This morning, on my usual walking route with my dog, I noticed a new sign on the neighborhood gym that said “Yoga.” The word “Yoga” is everywhere, especially here in L.A., where, according to recent statistics, there are more people doing it than in its native India. The problem is, the activity that is actually being practiced is not exactly Yoga. More often than not, it is a simulation of the ancient spiritual technology, at best, thereby rendering the statistics irrelevant.
As Stated Elsewhere
Like many arts and sciences that are profound, beautiful, and powerful, yoga has suffered from the spiritual poverty of the modern world–it has been trivialized, watered down, or reduced to cliches. The deep and eternal essence of yoga has been misrepresented and packaged for personal profit by clever people. At the hands of some, yoga has been reduced to the status of just another exercise program available on videotape. In other contexts, yoga has been presented as a cult religion, aimed at attracting “devotees.” Such a haze of confusion has been created around the clear and pure concept of yoga that it is now necessary to redefine yoga and clarify its meaning and purpose.
~ Bhole Prabhu
While there are many holistic classes to be found, too often, all you’ll find in “Yoga classes,” are the postures, which are merely a preparatory part of the discipline as a whole. But this is the part that is most eagerly consumed here, due to our emphasis, or rather, obsession, on the body.
For the sake of maintaining the integrity of this ancient, and unbelievably rich tradition, here’s what I’d like to see hanging on the doors of these kinds of classes: a sign that says, “Yoga-inspired Exercises” in place of the sign that says, “Yoga.” After all, as Swami Bharati says, “we would not call a brick a ‘house’ even though it is part of the construction. Yet, this is what is often done with Yoga.” The postures are but a small part of the complete eight-part system known as Raj Yoga. So, the change would be done for the sake of clarity, dignity and truthfulness.
So, What Is Yoga?
It is not within the scope of this article to explain those eight rungs of Raj Yoga, nor the other ancient Yogic paths, such as Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga, since this information can so easily be found elsewhere (including via my own Youtube lectures). But, here is an overview of the inherent point and purpose of all the Yogas.
Yoga is about union. You could say that the goal of Yoga is…Yoga, since that’s what the word means. It is the union of the self and the True Self, of the ego identity and the Supreme consciousness. It is a process of awakening to the divine reality that we were never separate from in the first place. It is the evaporation of maya, or, the delusion of separateness. It is the direct experience of the preexisting union between Atman and Brahman, or if you will, Shiva and Shakti. It is, as Paramahansa Yogananda describes it, Self-Realization. It is the awakened consciousness. It is God-consciousness. It is, as Sivananda has described it, Supreme Harmony. It is Samadhi—the final limb and crown of Patanjali’s eight rungs of classical Raj Yoga.
The many therapeutic effects of Yoga have been touted so frequently, that many people now realize that the purpose of Yoga is not to workout. But to think of Yoga as a form of relaxation is to still miss the point. It is to replace one misunderstanding with another!
Yoga Is Spiritual
On their website, YogaDayUSA.org listed the “Top 10 Reasons to Try Yoga” as, stress relief, pain relief, better breathing, flexibility, increased strength, weight management, improved circulation, cardiovascular conditioning, better body alignment, and focus on the present for health reasons. The authentic reasons for Yoga seem to be not even worthy of mention in their Top 10 Reasons for Yoga.
Yoga Alliance, the sponsor of Yoga Day, described itself as “the leader in setting educational standards for yoga schools and teachers.” However, while they claim this authority, they did not see fit to acknowledge or include in their Yoga Day promotions the fact that the roots of Yoga come from the ancient tradition of Sanatana Dharma, out of which has grown Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and other traditions.
The therapeutic effects of Yoga are many, but they are not the central intention of any of Yoga’s many paths, which are like the many rivers that all find their way to the sea. The different paths, or Yogas, intersect one another and often run in parallel. They accommodate the various inclinations and karmic propensities of the individual student who would find himself on a spiritual journey. Yet they all have the same goal of Self-Realization.
* In this article, as elsewhere, I have followed the tradition, as pioneered by the renown authority on Yoga, Georg Feuerstein, of capitalizing the word Yoga, just as we would capitalize Zen, or, Christianity.
Thank you. We are in danger of yoga being misunderstood and even trivialized. I find that students want the physical work. I also find that if I ask they will say that they want the spiritual work as well. I take a few minutes at the beginning of class for a quick lesson from the Yoga Sutras, and then we practice meditation for a few minutes. The end of class is spiritual – perhaps referring to ahimsa or some other principle. As long as I present it as an offering and not as a mandate from an authority, I find that the spiritual component is well received. Students are thirsty for what the greater yoga has to offer, in my experience. I find this very encouraging. If we try, we can teach the deeper yoga. But in a society that seems so ideologically divided, just leading yoga inspired exercise might be an appealing path of least resistance.
As I only know a little about Yoga (I am more into Taoism) this was very interesting to read.
I agree with your points, but the “problem” is that most people in the West who are interested in yoga are stressed and simply look for a new way to find peace/relaxation. In fact, loads of people are not simply stressed, but they are at their absolute limit – in our “modern world” they seek a quick solution. They want something to feel better (best right away) – I guess that’s the reason why most are interesteded mainly in the “physical stuff” and not the philosophical side.
For that reason there are also many misconceptions about T’ai chi…
IMHO the best thing would be to really spread the word what Yoga really is – not just a set of exercises to promote health and well-being, but much more. However, this is not an easy task…
Hi Prof Q – yes, yoga-inspired practices are probably a better name for yoga exercises. You point out we go through this external exercise of practice instead of this internal one – which is really what Yoga is about. I think more of yoga should focus on the spiritual aspects and the mind, instead of the body – which many yoga ‘classes’ and ‘yoga teachers’ tend to do.
David, Thank you for sharing your experiences as a fellow teacher. I appreciate it. PS, your blog-site is lovely!
Timo, Yes – I am, I am! Hence posts like this and of course, through my teachings, I will continue to uphold the dignity of this beautiful tradition, which has much in common with your T’ai Ch’i—both methods of working with the subtle energy field of this body, of aligning it with the psyche, and ultimately, of developing greater clarity and consciousness. (In fact, the story of how T’ai Ch’i developed via India’s tantric Yoga systems, via Bodhidharma, is fascinating in itself!)
Vishnu, Your feedback is always on target and much appreciated! (Thanks also, for tweeting the posts you like!)
All warm wishes,
Sat Nam and Namaste~
As I get more focused on Yoga, I am seeing more of the connections that have been there all the time. I came into it via the postures, but am seeing more the deeper I go.
I see the analogy of Yoga to exercise like church to a community group. People go to church and a community group for connection, but there’s a spiritual aspect to a congregation.