When I began Yoga several years ago it was to get over a breakup. I looked at Yoga as a spiritual exercise that would lift my spirits and make me look good all at the same time! That wasn't an assumption I came up with all on my own. All the studios and the media, even Madonna, made it out to be this new luxurious system of exercise that would give you a great butt and make you feel nice too. Different styles of Yoga were being introduced and glorified to give you this benefit or that benefit. Supermodels and actors were all doing it, so of course it took off.
But is that truly what Yoga is?
Doing the research I looked into this question for a long time and found answers everywhere. The most answers I found, not surprisingly at all, are in the Yoga Sutras. Often referred to as the Yogi manual for life, the sutras offer an extensive view into how a Yogi thinks, lives, and acts. And as it turns out the modern view of yoga postures, and what everyone now days thinks of as Yoga, are a very small part of what Yoga actually is.
So what does that mean, exactly? Looking a little bit deeper you can find that the popular styles of Yoga classes are only a few years old, where as the sutras were written by Patanjali thousands of years ago in 2nd century BCE. The sutras didn't have illustrations of postures or did they have specific detailed descriptions of postures. The sutras instead are more a lifestyle and manual of conduct. So the current styles of Yoga as we see them in the studios are new creations not from the ancient sages.
Given this is the case then one must assume Yoga in its foundation is not postures but a spiritual way of life where postures (Sanskrit term Asanas) are just a small integration to the entire system. In Anne Cushman's Yoga Journal article New Light On Yoga, she gives a very good depiction of what Yoga is today as opposed to what it was originally.
So what to make of these styles of Yoga we see on studio schedules? The fact is we live in a society that has an obsession with the body. Women especially are always on diets, always at the gym, always shopping for clothes that show off the figure. It's no surprise that the postures which were practiced by the ancient Yogis have been magnified in recent years as solely Yoga and to be practiced in heated rooms with as many people as possible. The styles of Yoga we see are merely different ways of putting the postures together to create a desirable sequence for a desired effect- energy, flexibility, strength, endurance, stress management, weight loss, ect.
One question I find myself asking is if this is a bad thing? After all whatever it is that brings people to Yoga at least gets them to a better mental state than they were before, at least they aren't on the couch watching MTV! And that is true, to an extent. Being active is better for a society than inactive people who are depressed and overweight. But when we talk about mental states we cannot stop there. Because what happens is that the person who doesn't move beyond the obsession with their looks and body never actually practices Yoga and misses the point entirely. It then becomes a danger to that persons well being to where the Yoga industry as we know it becomes an unhealthy culture and does an injustice to those who practice it. In the book Lectures on Yoga and Vedanta by Swami Sivananda he states "In the whirlpool of fleeting sensual pleasures you have forgotten the purpose of life and its goal. You live more for the body than for the soul." Teachers and students alike travel down a journey together of fanaticism and egoistic filled tendencies and practices, none of which elevate our society to any higher levels of being. So while getting off the couch is a step, it shouldn't be the last.
To get the entire benefits of Yoga, the yoga of the masters and sages, you must first practice the proper mental exercises which consist of meditation, positive thinking, eating properly, breathing properly, all in conjunction with the postures they teach in studios, books, and DVD's. if these are not practiced together, postures become dangerous and exhausting, they end up doing much more harm than good. People become competitive, angry, frustrated, lethargic, and irritable. They go to work and hate being there, they get mad during traffic jams, yell at their kids and spouse, abuse their pets, drink and curse, and mostly if not most tragic they abuse themselves.
If Yoga teachers do not teach these principles during classes or workshops, then how will the culture transform back to its origins? This is the biggest question of all, which will take the most time and patience. Like any other fad in history, the entire system must come to its boiling point before it can transform itself for the better or be destroyed completely. This billion dollar industry which is a product of very passionate people striving to make some sort of difference in society, if not their own wallets, can become what the sages always knew it to be. There's nothing wrong with going to a class and learning new ways to place your legs over your head. Nothing wrong with going to a heated class and sweating your little yogi toes off on your very slippery mat. However all these classes must be accompanied with meditation, positive thinking, learning to eat properly and at what times of the day, dealing with anger and frustration properly, amongst other things. This is the only way Yoga will move beyond a fad and into True healing for an enlightened society.