Although yoga is practiced avidly throughout the west, practitioners are often unwittingly perpetuating a misconception of yoga that may actively cause harm, according to some yoga teachers. Considering that the root of the very word yoga is to unite, to integrate—and by extension not to cause harm—it is worth taking a closer look at ways in which anyone’s contemporary yoga practice can be brought more in line with the roots of yoga.
In the typical yoga class, instructors lead the class through a series of postures called asanas. In some disciplines, the postures are standardized and repeated in each class while in others a series is tailored for each session to focus practice on a variety of benefits, from core strengthening to anxiety reduction. Sometimes yoga postures are combined with fitness-oriented approaches like aerobics and pilates.
What often gets forgotten is that asanas were created as preparation for meditation through defined forms of breathing and contemplation as a means for spiritual growth in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Tejal Patel is the co-host of a podcast that challenges the limited version of yoga that has come to prominence in the predominately white-run yoga classes found at gyms and studios. Called Yoga is Dead, the podcast pulls no punches.
“Yoga is really about [setting daily] intentions for your thoughts, for your feelings, and the way you take action with yourself and with others in the world,” said Patel, herself an American yoga instructor who trained in India. She challenges fitness-oriented practitioners of yoga to ask themselves why they exclude the spiritual component of the practice. “You need to ask yourself, ‘How do I incorporate something into every thought and breath and movement in my life if I don’t actually believe it to be a spiritual practice or a cultural practice?’ That investigation can help you to live your yoga.”
Benefiting Without Being
The first episode of Patel’s Yoga is Dead podcast is “White Women Killed Yoga.” That intentionally provocative title is meant to challenge listeners to consider the impacts of their yoga practice and how yoga practiced holistically can help address some of the inequities that exist in yoga classes.
“‘How is my practice as a person who studies or teaches or practices yoga contributing to some of these systemic issues?’” is a question Patel suggests to all who practice yoga in any form. “‘Where do these practices come from?’ ‘Who am I learning from?’ ‘How does their practice relate back to the roots, if at all?’ ‘How does the bookshelf I have on yoga show racial [and] ethnic diversity in terms of the authors, the lineage or the topic material?’”
Benefits of Being
While the roots of yoga in South Asian culture may be too often obscured, the benefits of asanas themselves do seem undeniable. Through the stretching, balance and strength exercises that make up yoga classes at the local gym, many people have found flexibility and release of chronic pain that seemed out of reach before.
“There is not a bad reason for doing yoga, but there are some reasons that are better than others,” said Ramanand Patel, a yoga instructor based in Dublin who emanates seriously wise yogi vibes. “If I’m doing yoga just so it helps my back, it’s not a bad reason. It’s a good reason.”
Still, treating yoga as simply stretches and asanas without a further spiritual investigation leaves the point of yoga out of the practice. The subtle harms that may result are consequential for the goal of mutual understanding that is the intent of yoga.
“If somebody practices yoga for some reason [other than spiritual growth], it’s not wrong. That’s where they are at. Someday pain will come, in the physical or psychological, which will force them to look at what they are doing,” said Ramanand Patel. “And [when] people never look at it, they get into trouble.”
“If I practice just for physical benefit,” he continued, “even if I get the physical benefit, it’s going to raise my ego. Which means I begin to think of myself more and more as an individual. Different from others. That’s a loss.”
Ry Toast is an owner of Funky Door in Berkeley, which offers bikram hot yoga, one of the styles often accused of being physical while neglecting the spiritual, something that Toast is mindful of. “We practice [the postures] in the studio with our body, but it also has these energetic ripple effects out into our lives. [M]aybe you’re ignoring a place in your body and you are also ignoring an area in your life and there’s this parallel, where if you start paying attention to that tight spot that you keep avoiding, all of a sudden something in your life starts to expand and open up. That’s what living yoga is to me right now,” said Toast.
This effect is obvious in yoga studios when excellence of posture and body tone becomes a point of pride and exclusion. Living the yoga lifestyle through deep posturing in weekly classes turns out to be very different from actively pursuing unity by “living yoga.” It is when individuals in a community work together to recognize their essential unity that yoga becomes an integrating practice that attempts to help to make the world a safe place for all.