I am only half-joking when I tell people that I am the world’s most unlikely of yoga teachers.
Born with scoliosis, a reversed C-curve in my neck, and a host of related flexibility challenges, bronchial complications and ear infections because of it, I was not the healthiest of children. I’d have asthma-like attacks when I exercised, so I simply avoided it, and like most kids, sugary sweets and cheeseburgers were always preferable to whole grains and vegetables. Couple that with an aversion to religion (after a strict upbringing), and I was sworn off all things spiritual. I remember feeling like an ugly duckling in the one yoga class I tried in New York, at a friend’s suggestion. They were swans, and I was ugly. I left there with a bruised ego and proclaimed to the Universe, “I am never doing yoga again!”
I have been a teacher of yoga for more than eight years now.
You see, the funny thing about yoga is, you do not select it, and it does not choose you. Instead, it offers a gentle invitation to explore, but holds no blame if you politely decline. “If not this lifetime,” it says, “Perhaps the next one.”
I am fortunate that it extended its invitation more than once.
A person’s relationship with yoga is a collaborative effort. It will give back what you put into it and then some. There is no question that the yoga in America differs greatly from yoga in India, China or elsewhere, because the mindset we bring to our practice is unique. As a whole, we as Americans are more inclined to explore the “package” that is yoga and adapt it to our needs (vs. conforming to tradition), because we have grown up in a culture that encourages new ideas and new approaches. Therefore, collectively, we are free to question, to experience and to change.
Admittedly, in my own relationship with yoga, I did not begin with all the pieces fitting together in a perfect puzzle with my hatha practice here, my meditation over there, and my purification processes neatly tucked somewhere in the middle. No, I began with what I understood yoga to be at that time: physical exercise for strength and flexibility, and breathing for health and relaxation.
Over time, my body felt healthier, and I wanted to stay that way.
My emotions became more balanced, and I wanted to stay that way too.
With my new-found health came body awareness, to the point where—without even trying—foods naturally became distinctly good or bad. Live foods like fresh spinach, sprouts and vegetables gave me energy, and made me happier. Too many dead foods like fermented cheeses, wines and meats made me sluggish and periodically sad.
This process continued into my relationships with people, where I could begin to empathically feel who was a negative energy drain and who sustained or enhanced my well-being, and thus began the process of distinguishing those who were on the same path as me, and those who were not.
For my spiritual development, I credit my very first martial arts teacher, who I began studying with just two days prior to my 21st birthday. He would write meaningful quotes from the Tao Te Ching and teach me—the one unable to keep body or mind still for more than 30 seconds—Tai Chi Yang Short Form, which became my moving meditation before Bagua Zhang (another soft, flowing but powerful style of Chinese martial arts), Vinyasa, restorative yoga and eventually long periods of stillness.
I learned how to meditate and still my body and mind.
Whatever the world may believe or disbelieve about America, there is one thing I can tell you for certain. By virtue of having been born here, I was given the unique opportunity to explore every spiritual, metaphysical and religious practice I chose, and my previous aversion to all things spiritual, turned into an indescribable desire for truth. While there may have been people telling me I shouldn’t, never did any authority tell me I couldn’t.
Presently, I understand the overlap of the classical philosophy of Patanjali, outlined in the Yoga Sutras as it relates to other belief systems, just as I am able to integrate knowledge from an Ayurvedic diet with a superfood approach to eating. I see how the movement of chi in Bagua relates to the serpent spine energy of Kundalini.
I learned how to yoke many ideas into one unified whole. This became my truth.
But do not mistake my seemingly hodge-podge fascination with learning different physical, dietary and spiritual practices with a lack of direction. It is through exploration that I found my personal path and soul’s purpose. Though, to avoid fluttering in the wind, I often recommend that new students try a variety of different classes, find the one that they feel most drawn too, and develop a root (or foundation) in that system, before building upon it.
At no time during my process, did I set out to become a yogi. I set out for answers. Everything that followed happened naturally.
So, I’ve told you about my personal process, including physical practice, diet, mindfulness, and spirituality, but still I have not answered the daunting question: What is yoga?
Yes, I know it is the Sanskrit word to yoke and that Hatha translates as sun and moon, but not what the literal word means, but what it is.
Very simply, yoga is your path. In Taoism it is the way.
Your path will be different from mine, as each soul’s journey differs with each lifetime. This is why yoga cannot be packaged, contained or easily defined, because its meaning changes with each storyteller and practitioner.
What is yoga in America? Well, it is the most liberating brand of yoga there is (and isn’t yoga about liberation?), because if yoga is the path, America is the land of opportunity to find that path. It is the freedom of self-expression, evolution and the discovery of personal truth.
Danielle Hope Hier is the owner of Birdland Media Works (est. 2006). Her work as a new media writer and publicist includes everything from web content to feature articles and training manuals to press releases. Author of the Acting Out Yoga series and contributing author for Yoga in America, she is also a freelance journalist covering topics in the areas of Arts & Entertainment, Food & Dining, Health & Wellness, Human Interest and Local & Regional News.
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Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers
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