Today, yoga is as much a part of the western culture as it has been in India over the centuries, and it’s presence around the globe is a well known fact. Yoga took the western world by storm in the 1960s. I’ve always been curious about why some people take to yoga wholeheartedly, while others shy away from it. Although the word yoga is now a household one, there’s lots of people who don’t actually understand what yoga is, or have some inaccurate notion about it. And this is no surprise considering how many different styles of yoga have evolved in the last couple decades. There’s a unique studio around every corner, and each one has a different type of yoga. Some turn on the heat, some don’t. Some use elaborate props while others play loud music. I’ve even heard of a place where they eat chocolate during the practice! Some might teach you a fancy pose that a beginner may not be ready for. It can all be very intimidating and confusing, and someone trying to decide what class to take ends up more stressed than relaxed. Quite the opposite of what yoga can really do for you!
In reality, yoga is far more than a mere set of postures. The art and science of yoga originated in India over 5000 years ago, and only a miniscule aspect of it is the ‘asanas’ as seen in the western world today. And while it is awesome that this boom of yoga has brought access to the benefits to millions around the world, a lot of the wisdom, traditions and ideology of yoga got lost or mistranslated along the way.
To understand this further, let’s start at the basics. The word Yoga is not only the name for the practice but also its goal. Yoga translates into ‘union’ and comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’. The union is between the body, the mind and spirit in its simplest form.
With the kind of lifestyle most of us in the modern world have, we are constantly overstimulated, and our minds are always focused on the the external. Thanks to technology we mostly live outside our bodies, and yoga is a gentle reminder to reconnect with your self; to move from the ‘external’ to the ‘internal’. To stop being stuck in the past or future and bring our awareness to the present, where only reality exists.
This not an easy concept to grasp, it takes years, if not a lifetime of dedicated effort and practice to understand and experience the full offerings of the glorious science of yoga. Unfortunately, we are in this age of where we expect instant gratification – and this has brought us to the boom of the asana-focused industry. Asana (or pose) is just one of the eight essential pillars of yoga. The health benefits of yoga: the well-toned muscles, the therapeutic effects, the relaxation and de-stressing, etc have been the largest factors that got so many people to take up the practice, and then it became cool to stand on your head or be able to do a complicated handstand. But there is so much more to yoga than just the health benefits!
But, it is not not in recent times that there have been so many different ways of practising yogas. While the core of yoga philosophy has always remained consistent, each guru or master had their own way of teaching or prescribing a practice to their students. This also comes from the holistic approach that no two men are similar. Each of us is unique and so a skilled guru can prescribe a mix of yoga practices that address our physical, mental and spiritual tendencies and needs. This is beautifully explained in the Bhagavad Gita – each of the 18 chapters describes a specific kind of yoga, and who it is suited for. Classical Yoga, as we have begun to call it, was more “yoga of the mind and soul”. Asanas were such a tiny fragment of the practice, that they are hardly mentioned. Asanas were meant to help you achieve a comfortable seated posture, to engage in concentration that eventually led to meditation.
Coming back to the current day — yoga seems like packaged product for sale. The fancier the package, the quicker it will sell. When I first game to the US about 16 months ago, I had a bit of a yoga culture shock. I wasn’t prepared for this kind of variety and confusion. I was in a class with pop music that continued thru shavansana, mirrors, and some really incorrect usage of the sanskrit terms. At first, I was upset and would often get angry, and then finally stopped seeking out yoga classes. And over time I learned to make peace with it and accept it.
I intend to explain different lineages of yoga in detail in a future post. But this is a good time to introduce you, dear readers, to these terms: ‘Hatha’ and ‘Vinyasa’
Hatha – is the generic name for yoga practice. This system is a combination of alignment, breath and awareness simply put. This style welcomes all and is a safe start point for any practitioner. Although many in the west consider the Hatha system to be a gentle form of yoga, this is not true. The aim is to increase the duration spent in each posture thereby making it more challenging.
Vinyasa – literally means flow. This style is more rigorous, movement oriented and intense. It is for people who have a good foundation of yoga practice. There are many different lineages of Vinyasa available. This style is very popular in the West as it is very physical.
So to conclude, remember is Yoga is not just about postures. It is a way of life. There are different schools and styles of yoga. It would be wrong to consider any more superior or inferior. We, as practitioners choose a style that best suits our needs. It does take time and effort to find the system that works best for you. But once you find it – it depends completely on your dedication. Yoga is not an instant process, and only gets better and deeper with time. The state of yoga is our true nature. I truly hope you will let yoga work for you and change your life. BKS Iyengar has a fantastic quote on yoga that I will share here: “Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one’s being, from bodily health to self-realization. Yoga means union – union of the body with consciousness and the consciousness with the soul. Yoga cultivates ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day to day life and endows skill in the performance of one’s actions.” of maintaining a balanced attitude in day to day life and endows skill in the performance of one’s actions.”