When Does it Stop Being Yoga? ~ Matthew Gindin

Via elephant journal
on Apr 9, 2013
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Photo: lululemon athletica

Perhaps if we reserved the title yoga for things that deserve it, we would be clearer about what we are and aren’t doing.

The other day I was walking down the street where I live and saw young women doing a yoga demonstration outside of a yoga clothing shop. They had put stripper poles on top of yoga mats and were acrobatically pirouetting around them, demonstrating some kind of brilliant new fusion of India’s most ancient spiritual discipline and pole dancing.

This got me thinking—what is yoga?

I regularly give an introductory lecture on Ayurveda, the ancient Vedic medical tradition of India, at a local Oriental Medicine College. The majority of students have attended a yoga class previously, and I explore the meaning of the word yoga with them.

In these lectures, I point out that “yoga” refers to any spiritual discipline. One particular type of yoga, Hatha Yoga (lit. the yoga of force, i.e. the physical yoga), uses asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) as well as other practices to cleanse and transform the body in the quest for spiritual realization.

Ayurveda also uses asana and pranayama, but not for spiritual realization—Ayurveda uses them for health.

I then ask the students,”In a yoga class, how many do you feel are there looking for health benefits, and how many are looking for union with God or ultimate truth?”

Most agree that 95 percent or more are there for health reasons. “In that case,” I say, “What you attended was an Ayurvedic healing session, not a yoga session.”

There is nothing wrong with that of course—Ayurveda is wonderful! It is misleading, however, and breeds dishonesty, to say we are practicing yoga when what we really want is to lose some weight or heal an old injury.

The loss involved with this confusion is the loss of yoga itself.

A brief discussion of the word “yoga.”

The Sanskrit word yoga is the same as the English word yoke, which means from the same root. Its earliest appearance in Indian religious texts is surprisingly negative in tone.

The Buddha actually called his path yoga khemam, which means security from yoga/the yoke, or freedom from bondage. In later Indian traditions, yoga came to mean spiritual discipline, in the sense that one could say, “I have taken on the yoke of this training.”

Patanjali, writing a few centuries after the Buddha, laid out an eight-limbed yoga (ashtanga) that includes mastery of relaxed meditation posture (asana) and simple breathing exercises (pranayama) to still the mind.

This was part of a path of ethics, renunciation and meditation leading to the cessation of egoic states of mind (citta vrtti nirodha) and thus unveiling the liberated, boundless consciousness of the purusha (true person), known in Upanishadic culture as the atman (Self).

Thus, for Patanjali, yoga is a holistic, discipline of renunciation aimed at total spiritual liberation.

Over time, yoga became a popular term to refer to spiritual discipline, and different practices were identified as “yogas.”

>>Patanjali’s yoga came to be known as Raja Yoga (“royal discipline”).

>>The yoga based in the Upanishads came to be known as Jnana Yoga (“the discipline of knowledge”).

>>Dispassionate service came to be known as Karma Yoga (“the discipline of action”).

>>Devotional practice came to be known as Bhakti Yoga (“the discipline of devotion”).

>>Tantra and Tantra Yoga involves a complex and daring use of ritual, imagination and the body, and is based on scriptures from outside the orthodox Vedas.

>>The Tantrikas developed Hatha Yoga. The ultimate point of Hatha Yoga is moksha—spiritual liberation—or to become a siddha (master of physical and spiritual reality).

In bhakti texts, yoga is said to mean yoking to God/Goddess. Other texts refer to yoking the individual self (jivatman) to the Ultimate Self (paramatman).

In some Hatha Yoga texts, it is said to mean “yoking the internal masculine and feminine energies of the subtle body to attain transcendence,” or it retains its simple meaning of “discipline.”

In all of these cases the word yoga retains its core meaning of “to yoke.”

Which brings me to what I was thinking the other day walking down the street.

What are we yoking to in Western yoga?

It seems that we have regained the original meaning of the word yoga—bondage.

Some of our Western yoga classes, where the young and beautiful do postures in their underwear or designer yoga wear in front of wall length mirrors, would be considered dens of bondage to a traditional Indian yogi—bondage to lust, competition, ego and gross materialism.

Yoga has also become a profession in the West for the first time. Instead of careful one-on-one teaching between a mature guru and disciple, we have yoga teachers with a few years of experience who run crowds through a vigorous set of postures in return for a paycheck.

Having taught this kind of yoga myself, I know that it can feel like bondage—for the teachers.

