Why Yoga Is (Or Can Be) Different.

Via on Jun 12, 2012

A friend of mine recently had a falling out with yoga.

“It’s no different than spinning,” she says, “especially power yoga classes, why should we act as if yoga is somehow special? Its just another form of exercise!”

Now, I am no yoga-only purist. I love running, playing soccer, weight training, riding the cardio bike and getting into some serious push-ups, pull-ups and crunches. But I think yoga is different for reasons that have made it my mainstay practice for the last 20 plus years.

How is yoga different?

Well let me start off by saying I am not going try and make some vague statement about how yoga was handed down from Lord Shiva and is the perfect way to burn through karma, dis-identify with the illusory material world and find God.

That’s just straight-up mythology, which is perhaps interesting as a metaphor but tends to fade in the sunlight of honest inquiry.

It also turns out (according to the deeply researched book Yoga Body by Mark Singleton) that what we know as asana practice today as inspired by Krishnamacharya traces back a mere 80 years and is basically a hybrid of Indian exercise regimes, Scandanavian gymnastics and YMCA fitness training.

This hybrid physical practice created and refined in the 1930’s for the Indian royal family was then after the fact grafted onto the roughly fifteen-hundred year old Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, which in fact is much more of an instruction manual for a type of meditation with a particular religious metaphysics than a guide to what we know today as asana.

So a lot of our beloved notions of asana practice as an ancient and sacred art form are based in modern privileged American romanticism. But stay with me, because I think that realizing this is actually a good thing!

The “Correct Alignment” Conundrum

I am also not going to say that yoga is a superior system because its alignment principles keep your body in perfect health when applied correctly.

Turns out there are as many approaches to “alignment” as there are schools of yoga in the modern market place. But look at photos of Krishnamacharya and you’ll see a radiant old man doing the kind of apparently sloppy postures that would get him corrected every two minutes by a newbie Santa Monica mid-day community class teacher —and this is the grandfather of modern posture practice!

This has not stopped American systems (or brand names) of yoga from claiming that not only are they teaching the correct asana alignment principles, but that these are part of a supposedly unbroken lineage from mother India that goes back thousands of years.

An interesting need we have to claim authority and validity based on the ancient and the Eastern, huh?

Turns out that millions of Americans are actively engaged in regular yoga practices following divergent principles that in some cases are quite contradictory with regard to say, the placement of the pelvis, shoulder joint, knees or neck—all of which seem to work just fine for most people while tending to injure others!

My sense is that people who most benefit from certain approaches tend to end up in those systems after having tried some of the others that were not beneficial for their particular bodily needs. Everyone thinks they have found the superior or perfect system, but what really happens is that groups of people with similar body types or genetic tendencies tend to find one another and follow yoga systems that are selectively beneficial.

Of course, all approaches to yoga can also have blind-spots—and I find it essential as a teacher to be willing to refer people to bodywork, chiropractic or physical therapy when an injury or pain syndrome in their bodies is not being resolved through yoga alone.

 

UNIQUE SYNTHESIS

But here’s my pitch—I think yoga can be different from other forms of exercise when it combines four key elements: stretching, strengthening, breath and mindfulness.

For me, yoga provides a unique opportunity to work with both stretching and strengthening the body while training the brain to be mindful and using breath to regulate the nervous system.

Further I think that when mindfulness of body and breath coincide with a supportive community space that invites people into authentic self-exploration, yoga becomes a way to drop beneath the surface and work with mental and emotional habit patterns in ways that can be deeply healing and life changing.

This requires that the physical asana practice be intelligent and non-dogmatic, striving to meet the student where they are and empowering them to listen to and learn about their own bodies. It also requires that the teacher learn how to provide the kind of environment or micro-culture that makes it safe for students to let down the defensive shields we all have learned to hide behind.

In this kind of environment the brain states that attention to breath and moment-to-moment awareness evoke can blossom into being truly beneficial and substantively transformational.

