Monday, July 5, 2010

Wherefore art thou Yoga?

Ok, before we go any further let's clear up that old misunderstanding.  Juliet is NOT asking for the current location of her Romeo (this was, after all, the days before GPS iPhones and such).  She's asking "why are you Romeo".  As in, why is he a Montague and she is a Capulet, and therefore their love, instead of being joyous and free, is forbidden and doomed.  Deep stuff, that William Shakespeare. ;)

So what I'm asking here, is, what is in a name?

Lately I have been feeling that the yoga community has picked up a pattern of being quick to judge.  Maybe it's a natural consequence of how many different styles and opinions and trends there are in yoga nowadays, but for me, this train of thought comes from a few unconnected places:
  • An encounter with an Ashtangi whose eyebrows lifted sky high as I said that most days I do an abbreviated selection of primary series poses so that I can fit in my pranayama beforehand and still start work by 9.  Maybe I imagined it, but I felt that the look said "how can you call yourself a yogi if you would rather do pranayama than a full primary practice?".
  • Snippets around the blogosphere that label yogis according to things like what they wear or what gender/race they are... as if suddenly there is this entire demography of young white women wearing brand-name yoga clothes whose pursuit of yoga is somehow made invalid by their choice of wardrobe...
  • Supposed body-love sites on which people rant against thin women, as if they had done something wrong by being born small-boned, or by working hard to be slim and strong, and that this perhaps excluded them from spiritual transformation in some way.  Of course I take this personally because I just happen to be one, both by the random accident of my DNA (thanks mom and dad!) and with a fair amount of hard work added in for good measure, too.
So my question is, why do we find it so important to define our Yoga?  To put walls around it, to make it an include/exclude club?  Why do we feel the urge go forth and proclaim that x form of yoga is not true yoga while y most certainly is because...?

Is it attachment? Do we need to validate our own practice, our own bodies over those of others, in order to make us feel safe and strong?  Do we need to create superiority in order to justify our choices, e.g. not to wear or to wear brand-name yoga attire?

Is there any way that such things can contribute positively to the larger discussion on Yoga or are they like quicksand, a mass of confusion that sucks us in that we find it hard to get out of?

When I did my YTT my teachers emphasised a principle that I have always embraced here on this blog and everywhere in my yoga life, which is never to make negative generalisations about any other person's yoga, any other style of yoga, or any other teacher of yoga.  Keeping in line with the niyama of Satya, truthfulness, this stems from the notion that we cannot project our opinions as truth.

To give an example:  I may share with someone that I read a convincing article that doing 'hot' yoga does not really lead to greater detoxification than other types of yoga because the body does not detoxify through the sweat glands but rather through the inner organs.  That much is fact.  I did read that article and that is what it said.  But I would not say that hot yoga is therefore "wrong" in some way.  Actually, not only do I really not care if you do hot yoga or not, but if you like it and it brings you what you need, then I am absolutely happy for you!

Yoga really can be a community... But not while it is fractured, divided, polarised and happy that way.  Then again, every community needs a moral compass...  Think I need to bust out my sutras again, or my YTT late-night philosophy discussion notes. :)

This is a rather rambling post and unstructured.  I'm not trying to judge the judgers or blame the blamers, just trying to muddle my way through some of these thoughts.  Maybe it reflects more on me that I am so sensitive, than it does on the people I perceive to be judgemental!

Peeps, what do you think?  Does Yoga by any name at all still feel just as sweet?


  1. I have a real problem with the need to define in general. The one that always gets me is how we define ourselves and others by what we do for a living. My reply of "this and that" never seems to satisfy people :)

    As for yoga well, it's all yoga. Many people do yoga without knowing they do yoga. All I care about is we are pleasant to each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt and agree to disagree on the path of our practices, because on the whole it's the end result that mattesr.

  2. me i enjoy yoga, and this is already so big

  3. I love this post ... you broach many wonderful ideas here, mainly that yoga should just be yoga, and there should NOT be some silent sort of consensus regarding what you have to look like or wear or be or do in order to do yoga or be a yogini. I'm merely reflecting, after reading this, how I could not find a niche within the yoga community online. I kept getting the sense that I wasn't "yogini" enough, if this makes any sense. Of course, this was perhaps more a reflection of my own insecurity, but I also sensed some judgment and shied away from it.

    I read recently that yoga (practiced for a variety of reasons) is but one means to achieve spiritual enlightenment, as is meditation. The real spiritual growth, though, comes from aligning with the soul, spirit, or higher self and continuing on one's own intuitive journey, and this might take place in any number of ways, which might not include yoga or meditation (I think of Jane Goodall when I say this, one of my heroes). Not to get way off the topic here, but we might be overlooking those who are on a similar journey as us because they don't dress or talk or live the same way.

