Yoga: Eastern Tradition vs. Western Interpretation
In 2012 the estimated number of yoga practitioners in the United States was 20.4 million and has since then increased to over 36 million. In fact, yoga has become so popular that almost everyone can say that they know someone who says they are practicing yoga. Many of these new yogis/yoginis attend classes several times a week with the hopes of enjoying the “physical aspects”, but what about the students who desire more than a physical experience such as spiritual awakening and enlightenment? Yoga has become westernized by being stripped down to merely its physical components; Therefore, if you have joined yoga for its traditions such as connecting the mind, body, and spirit then joining just any yoga class in the U.S will not satisfy your needs.
One of the greatest misconceptions about yoga is that it is merely a form of exercise. In actuality, yoga was created thousands of years ago as a branch of Hindu discipline with the intention of being a lifestyle. Nowhere on earth is this misinterpretation more common than in the United States. Here in the western world, we have taken a very large and complex way of life and shaved off its traditional components in order to adapt it to what we think our culture needs and wants; fitness. But this cultural phenomenon of one culture adapting to fit the “needs” of another has left thousands of yoga practitioners in the United States struggling to find classes that will provide them with more than a good stretch.
Most people are not aware that asana (stretches/poses) is actually the third step in the classical teachings of raja yoga, which is inclusive of all forms of yoga that aims to achieve control over the mind and emotions. The first step is the practice of the five restraints. These include non-harming: truthfulness: non-stealing: self-restraint: and non-possessiveness. The second step is the practice of the five observances which include purity: contentment: austerity (strictness/seriousness): self-study: and surrender to God. Achieving these steps takes heavy discipline and devotion. Only after these steps have been completed should one proceed to practicing asana (note: there are four more branches that follow asana).
The concept behind completing the steps in order is that practicing yoga asana can make people healthier and provide energy no matter the state of their being. If someone does not commit to becoming a better person before practicing asana, then the practice will only be feeding into their ability to carry out their harmful and self-serving impulses. For example, Darth Vader in Star Wars practiced the exercises of a Jedi Knight but didn’t commit himself to guarding the peace and justice of the universe. Because he rejected becoming a better person first, the exercises only fed into the flaws of his character. In terms of reality, without incorporating the five restraints and the five observances into your practice you will never deepen your spirituality, enable yourself to become more caring/aware, find self-realization, create awareness of the world, find true inner happiness, or completely free your mind of delusion. Basically, without fulfilling these components no amount of stretching and posing will ever help you minimize the stresses and pressures of the world lifelong, or lead you down a permanent path of self-discovery.
I am not saying that going to yoga class to stretch several times a week for hour long sessions suggests that you’re a bad person or has no benefit. In actuality, there are a sufficient amount of benefits to be gained from even this limited form of the practice such as flexibility, strength, and energy. But because their western practice is restrained to merely the physical plane, practitioners should not expect results beyond the physical.
The misunderstanding that this stretch and pose activity is a stepping stone on the way to enlightenment is in no way the fault of the students or most of the time even the teachers. No longer do students have to travel to India to seek out a Swami in order to learn, and no longer must an instructor give up all of his possessions to be taught under the ancient wisdom of a yoga master such as Tirumalai Krishnamarcharya. Today, all that are needed are a google search bar with the words, “yoga classes near me” and a four-week online instructor course.
The fault within this faster timeline of certification is that now anyone can be a teacher as long as others choose to follow them; However, that doesn’t mean that they’ve practiced all of the teachings or live a yogic life. In fact, most yoga instructor institutions outside of India don’t even come close to uncovering all of the benefits that yoga provides for us because they no longer focus on integrating the principles or foundations that yoga was meant to instill in its participants such as discipline: relaxation: devotion: knowledge: and awareness; Rather, they whittle off the tradition until all that’s left are the physical elements.
Without teachers having practiced or having been taught all of the elements yoga has to offer, students can be lead to believe that they are receiving a desired result or will after a certain period of time when in fact they never will. For example, a student may join yoga with the hopes of deepening their spirituality, but if the class simply focuses each session on stretching and the placement of various body parts then there will only ever be an opportunity for them to concentrate on their body but not their mind or spirit.
I joined the yoga community three years ago and like the majority of starters, I began by participating in a beginner’s yoga class. In this class I mainly learned how to do simple poses such as tree, warrior, and downward dog with the occasional comment from my instructor on how to breathe or what the positions do for our bodies. Consequently, after several years of practice all I was able to take away from my class was how to become more flexible and I was no closer to undergoing any spiritual awakening or enlightenment.
Westernized classes similar to the one I participated in will sometimes make an attempt at weaving traditional aspects into the session such as yoga nidra (pratyahara) (which is known as yogic or conscious sleep meant to help guide meditation and awareness by withdrawing us from our senses) but more often than not, the emphasis is cut too short for it to make a lasting impact. Unfortunately, in these situations, the integrations such as pratyahara, dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) receive only a few minutes of attention when they traditionally should be practiced for 20-30 minutes on a daily basis in order to provide results beyond stretching and flexibility. The problem with these types of classes are that the students are only made aware of the exercises but not what the exercises are meant to prepare them for. This would be like a dancer learning the choreography of a dance step by step but never putting the steps together in order to perform the dance in its entirety.
Without “putting all of the steps of the dance” together, yoga practitioners will never move beyond the fitness aspects of the practice. If a good stretch and very temporary relaxation are the goal of your practice then many westernized yoga classes will help you achieve that; However, yoga is a lineage of lifelong commitment and should not be looked upon as a goal or task to be completed. Rather, it should be looked upon as a window of opportunity to commit yourself to an evolution of the body, mind, and spirit. Another way of looking at this is by thinking yoga is union. As one flows through their sun salutations they should be focusing on connecting the rhythm of their breath to the movement of their body and the fluctuations of their mind in order to unify them. India is considered to be the birthplace of yoga and in the Indian culture yoga teachers and students dedicate decades of their lives to improving their practice. If one attends yoga class simply two times per week, as is the usual in the United States, how can they ever expect to reach any standard of unification that centuries of yoga masters before us have been unable to achieve? Consequently, this minimal amount of dedication results in students believing that they are practicing yoga and receiving all of the benefits it has to offer when in fact they are only and will ever only, be practicing and receiving a very minimal portion of it.
Stretching and flexibility are not all of what yoga is composed of; Rather they are a very minimal part of a large and complex lifestyle. When yoga made its journey overseas to the U.S, it was stripped of nearly all of its spiritual and traditional components. This left behind nothing more than the physical plane which is no more mentally stabilizing than riding a bike or going for a run. Yoga schools have stopped teaching the foundations yoga was built upon which has led to misinformation and malpractice being passed on from teacher to student and even student to student. But just because physical strength and a calm mind may not be the core aim of a traditional yoga practice, doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy these as parts of it. Ultimately, yoga is not an all or nothing practice. We have the option of choosing to incorporate into our daily lives whichever aspects of it we choose; However, if spiritual awakening and enlightenment are more on your mind than a good stretch, then make sure to do research before joining a class teaching just any westernized interpretation of yoga.