In Sanskrit, when the letter A is placed in front of a word, it negates it. Meaning, not that.
As taught and sold today;
- yoga is for everyone and anyone at any age can do it. Not exactly.
- yoga is relaxing, stress-free, it will calm you down. Not exactly.
- yoga is blissful, peaceful, a love-fest. Not exactly.
- yoga will give you inner stillness and happiness. Not exactly.
- yoga is simple and easy. No. No it’s not.
Yoga may indeed be for everyone, but everyone is not meant for yoga. The enormous work required on the part of the practitioner cannot be underestimated.
Yoga is only for those that are willing and able to do the work. We should not attend classes with the misguided expectations of having someone else fix us. Nor should yoga teachers make those promises.
Yoga is not relaxing. The preparatory work at the beginning, and for many many years after, can be more like performing surgery without anesthetics. It can be like undergoing hundreds of psychiatric sessions under a hot spotlight.
Yoga attempts to shatter all delusion and everything we have ever believed in and thought to be true so we can get to the soul. When awareness dawns and we begin to recognize our deep conditioned ways, it can be far from pleasurable or convenient. However once accepted, a greater sense of peace and calm may arrive. But until then, consider the opposite and understand what one has signed up for.
The first thing people say to me when they find out I teach yoga is “Oh, you must be so relaxed”. The next is “So you’re a vegetarian”. I’ll leave the latter comment for another post.
It could possibly be this false belief of a chilled out occupation we so desire that draws the hordes to yoga teacher trainings. It doesn’t take us long to discover that having steady streams of strangers arriving daily with the hopes and expectations of being miraculously fixed, cured and remedied of their aches, pains, illnesses, sorrows, job and relationship troubles all while being entertained by a sweaty workout, is the farthest thing from relaxing.
Many people come to class expecting to be led by an expert contortionist, nutritionist, psychologist, physiotherapist, astrologer, doctor and shaman all wrapped up in a tight little package wearing cool leggings and a top knot bun.
Yoga encompasses several modalities of healing methods that when observed and practiced offer ways of how to relate and become in tune to life in a healthy manner, from diet and exercise, to music and grammar, astrology and arranging living space, to mind training, developing super powers, healing and freedom from rebirth. Sounds so enticing, of course so many people want to practice it!
Teacher trainings today are taught by a ‘faculty’. We have taken a craft that required years of apprenticeship under a single guide in strict conditions and converted it into the Western school system, based on certificates and stripped of anything remotely resembling its essence.
A variety of experts in handstands, backbends and restoratives, a musician, a meditation guide, an anatomy expert, a philosophy teacher, an ethics life coach, a legal and business adviser, all lead a group of innocent students through a month of how to teach yoga to others in a school room setting. Complete the hours required and walk away with a certificate in hand. Factory produced instructors being pumped out monthly, unleashed into the world selling more of what they were taught.
If we draw on the texts of yoga and how it was practiced (as close as we can possibly assume it began) it was purely a spiritual practice seeking transcendental states in order not to have to be reborn again, thereby being freed of suffering. It was a way to die at will and not have to return in human form. Anatomy course not included. Few practiced back then. Therefore, yoga was not meant as therapy, was not meant for the sick, and finally, yoga was not meant for everyone.
Back in the day, gurus would teach a handful of students and just one at a time. Not many could do all that was entailed in a yoga practice. All money, possessions and pastimes renounced, the entire day was spent practicing techniques that will eventually only lead to the removal of life. One had to be really called to the life of yoga. It was never meant for everyone and rarely passed on to even those that pursued it, only to those that truly deserved it.
Times change, mistakes are encountered, people seek wider pastures and things must adapt to the needs of societies and their current problems arising. Although yoga was never meant for the public masses or the sick, practicing it can still relieve a lot of their suffering.
What we are practicing today is not Yoga, however, it does seem to be helping a lot of folks and it appears we are better off for it.
