"but I can't touch my toes"....said no yogi ever
While there are a plethora of resources that explain thoroughly how yoga is not a physical practice, many people still assume that to "do yoga" one must be endowed with miraculous flexibility. Fortunately, within this post we will discover 4 different types of "yoga" that people can practice without having to worry about their flexibility.
#1 karma yoga - doing your best and live without expectations
We've all heard the word "karma" or the English adige "what goes around, comes around." Usually we see something, or hear something, bad and remark "they're creating bad karma".... What does that mean, really? Are we bound to the bad things we do or say?
No. Not really.
Karma, or the root karman in Sanskrit, really means to "act" or "to do" (according to the encyclopedia britannica). All of our actions, be it physical, mental or emotional are just that: actions. As we learned in science classes, all actions have causes and effects. So instead of thinking about karma as this esoteric force that punishes or rewards certain behaviors, we can instead look at our actions in a more practical, scientific way.
How to practice Karma Yoga:
Let's keep it simple: Always strive to do your best with the knowledge and tools at your disposal. Once you have completed your task, drop any expectation for the outcome.
If what you've done could be better, simply learn from the experience. Use your newfound knowledge to be wisely applied to future tasks/situations.
#2 love yoga - living for the one you love
The yoga of love isn't referring to the Kama Sutra. While it might be fun to connect with your romantic partner with different sex positions, the yoga of love is far from that. Traditionally called bhakti yoga, this practice is for those people who tend to be loving and devotional. Think of Mother Teresa, for example, she was devoted to pursuing her love of Christ and, through that love, helped many people in Calcutta India.
It is through devotion, or love, that we become inspired to perform deeds that adhere to this deep sense of love.
How to practice Bhakti Yoga:
Think of someone that you love dearly, could be a relative or friend, or even a role model. If you happen to be religious, perhaps you choose an icon of your faith that inspires love. Holding onto that image, that sense of deep love as you perform your daily actions, ask: Am I honoring and respecting this image of love through my actions? Would this person, or image, appreciate this type of action, thought?
In the devotional tradition, especially among Hare Krishna devotees, they tend to view all aspects of the world as a manifestation of Krishna, or God. Food is God, so we should prepare healthy, vibrant foods. Our home is God, so we should treat it with cleanliness and respect. Our bodies are God, so we should keep it fit, healthy, clean etc.
#3 thought yoga - the philosophical approach
Who are we? Where did we come from? What is the purpose of life? - These are the questions of the philosopher, the thought yogi, typically known as jnana yoga. This type of yoga is reserved for those who really like to think about things and have an intellectual understanding of any and everything in life. If you tend to question things, always trying to mentally "understand" what and why, then perhaps this is your approach.
How to practice Jnana Yoga:
Putting aside the external world, the Jnana yogi begins to question the origin of the mind. "Who am I" is the question of choice, as recommended by the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi. He is quoted as follow:
"The degree of freedom from unwanted thoughts and the degree of concentration on a single thought are the measures to gauge spiritual progress."
So, to fully understand ourselves and the external world, we must, in turn, focus our attention inward, fixated on the singular thought "Who am I?"
#4 scientist yoga - the royal form of yoga.
I was saving the best for last, after all, who doesn't want to be royal? Actually, the scientific royal path of yoga, known as raja yoga, is probably the hardest way to be a yogi. This type of yoga typically combines all three prior AND takes into consideration the instructions found in the text called Yoga Sutras by the sage Patanjali. After all, royalty demands more than just posh living, so what does it mean to be a royal scientist yogi?
How to practice Raja Yoga:
First and foremost, there are 8 steps within the scientific process of raja yoga. Just as you would follow certain rules in a laboratory to avoid ruining an experiment, so does the yogi. These steps are meant to reduce negative consequences in the yogi's life.
The first and second step relate to rules, or guidelines, to help the scientist yogi achieve success in their practice by creating a neutral, moral and ethical laboratory.
(steps 1 and 2)
Harmlessness (non-violence), Truthfulness, Non-stealing, Conservation of vital energies, Non-avarice (absence of greed), Purity, Contentment of mind, Desire to learn and apply knowledge, Passion to success, and finally, Surrendering to the process of experimentation.
In the third step we focus on the physical body. Many of us (I, too, was once to blame) do not take adequate care of ourselves. Here, we focus on holistic living, which includes a balanced life of nutritious foods, rest/exercise, and supportive relationships. In learning to listen to our bodies and provide it with the appropriate things, we begin to cultivate a radiance of health that allows us to continue on with our experiment of life.
Having created a sterile environment that is morally/ ethically supportive, healthy, we begin to turn our attention inwards to understand the subtle energies of life. We sit and start with the breath to investigate the dynamic relationship it has with our being and existence.
As this process of inward attention flows, we ask ourselves to focus on a singular thought, like the Jnana yogi, this could be a concept, but for the purpose of simplicity, let's keep the original question "who am I?" as the focus. By settling our mind on this idea, we slowly turn off our outward focus and, instead, remain internally aware. This sustained focus results in concentration, in turn meditation, and finally the goal of "yoga", or direct-sustained intuitive awareness of the essence of our being.
By living right, practicing daily, the Raja yogi slowly (or quickly) uncovers the truth of his/her existence, arriving at the solution to the hypothesis.
Conclusion: you don't have to be flexible to practice yoga.