Do I teach yoga?
This is the question that runs through my mind constantly as I prepare for a class, practice at home on my mat, or read about “yoga” in our current culture (mine being the culture of North America influenced by my time in both the United States, Canada, and abroad). The short answer is…no, I don’t believe I teach yoga, but the long answer is much more complex.
If you have been part of the “yoga community” for any amount of time, you will have no doubt stumbled upon the question of what yoga is today. There are questions surrounding its origins and its adoption in the “West,” questions related to its exclusivity in certain communities and the commodification of a sacred practice. There are questions around access and equity, as well as questions related to the practice itself (in terms of what is viewed or respected or praticed as “real” yoga). These questions are part of my personal journey and exploration of this practice as a white, middle-class, able-bodied woman…one who came to yoga in the 2000s and who has benefitted from its spread world-wide.
Yoga’s history runs deep and is incredibly complex. From the Vedics to modern day yogic philosophers – there are a myriad of thoughts and interpretations on how the practice came to the place it is now. It is said that the earliest mentioning of “Yoga” was strictly in the spiritual realm in one of the many Upanishads (there are 11 principle Upanishads or teachings), before 500 BCE. This first mention dealt with the inner realm alone…that we ourselves were the container for and the realization of Yoga. From there, yoga took a journey into Vedanta, “the guiding background philosophy of Yoga” (Emil Wendell, Yoga Philosophy, November 2015). This philosophy includes:
- Our inner self is connected to reality
- Our awareness of self, without awareness of this ultimate connection, can be viewed as an illusion
- Self-realization through self-study and self-awareness (the deep work!)
- Discipline and commitment are required to reach the goal of self-realization/actualization
These philosophies are still considered to be the guiding principles of many teachers and gurus throughout India and beyond who both practice and share yogic philosophy. Note here that there is no mention of physical practice, per se!
It is important to remember that there are many types of yoga that our current practice birthed from:
- Mantra Yoga (chanting)
- Karma Yoga (selfless action)
- Jnana Yoga (self-study)
- Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion – can be viewed as the “religious/spiritual” form of yoga)
- Patanjala Yoga (meditation)
- Tantra (energetic systems)
- Hatha (physical body)
- Theravada Buddhism, Jainism (intention and the yoga of no harm to others)
As you can see, our practices today combine some forms of yoga together. We may chant before a class, volunteer in our communities, embark on self-improvement projects, have a spiritual practice that may or may not include worship, we might meditate, see energy healers, run/bike/move, and practice mindfulness in our thoughts/words/actions towards others. Today, in most spaces, the emphasis of yoga is placed on the Hatha or physical practice as we roll out our mats and align our bodies into various poses and postures.
Today’s practices on the mat – at least those taught by most teachers that I encounter – can be said relate to “Pantajali’s Eight-Limbs of Yoga” derived from the Yoga Sutras in the 16th century:
- Yama (universal ethics)
- Niyama (personal ethics and purifications)
- Asana (postures)
- Pranayama (breath work)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses, coming inward)
- Dharana (precise focus)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (self-realization/liberation)
Ultimately, in all of this, the goal of yoga was outlined as “Yoga Chitta Vrtti Nirodha” or “the end of the ceaseless movement of the mind.” All of the practices outlined above were manifested in order to bring us to this internal state of quietude.
The arrival of yogic practices to the “West” (namely the United States) and these eight limbs is a relatively recent phenomenon, one informed by the knowledge that emphasizing the physical aspects while de-emphasizing the spiritual and more self-reflective practices would be the way to hook us to the yoga mat. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda understood that there was a freedom of exploration in the United States…an opening that might give way for these ancient practices to make an entrance. The ultimate turning point arrived in 1947 when Indra Devi (a Westerner who studied yoga abroad with Sri Krishnamacharya) opened a studio in Hollywood. Yoga exploded onto the scene in the United States in Los Angeles, fuelled by an obsession with “alternative” modes of staying healthy and lean while adding that ever-so-marketable exotic edge to the mix. From then on the age of cultural appropriation and commodification of these practice was on with men and women traveling abroad to study and then returning to the West to open studios and share their passion and knowledge with others. It was only a couple of decades later, in the 1970s, when yoga became more accessible than ever to those of us wanting to study and learn in our own backyards. Note: this is an incredibly reductive overview of the evolution of these practices in the West…one that leaves out politics, migration, social movements, religious movements, cultural exchange, and so on.
As a result of the yoga boom and the opportunities this presented on personal, social, and economic levels, it was only a matter of time before another explosion of yoga occurred bringing us to where we find ourselves today…there is hot yoga, yoga with goats (have you seen the YouTube video yet?), dance yoga, yoga for gardeners, Vinyasa Flow, yoga therapy, naked yoga, partner yoga, Yin yoga, restorative yoga…the list goes on and on. In short, there is a “yoga practice” for everyone! But, is what was being taught and shared “yoga?”
That leads me to my own questioning of what it is I share exactly. I am a believer in emphasizing all eight of the limbs of the yogic path – not just the third (asana) and I do incorporate the different veins of yoga mindfully into my practices. There is a beauty in the freedom that our yoga affords us today, but it is important to recognize the birthplace and evolution of our practices as well. To not shy away from the conversations of exclusion/inclusion, ability/dis-ability, equity/inequity, cultural appropriation, and what yoga means to us as a society today.
I am on a personal path of exploration to describe what it is I share with those interested in practicing with me. Do I believe I can call it “yoga” in the strictest sense? Most likely not. Do I believe it is a practice derived from a deep history of knowledge, information, practice, and questioning? Absolutely. I can honestly say that learning about the history and my consistent self-exploration in this work has transformed the way I view myself and how I choose to share this with others. When I began to practice yoga, I had modality to ignite my personal embodiment – mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. A space of embodiment that eluded me for a very long time.
I will continue to seek my path in this long lineage before me; knowing my participation comes with both benefits and potential drawbacks. I continue to acknowledge my personal privilege on this journey of exploration; knowing my acknowledgement is part of this yogic path.
So…do I teach yoga? I’ll let you know when I am done questioning…