“The final test of the validity of a belief is whether or not the belief can be demonstrated.” – J.J. Dewey
In the United States, taking a yoga class can seem more pressure-filled than making a deadline at work. As yoga has become more popular and mainstream, the societal expectation of looking perfect or impressing others has also managed to weave its way into the fabric of the yoga experience. Like everything else in America, when an idea catches on and becomes marketed and franchised, the masses embrace it and it becomes westernized. The original intent of what the idea was can be swallowed up by its newfound trendiness. I think it’s fair to say that, in some respects, this has happened with yoga. In particular, this expectation of doing something to impress those around us has found its way into our yoga classes, one of the few places where one is supposed to be dismissing this expectation and finding center within oneself.
At this point, the next step in the thought process might be to condemn what yoga has become because our society has taken hold of it and had the audacious nature to alter it from its original form.
This breeds even more intensity. We can scream about how no modern-day practitioner really practices “true” yoga because
they have not been to an Ashram, immersed themselves in yoga culture, studied the yoga sutras religiously, cannot state the 8 limbs of yoga backwards and forwards and are not fluent in stating or understanding the poses in Sanskrit. We can carry on about how some people go to a “yoga” class and they don’t even practice breath!
Being frustrated about all of this, however, is not going to stop it from existing. More so, being a “yoga snob” or a “yoga extremist” represents hypocritical behavior that is actually destructive to all of us who are endeavoring to further our yoga practice**. Becoming dogmatic and judgmental brings us further away from this practice that we are trying to protect.
While it’s true that we live in a society that thrives on overindulgence, judgment, condemnation without facts, questionable media sources, corrupt politicians, fast food, horrible diets and flip-flopping ideas on what comprises health when both ideas are wrong in the first place, we also live in a society where we have the alternative not to go down any of those paths or buy into those ideas. We have choices and among those choices is the option to pick the yoga that works for us. In conjunction with that, another choice we can make is to allow other people to practice the yoga that works for them. To tell me there is only one type or style of yoga and that this one style is the only “true” way is like telling me that there is only one flavor of ice cream. What a sigh of relief that this isn’t true; like ice cream, there is a myriad of yoga flavors from which to choose.
Our society also thrives on ideas, individual cleverness, collective enjoyment and the freedom to adapt a practice like yoga into a palatable practice for all to enjoy. Yoga is so much more than walking into a room and stretching. It is a way of life; a set of ideas and codes that assist us with attempting to live a better life with the hopeful end result being Samadhi, or enlightenment.
However, the person walking in off the street to try it may only see yoga as an avenue to better physical health and that may be the extent of their understanding or as much as they want to learn in that moment. Or maybe this person will perceive yoga as an opportunity to increase physical flexibility. Some people see yoga as an opportunity to “center” and have a break from the hectic nature of life and society. Of course, there is the person who started out wanting to be able to touch his or her toes, or stand on one leg without falling. But then you have to think maybe there are people who are coming to the practice for a lifestyle change of some sort.
It’s important to realize that this entrance into that change is a beginning and the journey from there will evolve as slowly or quickly as each practitioner chooses. Yoga is a beginning, a middle and an end. Like life and the universe at large, yoga is a continual evolution. Some evolutions take longer than others, but the universe of yoga is there for all of us.
The westernization of yoga is a beautiful thing because it provides the practitioners the opportunity to seek and choose the yoga that works for them and helps them evolve as spirits. As with every other way of life, there are going to be strong opinions in the world of yogis and dogmatic behavior from the extremist points of view, whatever those views might be. But because we live in such a large society with so many of these different points of view, there is also an amazing offering of many different types of yoga, all of which have a purpose and a place in our society.
Yoga is for you! Whatever the reason is that people come to the yoga mat, whether it’s for a workout, to embody the 8 limbs or to connect in some other way, the yoga practice exists for YOU! And whatever reason you choose for going to yoga, there will ALWAYS be an opportunity for you to expand your practice further. If yoga is a workout for you, then there is a bigger
opportunity to explore the spiritual side. If yoga is a flexibility practice for you, there is always an opportunity to explore increasing strength. If you have only one vision of how you see yoga and you do not wish to see more, the choice is there for you NOT to do so as well.
We are all on this journey together. Some of us are in the very fortunate position of being tour guides to assist those with navigation through the world of yoga, which is every bit as varietal as this planet on which we reside. However, at the end of everything, we are all students and we are never done learning. That’s the beauty of this journey. No matter what level of divisiveness may exist within the yoga universe and no matter how right all of us may think we are, there will always be room for improvement and there will always be a path we have not yet traveled.
As teachers, we are responsible to bring this joy and freedom to the practice, and as students, we always have an opportunity to exist in this glorious moment.
So take a moment now, as you read this, to think about why you practice. Why are you on the mat? What type of exploration are you taking? What resonates for you within the yoga practice? Whatever your reasons are, I have mine, too. Regardless of how we came to the practice and while we all occupy our own mat, we are all on this big journey together; the more people there are taking the journey, the more variety of reasons there will be for being there.
Hope to see you on the mat soon.
**Author’s note: I am or have been guilty of all of the things I just mentioned, as these experiences, for me, have represented opportunities for growth on the yogic path…One has to experience darkness to experience light, yin and yang…You get the idea ~A.G.
Andrew Gurvey is an Engineer for the Fire Protection Division of Underwriters Laboratories by day, and a yoga teacher by night. Andrew has been a student of yoga for 6 years, and a teacher for 1. Andrew’s arrival to the yoga mat was a long and winding road that has since turned into a powerful, focused journey. You can read his full bio via his website here or connect with him via Facebook.