There’s been a bit of a debate going on among my Facebook friends this week about yoga in these here parts (e.g. the West). I certainly have my own issues with the topic. I get on my soapbox all the time about the commercialization of yoga here in the U.S.; the culture of yogalebrities and the focus on Cirque du Soleil moves. But, regardless of all this soapboxiness, one thing remains absolutely crystal clear in my mind; there is power in the practice. Regardless of what direction your path takes, the power will meet you where you are.
So back to the debate. There were doubts expressed as to whether yoga, as we define it here in America— heated vinyasa, 80’s playlists, fancy clothes and all— is even possible of leading to what the original yogis intended it to: enlightenment. Or is that only possible in places like India where yoga is less accessible (yup, I was surprised at that, too) and requires more disciplined study, purification, and renunciation than your average comfortable American is interested in? Is the “fun” we have here in the West steering us entirely way from the purpose of yoga? Is having fun, in fact, at odds with attaining enlightenment?
I say no. I’ve always been told by my teachers that yoga meets you where you are. In my case, and I’m guessing many others’, asana was the gateway. I loved the way the physical postures made my body feel from the very first class. But after a few years of regular asana practice, I began to get a sense that there was much more to yoga; that I was only scratching the surface. I asked questions and read a lot – which, I didn’t even realize at the time, was svadhyaya, or self study. Without even knowing it, I was taking a step along the eight-fold path to enlightenment. That brought me to my first teacher training. And somewhere along the line, I was hooked irrevocably.
Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.
Patanjali says at the very outset of the Yoga Sutras that yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind-stuff; I translate this roughly to mean yoga is shutting off the chatter in your brain. In Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation of the Sutras, he says “For a keen student this one Sutra would be enough because the rest of them only explain this one.” So, at least in Satchidananda’s mind, this one thing is pretty much the end all be all to yoga.
And it sounds simple. But, if you’ve ever tried to meditate, you know shutting off your mind is perhaps the hardest thing in the world to do. And, doing so in modern day Washington, D.C. where I live – or New York, Chicago, San Diego or wherever – probably requires very different things than it did back in Patanjali’s day. It makes sense, then, that the practice itself has evolved. For some people, maybe a 80s playlist and dancing warrior does help them get out of their heads and able to better access spirit. As yogiraj Alan Finger puts it: “..Yoga, the real living practice, has always been more like an organism that grows organically…”
And as for the renunciation stuff – I balk against that myself. I like me my creature comforts. But there is a long history of yogis who chose another path (and, I’m just guessing, probably had a lot more fun); it’s called Tantra. Again, from Alan Finger, “Tantra is considered to have developed within the various schools of yoga in the early medieval period as a reaction to the conservatism of the Brahmins, or priests, who advocated celibacy and retreat from worldly life in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and as a way to allow householders to practice yoga.”
As much as I get up on that soapbox about what yoga is and isn’t (and, by the way, who am I to even begin to say anything on that front?!), I believe 100 percent in the ability of what I do in a hot vinyasa class to help effect change, to bring me closer to spirit and maybe inch me down the path to enlightenment. No way will I get there in this, or probably the next five lifetimes, but I am a heck of a lot closer than I would have been if I’d never come to my mat.
In my opinion, there are many different maps that can lead you down the path to enlightenment. But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that practicing yoga, whatever that means to you, is a body bending, mind blowing, soul expanding first step.