Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

Lost In Translation

The other day I was giving a lecture on yoga philosophy (or at least my version thereof).  I posed the question:  “What does yoga mean?” and I received the expected answers of union, to yoke, peace, oneness, etc. 

None were the answers I was looking for and to be quite honest it was a nasty trick question that I was asking.

I rephrased my question:  “How would you translate the word yoga?” and received much the same response.  Again, not what I was looking for.  Again, a trick question.

The answer is – drum roll please:  “Yoga means yoga.”  It’s a simple answer, if a bit obtuse. 

A word must be experienced to have meaning.

Yoga is a word originating in another language (Sanskrit) that is used in the English, just like sushi is a Japanese word used in the English.  I developed my personal definition of sushi by trying sushi.  The word sushi causes various images to jump into my mind and feelings to rush through my system.  Just hearing the word sushi can cause me to salivate.  My personal definition of sushi – as a once in a while sushi eater living in New York City who has never traveled to Japan – is going to be different from that of a Japanese native who eats sushi often and it is also going to be different from the unlucky person who tried sushi once and got food poisoning.  All of our experiences are going to color and shape our own personal definition of the word and certainly be much more genuine for us than that of our dear friend Merriam Webster:  “a Japanese dish of cold cooked rice shaped in small cakes and topped or wrapped with other ingredients (such as pieces of raw fish),” and that’s just fine.   

Let's consider a term a bit more broad.  A word from my mother tongue.  The word "mother" holds meaning for me as I'm sure it does for you.  This meaning is of vast scope and most definitely eclipses Google’s:  “noun.  a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth.”  I could write for pages about the word mother and what it means to me.  I guarantee that if my brother and I (we share the same mother - I have to clarify that because not all brothers are of the same mother) were to both write up the meaning of mother our compositions would agree and disagree and possibly be paradoxical.  The meaning of mother is fully subjective.  It is colored by experiences with mothers directly and by how culture portrays the term mother in general.

Meaning can change.

My mother told me about sushi before I had ever tried it:  “It’s raw fish, gross, we don’t eat that.”  So for a while the meaning of sushi, for me, was based on second (possibly third) hand knowledge and involved general yuckiness and prohibition.   I had no reason to doubt my mother because the meaning of mother, for me, involves a woman who is more knowledgeable than I am and who is always looking out for my best interests.  I eventually tried sushi for myself and the meaning of the word radically changed for me – both mentally and physically (remember the saliva I mentioned earlier).  This also necessitated I make a slight change to the meaning of the word mother.  I’ve had more sushi throughout the years and each experience has changed the meaning for me.  I’ve also had experiences with that which is not sushi, but that is masquerading as sushi.  Had my first experience with sushi been with false sushi I would probably have been fooled, but since I’ve had so many experiences with real sushi I am now confident I can single out the fakes.  What if I’m wrong?  What if all this time all my experiences with "real sushi" were actually experiences with "fake sushi"?  This is possible, but not probable.  It is not probable because those I trust around me, my relations, my community, my satsang (a Sanskrit word), my sangha (a Sanskrit and Pali word) generally agree with me on the meaning of sushi, though our meaning comes from many different experiences.

Yoga means yoga.

If you want to know the meaning of yoga you will have to experience it for yourself.  
If you want to know the meaning of samadhi (“cognitive absorption” or “to put in place perfectly”), which means yoga, you will have to experience it for yourself.
If you want to know the meaning of citta vrtti nirodah (“stopping the fluctuations of the mind” or “stilling the mind” or “controlling the mind stuff”), which means yoga, you will have to experience it for yourself.

If you want to use yoga to attain yoga you will have to do it yourself.  

Get out there!  Talk to people that have more experience with yoga than you do (maybe even your mother).  Do some yoga, whatever that means.  Acquire enough experience of yoga with the help of enough knowledgeable people that you can separate real yoga from fake yoga.  Build a relationship with your yoga.  Work on this relationship for a long time, without interruption always dedicated to finding truth.

Oh……. And don’t hold onto that truth you find too rigidly.  Most likely it’ll change.

Post Scriptum

Words are powerful.

Yawn………………….that is a word…………………have you yawned yet?  I bet you will soon.  The world yawn is so powerful that just by seeing it or hearing it you are quite likely to have a physical reaction, namely a yawn.

Be careful with the words you use.