Recently, I was browsing through Barnes & Noble looking at yoga magazines when I came across Yoga Basics: The Best of Yoga International, an issue by the popular yoga company that discusses yoga philosophy, inversions, how to use props, and advice from several yoga pros. I've been practicing for almost four years now, but I have felt a strong desire to return to my roots and reasons why I began my journey into the practice. So, one night I made a cup of coffee and sat down to read the compilation and humble myself. The first article that caught my attention. It was an extensive, in-depth piece by Swami Rama called, "Clearing the Haze: The Meaning and Purpose of Yoga." Swami Rama discusses what yoga is and what it shouldn't be but has become due to society's constant cycle of consumerism. This, combined with my own battle of defining what yoga is inspired me to list out the three things that I think yoga is not. As Swami said, "Such a haze of confusion has been created around the clear and pure concept of yoga that it is now necessary to redefine yoga and clarify its meaning and purpose."
1. Yoga is not a cult or a religion
"Yoga defines itself as a science: That is, as a practical, methodical, and systematic discipline, or set of techniques, which has the lofty goal of helping human beings become aware of their true nature."
When friends and peers approach me about yoga, almost to no fail do they say, "Oh, I thought yoga was a cult." Unfortunately, (as it happens with nearly every religion) there are people who wish to capitalize on the devotion of humans and twist it to satisfy their own sick desires and gather a following who is brainwashed into thinking that what they are doing is the only path to the afterlife. But yoga is, first and foremost, a science that assists the practitioner in finding a calm, meditative state and second, a physical practice that combines proper breathing and alignment. It is not meant to be used to further a hidden agenda or persuade people to believe a specific doctrine. Yoga is a free movement that does not belong to the constraints of dogma or creed. Yoga can help one find a deeper connection in what they presently believe or inspire them to explore outside of their comfort zone, but it is not forced. Yoga helps with liberation and manifestation, not conformity and punishment. The only belief in yoga that is widely spread is The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which consists of "Eight Limbs" of action and thinking that can assist a yogi in deepening their practice within and without.
2. Yoga is not about mastering poses
"Yoga has become superficial, sometimes emphasizing only physical beauty or skill and strength in postures. Certainly asanas [postures] and breathing exercises create physical health and harmony, but only when our minds are free from violent emotions can we achieve a calm, creative, and tranquil mental state."
Sure, it's great to scroll through all the cool, seemingly impossible yoga poses people do for Instagram, but yoga isn't a competition of who can bend their body in the most creative ways. The poses are the third limb of the "Eight Limbs", which are meant to prepare the body to become a vessel for spirit, energy, or whatever you think it is that helps connect you to your inner self and the universe beyond. Through consistent practice, we learn discipline, and when we learn to incorporate flow with proper deep breathing then we learn how to stay calm among chaos and movement in our bodies and in our lives. The more advanced poses come with time, dedication, and preparation. It's only been this year alone that I have even begun to challenge myself to go for arm balances like running man or inversions like headstand. For the first three years, my practice centered around how to breathe as deeply as possible, and then maintin it while moving through a swift Sun Salutation A. It's a lot harder than you think.
3. Yoga is not a fashion show
"Like many profound, beautiful, and powerful arts and sciences, yoga has suffered from the spiritual poverty of the modern world--it has been trivialized, watered down, or reduced to cliches. the deep and eternal essence of yoga has been misrepresented and packaged for personal profit by clever people."
First, I will confess that I am guilty of this. I'm not someone who minds too much about how well their outfit matches when they go to class (as long as everything is covered and comfortable), but there have been a few times where I put in extra effort to look impeccable in order to impress a friend who was tagging along or a teacher who intimidated me with their own fashionable outlook. I'm not someone who freaks over the new Lululemon leggings, but will go to Mashall's and buy a cart load of yoga pants. I have even done this with my mala beads if I am conscious about whether or not they blend with what I'm wearing. It is the ego that takes over and clouds our reasoning. Yoga was originally taught to adolescent boys, and I'm pretty sure there wasn't a tie dye gym bag or printed mat they could use to look cool. And, girls weren't even permitted to openly practice until the 1900s! Today, women make up of 72% of the yoga population in the US alone, and the profit in the yoga industry has increased to 16 billion dollars (YogaJournal.com). We are a society of consumers, but part of practicing yoga is being aware of our wants and needs and limiting ourselves to what is essential to our mind and spirit. It doesn't matter if someone is going shirtless with a cute Athletica bra, or doing a scorpion in harem Elephant pants. What matters is that you are deepening your practice with a meditation, breathing, and a consistent practice to go within.
Overall, yoga is a self-study. It is here to improve your mental and physical health along with giving you a break from the pressure of the working world. Yoga can be a lifestyle or a hobby, as long as you are enjoying the benefits that it provides then you are a practitioner. As Swami Rama said: