December 30, 2011

When Yoga Isn’t Yoga. ~ Emilie Littlehales

I recently made the mistake of letting an incidental sentence significantly influence my burgeoning opinion of someone. I tend to have pretty good judgment when it comes to things like this, so as you can imagine, the fact that I was not only totally wrong but also left jobless as a result has been a rather difficult blow. The sentence:

“I do yoga.”

You’d think there wouldn’t be a lot of room for interpretation (or in my case misinterpretation) in the space of three words, but for some reason, it’s the kind of phrase that means a lot more than it says. People read into it, make assumptions, formulate judgments, and, evidently, make mistakes. Sometimes, the speaker is aware of this, and tries to embellish with information that will clarify: “I do hot yoga”; “I do yoga, but I’m not a hippie”; “I do yoga every now and then”; “I have a yogapractice”. Obviously the qualifications are meant to convey more specific information—to ensure the accuracy of the resulting assumptions. But do they actually do this? What does it even mean to say “I do yoga” in the first place?

The image that comes to mind is of someone who is not just doing a bunch of sun salutations, but is also observing the fundamentals of yogic philosophy: calmness, stress management, ethical and kind behavior toward others, and an openness to the world around them. But this image isn’t necessarily accurate, which raises a series of questions: is it naïve to think that my former employer’s yoga practice would not only be a way in which we could bond, but also that it spoke to his behavior toward others, regardless of the situation? Is a yoga practice authentic if the yogi is a jerk the second he or she sits up from savasana and leaves the studio?

If it is an authentic practice, then how can it be reconciled with the kind of practice done by someone who adheres to the philosophical principles that make yoga what it is?

Today, even the most casual yoga practice is built to some extent upon Ashtanga yoga’s eight limbed system, compiled by the Hundu philosphper Patanjali in the 2nd century BCE. Taken together, these eight limbs (yama, the guidelines for emotional behavior; niyama, the guidelines for physical behavior; asana, the postures; pranayama, the breath; pratyahara, withdrawal from the senses; dharana, concentration; dhyana, meditation; and samadhi, oneness with the supreme spirit) still make up a lot of what we consider central to a yoga practice. They’re part of the reason some people bristle when others talk about yoga, thinking that it’s “new-agey” and should be avoided at all costs. They’re the reason why some people are so quick to dispel the idea that their yoga practice might make them “crunchy” or too much like a “hippie.” And they’re the reason yoga is so effective when it comes to managing not only stress, but also a variety of mental illnesses, chronic diseases, injury and everyday aches and pains. In short, they make yoga what it is.

Over the past several years, yoga’s popularity has grown enormously.

Every so often, someone will speak out about how little all the people doing yoga at gyms, studios, and living rooms across the world really know about the practice. And in a sense, these party-poopers have a point: a lot of us do yoga just because we like the way it makes us feel, and we don’t think too far beyond that. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t privy to what the practice can teach us; when I am doing yoga regularly, I’m calmer, nicer to the people around me, and much more capable of maintaining a positive outlook than I might otherwise be. It may be, though, that because I’m not actively pursuing oneness with the supreme spiritual soul, that I’m no different from my former employer (even though I’d like to think that I’m not a jerk, even in the worst of circumstances). I could even go so far as to say that it might be misleading for either of us to claim that we do yoga, because really, do we?

The practice has now lasted and evolved through a few thousand years, and shows no signs of disappearing. But is our potentially loose interpretation of its spiritual implications a threat, or a boon? It goes without saying that in order to survive, a physical and spiritual practice such as yoga has to actually be practiced, otherwise it risks retreating into oblivion and becoming the stuff of Wikipedia articles. But at the same time, if someone can do yoga and then behave in a way that shows complete disregard for yoga’s founding principles, are they really doing yoga?

At what point does it cease to be yoga, and instead become a case of merely going through the motions?

Emilie Littlehales is a runner, yogini, and reluctant Manhattanite trying to make her way through the daily rat race. She blogs regularly here, and hope to someday get to the point where she can hold a handstand for more than half a second before falling to the floor in something of a panic.

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