefit, the wider society, and the more than human world, systems and organisms that are under imminent threat from our own ignorance of our interconnectedness.

The problems we face as individuals mirror the problems we face as communities and societies: Attitude polarisation, ideological fundamentalism, intolerance and violence: these are the social issues. Biodiversity loss, habitat loss, regenerative agriculture and rewilding: these are the ecological issues.

In The Bhagavad Gita this is summed up in Verse 63 of the Second Chapter (and also in Star Wars by Yoda who gives a good take on this — look it up!).

Take a moment before you come to a holy text. Take a breath and realise that you are taking in wisdom, a system of wise words that will change your brain each time you read or hear them and make different connections grow.


क्रोधाद्भवति सम्मोह: सम्मोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रम: |

स्मृतिभ्रंशाद् बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति || 63||

krodhād bhavati sammohaḥ sammohāt smṛiti-vibhramaḥ

smṛiti-bhranśhād buddhi-nāśho buddhi-nāśhāt praṇaśhyati

Anger leads to Judgment, Judgment leads to Conflict, Conflict leads to Harm, Harm leads to Suffering, Suffering Leads to Destruction. Not of the Other, but of the Self.

Since we don’t want to die, or suffer, or have horrible lives, we have the ultimate incentive to act in ways that reverse the inevitability that this pattern dictates.

We can do nothing about our parents, or what has happened to us in the past. It has happened. But we can look at this moment, right now, and see what is happening. Are we able to breathe? Good. Are we able to move our spines, good. Can we do something to look after ourselves, to be kinder? Good. Then let us look at how we can now act towards ourselves, and to others. Right now. In this moment. This is where things are happening. Right here. Right now.

What is the one thing we can change in any moment? That’s right. Our attitude. We can change from anger to compassion. It takes practice and determination but it is possible. In some circumstances it is appropriate to feel anger, and rarely, it is also appropriate to act on anger, but if we are in a state of anger or fear or we are so absorbed by how lovely we look that we fail to notice the feelings or the suffering of others, then we will be in this loop of destruction that we have just heard. If, on the other hand, we decide we are going to effortlessly bring our attention back to what is happening right now, and if we decide we are going to make this the first principle of our practice, then we can get better and better at allowing ourselves to attune to compassion and kindness, gratitude and a sense of the limitlessness of our own self. We are not what we think we are when we think we are limited, and separate. We are the limitless potential of our openness to possibility, to connection, to freedom and to power.

In the end, we have this one choice, a choice of what attitude to take, at any moment, and this is where you will go deepest into your explorations. Spirit is attitude.

Daniel Dennett (philosopher) said, what if we reclaim the word spirit to mean not something supernatural, but our attitude, how we do things. This could be seen as yet another iteration on the perennial philosophy. Whatever you believe, there are reasons to act in a spirit that lets you realise — make real, be aware of — your deepest values. You can discover these by considering what is good for you.

What is the story of yourself? What is the story of humanity that you tell yourself? What is the story of your relationship with other systems, other living organisms, all organisms, all systems, that you tell yourself? What if you changed the story? What you see is what you’re looking with. The issues change depending on how they’re perceived.

We are systems within systems (according to systems theory) and our good, what is good for us, is the good of the systems that create and sustain us. Many philosophers and scientists now acknowledge that systems work together, symbiotically, for mutual survival.

Practicing realisation means acting to develop awareness, and also mindful action. Develop your own understanding. Develop your own insights. Be your own guru. Respond to this ecological emergency as if it is yours and mine. For your own survival: be pragmatic. For the survival of the systems that sustain you, because that is practical. And it’s also good for you. And of course it’s good for the systems themselves, but that’s secondary. Save yourself.

Act as though what you do matters. Because even if it is a drop in the ocean, the ocean is no more than billions and billions of drops, and the action of each one will influence the actions of others.

‘Darwin’s tree of life has roots that extend back to the Big Bang, and fresh green shoots reach into an uncertain future…Far from leading to a view that the Universe is meaningless, this saga provides the foundation for seeing ourselves as fully embedded into the fabric of nature… In addition to new technologies, we need a new consciousness … and new metaphors that establish a more harmonious relationship between the human and the non-human.’ Scott Sampson

Thank you. Now sit quietly for a few moments. Chant OM either aloud or in your head three times, first checking the alignment of your spine, your foundation, your sense of relaxation and openness, deepening your breath. OM, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Speak peace, create peace, because we all desperately need to put energy into good relationships, with ourselves, with others, with the more than human world, right now, right here. Namaste. And good luck!



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Lucy Weir

Lucy Weir

Ecological philosopher, writer, yoga and meditation facilitator. www.knowyogaireland.com