So for me, one of the key ways yoga is different is that it can be an arena for inner work that uses the external practice as a dynamic platform for meditative curiosity about where each of us is at on our journeys through life. Through this kind of practice we get to see how we deal with our emotions and find out what is most beneficial to our bodies and minds.

There is another key distinction I find essential here: yoga is different not only from other forms of exercise, but also from forms of spirituality or religion that do not involve interior experiential practices.

It is one thing to buy into a metaphysical belief system, supernatural faith or set of superstitious talismans, quite another to spend regular time in the kind of contemplation for which yoga and meditation set the stage.

Now, of course many people engage in yoga as if it is all about an outside-in embrace of quasi-religious beliefs, and an adopting of another culture and its vocabulary, way of dress etc. This kind of surface pretension is a hard trap to avoid—but my sense is that we can move deeper.

When we approach yoga practice as a living tradition that transcends culture, religion and time-period, we start to see that it is about the very universal human process of cultivating self-awareness.

The  human body is the common denominator and transcendent ground of the practice. Yoga presents a unique opportunity to be more engaged in and conscious of our lives in our bodies.

We are working with our nervous systems and brains, and what I think of as the “sacred biochemistry” of our neuro-endocrine systems. We are leaning to stay present in the face of our experience as it unfolds, and cultivating kindness toward ourselves and others as we observe the dance of shadow and light, struggle and grace to which none of us is ever immune.

We are working with the same muscles, bones, and fascia in the same organizational structure that all human beings share and this can take center stage over cultural fetishes, metaphysical crutches, Sanskrit jargon or ideological dogma.

This makes space for genuine inquiry into how it feels to be this human being on this planet in this moment. Inquiry into what matters to us, what feels good, what we are struggling with and how to best be with and move forward in our actual lives.

The practice-oriented experiential nature of yoga makes it possible for us to go beyond overt religiosity into a very naturalistic, down-to-earth exploration of being human, of our suffering and our bliss, our capacity for compassion and gratitude and the need we all have for spaces in which to grieve, vent and celebrate with supportive community.

While spinning (and the other fun and beneficial activities I mentioned above) may create an awesome endorphin rush, trim waistline and great cardiovascular health–and may even be an experience that for some people is quite healing, I will personally always come back to yoga as a unique and powerful multi-leveled way to work with mind/body awareness, strength and flexibility.

About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of http://www.yogateachergradschool.com/ where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on Amazon.com. www.julianwalkeryoga.com

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37 Responses to “Why Yoga Is (Or Can Be) Different.”

  1. Mamaste says:

    Just intro'd on FB to: Main Page, Yoga, WOW, I'm Not Spiritual & Health and Wellness.
    ~Mamaste

  2. chiara says:

    Thank you Julian, I greatly share your views

    • chiara_ghiron says:

      On thinking about it, I figured I could add this link to my earlier reply though, http://www.himalayaninstitute.org/yoga-internatio

      I have been thinking about this post and the many replies it elicited, including my earlier one. It is indeed interesting that at one time some of us seem to feel the necessity to validate yoga through the knowledge that it is an ancient philosophy/art/science, and some of us feel safer in finding that some of it has modern roots … both attitudes are worthy of analysis, I believe.

      cheers

  3. Annie Ory says:

    Oh the inflammatory power of words.
    Asana practice does NOT date back a "mere" 80 years and is NOT just "Indian exercise regime".
    Julian you always seem to choose the topics that inspire passion, and to present them with statements of such absolute certainty that I imagine you gearing up for the days of discussion that follow with juice cleanses and breathing exercises.
    I have seen scrolls that are 1000s of years old that show asana practices and talk about it as a form of moving meditation. Not in person, have I seen these scrolls, images of them on the Internet I have seen.

    I don't know a lot about the history of yoga, but I know enough about the history of the world to never take the opinion offered by ONE BOOK as THE TRUTH.
    If everyone knew that the world would be a more peaceful place.
    Enjoy the debate.