We stretch out tension, relieve some stress, get in touch with our breath and posture, feel stronger, gain confidence and that is great stuff. But is it ‘yoga’ that is helping or is it simply stretching out a few kinks, learning basic movement patterns and taking the time to breathe while surviving a hectic day and stressful world?
Perhaps we can find another name to use for it because none of us are actually doing yoga. The words exercise, calisthenics and gymnastics have already been taken, plus we need to add a sense of relaxation to it.
Soul Stretching, Move and Renew, Tension Tonic, Spirit Conditioning, Reach and Release, Lunge and Let Go?
I really don’t know, but the word yoga has been highjacked by anyone trying to get on the money wagon and I am pretty sure we are not doing it or even remotely close to it’s original design or intention.
I can’t say when it happened, maybe when Madonna announced she does yoga on Oprah in 1998, or Christy Turlington was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 2001, or the Beatles in India back in 1968, or even much earlier in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda came to Chicago. I don’t believe one can ever pinpoint a beginning or think there will be an end. It’s just what happens, how we survive and entertain ourselves throughout our brief existence.
Transformations were clearly made from renunciate hermits and wandering ascetics, to intellectuals pursuing meditation, to hippies seeking mind altering states, to wealthy women juicing and wearing designer tights. Main yoga studios were gobbled up by corporate ownership, franchises opened and now yoga is a massive industry that crosses the entire planet.
There is A LOT of yoga being sold out there. We are, among other things, very creative beings.
Raja yoga, Hatha yoga, Shadow yoga, Bikram yoga, Iyengar yoga, Sivananda yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Kundalini yoga, Kriya yoga, Hot yoga, Jivamukti yoga, Moksha yoga, Integral yoga, Vijnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Laya yoga, Mantra yoga, Karma yoga, Jnana yoga, Anusara yoga, Power yoga, Restorative yoga, Gentle yoga, Yin yoga, Satyananda yoga, Viniyoga, Forrest yoga, Prana yoga, Vinyasa yoga, Nada yoga, Nadi yoga, Isha yoga, Art of Living yoga, Baptiste yoga, Ayurvedic yoga, Live Music yoga, Tantra yoga, Shamanic yoga, Hebrew yoga, Egyptian yoga, African yoga, Kids yoga, Prenatal yoga, Mommy and Baby yoga, Couples yoga, Seniors yoga, Community yoga, Alignment yoga, Laughter yoga, Sound yoga, Wholistic yoga, Queer yoga, Naked yoga, Bliss yoga, Acro yoga, Flying yoga, Aerial yoga, Bouncy House yoga, Sound Off yoga, Topless yoga, Coffee yoga, Chocolate yoga, Beer yoga, Ganja yoga, Cat yoga, Dog yoga, Goat yoga, yoga for Horses, yoga Therapy, yoga for Golfers, yoga for Runners, yoga for Backs, yoga for Hamstrings, yoga for Abs, YogaFit, yoga for Lesbians, yoga for Gays, yoga for Men, yoga for Women, yoga for Teens, yoga for Trans, yoga for Fat People, yoga for Sex Addicts, yoga for Dummies, and Corporate yoga.
A person who is new to yoga and looking for a class will be hard-pressed to sift through all the noise. They will most likely wind up turning to what is the most popular, cheapest and most convenient to get to. We used to call them gyms. Yoga studios offer 12 hours worth of daily classes based on what mood you are in and the perfect instructor to satisfy that craving. Many studios don’t even have a list of teachers rather say it’s their team that will guide you through classes.
If teachers do actually post a biography, one can no longer find practical information of experience such as what teachers they have studied with, how long they have been practicing or what trainings they have completed, instead we find descriptions of how much they love yoga and how they will make you feel if you come to their class.
When did yoga turn into entertainment?
