Every day, all throughout Vancouver, tens of thousands of people are attending Ayurveda classes.
It is now a lucrative industry. Ayurveda clothes are sold throughout the city. One pioneering local Ayurvedic business man has become a multi-millionaire.
Not sure what I’m talking about? Confused as to how you could not notice one of the world’s oldest healing arts, a proud creation of Mother India, becoming one of the fastest growing health industries in North America?
Well that would be because you thought that all of those Ayurveda classes were yoga classes. And you thought that all of those studios were yoga studios.
But they’re not. They’ve been mislabelled.
Let me explain.
What is yoga?
You have probably heard that the word “yoga” means “union.” That’s right, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The word yoga comes from the word “yuj,” which means to bind or harness together. It is an exact equivalent to the english word “yoke,” which comes from the same Indo-European language family as Sanskrit. “Yoke” refers not to the yellow part of an egg (yolk), but to something used to tie one thing to another. It was most commonly used to refer to yoking an ox to a plow—a farming word.
This was also true in India, and it explains the original meaning of the word yoga.
You see, it is a curious fact that the earliest occurrence of the word “yoga” is in Buddhist texts. They don’t use “yoga” to refer to something good but rather to refer to something to be avoided! The Buddha uses the word this way when he calls the goal of his spiritual teaching, Nirvana, “anuttaram yogakhemam,” which means “the unsurpassable freedom from yoga.”
What? Can’t you just accomplish that by burning your yoga membership card?
What the Buddha meant was that Nirvana is the unsurpassable freedom from bondage. From yoking. From being a beast of burden. From being tied down to anything.
The shift from this meaning of the word “yoga” to it referring to spiritual practices is kind of like the shift of the word “bad” in the 80s to mean “good,” or the current use of the word “sick” to mean “awesome.” Eventually, the heroic (and sometimes a bit macho) spiritual practitioners of ancient India began proudly referring to the difficult spiritual practices that they took on as “yogas” or “yokes.”
“I am taking on the yoke of fasting every second day,” one might say over rice gruel and hand-picked fruits and nuts. “You?”
“The yoke of meditation, brother,” the other would reply. “Morning, noon, and night.”
The common meaning here is “committed spiritual discipline.”
The first spiritual system to be called “yoga” as a whole was that of Patanjali’s. Later sages Patanjali’s system rajayoga, the royal discipline of meditation. The Bhagavadgita later defined other types of yoga: karmayoga (the yoga of service); bhaktiyoga (the yoga of devotion to God); gyanayoga (the yoga of contemplating ultimate reality).
Much later Svatmarama, circa 15th century, wrote a book outlining a form of Tantra which used physical cleansing (shatkarma), poses (asana), breathing exercises (pranayama), muscular locks (bandha) and types of meditation (samadhi). He called this type of yoga, which was very physical and daring, Hathayoga (the forceful yoga).
The point remained the same: Hathayoga was a committed spiritual discipline with spiritual goals.
What do I mean by “spiritual goals”? The spiritual goals were those traditional in India: moksha. Moksha refers to enlightenment, or internal freedom from delusion and suffering and union with the ultimate reality. Different schools understand moksha differently, but generally it refers to a combination of freedom, internal purity, and union with God.
In India Hathayoga remained a fringe movement which was considered weird and a little extreme for its strange practices.
These strange practices did not only include holding awkward postures for long periods of time and manipulating your breathing (which were considered mildly odd) but more shocking practices you won’t find in your average New York studio. These included sexual practices, ingestion of body fluids, self-mutilation, and radical acts of cleansing like induced vomiting, swallowing lengths of cotton and sucking water in and out of your anus.
Most Indians weren’t too enthusiastic about such pastimes. Much more popular were the other forms of yoga: service, study, and worship. Most popular of all was and is bhaktiyoga, the yoga of devotion to God through ritual, worship and song.
A Thought Experiment
Okay, now imagine you could take someone from pre-modern India and teleport them to a modern city, say Vancouver where I live. Imagine you asked them, “Please find me some yoga in Vancouver.”
I imagine this person walking down a busy downtown street and looking in windows. Shops, businesses, restaurants. They come across a “yoga” studio and peer in. They see people in workout clothing, underwear or tights sweating as they stretch and flow through various poses to music. “No yoga here,” they would likely think.
They then come across a downtown Church. They look in. A line-up of obviously poor people are finding shelter and food in the Church hall. “Ah,” they think, “karmayoga at the Temple.”
They go into another room and see people singing hymns to God. “Ah,” they smile, “Bhakti. Here is yoga.”
This is the yogic irony of our time.
Yoga and Ayurveda:
Ayurveda is one of the two indigenous medical traditions of India (the other one is Siddha).
Ayurveda has been developing for at least 2,500 years and has integrated wisdom and therapies from Vedic, Buddhist, Jain, Tantric, Unani, and Alchemical cultures. Its worldview is closely allied to the Yogic and Tantric traditions, and it makes use of meditation, asana, pranayama, and cleansing techniques that it learnt from yoga and Tantra. In this regard Ayurveda has been particularly impacted by the Hathayoga tradition.
This shared history is the reason that Ayurveda and yoga share certain techniques but use them for different purposes.
Asana and pranayama, for example. In Ayurveda these are used for health purposes: to make the body stronger and treat specific ailments; to reduce stress and bring calm and healing to the mind. In Hathayoga (the traditional form of yoga to rely heavily on asana and pranayama) these techniques are used, as Svatmarama put it in the Hathayogapradipika, “as a ladder to climb the heights of rajayoga.”
What is Rajayoga? Meditation leading to moksha (freedom) and samadhi (union with Shiva, ie. God).
So to recap: Ayurveda uses asana and pranayama for physical and mental health; yoga uses them for spiritual freedom and union with God.
That doesn’t mean that yoga practitioners were not aware of or not interested in the health benefits of asana and pranayama. They were, and Svatmarama several times touts those benefits as effects of asana and pranayama. But those things were not the primary goal.
Svatmarama is very clear about what the primary goal is. He describes it alternately as “the Godly bliss” (4.2), “dissolving the mind in the transcendent Self” (4.5); “freedom from karma” (4.12); “immortality” (4.13), “mastery of the knowledge of God” (4.114) and “the conquest of death” (4.13, 4.103-108).
A Second Thought Experiment
When I share these thoughts with my Ayurveda students I usually ask how many of them have been to a yoga class. Usually it is between 80-100%. I then ask them, “How many of the people there were there looking for spiritual freedom, purity, deathlessness and union with God?”
My students, who are less charitable then I would be, often say zero percent.
I then ask, “How many are there looking to be fitter, to heal a physical problem, or to reduce stress?”
They feel that describes most or all of the students there.
“In that case,” I say as I reach my pedagogical crescendo, “You did not attend a yoga class. You were practicing Ayurveda.”
I want to be clear: I am not saying mainstream “yoga classes” are bad. I am just saying that they are confused. They are not yoga classes. They are ayurveda classes. Going to them will make you healthier. If that is what you are looking for, they will help you—as long as they are taught by qualified teachers and follow authentic Ayurvedic principles.
Chances are, though, that they will not help you become a better person or get closer to God. For that, you will need to seek out a teacher of yoga.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Fabrice Florin/Flickr