Yoga is not….
Yoga is not merely physical excercise (asana performed in a Yoga studio), stress management (guided visualisation or relaxation), medical treatment (physiotherapy or core strengthening) or a means of manifesting money although authentic Yoga is definitely beneficial to many aspects of life. The goal of Yoga is Yoga, period, which I explained above.
If you go to a Yoga studio and claim you are doing Yoga, you are not. You are doing gymnastic excercises, gentle breathing and guided relaxation sessions in a group environment. There is nothing wrong with any of these activities, they are very noble indeed. But they are not Yoga. There is only one Yoga pose mentioned in the Yoga Sutras and that is Padmasana, lotus pose. There is only one reference to asana in the Sutras: 2.46 “Sthira sukham asanam” (Asana should be steady and comfortable), which refers to posture of the spine, which should be straight but not stiff.
Modern Yoga has, over the past one hundred years that it has been practiced in the West, gone on a different path to that of traditional Indian Yoga. It has been like a fork in the road; to the left is traditional Yoga, to the right, is modern Western Yoga.
Western Yoga is all body/postural based. It claims that Yoga is “asana“, postures, and it is taught all over the western world in thousands of Yoga studios by so called Yoga teachers “trained ” in Yoga. These classes are attended by people wanting to work out, de-stress and relax. They live fast paced, busy, distracted lives with little time to seek out authentic practices. They just want some peace in their lives. Most people don’t care to do the little amount of research it takes to look into what these Yoga studios are actually doing for them. I can’t say “teaching” them because there is no traditional teacher-student relationship in these spaces. They are little more than mass-marketed stress management groups.
Again, I repeat myself, there is nothing wrong with going to a stress-management group to de-stress with other people around you so you don’t feel lonely. But, that still does not make it Yoga. Yoga is an inner process of systematically working through the subtle layers of identity, of one’s being to arrive at a still point within that has been called by many, many names; True Self, atman, soul, Brahman, God, awareness, drastuh, the witness, the Seer, the observer and many others. You go from the external to the internal. Asana is one step of the eight that Patanjali gives us in his system called Astanga Yoga.
We do asana for a short period of time, as preparation for meditation; which is the true purpose of Yoga. We do asana to relax the body so that it does not impede our meditation session. Asana is a preparatory step, it is not the end but a means to an end. There are other preparatory steps, along with asana, that we must do in order to meditate, the end goal of Yoga. Such as pranayama (regulate the breath) and pratyahara (reign in the senses).
Asana in its own has no other purpose. Yet, here in the West, we treat it as the final goal. As if that is Yoga and we call it such. Yoga in the West needs to undergo some changes if it wants to be considered authentic.
Yoga studios need to call themselves “asana studios“. Teachers are “asana instructors”. Classes are promoted as “group fitness classes emphasising stress management, guided visualisation and relaxation sessions”. All studios call their style of Yoga as “Hatha Yoga”. There will be no difference in any other way except for differentiation as to fitness level (beginner, intermediate, advanced or all levels) or as to whether they are “flow” or “alignment based“. There will be a dropping of terms such as “vinyasa“, “astanga vinyasa“, “iyengar”, “dru”, “power” etc. “Pre” and “post” natal classes are named with those terms as are “chair”, “seniors“, “children“, “teenagers” etc. “Special needs” are named according to the particular group they are aimed at. For example “Hatha Yoga, chair and alignment based for all levels for arthritis” instead of just “Chair Yoga“. Or “Hatha Yoga Primary Series flow for intermediate to advanced” instead of “Astanga Vinyasa”.
Studios leading groups in more authentic Yoga can add other terms such as “Raja Yoga ” or “Astanga Yoga” if they are leading meditation sessions after asana or including “Yama” and “Niyama” as part of their class sequence. If teaching “pranayama“, that term can be included. If teaching “Yoga Nidra (Yogic sleep)” then “pratyahara” can be included in the class title.
That leads me to Yoga teachers themselves. What are we to call ourselves besides “asana teachers“? Are we really teachers in the authentic sense of the word? What are we really “teaching “? To relax? To stretch? To breath deeply? To relieve our back pain? Or are we teaching something more than that?
If we are teaching people to wake up to themselves then yes, we are a teacher in the true sense of the word. If we teach people to find out who or what they truly are then yes, we are a teacher in the true sense. As long as we are teaching these fundamental truths to our students, then yes we are teachers. But are we Yoga teachers?
