Yoga “is.” Distinctions & labels are the ultimate Maya.

Via Nadine McNeil
on Mar 20, 2011
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All aspiring yogis and yoginis agree on at least one thing:  the definition of yoga. A Sanskrit word originating from the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures, yoga means union, of mind, body and spirit. To yoke, yoga transcends all boundaries, revealing the connectedness of Life, from the extraordinary to the seemingly mundane.

Assuming that we ascribe to this meaning, I am perplexed whenever I come across courses and workshops – mainly in the West – that highlight human differentiations on the basis of [skin] color, for example.

I hail from a country whose motto states, ‘Out of Many One People.’  While the vast majority of Jamaica’s population is of African descent, there also exists Jamaicans of Arabian, Chinese, European and Indian extraction. Their inclusion is an intrinsic part of the Jamaican story.

"Out of Many One People" joining hands and opening hearts

Most non-African Jamaican descendants are quick to explain that distinctions amongst Jamaicans tend to happen along social rather than racial lines. However, given that the more affluent Jamaicans tend to be primarily of non-African descent, it is not unreasonable to believe that this quasi caste system is in fact based on race rather than along socio-economic lines.

One of the things that attracted me to yoga nearly a decade ago was that as I traveled the world, wherever I went and there was a yoga studio, I felt immediately welcome into a community of potentially like-minded individuals. Being able to enter a yoga studio, discarding all of the labels and their associated meanings that had been inflicted upon me by self and others, I gave myself permission to be vulnerable in my quest for conscious awareness.

As the business of yoga continues to blossom and flourish in the West, we’re now seeing distinctions being made, perhaps from a marketing perspective. Some examples of these [distinctions] are yoga for prisoners, yoga for victims of domestic violence and…yoga for people of color. Immediately I see the commonality of disenfranchisement shared amongst these groups. Perhaps it is the desire to empower these beings that has given rise to the drive to bring the teachings of yoga into such communities. Awesome!

What exactly is yoga for people of color? And how does one define this category? The last time I checked, the origins of yoga lay in continents that are comprised largely of people who fall under the alluded category of color.

World events of this past week have touched me at a cellular level.  From the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, to the pressure cookers that are about to explode in Libya, Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire and my former “hometown” Bahrain, as a human being residing on this planet Earth, my soul feels wounded and traumatized. I also know that I do not stand alone with these feelings. It is the [red] blood that courses through all of our veins that transports the sorrow that we now especially feel for the suffering of other sentient beings.

I acknowledge the fact that in developed countries where yoga’s popularity continues to grow, that the demographic composition of aspiring yogis and yoginis is indeed primarily Caucasian. I recall attending one workshop where the opening statement of the person leading the workshop was “there are over 15 million people practicing yoga in the United States today. The average yearly income for over 70% of these people is US72K.” The proof is in the pudding. Exactly what this is proving is up for debate.

When we begin to separate yoga on the basis of demographics we’ve either misunderstood the true meaning of yoga or we have a vested interest in perpetuating separateness.

As a universal being, I envision a world of human beings breathing together, chanting together, flowing together, and meditating together – without regard to race. This is the essence of Oneness that yoga Is.

In October 1963, [then] as Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie addressed the United Nations.

Global visionary Robert Nesta Marley, under the title War, later transcended some of the most poignant words echoed by H.I.M. Selassie during that delivery into song. The offspring of parents from different races, perhaps these words so resonated for Marley because he felt their union validated through his veins:

What life has taught me
I would like to share with
Those who want to learn…

Until the philosophy which hold one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, me say war

That until there are no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes
Me say war

That until the basic human rights are equally
Guaranteed to all, without regard to race
Dis a war

That until that day
The dream of lasting peace, world citizenship
Rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion
To be pursued, but never attained
Now everywhere is war, war

And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique,
South Africa sub-human bondage
Have been toppled, utterly destroyed
Well, everywhere is war, me say war

War in the east, war in the west
War up north, war down south
War, war, rumours of war

And until that day, the African continent
Will not know peace, we Africans will fight
We find it necessary and we know we shall win
As we are confident in the victory

Of good over evil, good over evil, good over evil
Good over evil, good over evil, good over evil

Let us drop all assertions, distinctions and labels and in community, step onto a yogic path of Oneness as echoed by these yogis who have gone before us and had entered Samadhi, that deep state of absorption in the object of meditation. The ancient yogic text Hatha Yoga Pradipika states, “The yogi in Samadhi is not devoured by time, is not bound by karma, is invulnerable to any weapon and unassailable by any person.”

Herein lives the hallmark of yoga.


*Maya: Sanskrit word that means illusion


About Nadine McNeil

Yogini. Humanitarian. Spirited. Compassionate. Storyteller. All of these words conjure up aspects that make Nadine McNeil the person she aspires to be: an evolutionary catalyst committed to global transformation. Now fully devoted to expanding the reach of yoga through what she refers to as the “democratization of yoga,” she designs and delivers workshops to a wide cross-section of communities who ordinarily may not be exposed to nor reap its benefits.To join her mailing list and to learn more about her work and receive special offers, please click here.


8 Responses to “Yoga “is.” Distinctions & labels are the ultimate Maya.”

  1. Great thoughts, Nadine.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  3. Suzette says:

    Excellent Nadine,

    Commerce makes the world go round. We bottle the same water and slap on our own labels. We decide on 26 postures in a particular sequence and slap on a name and i'ts MINE. We say MY yoga class, MY yoga teacher, MY guru, MY MAT. If we subscribe to the notion that "any yoga is good yoga" (that we are still unsure) then let it be yours, continue getting on your mat and maybe one of these days when you get off of it you might think in terms of ours (there is that chance).

    The Western World. They are good at what they do labelling and selling. Marketing is getting the word out and key for a business. However, yoga as a business venture…I wonder why so many are being sold.

    I like the quote "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear" so many teachers and so many students. It also makes me wonder, do they know what they are ready for? That answer may appear off the mat.

    Thanks Nadine…you continue to spread the good seeds. Planted in our minds like Bob maybe one of these days it will stick.


  4. Nadine says:

    And equally excellent comments — thanks a million for taking the time to read. The whole concept of 'MY-ness' tends to be most strong in individualist cultures. We want to own people, places and things. Reading Patanjali's sutras today, I am reminded of another [real] essence of yoga — a discipline that ultimately aims to still the mind. For those who are focused outward, with our minds being distracted by our senses — what we see (TV), what we eat (junk food), what we read (material void of substance), what we feel through touch or crave to touch (the use and abuse of sex), what we listen to (in the Jamaican context a la dancehall music) and what we THINK (negativity and fear) — a consistent practice of yoga breaks down all of these maya and turn us inward to where we will eventually and ultimately find stillness and freedom. Why WOULDN'T we wish to share this with other sentient beings?! Bless Up, Nadine!

  5. Nadine says:

    Awesome — thanks!

  6. Diane Robertson says:

    My dear Nads! "Heights of great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight
    But they while their companions slept were toiling in the night"!

    The magic of thought /s passing through the minds of Great Men will clean their hearts to become pure many times and suddenly recognise that we are all ONE in spirit and Love. Keep up the good work my dear One !
    Mom and I are proud of you.

  7. Jenfr An says:

    Yoga means union of mind, body and spirit (and other variationsof that), so why have yoga for people of colour or prisoners as if they were a special group. They may think that their needs are different from people of 'non-colour' or the physically disabled. But when you get right down to it, the needs cross physical and other limitations. Yoga for all regardless of colour, class or socio-economic status!