Getting Real with Yoga

Twenty years ago, you had to search high and low to find a Yoga class. Nowadays you need only look as far as the next block or two and you’re sure to find something Yogish-related.

Yoga studios and Yoga-inspired classes are a dime a dozen, but like all things from lattes to leggings, not all great things are created equally. If you were lucky enough to find yourself a Yoga class 20 years ago, they were probably fairly consistent from one place to the next. Actually, same with coffee back in 1998. Coffee was coffee, Yoga was Yoga.  Beam ahead to 2018 and times have changed. Yoga can mean Ashtanga Yoga, Hot Yoga (not to be confused with Bikram Yoga), Glow Yoga, Blindfold Yoga, Spoga (Spinning and Yoga), Beer Yoga, Flow Yoga, Calm Yoga, Goat Yoga, or just Yoga.  And who can keep up with the current coffee menus?  Not that I’m complaining.

Yoga in the West has been manipulated to sell (truth be told, there is not Goat Yoga, Beer Yoga, or Glow Yoga in India or Tibet – I’ve looked). It isn’t wrong, it just isn’t Yoga as it was intended. It is still a great workout, has numerous physical and psychological benefits, and everyone should keep doing it for those reasons.  But let’s please not confuse traditional, classic Yoga with other types of fitness, or as my Teacher calls it, “Indian Gymnastics”.

Let’s talk about “Classic Yoga”

How is it defined? What separates it from fitness or flexibility classes? What was it originally intended to be and why was it even made up in the first place? Five thousand years ago, people were less concerned if they would nail their handstand or get their favorite teacher for class. Their motivations for practice were different.

There are many reputable books written on Yoga philosophy, but probably the two most acclaimed pieces are “The Yoga Sutras” and “Hatha Yoga Pradipika”. Hatha (“ha-tha”) Yoga, the extensive physical practice (asana, pranayama, kriyas, etc) of Yoga, was designed to foster and cultivate the intended practice of Yoga, which is control and mastery of the mind. This said, the definition and objective of Yoga is science of the mind – the union of the mind with the body; “oneness”; and/or union with a higher power.

Yoga Philosophy

The how-to of accomplishing “science of your mind” and “oneness” is well explained in the Eight Limbs of Yoga, also known as Ashtanga Yoga (not to be confused with the physical practice branded by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, also called Ashtanga Yoga). “The Yoga Sutras of Patajanli” provides an 8-step blueprint for structuring the framework of an authentic Yoga practice.  Patanjali discusses the final intent of Yoga but does not a offer specific means to achieve this goal. In other words, he gives you a roadmap with your ultimate destination but does not supply the GPS on how to get there. “The Hatha Yoga Pradipika”, on the other hand, details specific techniques and methods to execute asana, pranayama, and control of mind and body; the “Pradipika” provides the road names and turning cues, but does not tell you where to park the car.  The “Pradipika” is the “means”, the “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” is the “end”. What most people do not realize is that a Guru is necessary to interpret nuances of the read-between-the-lines meanings. Some details are hidden or may not even be completely correct. “The Pradipika” actually has incorrect information but only those with a Guru will know what that is. Another fascinating point, out of Patanjali’s 196 Yoga Sutras, only 2 pertain to asanas. Yoga is Science of the Mind, not science of the body. The body is important because it needs to be healthy for energy to flow properly, flexible and strong enough to sit in meditation, and balanced in mind and body to promote a long life. At the end of the day, the poses are important but for reasons you may not realize. So why are we spending hours on the mat?

The physical poses create sensations in the body. It matters far less what our pose looks like than how it feels. We want to create sensations that are intense enough – albeit not painful or dangerous – that it is impossible to think of anything except the pose. Most of us don’t do splits because we love splits; we do it because we can’t make grocery lists while we are in splits. We can’t plan company meetings or carpool schedules in crow pose or balancing in half moon. It is necessary to challenge our bodies so our minds can rest. So yes, as one of the limbs of Yoga, asanas are crucial in making our bodies strong, healthy, and flexible. But even better, asanas calm our mental chatter and prepare us for the other seven limbs of Yoga.

Yoga with goats and glow sticks is fun and entertaining, but it draws our attention outward. Since in Yoga our objective is to quiet the mind and draw attention inward, using props defeats the intention.  

Yoga and Ayurveda are sciences that work in adjunct. We practice Ayurveda to feel the effects of Yoga. Balancing the mind, body, and spirit is necessary to experience the enormity of what Yoga has to offer: pure joy, ultimate love, and a long and prosperous life.

Cheers to strong bodies, quiet minds and (classic) Yoga.

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