A while back, a member of a social media community I’m part of posted about an interesting dilemma. As an Indian native versed in classical yoga, he was wondering how to expose Westerners to a more authentic experience of yoga. It made me think (again) about whether we are truly practicing yoga, and what we’re doing if we aren’t.
I wrote about this topic in the Yoga Circles book. There’s related post here on the Yoga Circles Blog – Can Westerners Practice Yoga, or is Eastern Wisdom Beyond Our Grasp?
So, Are We Practicing Yoga?
Most of us know, at least to some extent, that our modern yoga practice bears little resemblance to the ancient practice it came from. This is especially true in the West.
The original purpose of yoga—which means yoke—was to control the mind and senses. When the mind controls us, yogic wisdom says, we forget who we truly are. When we control the mind, we can transcend the pain and suffering of human life. That is, we can access a higher consciousness and live with great power as beings connected to our source (and each other).
So really, in order to decide if we are practicing yoga, we need to look at our goal. Are we searching for enlightenment, or do we have another purpose when we roll out our yoga mats?
Practicing Yoga Becomes Fitness and Moves West
Yoga as we know it today didn’t begin to take shape until the late 1800s. Postures took center stage with the beginnings of the physical fitness movement that began around that time. Rather than a few simple postures for meditation, yogis practiced more poses.
Soon more poses came along. Even in the beginning, there were only a few more poses, but by the middle of the twentieth century, there were dozens of poses and styles of asana practice.
As David Surrenda, CEO of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts pointed out in a New York Times article, yoga became popular in the West because it was introduced as a tool that could solve Western problems—reducing stress and developing physical strength, for example.
What Went Missing?
As yoga became more popular as a tool for stress management and fitness, those who practiced and taught it tended to overlook its spiritual roots.
But some of us still come to yoga for those more “ancient spiritual reasons,” even when we start because our bodies and minds need some TLC. If you’ve come to know and love yoga’s spiritual side at some point as your practice deepened, you may sometimes wonder if yoga has become too modernized.
Is there a point, as the Indian yogi I mentioned above seemed to suggest, where the practice is so mainstream that it is no longer yoga?
What Is Yoga? The Answer May Depend On Who You Ask
Classical yogis say self-awareness is the purpose of any practice called yoga. The goal is to learn our true nature, which we can do by dissolving our attachment to illusion.
Of course, being self-aware can lead to physical fitness and a less stressed out way of living, but those are benefits of self-awareness, not goals in themselves. When we focus exclusively on poses and relaxation, we may miss the true work of becoming our true selves.
What do you think? The questions from the Yoga Circles chapter on this topic may help you consider what practicing yoga means to you. If any of these questions inspires you, share your answers in the comments!
- If you feel like something is missing from modern yoga, what is it?
- What is your reason for practicing? Is it the same reason you started with?
- If you’ve practiced more than one style of yoga, what differences have you noticed in the ways it is taught? What works best for you?
- What problems (if any) do you see with the Westernization of yoga? How do you deal with these problems?
Would you like to explore more yoga topics in depth—perhaps with a group of yoga friends? Get your copy of Yoga Circles, A Guide to Creating Community off the Mat. You’ll find lots of topics and activities for living the yoga lifestyle and enjoying time with like-minded yogis! Click here to order!
I’m Maria, devoted yogini and author of Yoga Circles. I’m a writer, editor, and content marketing creator. I help small businesses, wellness brands, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and communicate effectively in writing. Visit my website (link below) to learn how I can help you connect with more readers, clients, and students!