We are still in a group setting, giving instructions to many people at once, with no individuation of the material. That is, we are not adapting the material to suit the induvidual person in front of us. I think this is where we truly fail as teachers of Yoga in the West. We are used to, by our very culture, to impart information en masse. Teach as many people as possible as fast as possible. We are in a hurry, we must teach quickly before we forget or, god forbid, our student becomes distracted or disinterested and moves on and leaves us. We are attached to something here. Like a fish attached to a hook at the end of a fishing line, we too are attached. We are attached to our methods, to our approaches. In the West information is the precious commodity and time the valuable way to pay for things.
We seem to have lots of information but not enough time, so we hurry and rush through life. It’s a paradox that we also feel the need to rush the Yoga process that is all internal and about moving slowly. Only in the West is this the case. Yoga has been around for thousands of years but as soon as the West caught wind of it in only a few short decades we have made it our mission to try to hurry it all along somehow. We are in such a hurry that we haven’t even noticed that it’s no longer authentic anymore. The people that we are interacting with have no time to look into what it is that they are participating in when they set foot inside of a Yoga studio. It’s blindness all around the place.
Let’s pause. Let’s just take a mindful breath and remember things. Let’s put things back into perspective here first. Yoga is thousands of years old. It is not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s here to stay. It has stood the test of time. It is simply our view of things that is creating the distortion in our perception of it. We westerners are used to time as a valueless thing. It has no value to us. Yet, time is the most valuable resource we have, next to energy and money. Time is more precious than gold yet we squander it away like it’s worth nothing.
The ancient Yogis took their time to study the world and the nature of reality. They gave us a precious gift called Yoga. If we are to use this gift wisely we must too take our time. Part of taking time is remaining authentic. To be authentic we must use correct terms.
Let’s call ourselves asana teachers and we teach Hatha Yoga asanas at asana studios. Let’s advertise our groups to the public as fitness classes for stress management purposes, remembering to use the correct level and type of Hatha Yoga asana taught and name the group with the type of person/medical condition it is aimed at.
Now, for all others that remain. For those of us teaching philosophy in a one-to-one setting, and teaching the complete 8 Limbs as contained in the Yoga Sutras as well as the complete 196 threads of the text or Raja Yoga, we can call ourselves authentic Yoga Teachers for we are teaching Yoga in its true form. Our classes may look like private lessons to Wsterners but they are not, they are authentic Yoga. We may not have as much time to teach as many students as asana instructors do. In fact, we may not be teaching any asana at all. But that’s ok because as authentic Yoga Teachers, we know the true value of Yoga and time and we are not in a hurry. Neither are our students for we have taught them true Yoga. So the wisdom guides both the teacher and student accordingly.
Time is the key to to the difference between an authentic Yoga Teacher and an asana instructor. The less time one has the less authentic the wisdom imparted. So take a look at your Yoga studio, your Yoga Teacher through the lens of time and ask yourself “Am I learning authentic Yoga here or am I simply wasting my time ?”
As Cindy Lauper said in her song Time after Time. “If you’re lost, you can look and you will find me. Time after time
If you fall, I will catch you, I will be waiting. Time after time.”
My blog is all about slowing down and taking more time to stop and smell the roses and blow out a candle. That’s an expression for taking a long, deep breath in through the nose and a long, slow breath out through the mouth. It’s what smokers are trying to do all day long with the help of a cigarette. Expanding themselves out into a larger container so they can breath more easily and exist in a bigger space. We all are trying to do this in our own ways. We are all looking for happiness.
Happiness is our True Nature. It’s just that sometimes this knowledge is not available to us because the thoughts in our busy minds block this fact from us. All we need to do is slow down, take more time, create more space and the thoughts will begin to disperse, just like the clouds in the sky. Then we can catch glimpses of it, the clear, pristine blue sky, our True Nature. The more glimpses we catch the better we start to feel. Eventually, after repeated glimpses the sky remains blue for longer and happiness becomes our default state. We come back home to ourselves and stay there forever.
Living the Yoga Sutras: Practical Translations and Discussion by Swami Jnaneshvara
Thank you for joining me on this journey to freedom.
Love light and blessings to you all.
OM shaanti shaanti, shaanti, shaanti.
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