Back in 2002, prior to becoming a yoga teacher as my primary “job” I was a waiter. I sucked at it. My favorite part was when my manager, Terri, would grant me the honor of writing a thought provoking quote on the back of the “Today’s Specials” board which the guests would see on their way out. The one aspect I loved was having conversations with customers.
At the end of one shift there was a group of people staying late, enjoying some cocktails, and they asked me if I did anything else besides wait tables. I said yes, I also teach yoga. They all kind of paused & looked at each other. Turns out they were the managers of a well known super trendy gym in Atlanta. They wanted to offer me a job! I was elated. Then came the proverbial fork in the road of my path as a teacher.
“Can we ask you something first”, said the guy you could tell was the head honcho. To which I obliged of course. “Do you teach the physical yoga or the spiritual yoga?” Oh Shit. Suffice it to say I spent the next few months leading contemplative self inquiries such as, “Would you prefer fries or broccoli with that?”
No big deal. There was always the quote of the day board. But the question stuck with me. Guess I never really considered the difference. Maybe I was naive or yoga was still somewhat nascent in our culture, at least in northwest Georgia. But to me yoga was just yoga. Not purely physical, not purely transcendent- just an integrated approach to deeper self examination.
Fast forward 12 years. Now, well, as you know a practice that was once counterculture has become the mainstream in many ways. We leave tips at Starbucks for good karma. We post selfies of our favorite asanas on Instagram. Asana in particular has become part of the steady daily diet of millions upon millions of Americans. And true to our culture, we love it in so many different ways; hot, cool, slow, fast, challenging, tranquil, on a mat, in a chair or even hanging from an anti-gravity hammock. You name it, we’ve got it.
And herein lies the question: Has our culture devolved a once sacred, ancient tradition? Have we over commercialized it to the point of McYoga? Or have we simply made it fit our culture? And if we have made it fit within our capatlist context, have we severed it from its essence or has its underlying intention remained in tact while its form has become, well, more flexible? At the root of the word question is the word quest. So let’s take our quest a bit deeper into this topic, shall we?
It seems a logical place to begin this quest is in cultivating a deeper understanding of yoga’s history and evolution within its homeland of India. I say this because if we are of the opinion that America has cheapened, changed and commercialized yoga then we can only say so in relationship to its authentic roots. The history of yoga is of course far too vast a subject matter for the scope of this blog post, but we can draw out some important and relevant points nonetheless.
In the earliest Vedic roots of yoga we see that the very knowledge and rituals contained within them were confined to the priestly or bhramanic caste. This is the highest of the castes within Indian society. You cannot “transform” yourself into a higher caste save for your next re-birth as the caste you are born into is dictated by your past karma (shouldn’t have been so stingy on those tips lol). The point here is that yoga was not inclusive in its orthodox expression, but rather, exclusive.
Until episode 2: Rise of the Vedantans. These were the forest dwelling sages. They bolted the confines of society and its shackles in favor of deep meditation (aided in large part by weed, shrooms and opium). Their’s was a different quest from the Vedic times who primarily sought divine favor through complex ritual. These dudes (yes, all guys) delved directly into the mind to uncover the in-dwelling Self. Just within Vedanta alone there are dozens upon dozens of schools of vastly differing and diametrically opposed world views. To any astute observer, the Upanishads themselves are littered with contradiction as they are not comprised by a single author, but rather represent a collection of texts by different individuals recorded to paper many hundreds of years after their original forest satsangs (ever play the telephone game?).
Then came the samkhyans. Their mission was the eject button. They were scientists of the mind and their focus was to step by step, systematically de-condition the mind of its false identification with its own thoughts. Their practice was not premised upon how to live in the world but rather how to prepare oneself to be liberated from it. As one of my friends & teachers once said, “Its not like Patanjali left a footnote at the bottom of page one of his yoga sutras that read please read this 2500 years from now in America.” Which of course didn’t even exist as a nation yet just for a bit of historical perspective on the antiquity of what we’re dealing with here.
History 101 almost complete but the picture would be amiss if we didn’t include the tantrikas. Within India tantra represented something vastly different than the other philosophical schools. It revered the sacred feminine, shakti, as a means of emphasizing the desire to include nature or the material reality in the spiritual life. Not to just avoid leaving it out but actually as the very living manifestation of the divine in the physical world. Here the purpose wasn’t to become free, rather it rested on the idea that we are intrinsically free and our purpose is to create and express that beauty within life itself. But to keep with the theme, yes, still many many different schools within tantra itself.
Out of this worldview arose the tradition of hatha yoga. This is the yoga we are familiar with in the states (asana, pranayama, etc….). It was practically heresy for one to embrace the physical body rather than perform severe austerities to prove one’s ability to overcome it. And yes, even in India there were numerous approaches to hatha yoga.
