I occasionally mount a pretty high horse to scowl upon some trends in yoga classes. If you want to see my gnarliest bitch face, tell me that you love power yoga. I’ll mellow some (but not entirely) for this: I don’t do yoga because it’s for acrobats. And while my face may look peeved, I promise the anger is not for you when you tell me you won’t go back to yoga because the teacher pushed you too deep.
Like a bell ringing, every time I hear these things—which happens surprisingly often—a devilish yogi sheds another ounce of bodyfat.
Yoga has become a million different things to a million different people. It’s flying on scarves attached to steel supports. It’s choreographed to acoustic guitars. It’s floating in the bay. Why not? Somehow, the western audience hasn’t been content to let yoga guide them from movement to mindfulness to breath to study. Instead, we’ve morphed yoga into activities that border on the absurd. For example: ever wonder if there’s yoga on horseback? I looked. The answer is Yes. Nascar Yoga? Sure. Yoga for dogs? Absodogalutely.
To do yoga these days, you don’t even have to do yoga. You can hang upside down or jump on a stand-up paddle board or probably take a rocket ship to the moon. Then you can call it yoga. Ta-da! Yoga! I’m riding my bike and calling it yoga! I’m sitting on the couch. Yoga. You, my friend, reading this: nice yoga.
Except. Something’s missing. In all that yoga, where’s the yoga? You can turn on the hose and call yourself a fireman but you aren’t putting out fires. Throw flour in an oven but you won’t make bread. I hate to bear the news, but just because someone calls it yoga, even a member of the lululemon cult, doesn’t make it yoga.
So what, then, is yoga? And why am I such a formalist prig?
While the history of yoga is long—dating back millenia—and the methods of its practice have varied, it was consistently a mechanism for unifying the activities of body, mind and senses. In Hindu philosophy, it is one of six philosophical schools for the acquisition of knowledge, systematized by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. It was Patanjali who defined yoga as a philosophy, as citta vritti nirodah, or a way to still the fluctuations of the mind. His system to accomplish this includes eight limbs— or passages, maybe—that carry the student toward this goal. This is the very definition of Ashtanga—eight-limbed.
Patanjali’s contribution to yoga was not simply formative but advancing. Millenia of consideration preceded him, including the Mahabharata, one of two epic tales of ancient India containing the legendary Bhagavad Gita. It was in the Mahabharata that the idea of nirodha or cessation—of attachment, senses, thoughts—is described as an avenue toward realizing the true self. Then Patanjali set about a checklist of efforts that could withstand a little cessation. Right conduct, for example, can be thought of an exercise in restraining ourselves. He suggests we stop with the harming, the lying, the stealing, the lusting the greed. He complements these imperatives with various observances: thinking clearly, being content, keeping austere, studying the self and surrendering to greater forces. Only after these guideposts for proper conduct does Patanjali suggest that we take a steady and comfortable seat, that we breathe, withdraw from the senses, attend to a single object, contemplate intensely, and then merge our consciousness with the object of our meditation. Phew. It’s a lot to do. Probably not manageable if all our time is taken up swinging on ropes and calling it warrior.
Then again, maybe we aren’t all interested in catching the mind in its perpetual bounce. Maybe.
Which brings me back to lunges and why I’m a formalist prig. After 10 years of practice, I hurt myself doing a deep, deep backbend I didn’t need to do. After 12 years of practice, my pain was still occasional. After 14 years, I still sometimes regretted that backbend. So in the last six years, I altered my practice. I stopped attending classes unless I knew the teacher and knew he or she was great. I read the Sutras. Again and again. I learned anatomy. I learned to breathe. I learned the physiology of breathing. And I learned to sit steadily and comfortably so I could meditate on my behavior and actions. I tell people I’ve practiced yoga for 20 years, but it might be more honest of me to say my yoga practice truly started six years ago.
Am I saying yoga is more than lunges? Yes. Way more than lunges on a surfboard or lunges on a trapeze. Unfortunately, if a lunge on the ground seems boring to people, then leaving the lunge behind for something quieter might be even harder. But the truth is, the challenge of yoga becomes greater when the exercise becomes quieter. And it’s more interesting. More sincerely fun than anything trying so hard to impress you. Imagine your mind is a superball. Now remember how awesome it felt to occasionally catch that damn thing. And to watch it soar. And how disappointed you were when the superball rolled into the gutter. And how you got over it?
The western approach to yoga has focused on the physical postures—the asana—and flirted with breath and maybe meditation. But asana is only one limb of the yogic path. It is intended to prepare the body to sit in contemplation, and then meditation, for as long as it takes for the mind to stop its incessant chatter. Not to sleep. But to find freedom. Like a superball. Except a superball at peace.
Freedom from all thoughts of I and mine; that man finds utter peace.
From the Bhagavad Gita.
So when was the last time you did yoga? And are you ready to start?