If you ask the average American to describe what Yoga is, they’ll probably talk about people bending themselves into contortions, thin white women in yoga pants, chanting, and breathing. Until recently, most Yoga studios had a very particular aesthetic, with lotus blossoms, mood lighting, and even elements of Buddhism or Hinduism mixed in with art and sculptures. If that is what you love about Yoga, then what I’m about to say might upset you and please feel free to ignore me and keep doing what works for you.
Most of that…isn’t really Yoga or at least is more of mashup of various spiritual traditions mixed with a physical practice that really can stand on its own without it.
I’m saying this not because there is anything *wrong* with mixing the physical practice with any spiritual or religious tradition that works for you, but because it has caused a ton of confusion that pushes away many people who might otherwise enjoy and benefit from the physical practice. They may avoid it because they don’t think it fits with their own spiritual or religious tradition or because they aren’t really looking for that at all and just want something to help them get into better shape or gain more flexibility. This kind of confusion even led recently to a teacher telling my own daughter that Yoga was idol worship and shouldn’t be done. That may be some people’s opinion, but in my own, it’s a very over-simplified and incorrect assumption.
To explain how this all happened and why it’s unnecessary, we need to go back for a history lesson and clear up some confusion between the two Yogas, so bear with me.
There IS a religious/spiritual tradition called Yoga that is ancient, thousands of years old. It originated in India. There are old texts describing this and they do mention one “limb” of this tradition called “asana” which is a sanskrit word that we loosely translate to mean “pose” and this is where the term in the physical practice of yoga comes from. However, in these traditional texts, these poses are very simplistic and are used to prepare and stretch the body before sitting in meditation. They are not used in any worship or rites and are mostly sitting positions that are used across meditation traditions. This is all we have documentation of when it comes to yoga poses in a religious context. Chanting, which some people mix in with their yoga practice, is actually a completely separate limb of the ancient religious tradition and there were other limbs that related to cleansing practices like neti pot as well as ethics and such. It was a monotheistic religion with an ascetic bent where it was believed that discipline over one’s body, thoughts, and actions could lead to a higher spiritual level.
About 100 years ago, a man named Krishnamacharya begins teaching yoga at the Mysore Palace in Southern India. He is a practitioner of the Yoga religion and he begins teaching young men and boys a very rigorous, athletic practice that is the first recorded incidence of what we might recognize as yoga. He claims that he learned this from the man who taught him and makes other claims also that this practice was written down on a banana leaf document that was then eaten by insects, but there is no previous documentation of a practice like this. This was also during the time of English occupation of India and this new practice shows quite a few influences from other athletic pursuits like gymnastics and conditioning exercises used by the military. His practice hall for these poses was actually originally a gymnastics hall at the palace. Like good food, influences from these different cultures were blended into something more than the whole of the parts and it quickly became popular and he taught several students who went on to have a huge impact on yoga as we know it today. He continued to teach the physical practice of yoga alongside the religious studies, believing that the two complemented each other.
In the 1960’s, many Americans were looking for something spiritually and it had become popular to search within Eastern religions. At this time, Yoga instructors from India were branching out, leaving India and teaching the physical practice in Europe and the US. They quickly found that Westerners were eager for a certain aesthetic and a mixing of spiritual practices with the physical practices and so…modern yoga often mixed the two and even began to mix in other Eastern spiritual traditions as well into a kind of stew that many people found beneficial but others found off-putting. For better or worse, a physical practice became synonymous with Eastern religions.
There are MANY misconceptions about Yoga that stem from this. One is that the names of the poses in sanskirt have some sort of deeper meaning. In actuality, they are descriptive names that describe the shape of the pose. Many are names of animals, like cat and cow and lizard. Others are names of shapes and many are variations on a stance a warrior might take, but the purpose of the names is to describe the pose and it’s just as easy to use a translation to whatever language your students use. It just sounded cooler to some people to use a foreign language for it. Another misconception is that these poses were used in religious worship, which they were not. They were used to strengthen and open up the body, which was believed to benefit a person in their spiritual life as well. Sequences of poses like “Sun Salutations” were not used in worship of the sun, but were named this because it was intended as a warmup sequence and typically done at the beginning of a practice. The yoga religion itself did not worship animals or the sun, so even if you try link the two, this makes zero sense.
Recently, as more Yoga studios consider the implications of cultural appropriation and more students seek yoga with more of a fitness emphasis, more and more studios and classes are dropping the Eastern religious aesthetic and terminology in favor of a more inclusive, western yoga. You can see this in action at most “Hot Yoga” or “Power Yoga” studios that really look much more like an upscale gym or pilates studio. You also see more fusion classes now with things like functional movement training, dance, pilates, and barre mixed in with yoga poses. To me, this seems a much healthier perspective that opens up yoga to a lot more people and, when you think of it, is really more true to its roots as a mashup of many athletic traditions.
Yoga can be used in so many different ways to benefit the body and mind. A rigorous flow class can build cardiovascular health. A power class can build muscular strength through body weight exercises. A deep stretching class like yin can really increase flexibility and mobility, which is badly needed in modern society. All of them can help train the nervous system to relax in moments of discomfort or stress and help with stress and anxiety.
Of course you can choose to blend whatever spiritual or religious tradition speaks to you in your own personal yoga practice or a class that is held within your faith community. I personally set an intention before I practice and I find meaning in it being a religious one that is grounded in my own faith tradition. I’m just happy that studios and teachers are moving to a more inclusive environment that recognizes that not everyone is coming there for an Eastern spiritual experience and that many students come with their own spiritual paths. It’s also good that Yoga teachers are starting to understand that unless they have other training, they are not qualified to be spiritual leaders or therapists, particularly since there has been a lot of harm in the past from attempting to do so. This is also happening at the same time as Yoga classes are becoming more inclusive of different body types and abilities rather than focusing on poses only the very lean or tall can do as well as promoting more diversity among teachers.
I embrace this more humble, approachable, and inclusive Yoga that has room for anyone who wants to try it!