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      actually annie, i specifically mentioned my source for that perspective, and i believe he debunks the popular mythology quite well.

      you are correct though asana as we know it nowadays it is not "just an Indian exercise regime" it is based heavily in danish gymnastics and bodybuilding.

      i would have agreed with you based on general opinion in our zeitgeist, but seriously, read singleton – its fascinating to get a handle on some actual history.

      we LOVE the mythology of an ancient and exotic practice that somehow connects asana to the metaphysics of vedantic idealism and patanjali's dualist/ascetic philosophy, but regardless of our pleasing illusions, these things have very little do with one another!

      modern posture practice as we know it is a thoroughly hybridized, east/west development of the last 80 years. sure there was "yoga" before this, but not in any way recognizable as what the word means in the popular western sense.

      singleton goes so far as to show a danish gymnastics manual with page by page exact comparisons to iyengar's (later) book…. in a funny way if we were really being "true to the tradition" we would use the *danish names* for the poses, not sanskrit!

      btw – links to the scrolls would be interesting! bear in mind i am not saying there were not hatha yogins going way back – singleton is clear about this too, but that they were a different kettle of fish…

      you are right though – i do have a habit of pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes – sorry if that pushes your buttons.

      • \mb says:

        singleton goes so far as to show a danish gymnastics manual with page by page exact comparisons to iyengar's (later) book…. in a funny way if we were really being "true to the tradition" we would use the *danish names* for the poses, not sanskrit!
        ———————————————————————————————————————————————————–
        One lil correction for you on the above:

        The photos on pgs. 60-64 comparing Iyengar poses actually is from an article in Scribners Magazine April 1889, by an American physician and anatomist, Thomas Dwight. The article is entitled "Anatomy of a Contortionist".

        So…who knows if there were ever Danish names for asanas – didn't see any mention of any in the book, at least!

        • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

          ah – thanks for being on top of that – it has been a few months since i read the book!

          • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

            annie – quick question for you: why is it important to see asana practice as ancient?

    • __MikeG__ says:

      Yoga Body is not a vehicle for the opinion of one man. It offers a reasoned and thoroughly referenced scholarly view on yoga history and on yoga as practiced today. Read it, you will find every "opinion" to be sourced and cited.

      Knowing the facts does not invalidate the practice of modern yoga, IMO. Unless the person believes in a version of yoga where every asana that person performs is the exact same asana an ancient Yogi practiced thousands of years ago. From that perspective I can see how facts, knowledge and reality would be problematic.

  4. Robert says:

    Love this article — and, being that you are my close friend, I get to see this philosophy lived. Great, poignant piece.
    The passage that hit home the most: "Yoga can be an arena for inner work that uses the external practice as a dynamic platform for meditative curiosity about where each of us is at on our journeys through life."

  5. \mb says:

    Yes, Singleton's book seems to be affront to those who need have the "ancient lineage" connection be all-important. There's another controversial nugget in it about K. Patthabi Jois claiming to have the only copy of an ancient text that purports to establish the "lineage" of Ashtanga, except that it was mysteriously destroyed by termites. Hmmm….

    Also, though Jois studied under Krishnamacharya, the term "Ashtanga" didn't come into common usage until the early 1970s. Before that, the 8 limbs were more commonly known under the aegis of "Raja Yoga". And, according to Singleton, sun salutations are the most recent development of asana, and come from Swedish gymnastics developed in the early 20th century. While it's true that Patanjali makes mention asana, it's mostly raised as an adjunct to meditation. And during the the British occupation of India, yogis there were mostly regarded as freaks and mendicants, reduced to "street entertainer" status from their former warrior loft prior to and during the early days of the occupation.

    Not that this has anything to do with how totally great and useful yoga asana (and beyond) practice actually can be. For me the legitimacy of the practice is in the practice itself, not necessarily in its historical roots and the stories told around that.

  6. L.S. says:

    Excellent article. Thank you!