The standard defense is that commercialization and de-spiritualization makes yoga more accessible, and that maybe some people will be drawn to the real yoga.

I am sure that happens.

But this kind of yoga can become a justification for selling something less than authentic, and turning a radical practice—which was meant to transform people’s lives—into something safe and diluted that reinforces, instead of challenges, the bondages/yokes of our culture.

At least if these classes were known as Ayurveda, people would know that they were just going to do something for their health. In terming what’s done in these studios “yoga,” the real yoga—the radical subculture of 3,000 years—is obscured and replaced with, well, “yoga butt.”

I can’t say I would be happy to see the appearance of “Ayurveda butt” DVDs, but that would be less of a self-serving capitalist reconstruction than yoga butt is.

Confucius taught that philosophy began with the “rectification of names.” Perhaps if we reserved the title yoga for things that deserve it (like synagogue services or soup kitchens—or even that rare bird, the real Hatha Yoga class) we would be clearer about what we are and aren’t doing.

I am well aware that is not going to happen.

The word “yoga” sells, so we will continue to call it that even when it is not.

So why am I writing this?

I am hoping to inspire readers to think about what the yoga they are practicing and teaching is—I don’t mean to suggest that they need to have the spiritual goals of a traditional Hindu Tantrika or Lover of God.

But if yoga means, at the very least, a discipline which aims to yoke the practitioner to a certain value or goal beyond mere health, then I would challenge us to think about what goal that is, and how to pursue it with courage and integrity.


MattheGindinMatthew Gindin, R.Ac is an Acupuncturist, Ayurvedic Counselor, Meditation, Qigong and Yoga Teacher living in Vancouver, BC. He began teaching meditation and yoga after living as a Buddhist monastic for three years. He regularly lectures on yoga philosophy, Buddhist psychology, holistic medicine, and Jewish spirituality. Being curious and perhaps a little too thoughtful, Matthew has explored and practiced neo-Shamanism, Tantric Yoga, all of the major schools of Buddhism and Daoism. His core spiritual commitments are to the contemplative life, positive action in the world, and his home tradition of Judaism whose two core demands, “love God” and “love people” are what he tries to live up to. As well as writing for the web he blogs at Blue Waters, Blue Mountains (www.susuddho.blogspot.com) and Talis in Wonderland (mgindin.wordpress.com). His professional site is www.matthewgindin.com.



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47 Responses to “When Does it Stop Being Yoga? ~ Matthew Gindin”

  1. amphibi1yogini says:

    This is so true. They should be calling this a fusion practice. Pole dancing does not address the yamas: ahimsa, aparigraha, santosha, or brahmacharya …

  2. Gary Giamboi says:

    Sadly, as this article is written, it is correct about "Pole Yoga." However, unbeknown to most yoga practitioners in the west, Pole Yoga has been practiced in South India for years. My Guru, Yogiraj Swami Bua, M.H.Y., was a champion for many years.

    There is one huge physical difference in the poles. As practiced in Kerala, the wooden flag pole was attached to a small wooden base (maybe one meter square). This wooden base then rested on top of bottles (like 1 L beer bottles) which where just packed together tightly, but free standing. So the slightest torque placed upon the pole would topple the whole thing down.

    The only way you could keep the pole from falling while performing an Asana on the top of the pole would be too completely balance the forces acting on the pole. Since you would be the only one applying forces to the pole, you would have to make sure you could cancel out any any force your Asana put on the pole.

  3. Gary Giamboi says:

    We are on the same page as far as losing the "Yoga" of Yoga. Anyone with an active ego can morph anything into their own version of it.

    I agree it seems Yoga has become too competitive. And yes, India has had a national Asana competition for years. I believe Bikram was a past champion and look at what he has done (and tried to do) to Yoga.

    In the East, systems like Yoga were definitely twisted by some. However, it is only in the West that (up until now) Big money can become involved; and, unfortunately the bigger the money, the bigger the twisting.

    As for Yoga and war, Yoga is no stranger to the battlefield. Much of what is considered classical Yoga was given to us by Lord Krishna at the battle of Kurukshetra where he was urging Arjuna to kill his relatives. If you did not know Lord Krishna and Arjuna or their families and you overheard the piece of that conversation were Krishna told Arjuna to kill his loved ones, what would you think?

    Therefore, before we judge, I think we need to try and understand the who, why and what.

