Are you a power yogi?
Do you practice Vinyasa? Bikram? Does 95 percent or more of your asana practice consist of physical postures?
Welcome to the club.
Many argue that contemporary forms of yoga have taken the yoga out of yoga. Yoga meaning union, yoking, or calming the fluctuations of the mind depending on what book you read.
So, you can’t help it but you’ve taken a journey down the wrong dharma road to a glorified exercise class that masquerades as the path to enlightenment, as well as a way to burn fat and look good- exercise with a wee bit of chanting and pranayama thrown in.
It is true that Vinyasa and power yoga classes often include only one form of pranayama breath control—in the of Ujayyi breath. Some have chanting in the beginning or end, but most don’t. I teach vinyasa and also take many vinyasa classes and I will admit that rarely, oh so rarely, do I hear teachers mention the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, or any form of yogic tradition.
Meditation? Almost never.
It must be burning the insides of yoga traditionalists to see the beautiful yogi athletes becoming famous by posting pictures of themselves in pretzely poses or doing handstand all over the world. A hundred dollar yoga pants to wear while practicing? Yea, that’s a sore point too—it used to not matter what you wore as long as you were comfortable.
What is yoga now?
If you come from a yoga lineage that follows Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras then you would consider the physical practice to be mere foreplay: an oil-change for the body so that you can comfortably sit and meditate for hours. If you follow the Bhagavad Gita, which describes yoga as “skill in action” then yoga might be more of a way of life for you and isn’t tied to a physical practice at all.
Doug Keller points out that “yoga has always been ambiguous, and we must embrace its ambiguity if we are ever to understand it.” He argues that much of the controversy stems from our desire to treat the word yoga as though it were a noun or simply a thing that we do. “Yoga lies in the doing… and is far more a verb than we give it credit for being…yoga is the experiencing.”
Yoga is presence. Embodiement. Skill in action. The calming of the fluctuations of the mind.
Are you present in your body when practicing asana? Pardon me, but doesn’t that sound like skill in action? And your mind, after all that work and a nice Savasana, is it calm, focused and closer to peace than when you arrived on the mat?
Congratulations my friend your practice is yoga!
Yes, you have only barely tapped the treasure-trove of mind-body-peace that yoga has to offer. But your journey is real.
I sympathize with the power-yogis because when I began practicing I was only there for the exercise… and to compete with every other person in the room… and to look good while doing it.
Fast-forward eight years and I am ready to jump up and take a stand for the way we do and teach yoga here, in the West.
I think we do need a strong emphasis on the physical. Let me explain why.
Yoga teachers back me up on this: how many students came to your first yoga class with the ability to focus, let alone sit down and meditate for 30 minutes? Young practitioners especially have the monkey-mind and can’t even fathom being able to sit still with nothing but their thoughts for company.
Most Westerners sit at desks for eight hours a day; legs, arms, physical body all but forgotten until a limb falls asleep or hunger forces them to adjust, or go on search of food, which may conveniently be within arm’s reach. The lucky ones have to take public transportation to and from work but most drive home.
Dinner. Couch. Wash and repeat.
For them, focusing on where to place their limbs, find a drishti (focal point for the eyes), feel the stretch and breathe is moving meditation—‘skill in action.’ Seated meditation is not possible in my opinion without body awareness or embodiment. Thought control is near-impossible when the mind and body are not connected.
You see, meditation is not about finding an out of body experience—it’s about finding an in-body experience. It’s being alive and awake to being alive and awake.
Out of body experiences sound cool but in reality we have those all too often. Picture this: you’re driving to work, you leave the house… then, you go on auto-pilot and all of a sudden you’re there. You don’t remember the turns, the stop lights or details because you were lost in thought, up in your head, out of your body. Were any of those thoughts important? You probably don’t even remember. You were in lala-land.
The brain loves to make up stories.
Most of us have out of body experiences several times a day, if not several times an hour. With smart phones we have taken this to a whole, and very scary, new level of being removed. Slouched over the devices while sitting, walking, driving. Mary Partlow Lauttamus calls this latest form of bad posture the “iSlump.”
It really is a recent phenomenon to be this disconnected from our bodies.
Cue me—and this is what makes my job so fulfilling. To witness a student having that a-ha moment of discovering muscles they never knew existed and stretches that make their body feel alive, and finally finding much needed whole body (and mind) rest in Savasana is a beautiful thing.
We may not know what the atman is or how to liberate it, but we are all finding a soul connection. We are finding union.
We are experiencing yoga.
The physical practice of yoga is not simply a fraction of the yoga-whole but a key component to finding enlightenment. The body is a temple—the atman (soul) resides within.
Like elephant Yoga on Facebook
Assistant Editor: Edith Lazenby/Ed: Bryonie Wise