  7. Mat says:

    "deeply researched book Yoga Body by Mark Singleton" – possibly – but we need depth and scope http://matwitts.com/blog/yoga-body/

  8. Michele McCormick says:

    so well written! I am a yoga teacher too, and I don't find anything disparaging towards yoga in this essay. It really clarifies why yoga works, and why it is different from other forms of exercise. it moves beyond exercise. It is all about the breath, the mindfulness. It really doesn't matter if our practice today is based on sutras 2,000 years old or based on a program less than 100 years old. Anyone who has found their style knows without a doubt that yoga works. On a number of levels.

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      absolutely – and thanks.

      you know the thing is there is actually no mention of asana in patanjali (save a couple vague references to posture and breath) and it really does appear that krishnamacharya came up with the basis of asana as we know it in the 1930's, after which it was further developed by jois.

      as m/b points out above jois apparently claimed to have the only copy of a rare text from which he learned the ancient practice, but that this was eaten by termites….. a likely story!

      and yes – the practice of asana , just as with the practice of meditation, works because of how it affects the human body – and the human body transcends time period, culture, religious belief, and pretentious fetishizing of the ancient and exotic… we need entertain no unreasonable or fanciful beliefs in order for these practices to work.

      what we are left with is the authentic experience of being present in our bodies and working with breath, movement, stillness and awareness – being part of a living tradition of other humans just like us who have sought insight, peace, wisdom and compassion. these gifts are worth much more than the need to buy into a religious belief system or appropriate a cultural identity.

  9. Shyam Dodge Shyam says:

    Julian! Wow.

  10. trueayurveda says:

    Julian, I might say thank you for your post. Good thoughts. No yoga is not being taught. Exercise from a western lens is being taught, this is disease forming by the view of yoga.
    Krishnamacharya was also a man that followed the entire path, ate properly according to yogic and ayurvedic standards and was a purist. What we have today is a bunch of people uneducated partying and just doing exercise. Krishnamacharya can do all the various asanas without having biomechanical correctness due to the fact that he was pure from his lifestyle and intake. Today caffeine addicted, no idea what is healthy teachers are walking around not living the lifestyle and that takes a big toll. Just proper digestion is so important in a yoga practice. Hell, ask 100 yoga teachers why you must have an empty belly for practice and they won't have a clue why. They don't follow it. Understanding the science behind it all allows the actual science to be followed. If you understand that having anything in your stomach during practice will actually clog the channels and cause disease then everything becomes clear and the practice actually has the intended effects. It is not brainsurgery but it is also not whatever you want to make it. Who actually knows how to use the bandhas? I haven't met one person that calls themself a yoga teacher that knows much less has even heard of them. You gotta ask yourself, what is it that is being practiced?

    • __MikeG__ says:

      Depends on perspective as to whether yoga is being taught in the west. If viewed from the perspective of the original Hatha yogis, then there is not a person alive today in the east or west that is practicing authentic Hatha yoga. Their practices, beliefs and austerities do not fit into modern times.

      I share your dislike of many of the modern forms of exercise yoga. I think I will snap the next time I hear of some clown producing another yoga style like "Yoga Booty Ballet". Drives me nuts.

      On the plus side, IMO, is that there are also many in the west who are building new yoga systems by simultaneously using the best of ancient wisdom while rejecting the supernatural garbage that is also found in these ancient belief systems.

      Even a cursory study of the history Yoga as a school of Indian philosophy quickly reveals that Yoga philosophy was never a static belief system. Yoga philosophy has always changed with the times.

  11. Vision_Quest2 says:

    "My sense is that people who most benefit from certain approaches tend to end up in those systems after having tried some of the others that were not beneficial for their particular bodily needs. Everyone thinks they have found the superior or perfect system, but what really happens is that groups of people with similar body types or genetic tendencies tend to find one another and follow yoga systems that are selectively beneficial."

    SOMEBODY had to say it–I'm glad it was you—so while I admire Ashtangis' take on spirituality, I know I could never be one, myself.

