An interview with Javier Fernandez, an instructor at Mahashakti Integral Yoga School
In recent years, yoga has become one of the most popular physical, mental, and spiritual exercises. But what is yoga exactly? And what are the benefits of yoga for our health? To answer some of these questions, we talked with Javier Fernández, an instructor of Mahashakti Integral Yoga School, a project that focuses on education for yoga teachers.
How would you explain to someone who has just become interested in yoga: what is it, and what are its functions?
Javier Fernandez: It would be a huge debate to define exactly what yoga is, but if we compare ourselves within the current Western context, to a person who wants to know what yoga is about, the explanation would move towards a practice or sets of practices that are oriented to the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of a human being. This explanation does not exclude the classic explanations and objectives of yoga, it simply approaches that part of yoga which contributes to the wellbeing and self-knowledge of the human being.
However, it remains on the surface a discipline that goes far beyond the benefits of life, with a philosophy and broad psychology that is complex, varied, and alive. However, we do not need to address that for our first experience with yoga, because above all philosophy, yoga is an experiential discipline, it is lived and practiced.
Is yoga a way of life?
Javier: We must put this explanation into context. Yoga is a way of life, yes, and that’s true for many of its practitioners around the world, but the universalization of yoga has made the commitment to the practice quite different. Today, we still find yogis and yoginis who live like it was two thousand years ago, isolated from the world and completely dedicated to their practice, but it would not make much sense to extrapolate it in this way to the rest of the world today.
That is why yoga has to be yoga for life. Sri Aurobindo, the creator of integral yoga, said, “Everything in life is yoga.” That is why yoga is what you want it to be in your life. You can practice yoga twice a week on a mat, you can practice it daily, you can put its philosophy into practice in your daily life, and in your relationships.
Each person can decide what their relationship to yoga is, what they seek within their practice and the objectives they want to achieve, being from the purely physical and mental to the more philosophical and spiritual. This makes yoga a method that is alive today. It has not remained an archaic practice with no place in contemporary society.
Do you think yoga is an alternative form of prevention and healing?
Javier: The word “alternative” is a dangerous word nowadays. Yoga has been framed as being among “alternative” or pseudo-therapies, which are not placed in a very positive light with regards to their effects on health. First of all, it is important to emphasize again that yoga is not something created with the purpose of preventing and curing illnesses; however, it is true that its practices alleviate many physical, emotional, and mental pathologies.
This began to have its importance from the end of the 20th century with several studies, especially in the West, in which they used yoga as therapy in hospitals. From there, the therapeutic benefits of yoga arose, and it is still consolidated today because of its consistency and multiple benefits.
Again, an important point is that yoga can benefit, prevent, and even cure many pathologies, but this does not mean that yoga is a substitute for medicinal and scientific advances. In each individual case, the person will be able to benefit from the tools of yoga in a specific aspect of their therapeutic process depending on a multitude of factors, and many times is complemented with other types of aids, therapies, etc.
Yoga, nowadays, needs to leave that realm of mysticism and magic behind, in which it was involved during part of the 20th century. It needs to be understood as something more scientific and real.
What different types of yoga are there? What are the differences between them?
Javier: There are more than 200 types of yoga today; almost all of them are valid in their context and objective. In a traditional way, we can differentiate between 5 branches of yoga: Karma yoga or yoga of selfless action; the Bhakti yoga or yoga of devotion; Hatha yoga or physical and/or energetic yoga; Raja yoga or mental yoga – meditation; Jnana yoga or the yoga of knowledge and wisdom.
What are the benefits of yoga for our body, mind, and spirit?
Javier: In yoga, we understand the human being as a complex entity formed by several parts; the physical part, the vital-emotional part, the mental part, and the spiritual part. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that these parts of the human being are interrelated and that a mismatch of one part causes a mismatch in another part.
This is something we have all experienced if we pay a little attention. An emotion generates thought and if that emotion persists, it somatizes in our body, for example as a contraction; something that we can experience today with work stress. Seeing ourselves from this perspective can help us bring complete balance to our lives.
A healthy body is of no use if our minds are agitated. And a calm mind or mood with a sick body will not be easy to achieve either. Besides, we have to contemplate the spiritual part; in integral yoga, we call this the “inner life”, that part of us we have to start a dialogue with at some point in our life if we want to know ourselves truly.
Javier recommends Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda, to ensure that our first contact with yoga is an enriching experience. Yogananda was one of the yogis responsible for popularizing yoga in the West. This book can help to put yoga into our modern-day context so that we can begin to enjoy every facet of yoga in our daily lives.