Millions flock to be relaxed and entertained by agile athletics choreographed to a soothing playlist, searching for that spiritual spa. Live music gets introduced and we now have more distractions. Like in gyms with music blaring, headphones are worn while we follow mindlessly the instructor on stage going through a choreographed dance sequence. Instead of inner silence, internal focus on sounds and breath awareness, we get to choose a playlist.
Because we are unable to send our attention inwards, or perhaps we don’t like what we see when we do, we have essentially created the exact opposite of what the practice of yoga is, using its name as a marketing tool.
This has obviously gone on since the beginning of time since written in almost every yoga text is the author complaining of the ones who don’t get it, who don’t understand, who don’t really know, who mixed things up, who sold out, those stupid ignorant people ruining everything.
Even the Hathayogapradipika of Swatmarama, a compilation of texts in the 15th century, says the practice of Hatha yoga is for those who have not been able to grasp Raja yoga.
“Owing to the darkness arising from the multiplicity of opinions (philosophies) people are unable to know the Raja Yoga. Compassionate Swatmarama composes the Hatha Yoga Pradipika like a torch to dispel it.”
(chapter one, verse 3)
Each teacher’s lessons are misunderstood, misquoted, misinterpreted and misused. We can never know if the texts written were done so by actual practitioners or by men hired to transcribe and compile a system.
The bigger issue is once something goes mainstream and sold as a package of what it should look like, it becomes true. Then we are faced with the negation of what it really was, or once was.
I heard the Chinese have a saying, “the real becomes the false and the false becomes the real”.
This is what happened to yoga and is what seems to have happened to everything humans ever touched since the beginning of time. We change things.
We grab on to something, spin it into a marketable item, make it big, overdo it, build it up only to tear it down through mockery and satiation. Whether it is out of ignorance, misunderstanding, inability to grasp knowledge, fear or greed, who knows. But this is what we seem to do.
Each generation believes they know the real thing and that the younger ones have screwed it up. The younger ones think the older ones have messed it up for them and they don’t know what they are talking about. And so it goes. Information is watered down, techniques dumbed down and eventually spun into something completely different because people are just not getting it.
Our way of life resembles nothing like the society of the ancient yogis’ time. We don’t eat the same way or grow the same food, we live in different climates, we now have furniture, cars, laptops, electricity and Instagram. We face different problems and concerns, we require much different techniques and we have different ambitions.
But one desire can never change when it comes to a yoga practice. That is the deep longing for inner peace that comes with self-knowledge. A pursuit to end our suffering, to discriminate between real and unreal, and to uncover and reunite with our creator.
Everything else is just stress relief.
There is only ONE yoga and it encompasses ALL styles, branding, trademarks, marketing, endorsements and property ownerships. A student with a good foundation and proper physical preparation should be able to walk into any style of yoga class and pick it up because they have learnt how to be adaptable in their mind and how to properly move in their body. A seeker of that ONE truth will keep searching until they find a teacher, not a style. Those that don’t fall into the trap will continue on their own in secret, away from public scrutiny as has always been.
Perhaps it’s our turning away from organized religion that has caused people to turn towards yoga. We still seek that connection with Spirit, just not to a man-made god. We are confronted with too many rules and exclusions with organized religion yet we still require to have faith in something.
Maybe I write to vent my bitterness on what I think has been done to yoga and to what I believe to be real disappearing. My attachment to the past, my inability to go with the flow and change with the times. Perhaps it’s a showing of my age and a grasp at my fleeting existence.
Or maybe people have really lost their way and this is my meagre attempt to salvage any dignity for my beloved glorious art that has kept me alive, reasonably healthy, helped me find a relatively decent place of mental stability and has guided me in helping to discriminate between the real and the false. Wow, yoga can do so much!
I hope you get a giggle from my writings, a wake-up call and/or some inspiration to dig deeper into your soul.
Just please, let’s stop calling it yoga!
Radhasri (Rhonda Fogel) has been teaching yoga in Canada since 1998 and is the founder of Hatha Yoga Shala currently based in Montreal.