    Not only that, but conscious dance and some forms of dance have been increasingly calling out to me … replacing full sessions of my yoga practice …

    • __MikeG__ says:

      Yep. IMO, in modern times, and especially the west, we have become disconnected from our bodies and environment. That is why yoga, even when performed purely as exercise, calls to so many. Even when lacking an "real" underlying philosophy just getting up and moving reconnects many with something they never knew they needed.

  12. "My sense is that people who most benefit from certain approaches tend to end up in those systems after having tried some of the others that were not beneficial for their particular bodily needs. Everyone thinks they have found the superior or perfect system, but what really happens is that groups of people with similar body types or genetic tendencies tend to find one another and follow yoga systems that are selectively beneficial."

    Oh, but this is a truism that applies far beyond this. I'm thinking additionally of the fanaticism some folks argue about in terms of diet whether it be Macrobiotic, Paleo, Raw Foods, Vegan, Vegetarian, etc. (I went for alphabetical order – not ranking intended…)

  13. Blake Abramovitz says:

    Seems like knowledge is knowledge wherever it developed, and by whomever it was developed. The body is the body, whatever era, and if someone figures stuff out about it that's helpful, then that new insight should become a part of the evolving yoga tradition, whether they were an Indian, a Scandinavian or a Swede.

    It makes sense that the physical practice would shift and evolve as we learn and evolve as a culture.

    But maybe more to the point, the practice of applying the mind to the body, of bringing a meditative attention to our sensations and breath as we move– where does that come from? Was that part of the gymnastics team's training too? Was that merely a component of an "Indian excercise regimen?" Because that seems like the more important piece, the thing that really makes what we do "yoga," as opposed to just exercise. And that's the piece, it seems to me, that might date back somewhat further than the early 20th century.

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      actually that too continued to evolve over time.

      the form in which you and i have practiced it via jack kornfield and other contemporary buddhist teachers is waaaaaaay different already from traditional buddhist practice. mostly in terms of a less dualistic, more psychologically informed, humanistic emphasis.

      the emphasis you and i have on bringing mindful awareness to asana as a vehicle for inner work/process is already a hybridized notion blending different approaches. this is born explicitly from the east-west dialog of the late twentieth century and is part of on ongoing experiment.

      the yoga philosophy that goes back into the ancient past is more about concentration meditation based on transcending the body and discovering the pure consciousness beyond the material world. it has almost nothing in common with mindfulness as we practice it today.

      the desire to try and make ancient yogic ideas into something that actually *all along* has reflected our liberal, postmodern humanist body-positive, emotionally aware values is an act of revisionism that while well-meaning is actually dishonest and obscurantist.

      • bobcat says:

        Anyone with some amount of critical thinking would agree with you, Julian. I don't see the point of arguing about the traditional, ancient yoga being superior to modern yoga. Though, what we are doing with yoga now can be integrated in ways much like how the pragmatic western Buddhist teachers have done. It is a natural and needed evolution. Thanks for the great conversation.

  14. bobcat says:

    Absolutely agree with you that breath and mindfulness are essential to yoga. Patanjali's yoga sutras mention them too. My asana practice completely changed after learning to engage kumbhakas and bandhas. Without them it's just an aerobic exercise. My mind expands beyond the promise of perfect health, yogic powers and immortality found in Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Shiva Samhita after practicing Mindfulness and Vipassana. What good does it do to live longer or have more power than others if I am not contributing to the humanity and the world at large? Compassion, love and unity are crucial to the practice of yoga and should be a prerequisite or the way and not just a result. The way we practice today and what mentioned in some of the yogic texts I have read simply perpetuate me, me and me. We need a new, unique synthesis of yoga indeed, preferably one that acknowledge the vast majority of female practitioners.

    • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

      gender equality, psychological awareness, embrace of the body, scientific literacy, moving beyond superstition and supernaturalism – all of which are necessary now for yoga to remain relevant and be a true living tradition.

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  22. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    thanks! i thought i had corrected that – but left the word "you" in.

    its fixed now. :)

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