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.
Matthew 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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