February 17, 2015

What it Really Means to Practice Yoga.

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As a yoga studio owner and instructor, I try my best to be highly involved with the yoga community and am always looking to deepen my practice and continue learning.

I read through yoga-based magazines and books, check out Instagram feeds of popular yogis and look to see what everyone in the yoga world is getting all hyped up about.

Unfortunately, I have found that many people leading the community and fellow practitioners have a shallow understanding of yoga and do not understand the true meaning of this ancient practice (or at least that’s how they are portraying their understanding).

One doesn’t need to go far to see what I mean.

Flip through one of the popular yoga magazines or search yoga blog sites these days and you’ll find they are filled with ads of sexy women and men showing off their bodies, selling some new line of trendy yoga fashion or showing how certain poses are good for toning your arms or lifting your butt.

Because of all this false advertising and misunderstanding of true practice, beginners come to my studio with insecurities and all kinds of ideas and expectations, believing they need to do fancy poses and stand on their heads, or at the very least, be super fit to be a good yogi.

My job, it seems lately, is helping people unlearn what they have been taught and refocusing them on the essence of practice.

The ethics of yoga also seem to be ignored with social media.

All over Instagram and Facebook you will find yogi’s posting “selfies” of themselves doing advanced poses, many of them  wearing barely enough clothing to cover themselves up.

I will admit, even I, the writer of this article, have been one of those yogis.

There is nothing wrong with advanced poses, and it’s a beautiful thing to see/watch, but the posts I often see seem much more ego-centered and inappropriate.

There are also articles I’ve seen with images of people doing nude yoga poses, and I’ve even heard of naked yoga.

How can that be relaxing?

Will this get someone to read your blog? Absolutely.

But is this really appropriate (or necessary) on a site promoting yoga practice? When did yoga become so sexualized? Is showing off how sexy we are in poses really the true meaning of asana practice?

Recently, my publicist reached out to an editor from one of the most well known yoga magazines trying to get an article published about living our practice.

Do you know what they wanted instead?

They were interested in finding out the coolest, most exotic places I have taught yoga. Two examples they gave were a butterfly garden and under water.

(Scuba diving yoga, perhaps?)

The magazine makes it seem as though our society cares more about the nonsense than how to truly live a yogic life. How does reading about me teaching yoga on top of an elephant teach anyone anything about yoga?

(No, I have not done that, although I’m sure someone already has!)

What’s even more shocking (and most disturbing to me) is that many practitioners still don’t know that asana practice (the poses found in yoga classes) is but one limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Heated classes, wild vinyasa flows and insane arm balances and inversions may seem like the purpose of yoga, but these were definitely not the original intention of a daily yoga practice.

The forest yogi’s six thousand years ago (who created this system of yoga) weren’t trying to get washboard abs, or trying to lose a few extra pounds to finally be able to squeeze their buns into a new pair of Lululemon tights.

Rather, these yogis were looking to liberate themselves from their bodies and minds, and from the suffering of life. Their yoga practice allowed their bodies to be comfortable enough to sit for long periods of time. These longer sittings stilled their minds and allowed for wisdom to arise. There practice allowed them to see the true nature of their being, and use this knowledge to live a deep, compassionate life.

Yoga these days, seems to be more about entertainment and finding ways to get rich quick, rather than being content and learning to let go of our attachments to craving and desire.

Accepting ourselves for exactly who we are and relaxing into life has become pushing ourselves in order show off how advanced we are in asana practice.

Saving all beings has been perverted into showing off how great we can be in advanced poses half-naked.

I know I may be generalizing, and I am in no way saying there are no true practitioners, or that I am somehow completely free from cultural conditioning, but I am hoping to point out some obvious flaws in how we are portraying the practice, intentionally or not.

So, how do we reconcile the ridiculously self-centered idea of selfies, with the selfless teachings of yoga?

How do we merge the commercialization of yoga caused by our American culture, with the deep wisdom it has to offer?

How can we prevent people from believing yoga is meant to fix them?

I don’t have the answers.

In fact, there are no simple answers, but I feel as though we, the practitioners/teachers, need to start asking the right questions and practicing our own unique solutions.

Meditation instructor and author, Jack Kornfield, often reminds practitioners how true meditation practice is about living fully and loving deeply.

At the end of our lives we won’t be looking back on how awesome our handstands were, or how much weight we’ve lost after years of Bikram yoga, but rather how well we have lived, and how well we have loved.

These are not easy tasks, yet they must be practiced endlessly, day in and day out.

We must make our way back to the basics and align ourselves with the original intention of what practice truly means, which I believe, is living a complete, peaceful, balanced, liberated and compassionate life, in which asana is only one small part.

At the very least, teachers and students must attempt to practice what they preach.

I’m not asking for perfection, but at least a wholehearted attempt to practice the teachings in daily life.

Bring peace to all that arises, pleasant or not.

Most importantly, remember that practice isn’t meant to make you feel good all the time. That’s another unrealistic dream of the ego. Keep check of your ego. Use it wisely, don’t let it use you.

If you are new to this practice, make sure you start off understanding that it’s not about being able to stand on your head, or show off cool poses to your friends on social media, but instead it’s about creating a balanced life, both on and off the mat.

Remember to start where you are, be gentle and kind with yourself, take it slow and be safe.

The teachings of yoga have the potential to transform the lives of those who truly practice, and if we all get on board with the best of our ability, we can slowly make changes on a more global level.

It starts with each one of us. Let us practice together. Let’s begin now.



Why I Practice.


Author: Mark Van Buren

Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: kahala/Flickr

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