July 15, 2012

Yoga as Spirit or Yoga as Sport? ~ Jessica Avila

Something is happening in yoga studios all across America, and it is polarizing yoga practitioners in a way that only an East meets West sort of showdown can.

Yoga asana is an ancient system with the aim of physically preparing practitioners to sit for extended periods of time in meditation. While the myriad physical benefits and resulting wellbeing have always been noted and appreciated, the true focus was on achieving a calm, quiet mind so that one could attain enlightenment, true bliss and union with the Divine (known as Samadhi).

Fast forward to modern day American yoga, especially in studios dedicated to more athletic styles, and there’s a good chance that at least half the students rolling out their mats have never sat for meditation a day in their lives, nor do they possess any awareness of yoga’s origins.

Padmasana, or full lotus pose, is treated as a seated posture that one takes to show off their open hips and healthy knees, not necessarily a posture to be held while opening your third eye and cultivating a healthy spirit.

As a teacher who is trained in Sivananda yoga, a school of yoga tied to a strong, monastic lineage that places a very heavy emphasis on the spiritual, philosophical and metaphysical components of the practice, I struggle at times when I see vinyasa and power yoga teachers who never so much as chant “OM” or incorporate Sanskrit into their classes. Not that these are tantamount with addressing yoga’s origins and original purpose, but it does at least offer a sense of connectedness with the deeper meaning of the practice when they are integrated.

As a lover of vinyasa and power styles of yoga, I frequent these classes, and even teach them too. Nothing gives me a physical high quite like sweating out my stuff in a 98-degree room, mat to mat with other Type A’s while we twist and push ourselves toward ever expanding edges in our physical practice.

Finally “mastering” an advanced pose that I’ve worked on absolutely feels like a reward, even though I am aware that it is “unyogic” of me to have attachments to the outcome, especially the outcome of my physical practice.

The other day while taking a fantastic vinyasa class much like I described previously, I lowered my fully lengthened torso over my bent right knee, forehead to the mat, opening my hips into , or pigeon pose, ready to release and relax.

I love this particular asana, as I don’t have the most open hips by nature, so I appreciate the opportunity to stretch just as much as I appreciate the chance to work through the energetic stores that reside in that area of the body. So imagine my surprise, or better, disdain, when some aggressive rap song starts pumping through the speakers.

Maybe it had an uplifting message, but I couldn’t hear it over the angry beat and harsh tones of the track. I literally plugged my ears with my fingers and held the pose for an extra minute so I could at least partially drown out the unwelcome noise until that song gave way to another more mellow track.

This was the exact moment that really got me thinking about sport versus spirit in yoga.

I felt so conflicted as I tried to enjoy the meditative aspect of my physical practice but struggled to let go of my judgment, in itself a form of attachment, toward the music and the decidedly non-spiritual style of the teacher whose class I had chosen to take.

On one hand, isn’t it a teacher’s responsibility to set a positive and nurturing tone in his or her class and share the teachings of yoga with integrity and reverence for their origins? On the other hand, isn’t it my responsibility as a student on a spiritual path (who is fortunate to be schooled in the eight limbs of yoga and many other lessons that could serve me in these moments) to focus on practices such as pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, and dhyana and dharana, concentration and meditation, no matter what is going on externally?

Answering this question is not all that dissimilar from taking a stab at the time old “What came first . . . the chicken or the egg?” conundrum.

Yes, a student is ultimately responsible for himself or herself. However, if he or she can’t rely on teachers to guide him or her properly through the practice or yoga, it becomes a challenge to take on that responsibility. I suppose, going even further, one could say that the student could just find a different teacher, and that would be a fair enough statement.

I firmly believe that yoga is a system that can, and moreover, should, be adapted to modern society.

We do not live in a time or place where going off to a mountain cave for a few months for deep contemplation and silence is the norm for the majority of people. We do live in a time and place where life is busy, the pace is fast, we are often over-stimulated and over-extended, so we look to practices such as yoga to provide a balance, a space of refuge amidst it all.

Instead of treating yoga like any other work out and incorporating a competitive edge, blaring music and a harsh, disciplinarian tone of voice to even the most physically demanding and powerful styles of yoga asana, my hope is that more and more teachers will strive to find ways to include yoga’s origins and most meaningful lessons in ways that are relevant to the time and place we find ourselves in.

Teachers, please don’t underestimate your ability to share these gifts with your students. Students, please don’t underestimate your ability to receive and appreciate them.

Even if spiritual growth was not what brought you to yoga in the first place, somewhere deep inside you are probably open to it and actually seeking it, or you would have chosen any old sport.

Yoga is not sport; it is spirit.

Let’s all take a moment and a deep, meditative breath to remember that.


Jessica Avila is the founder of Ocean Om standup paddle yoga, as well as a Sivananda and vinyasa yoga instructor in Fort Lauderdale, FL. For her writing, like yoga, is a practice in spirituality, self-discovery and self-healing. Reach her at [email protected] and visit www.oceanom.com for more on yoga or jessavila.blogspot.com for more on what she has to say.



Editor: Cassandra Smith

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