(As published on Elephant Journal)
Even as Yoga explodes in popularity, its essence is being lost.
In recently performing an internet search for “Yoga in America,” I was saddened to see the latest of the slew of scandals related to Yoga (that happen not just in America, but throughout the world) appear at the top of my search results. Yoga, an ancient eight-fold practice originally designed to assist sincere spiritual seekers to access deep inner states of meditation and contemplation, seems to have become connected with a pervasive myth that more is better.
There is more music played in Yoga classes, more asanas (physical poses), more competition, more heat, more intensity, more challenging poses, more sexy clothing, more scantily clad students and teachers, more scandals.
There are more styles and names of Yoga than can ever be imagined, which always prompts the question I am so often asked: “what kind of Yoga do you practice (or teach)?”
I am very fortunate to be able to respond that, while I have been exposed to two other ‘styles’ of Yoga, I am now learning this practice from an unbroken lineage of teachers extending back to ancient times. The true and highest purpose of the practice of Yoga is Atmabodha: awakening to the truth of our spiritual nature. The term “Yoga for Atmabodha” reflects a much-needed reminder to modern Yoga seekers of the aim of Yoga, which is spiritual transcendence – not merely physical dexterity or flexibility.While Yoga asanas (physical poses) do definitely provide the body with many amazing benefits, the real purpose of Yoga is to purify the mind so that it may rest in its true spiritual essence. The word “Yoga” means “to unite” or “yoke together” in Sanskrit. Yoga is a Vidya (body of knowledge) that facilitates union with our own highest consciousness. When we collectively reduce the practice of Yoga to being merely physical, we miss an incredibly opportunity to benefit from a great Vidya.
The danger with the trendy nature of Yoga is that the practice will only continue to lose its philosophical and spiritual foundation and aim. The fact that there are more and more “types” or “styles” of Yoga emerging almost every day, it seems, has reduced the greatness of Yoga to associate primarily with various personalities, rather than with its ultimate purpose. While there may now be many names connected to the practice, there is only one Yoga. And while most people these days may be more likely to associate the phrase Ashtanga Yoga with one of the many ‘styles’ of Yoga (which fortunately associates more with the purpose of the practice, rather than any one personality), it is important for Yoga teachers to return to the roots of Yoga. I have been blessed to learn not only Yoga, but Ayurveda, Vedanta and other Vedic sciences by studying the source scriptures of each Vidya. This scriptural study ensures that the teachings are as authentic and undiluted as possible in their transmission. And in the Yoga Sutras treatise, which were compiled by Master Yogi Patanjali, we will find the description of “Ashtanga Yoga.” “Ashta” means “eight” and “anga” means “limbs.” Ashtanga Yoga, therefore, is not just a single ‘style’ of asana practice – it is the philosophical basis for the entire spiritual path of Yoga. Chapter 2, Sutra 29 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, clearly illustrates:
Yama Niyama Asana Pranayama Pratyahara Dharana Dhyana Samadhyo ‘Stav Angani
There are five Yamas and Niyamas, which are similar to the 10 Commandments, and form the ethical foundation of the Yoga practice. Only when we are living an ethical life, through following the 10 universal values that Yamas and Niyamas represent, can we start to learn Asana and Pranayama (extension of the life force through deliberate breathing exercises).
One of the Yamas (literally meaning “self-control”) is actually Brahmacharya, which does not mean total sexual abstinence, but rather a mindful reigning in of all the senses. Though the practice of Yoga does have a very physical component, by stressing the importance of control over the senses and the value of modesty, the ancient Rishis (sages) outlined a path of noble living for Yoga practitioners prior to even teaching them physical practices. The study of physical Asanas were, in fact, actually designed to support seekers in the practice of Brahmacharya, to access deeper states of spiritual consciousness. Nowadays, we have gone very far from the ideal of Brahmacharya, where modern clothing companies have begun competing to create more and more fashionable Yoga apparel, which reveal more and more bare skin, inviting a titillation of the senses that is about as far from the spiritual ideal of Brahmacharya as one can imagine. With just the way students and teachers alike adorn themselves for ‘Yoga’ classes these days, it is really no wonder that we are seeing such an increase in false gurus and sex scandals in the Yoga community.
And while the word “Yoga” has now begun to become more and more connected with sexy clothing, competition(s), fearsome poses, scandals and more, it is important to note that Yoga Asanas comprise only one of eight total steps along the path of Yoga. “Asana” is a beautiful Sanskrit word that means “seat.” By literally strengthening our ability to sit still for extended periods of time to delve deeper into study of the higher Self, devoted practice of Asana and Pranayama lead into the practice of Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from external objects), Dhyana (sustained meditation), and finally, to Samadhi.
Samadhi is a state of Self-Realization and equanimity, in which we are able to rise above joy and sorrow, and live in the freedom of our true Self. Samadhi is a synonym for Atmabodha, a Sanskrit word that derives from the root words “Atma,” which is “soul,” and “Bodha,” which means “to know.” The spiritual practice of Yoga, thus, extends far beyond the physical body and learning more and more advanced Asanas, to empower us with the sacred knowledge of who we really are, why we are here, and how to make the most of our time on earth. With the majority of modern-day practitioners focusing primarily on the physical aspects of Yoga, without recognizing the original purport and intent of the practice, we have collectively paid a rather large price.
I am grateful for Yoga for Atmabodha, which represents a return to the original roots of Yoga, in the way it was engaged by the Rishis of yore, for the purpose of knowing, perfecting, and ultimately realizing one’s higher Self. If the trend in Yoga continues to veer in the direction of more, then my deepest wish is that we may move in the direction of more authenticity, more empowerment, more depth, more healing, more humility, more modesty, and more and more illumination, recognition, and realization of the truth of our spiritual essence.