February 17, 2015

What it Really Means to Practice Yoga.

 Screen shot 2013-11-18 at 6.23.24 PM

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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laportama Oct 15, 2015 7:14am

Take it easy, Mark; pratyahara, or as Yogi bin Yeshua said,
“judge not, lest ye be judged.”
Thanks for the reminder — can’t get enough of Patanjali’s Ashtanga, in this case, BRAMACHARYA, chastity, AKA restraint.
I enjoy what people wear, but it is really only important if it gets them to the mat and builds a class. After that, none of my business. (Although I can allow myself to enjoy the radiance and beauty that come from a fit practice. It’s often part of the challenge NOT to look around!)
I took a teacher course with the late Peter Barber within a year of starting yoga practice; I learned the epistemologic history and the Patanjali “grammar” very early on and they have been fundamental to my practice and on occasion I find myself LIVING the sutras.

With regards the selfies and the yoga (barf) celebs, take what you need and leave the rest.
And remember, there have been sinners as long as there have been saints, and FAKIRS — whether they know it or not — as long as there have been yogis. How does Mr Ree selling mattresses affect me? A little, as I’d rather see the energy applied to truth rather than marketing (if it were real, would you have to advertise it?) and self-seeking fame; also , I try to offer the yoga toolbox to a new “prospect,” likely as not they’ve been tainted by everything in sales that calls itself “Zen” barf or uses yoga tricks. What did Krisna tell Arjuna about that?

You know, think about it, there may be millions of new practitioners now that it has hit the media, and while I’ll waged that the % of purists has decreased, the absolute number has probably increased only slightly if at all.

And you know, if a few of those people who are “here for the wrong reasons” come around to , then the whole world is improved in its fundament. And a rising see floats all boats.

PS>> Mark, after all that, WHY study what’s going on in the media and “community” and journals? What’s the underlying pure motivation?

Charlotte Stone Aug 14, 2015 8:17am

Excellent article. Mark, thank you for reminding us what yoga is, and isn't. Sadly, in the West, yoga has been absconded into the realm of fitness-entertainment-high-performance-antics. These may — as you say — be beautiful to see, but they do nothing to welcome into yoga a mindfulness that would serve not only the beginner, but all of us. How refreshing to find a yogi who CAN do all those wild poses, but chooses not to highlight them, focusing instead on the side of yoga that helps us to feel, and be, better humans in a world that sorely needs us to be just that.

holyflipflops Feb 24, 2015 7:00pm

Very well said. Every class tell my students that the pose is just a side effect, that is more about understanding how our body and our mind can work together in benefit to ourselves. I'm strong believer that, though yoga can perhaps help you on being more compassionate, it goes to the core of who you truly are: are you compassionate with yourself to start with? can you go out of your way to help people? have you truly felt for others and sacrificed something to be there for someone, even if you don't know them? do you go out of your way to criticise, harm and destroy anyone or anything? it doesn't matter how many hours you meditate or practise, if you are not prepared to change the core of you as a human being, then no beautiful sirsasana or eka pada rajakapotasana, all the chanting in the world and the meditating on top of a mountain will ever change that. Yoga is one of the most bastardised things in the planet and is about funkiness, trendiness, fashion, etc. instead of self reflection and health

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Mark Van Buren

Mark Van Buren is a mindful living trainer and owner of Live Free Yoga Studio in River Edge, NJ. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller in Meditation, Be Your Sh*tty Self: An Honest Approach to a More Peaceful Life. To find out more about Mark, please visit his author’s site and website. You can also follow him on Twitter and Instagram.