A surprising fact for many modern, American yoga practitioners, as pointed out in the Huffington Post article:
If you know your yoga history, these poses aren’t even deeply rooted in the yogic tradition. They emerged at the turn of the century when countries like India were developing “fitness” cultures as an emblem of national pride. In short, much of what passes for yoga these days isn’t really yoga.
We think that people will have a much easier time navigating the muddy waters of what “Yoga” is in this country, and ultimately be able to discern what yoga is for themselves, if they understand the history/origins of yoga. It’s not until we are able to embrace the cultural context of this spiritual practice that we are be able to apply it to our own lives with benefit! One needs to go deeper than the assumptions and projections we have thrust upon yoga to decide what it is for us at an individual level. Is yoga a bunch of people in a room moving through funny poses? Is it a religion that contrasts with other people’s religious ideologies (some think so)? Is yoga just as valid a practice when you aren’t performing a sequence, but sitting in silence? Once you know the truth of yoga’s historical background then you can make an informed decision.
Talking about yoga’s origins could take up a whole book…series. So we’re going to try and keep it short. There are many definitions, you can just google, but basically what you need to know is:
- Yoga is a philosophical/ spiritual practice that emerged in India as part of Hinduism. The exact time that yoga came about is under debate, but the first mention of yoga seems to be written some time between 100 and 500 BCE by a man called Patanjali in a compilation of texts called the Yoga Sutras.
- The word “yoga” is a sanskrit word, that means to yoke or unite.
- Liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth are the goals of a yoga practice.
- This liberation is achieved by confronting the ego and taking control over its manipulation/projections on our perceptions of what is reality. The way to take control over the ego is through deep introspection as defined in an eight-limbed path, defined in the Yoga Sutras.
- There are many different variations of yoga. One of them (which seems to be the entire focus in the western world) is hatha yoga, which refers to the physical practice.
- The eight limbs as described in the Sutras are laid out as follows: Yama (universal ethical disciplines), Niyama (individualized rules of conduct), Asana (physical postures), Pranayama (breathing exercises), Pratyahara (practices in which the senses are brought under control), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (enlightenment/liberation).
Through the investigation of India’s spiritual history one will discover that yoga has little to do with the postures we associate with it called “asana”, which comprises only one of the eight limbs listed above. Those postures and popular sequences came later, much later in history when India was attempting to contribute to the global fitness arena with a sense of nationalism. But originally the intention behind yoga was to create a personal, spiritual journey. For many of us this may be a revelation, but it doesn’t have to negate the value of a serious practitioner’s intention. This information should make the “yoga-cise” class attendee realize that what they are doing may not be yoga, but a yoga-inspired fitness experience. If this experience is navigated by the intention of self-exploration and done with awareness, then it can be Yoga.
There is no denying the many wonderful benefits of a yoga-inspired fitness class. The benefits of taking one’s attention inward while at the same time loading the physical body with effort and stress in a controlled environment makes for remarkable results. A heightened sense of awareness of the self (physical and mental), better control over breathing, better control over stress, confrontation with the ego, calming of the nervous system, better sleep, less anxiety and depression….The list goes on. In fact, William Broad’s book, the Science of Yoga, is just as full of the scientific evidence that backs positive yoga claims as it is full of the warnings of which the media has been most focused. Even the New York Giants recently came out in article as hatha yoga enthusiasts happy about its physical and mental benefits before and after games.
Since it is seen primarily as a physical practice in this country, this attracts a particular kind of practitioner. The incarnation of yoga classes that dominate studios and gyms here in North America is a product of the demand that Type A personalities, particularly in NYC, are asking of yoga classes. Because of this demand, studios and gyms, in an attempt to create revenue, hire teachers who can provide this experience, whether or not what they are teaching is actually yoga. In this way, “Yoga” has become part of a marketing ploy. Fitness-related companies can ride off of the true known benefits of yoga, by exploiting a population that desperately needs these benefits without truly providing it to them. In essence, most yoga classes as we know them to be are cultural appropriations of an Eastern philosophy created and practiced by a nation in a time not-well known for perfectionism or a pre-occuption with corporate success. These yoga practitioners were more concerned with their spiritual well-being. Fast-forward to now and see yoga through the lens and projections of over-worked, goal-oriented Americans looking for a class that addresses physical health, mental health and even for some emotional health all in a 1-hour power lunch. Doesn’t it make sense now why there are so many “power” yoga classes focusing on toning the body when that was really never the intent? Or why the American yoga industry is billions of dollars deep with stores like Lululemon profiting? These are all products of the demand of a capitalist society. Does this mean that “yoga” in this country is bad? No. You just have to know what you are actually doing.
So, don’t stop practicing, just know what you’re practicing. A real yoga practice can be one in which someone walks with conscious awareness with every step. Moving through sun salutations with no awareness, shoving your body into fancy poses or doing five million handstands in between every vinyasa is NOT yoga… It’s up to you to separate the commercialism, propaganda, cultural projections and physical demands to reveal how your authentic yoga practice shows up. Right now, yoga as a personal practice and as an industry has the opportunity to really evolve. Americans can finally contextualize yoga, understand it philosophically, historically and culturally. Then they can create a practice that is physical if they want, but they have to be informed.