  4. robynlawrence says:

    Right on! I think this sentence sums it up perfectly:
    "Some of our Western yoga classes, where the young and beautiful do postures in their underwear or designer yoga wear in front of wall length mirrors, would be considered dens of bondage to a traditional Indian yogi—bondage to lust, competition, ego and gross materialism."

  5. Gary Giamboi says:

    I agree with you. Just keep in mind the in the olden days Yogis did Yoga wearing a langoty, which is looks a lot like underwear! :)

  6. Ramani says:

    Yeah – I think that this is obvious to people who have read at least one or two books on yoga- sadly it isn't the case. The same thing is happening now with Ayurveda too unfortunately – it makes a nice adjunct to the yoga- ya know? Just as there are few and far between actual sat guru yogis in the west who can teach you real yoga (there's a couple), there are no real Ayurvedic training facilities teaching real Ayurveda either, just an adapted form for the north american consumer.
    I was curious in your comment about using hatha yoga and asana for health as being related to Ayurveda – in what Ayurvedic texts is this relationship mentioned? I know the hatha yoga pradipika mentions a little Ayurveda, and modern authors try to draw link the two practices with often ungrounded basis – but where are you getting your information from? Thanks…

  7. Gary Giamboi says:

    If I may jump in…..

    Yoga is to Ayurveda as Qigong is to Traditional Chinese Medicine. All of these modalities deal with optimizing the body's Life Force by balancing the flow of the body's internal energy.

    Ayurveda and TCM stop there. Yoga sees this as a toll for higher purposes as does Daoism. On this plane of existence, we can do nothing without our physical body. So we need to keep it working as well for as long as possible.

  8. Ruthie says:

    Thank you for writing this. A very important topic. Agreed completely…. I was traveling in India for the past few weeks and this topic was really rising up for me…. and I started an essay with a similar theme (I also publish articles in elephant so maybe it will end up here too).. so we have been really thinking along the same lines! I really appreciate your thoughts. Namaste.

  9. rweenie says:

    This is a really nice article thank you and I do believe that the practice of yoga asana whatever the class style can bring radical change in our lives regardless of the initial approach…I experienced this in my own practice and hope that others will find a higher path no matter how they start on it. I at one time thought I wanted to teach and learned it was my ego wanting to to do it and as I found myself bound to offering 'yoga' to those coming to me for it I realized it was not my path…bondage is how it felt…I thought it was my own dislike of commitment but now I have another, less judgmental, way of looking at it! :)

  10. I'm with you. It doesn't quack like a duck to me, but the idea has obviously clicked with someone. And as I've learned over and over in my life… just because I say so, doesn't make it so.

    Pole dancing, pole fitness/yoga are very easily marketed to the fitness-oriented masses. If you can call it yoga and brand it with a spiritual angle, more power to you.

  11. bflatbrad says:

    I have found David Frawley to be very helpful http://www.vedanet.com/

  12. priyanka says:

    namaste from india, lovely article – much needed – many of my western and indian clients who practice under my guidance are not interested in the yoking bit – sadly, but its a refreshing article for sometimes i fear that we have yoga to another dimension by having so many funky forms, etc…but as long as the intention is well…intent…then there might be hope for unity for the divine…

  13. I like all the information you have on Tucson, did you grow up here?

  14. Paul says:

    Gary Giamboi says: "….. Yoga is to Ayurveda as Qigong is to Traditional Chinese Medicine. All of these modalities deal with optimizing the body's Life Force by balancing the flow of the body's internal energy."

    Thank you for that point. I have been wanting to research and study alternatives for this subject: "optimizing the body's Life Force by balancing the flow of the body's internal energy." Can you recommend any good books on the subject please?

    It is my 1st time on this forum. I will try to "follow" the comments. Anyone is welcome to email me directly specifically about this subject at [email protected].

    It would even be nice to see a separate forum/discussion on the subject of the body's internal energy.

    Thank you in advance.

  15. David says:

    It is dangerous to try to put eastern traditions such as yoga and Ayurveda into conveniently into boxes that are understood by westerners. It creates confusion and misunderstanding. When westerners showed up in India, we wanted to put the religious practices seen into a box so we could "understand" them and thus created Hinduism. Improced physical health and spiritual realization could be very well be placed in the same box, so why even use a box at all?

