Whether yoga is in a crisis or not, there is a simple way forward: to re-focus on authentic personal experience. Individually and collectively.
Yoga has had a bit of a rough ride recently in the media. Think of the ripples caused by William Broad’s book The Science of Yoga or the big waves following revelations in the Anusara community on elephant journal. Over the past few months, many yogis around the world have read and discussed critiques and defenses, superficial easy hits and heartfelt considered details.
These debates have left many in the yoga community with a feeling of dis-ease about what yoga has become and where yoga is going. Perhaps, more than at any time since yoga became popular in the West, the question is being asked: “is yoga in a crisis?”
Now crisis or not, if you are reading this then there is one thing you know: yoga rocks! Yoga has rocked in India for thousands of years. Yoga has rocked the wild men and women of the shamanic traditions gathered around their fires, the recluses of the Himalayas sitting solitary in their lofty caves and the tantric practitioners hidden deep in their forest ashrams. Yoga has even rocked brahmanic priests in their temples and kings in their palaces.
Over the past century or so, the party has come to the West and the West has joined the party—with a bang. The West has embraced yoga with open arms. We love it—big time. An estimated 20 million people practice yoga regularly in the U.S. alone. Yoga classes in the studio around the corner and in the downtown gym have opened the door for many.
They have made the immediate benefits of stress-reduction and improved well-being accessible. The West has made yoga its own and we want more. There is one little problem. We have a little problem that lies deep beneath the rough ride that yoga is having.
The West has turned yoga into a commodity. Turning stuff into commodities is what the Western mind does well. In yoga, we see this in the over-bearing obsession with technique, the proliferation of yoga brands, the pimping of spiritual accessories and the rise of the yoga superstar.
Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with any of this; it has all played a part in growing yoga’s reach. Neither, as anyone who has spent time in India knows, is this new. However, the West has commoditized yoga so well that unless we realign, we risk of losing the very heart of yoga.
Realigning means coming back to basics and it means working from the bottom up.
From the bottom up means recognizing that above anything, else yoga is about authentic personal experience. It is about working and playing with our own experience on and off our mats. Coming back to basics means focusing on the core of the yoga. We need to get to the core that lies beyond the specifics of individual methods, techniques and tools, and that is universally applicable wherever we are and whatever our individual situations, possibilities and differences. The core is found in those two yoga texts that tower above all others: the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.
When it comes to the core, the yoga of the Yoga Sutras is the yoga of the Bhagavad Gita. Sure, they are packaged in different metaphors and narratives. Throughout time their messages have morphed and been adapted to fit the cultural context of the times, and they have been surrounded in rituals.
However, when it comes to our practice on our mats and how we act and produce effect in the world at large: Tapah (self-discipline and purification) is Karma yoga (the yoga of action); Svadhyaya (self-study) is Jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge) and; Isvara-pranidhanani (surrender to the Lord) is Bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion).
So how does these terms translate to the language of our times, and what do they mean for our yoga practice and our lives as a whole. Or in short, what makes what we practice yoga?
This boils down to four simple challenges:
1. Recognizing that yoga is an ongoing journey. It starts with a personal investigation into those three big questions that all philosophical and practical systems East and West have grappled with since the beginning of time. What is the nature of reality? Who am I? What is the right way to live? This is a journey that starts with where you are now.
2. Committing to practice. Practice that places the wisdom gained from experience above any beliefs or rules. Practice that is personal, experimental and holistic. Yoga does not really care that much what form your practice takes, however now that you are here it does care that you practice. Regularly. And in a way that grows your own pool of experiential wisdom.
3. Examining your attitude toward practice, and toward life. Yoga cares that you develop and use your discrimination, your intelligence. Yoga cares that you learn to ease off the control button, that you develop a little acceptance, a little surrender
4. Taking that wisdom—those experiences and learnings—gained from practice off your mat and into your world when you go out and about doing your thing
Coming back to those rough rides, there have been calls for a greater scientific understanding of, and basis for, the practices of yoga and for stronger ethics for teachers. Or, in other words, a greater application of Western reductionist method and an externally imposed moral code.
Will these help move yoga forwards and beyond the collective patterns we find ourselves in? Well, right now we just don’t know. What we do know is that the biggest piece of the puzzle is missing: a questioning and, where necessary, realignment of our practice. This needs to happen for each and every one of us, from the regular yoga practitioner to the yoga superstar.
In essence that questioning comes down to the question posed by Krishna to Arjuna again and again throughout the Bhagavad Gita: Yoga—do you want it yet?
David Dodd is a life and business coach (www.awareness-and-change.com), and a yoga teacher with a passion for making yoga philosophy real. David works with fellow teachers to offer workshops and retreats focused on deepening and personalizing your practice, and using the tools of Yang and Yin asana practice, anatomy and individual & group coaching. David is currently working on his first book.
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta