It seems such a simple question; what is yoga? But actually, if you ask different teachers, guru’s and yoga masters you can come up with many different answers. How is that possible? And who is right?
Yoga has been gaining a lot of popularity all over the world. From Tokyo, London, L.A. to Sydney, Dubai and Moscow, people seem to have caught the yoga bug. Instagram is full of bendy yoga people and in some cities, you can find a yoga class on almost every street corner.
There is hot yoga, vinyasa, prana vinyasa, ashtanga, hatha, yin, kundalini, Iyengar, kriya yoga, restorative, Jivamukti, Anusara, aerial yoga, but also more exotic classes like laughter yoga, tantrum yoga, goat yoga, rave yoga or naked yoga. And there are probably lots more yoga classes that I have never even heard of. Is this all yoga?
Patanjali & Yoga Sutras
Most of us know that it is said that yoga originates from India about 5000 years ago, and the sage Patanjali has written down 195 sutras (statements) on yoga about 2000 years ago. The word yoga comes from Sanskrite yuj and translates as ‘to join’ or ‘to unite’. Yoga used to be practised mainly by men, and the teacher would select his students. They would undergo years of intense yoga training. And very few people were practising yoga and knew about the practice. Actually, there are stories that village people in India would be frightened of yogis, almost in a boogieman kind of way. This is probably because of their mystical or even magical powers, referred to as Siddhis.
Then around the end of the 1800’s we find documentation of yogis like Vivekananda travelling to the US, Europe and India for lectures. Vivekananda has been instrumental in yoga philosophy, Vedanta, or actually to be more, precise Neo Vedanta. He found a new way to interpret the yoga philosophy. His influence has been undeniable. Later comes Yogananda, widely known for his book, Autobiography of a Yogi. He too travelled to the U.S and he founded the Self Realisation Fellowship in 1920. The organization is still active today and his teachings are based on Kriya yoga.
To Guru or Not to Guru
Maybe not so much a yogi in the traditional sense, but definitely, an influential spiritual philosopher was Jiddu Krishnamurti. The interesting thing is that his main ideas were centred on the divine nature of human beings and the freedom, the liberation of the self through spiritual awakening. This is not new as it is even mentioned in the yoga sutras of Patanjali, the newness comes from that he believed strongly that no gurus or teachers were needed. A process of self-inquiry and practising of the teachings would be enough. Other guru’s, yogis and teachers had always emphasized on the need for a teacher for guidance. Another great name in who taught that self-inquiry could lead to surrendering to the Self, as he called it, was Sri Ramana Maharishi. Ramana Maharishi practised meditation, Bhakti yoga and Jnana yoga.
He did have many devotees that came to visit him, but often just to sit in silence together, receive Darshan (to be gazed upon by an enlightened being) or to ask questions about the nature of the self. Both Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharishi did not teach asana practice. But their message was for enlightenment.
The father of Modern yoga
There could be no piece on yoga without mentioning Tirumalai Krishamacharya. He is the foundation on which asana practice today is based, the father of modern yoga. He is the creator of vinyasa, combining breath with movement. He was schooled by many sages, pundits and philosophers, as well as yoga gurus. He was also an Ayurvedic physician and had great knowledge of healing. Krishnamacharya was also a multidisciplinary scholar, with degrees in philosophy, logic, divinity, philology and music. Krishnamacharya teaches the 8 limbs of yoga. First, you start with asana, and when you have mastered asana you can work your way up to more subtle practices like pranayama and meditation at the end of which you achieve liberation. K Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar were students of Krishnamacharya. Pattabhi Jois developed and popularized the vinyasa style yoga, called Ashtanga yoga. BKS Iyengar developed Iyengar yoga, both of which you can find in yoga studios around the world today. But are very different from each other as a style.
Asana or Spiritual practice
In the 60-ies a meditation movement wave rocks the west: a spiritual practice through Bhakti yoga, self-inquiry, meditation. However, there is no to little mention of yoga asana. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is famous for founding TM (Transcendental Meditation) and being a spiritual teacher to the Beatles. Ram Dass famously studied with Neem Karoli Baba and wrote the iconic Be Here Now book. Ram Das has a friend, Krishna Das who was also a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba and is now a world-famous Bhakti singer. All of these teachers were important in bring yoga philosophy, bhakti yoga, meditation and other spiritual practices to the west. And we see still see these practices today.
So looking at the practices that we can see on the yoga class schedules can fall into one of two categories, and sometimes both, even if that is rarer. It is either mostly an asana practice or mostly a spiritual practice. So here is the gist of it I think. You can debate about the way to achieve the self-realization, but yogic practice is used to ultimately achieve self-realization. So yoga is a practice to find liberation. And many people have ideas to what that yoga practice is or should be. All the confusion, in my view, stems from the INTENTION of practising yoga to begin with. When we look at the 8 limbs, enlightenment is the ultimate goal, even though asana practice is the first step. In some asana-based yoga practices today the rest of the 8 limbs sometimes receive little to no attention. Thus isolating asana practice from the rest of the 8 limbs. And then it is no longer true that yoga is a system for self-realization because the intention is not self-realization for everyone. But the side effects on the road of this system have become the intention for so many.
In all of my years of practising and teaching, there were very few people that really wanted to achieve self-realization or spiritual awakening. It is a lonely and challenging path that requires willpower, determination, stamina, discipline and a lot of courage and surrender.
Different asana practices have proven to have many physical, mental and emotional benefits. So in that sense yoga asana has a unifying (the yuj) quality for the practitioner, harmonizing different aspects of the physical and maybe mental and emotional being. And from where I sit, these benefits have become the overriding reason for people to take up the practice, as I mentioned. The intention of why we practice yoga has changed. And I feel there is nothing wrong with that. If you have back problems and they are being relieved by yoga asana practice that is great! And if yin yoga helps you to relax after a busy day at the office, that is awesome.
Same same, but different
Various schools focus on different aspects or have even developed a new derivative. To me this is natural evolution, being relevant to the needs of people and the times we live in. But we have to make sure that we know what is what and why. I feel we don’t need to sit and judge if a certain practice makes people feel better and happier.
So your local gym will probably not be able to cater for your spiritual enlightenment practice with the yoga they offer. Even though, you never know, they may do. In yoga tradition, enlightenment was the ultimate goal. But for a lot of people relieving back pain or finding stress relief is their goal and intention for practising yoga. Let’s accept that yoga is not the same for everyone, but has value for all. I encourage everyone to try yoga and find a practice and teacher that you connect with. And for all of us on a deep spiritual quest, seeking liberation, let’s find love, understanding and compassion for those who are not.
Text: Marlene Smits
Image: Urban Goddess/Sido Wijga