  16. Belinda says:

    Other than the fact that Matthew Gindin knows NOTHING about Ayurveda – which is actually a much DEEPER spiritual practice than Yoga, and demands a much deeper level of self-observation and self-realization than Patanjali's Yoga ever will – at least it's got a few truths and should serve to sell him, and his services at YYoga, the biggest conglomerate of commercialized ASS-ana, very well.

  17. Chrissy says:

    Excellent and thoughtful article. In many cases nowadays, yoga is being confused with contortion exercises.

  18. Thank you for writing this article. I've learned so much more about yoga in a historical context through not only the article but the comments as well. Your explaining the difference between people practicing for spirituality and practicing for health has helped me see why I've always felt a little undernourished spiritually by my own practice in a yoga studio. I plan on creating my own sacred space in my house to yoke to my higher spiritual self and keep my physical ayurvedic practice at my yoga studio

  19. vikers says:

    so what is yoga ?

    in a moment of a single breath awareness is yoga … and everything is yoga including you brushing your teeth if done with awareness or on a pole contorted – there are as many paths to yoga as there are living beings including the smallest element of being.

    and yoga is personal … it is what you do that helps you evolve through your own time … and all of us are in different time / space moving in a similar evolutionary path to the same goal … no one is better, no one is less.

    as far as the Gita is concerned, there are layers of truth … and each level of our evolution we will understand the truth in a different perspective even though the truth is the same. the battle in Gita is your personal battle … through the layers of reality to become the truth.

    practicing for health leads to body consciousness which is as relevant to the process as being involved in the so called yoking process … and then again like the Musk deer, one can keep trying to yoke when you are already yoked.

    a poor farmer with no learning / knowledge of yoga can gain enlightenment if he practices his dharma … so we with knowledge of yoga may practice for years but our ego of knowledge may hinder our duty to our dharma.

    and those who use yoga for business, they have to answer to their own being … as do the showmen/women – the ego clouds the truth …

    confusion is the veil that needs to removed through the process of yoga to see the truth … which is only understood through personal experience and understanding.

    all the rest are necessary … for some choose one path and some the other leading eventually to the same, many lives … time and space … quantum worlds …

    hari om

  20. Paul says:

    When does it start bieng Yoga? I have never practiced yoga, per se. Can anyone recommend a good book on yoga? One that explains both the mental and pyhsical aspects. Also I understand that there are different schools of thought on yoga. Is there a book that discusses the various schools of thought? Thanks in advance.

  21. The author targets the cheapening of Yoga by repeating an ancient misunderstanding — that Hatha Yoga, with its asanas and pranayama, leads to enlightenment. All around the world, sincere yogis are persisting in this misunderstanding, standing on their heads and expecting they will eventually wake up if they become pure enough. Yogis, please read Ramana Maharshi or Shankara if you want to wake up from this. You can still do the wonderful practice of yoga afterward.

    The author states that Hatha Yoga leads to Moksha (Self-realization), and that he is a teacher of yoga. Presumably, therefore, he is a "Jnani" which is one who is Self-realized. Yet, any jivanmukta (realized being) will tell you that physical postures and breathing (Hatha Yoga) is at best merely a support for stillness of mind, and that Moksha has nothing to do with purifying the body. Nor is Moksha the result of destroying all the mind's tendencies (vasanas), even if that were possible. It is only the cessation of ignorance, belief in duality.

    For ending ignorance, we have the "Jnana" (precise wisdom teachings) of the Vedas and the likes of Shankara, who affirms that not even a thousand bodily actions could possibly destroy spiritual ignorance, whereas "knowledge," i.e. accurate non-dual wisdom does destroy ignorance and amounts to Moksha.

  22. @Flexines says:

    That is not a "stripper pole," that is a piece of fitness equipment. The woman on it is not stripping. A fitness pole requires a lot more strength–search Xpole and you will immediately see there is a lot to one. This is because pole requires a lot of acrobatic moves that a "stripper pole" would not support, the later is used at most as a brace.

  23. ria says:

    I do aerial yoga for workout not for religious reason whatever. I am glad the one i go so called yoga doesnt do much meditation but do more flex tricks which is hard and fun, with modern music in the background, no religion entitle whatsoever if they called it different i would still gonna come but if then they start doing that waste of money meditation united to god whatever i will walk away for sure.
    coz for me burn calories, build strength and flex is priority than emptying my mind which i can do when i try to sleep if counting sheep dont work, and hey stripper pole is cheap piece of shit, you cant do much trick with that pole, it got to be sturdy expensive pole dance pole to do a lot of tricks like x pole dont get confused.

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