The one teacher who really brought forth this practice was T. Krishnamacahrya. He was a mad scientist. Truly an astounding individual. But guess what, when he emerged from the caves with all his knowledge and wisdom, nobody gave a shit. Truly. It was his tenacity and determination (and support from the royal family) that led him to eventually popularize yoga. Yes, popularize it. He trained his students fervently in demanding and challenging asanas and then toured India with them doing demonstrations for the general public to raise their interest in yoga. And if you’re reading this, please know its because of his earnestness to promote yoga that you practice it today. His students included B.K.S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga) and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga) which are hugely influential practices in America today. His son is T.K.V. Desikichar (Viniyoga). And he broke from the orthodoxy to begin teaching women beginning with Indra Devi who was one of the pioneers in stretching yoga over the Atlantic Ocean.
I want to elucidate a few take always here:
1) Yoga never had a singular message
2) It was always changing
3) It possessed the capacity to meet people where they were and grow from there
4) It constantly broke from tradition
5) It required promotion to gain footing
And with that, yoga emerged in the west. Now, lets address the critique first. Has yoga become more of an industry than a community. Let’s see: Between classes, retreats, workshops, trainings, props, and clothes etc… An estimated 2 billion dollars each year is spent on yoga in America. And it’s showing no sign of yinning down. Just for my own reference I typed yoga into google and the first suggested phrase that popped up was yoga pants. God bless America I guess. So do we have an issue on our hands here or not? Is there a conflict between digging cool pants and embracing a spiritual path?
I am deeply drawn to the spiritual teachings and practices of yoga. They are, without a doubt, the basis of my life in all of its expressions. Those who share this perspective with me are fond of saying that all of life is yoga. That driving is yoga. Eating is yoga. Surfing is Yoga. Making love is Yoga. I would just like to point out that far too often for people who hold this perspective, seemingly EVERYTHING is yoga. Except one thing- yoga. That is, if its practiced in a different way or for a different purpose than their own.
As a yoga teacher, when I look out across the room I see variegatedness. Not just of body types or practice levels or generations or more commonly now, genders and ethnicities. But I see a variety of intentions. I see people coming to reduce stress, to improve flexibility, to self awaken, to impress their girlfriend, to deepen devotion, to heal injuries, to seek peace, to lose weight, to recover from addiction, to accomplish goals and to let go of needing to accomplish goals. And all I can think is amen y’all.
Because at the end of the day, we have no other choice but to start from where where we are. Yoga to me is like a universal remote control, it will work with any intention. I believe (this is just my opinion) that yoga gets a bad rap in the west. I believe any reason to get on a mat or on a meditation cushion is a good one. There is no elitism in my yoga. And yet there is a recognition of deeper practices. There are countless millions of Americans alone who began yoga for purely physical reasons and over time it became something more. It can’t help but to do so. Thank god yoga is trendy. I can imagine much worse trends.
And if even in this form, someone gets asanas into their body, the process is already underway. My girlfriend, who is also a yoga teacher, brought up a truly valuable insight to me on this point. She inverted the question itself by remarking, “How could asana not be a deeper practice of yoga? People are opening their bodies, connecting to their breath and concentrating the mind. It may not be talked about or even a conscious process but it still happens anyway.” We all hop onto the path from a different place. But where we start is less important than where we are heading. It’s interesting to consider if any of the subtler practices and philosophical teachings from yoga that have deeply affected countless millions of lives in the west would have ever had the opportunity to do so if not for the physical asana practice itself.
For those seeking only material benefit from yoga, they would probably never step on a mat in the first place if their only option included mandatory mantra and meditation. Despite our underlying unity, we are all quite diverse. It’s precisely for this reason that for yoga to be effective it must be too. And upon closer examination of the authentic roots of yoga, this couldn’t be more in line with the very heritage itself. Ultimately if we are in a place of judgment about the validity of another’s yoga practice then we are not in a place of yoga within ourselves. One need look no further than the present moment in order to gaze inwards & notice the feeling sense of their current state. We can embrace the practice of “know it by it’s flavor” to discern if we are coming from the seat of the ego or the higher self.
Whatever your personal opinion on this subject may be, perhaps the more pertinent question is how identified we are with our opinion and the worldview it represents. Perhaps it’s our opinions themselves that are the very things that bind us and while we won’t cease to have them, we are nonetheless able to transform our relationship with them so that we don’t misconstrue “our” truth as “the” truth. After all, there are many many paths to awakening. And that is a beautiful thing.
So let’s go buy some new yoga pants. Or not. Up to you…