Yoga is not what you might think.
It is not about “the perfect pose.” It’s about enhancing our connection with the Divine.
I’m talking about real yoga, not the how-awesome-is-my-pose-and-do-I-look-cool-enough-Instagram yoga.
Real yoga is a system of practices designed to bring us to a lived experience with the Divine. Yoga is union with a presence that is bigger than ourselves. Yoga is practicing that connection—on and off the mat.
Yoga is deeply spiritual. If it is not, it’s not yoga.
We, in the western world, tend to think of yoga as just the physical practices of body posture, breath control, and simple meditation. These are excellent practices for their physical and emotional health benefits. But without the spiritual piece, they are just wellness exercises. Add pop psychology to the mix and perhaps you’ve got a recipe for some forward momentum. But it’s still not yoga.
Lots of yoga studios in the West insist that the practice of yoga is not spiritual. Studio owners deny its roots in Hinduism because they don’t want to offend the Christian audience. They present it as only a physical practice.
Sorry western white folks—we’re practicing cultural appropriation to make yoga what we want it to be. We can’t do that. It’s not ours.
Yoga is not for the purpose of making your butt look cuter in your yoga pants. It is not for the purpose of selling your brand or getting the most followers on Instagram. It is not your latest weight-loss craze. Its purpose is not to make you a more popular yoga teacher or a sought after kirtan artist. And yoga is definitely not a one-size-fits-all.
There are many yogic traditions, rich with spiritual and ascetic disciplines. The practices vary according to the lineage. There are mantras to learn, stotram (hymns of praise) to memorize, ancient texts to study, and yes, physical practices of posture, breath, and meditation.
If we want to truly practice yoga, we need to check our white privilege at the door, choose to honor these wisdom teachings and learn from them. And we need to find a teacher (dare I say it—a guru?) who will guide us through our practices. Preferably, an Indian who has studied and lived these practices.
Westerners tend to value self-sufficiency. We like independence. We like to believe that we are wise and knowing. We believe ourselves to be highly creative. We don’t like to be told what to do. We like to figure it out for ourselves.
We’ve taken an ancient culture’s most sacred traditions and adapted them to our smorgasbord way of life. A little of this, a little of that, and voila, we have our own brand of yoga.
Yoga studios in the United States offer many different styles of yoga; Kundalini, Vinyasa, Hatha, Bikram, Ashtanga, Yin, Iyengar, to name a few. And then there’s the latest on the scene: aerial yoga, hot yoga, wine yoga, dog and goat yoga. You get the picture?
Most of these are taught without connecting them to the intended spiritual aspect of the practice.
So, how can we stop appropriating and start practicing real yoga?
I believe this is a good starting point:
Study The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali.
The Yoga Sūtras is a collection of 195 Sanskrit aphorisms on the theory and practice of yoga. You’ll find it much easier to digest than some of the other classics and you’ll find practical guidance about how to begin living your life in a yogic way.
You’ll quickly learn that the physical practice of yoga is hardly mentioned.
The first two limbs of the teachings are the 10 basic tenets of yoga practice: yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances). They teach us how to behave outwardly in the world and inwardly toward ourselves.
Begin practicing these 10 tenets:
1. Ahimsa (Non-violence): teaches us not to harm ourselves and others, but to live a life of compassion and kindness.
2. Satya (Truthfulness): turns us away from lying to ourselves and others, and connects us with our authenticity.
3. Asteya (Non-stealing): refrains us from stealing from ourselves and others. Connects us with a deeper value of self.
4. Brahmacharya (Right use of energy): turns us away from radical consumption and helps us appreciate the real wonder of life.
5. Aparigraha (Non-hoarding/freedom from greed): helps us let go of our attachments so we can develop greater intimacy.
1. Saucha (Purity of body and mind): inspires a deep cleansing of our bodies, our thoughts, our actions.
2. Santosha (Contentment): invites us to fall in love with who we are and what we have.
3. Tapas (Discipline; austerity): inspires us to be disciplined so we might experience growth.
4. Svadhyaya (Study of the Self): helps us to better know ourselves and our connection to the Divine.
5. Ishvara pranidhana (Surrender to the Divine): guides us in letting go of an overactive ego and offers us a shift in perspective that connects us with the sacredness of life.
Ready to deepen your practice?
There’s no better time to start than right now.