    Yoga is yoga, and we all do it for different reasons :).

  4. One more quick thought ... those who often judge are those who feel insecure themselves (as I admittedly do from time to time). Think of it this way: great wise yoga masters don't judge others who practice yoga.

  5. Great post, I have had a similiar encounter with my very own local ashtangi so that made me smile.

    I wonder if it's all just part of the human condition enobled by the idea of being involved in something 'pure' or 'good' or 'different' because I sometimes see very similiar attitudes emerge in buddhist circles and environmental circles... this kind of judging others and ourselves based on what we do or wear or eat or whatever and categorising accordingly along whatever scale suits.

    Living in a small place, wearing many different hats, I have alot of random opportunities to see other sides of people that I thought I knew and to be reminded again and again that people (and their practice) are usually so much more they might appear to be at first.

    I think maybe part of the drive to define is just part of the desire we all have in our hearts to be identified by and belong to a group of like-minded folks... but sometimes the more we mark our lines in the sand, the more isolated we become in our box of what we are not, forgetting that sometimes what we actually are is greater and more universal.

  6. @Rachel - I think that's a very Western thing, and a fascinating one. In Timor, people are defined by their families... Their equivalent of "what do you do" is "who are your parents" - that way people can place each other in the social web that governs life here.

    As for yoga, I was reading a nice article in YJ this month and the author spoke about how endurance athletes find a meditative state in their sport, and as yogis, we should recognize and embrace that instead of believing that yoga is the only way!

    @Lila - Yes!! It is BIG! And that is wonderful!

    @Juliana - Thanks for sharing that story. I think so many of us feel the same way! Sharing who we are, as we are, where we are can be a tricky thing, and the internet sometimes makes people try to be more than they are, or think they are less than they are. When really, you are perfect just as you are, and you are yogini just as you are.

    I love the reflection you make that everyone has a different path to spiritual fulfillment. I think it's so important that we recognize that.

    @Dragonfly - I think it's all part of the tricks the mind and the Ego play on us. Somehow we have to overcome that desire to draw lines in the sand! Step outside our box and recognize that there are many paths to the same destination. :) So true about other 'circles' as well - there is always another layer.

  7. Found your blog through 215800. I have been practicing a very short time. Everything I do is modified because of my weight. I have no resentments about women looking fit and lean - i have been and strive to return to that. What is disheartening is the judgement passed my way by some of the women that attend class with me - as if I don't belong there. Fortunately our teacher is a lovely compassionate (and slender and fit ;0)woman.

  8. Kimberly - Thanks for visiting and thanks even more for commenting! I am so glad to hear that your teacher is compassionate. We are ALL beautiful and a good Yoga teacher sees the beauty in every student. As for your fellow students I wish you the strength to rise above - your practice is your own, not theirs!

    I agree with what Juliana said above - those who feel the need to judge others are often insecure about themselves.

  9. Seems to me that all this posturing is also a very western thing. And I was about to say that I don't like to draw lines around yoga and in general I don't, BUT...

    I DO draw a line around what I think is yoga and what isn't. It's quite simple - if the practice does not incorporate asana, pranayama and meditation of some kind (sitting, a proper savasana etc), then to me it isn't yoga. The rest - styles, clothes etc, I could care less about.

    For someone like me who learned yoga from the inside out (philosophy, puja and meditation first, before a serious asana practice), and from a traditional initiated lineage, I know it's very easy to look at what others are doing and say: "Well, what they are doing isn't traditional". As if that actually means something!

    I've been through that particular ego deconstruction and I know that everyone finds their way to various teachings because it is what resonates with them. So it doesn't matter who is doing what - as you say, as long as people are benefiting from the practice, then it's all good.

    And I'll do what I've been taught (and pass that on), and someone else will do what they've been taught. In the end, we are all going to the same place.

    There are many paths over the mountain. The mountain isn't even the pinnacle of the journey, just a pretty view point on the way...

  10. @Svasti - Such good points! I think there is a difference between Yoga as a practice, and yoga as a metaphor, if you know what I mean.

    If the word "yoga" means union, then many things could be defined as yoga. Just as traditionally we have Karma Yoga, Bakhti Yoga, Mantra Yoga etc, which might not fit into a definition that is informed by Raja Yoga (the 8-fold path). I would be fascinated to hear modern scholars look at what kind of activities people undertake today that could have qualified to be defined as Yoga! Long distance running? Free-diving or Scuba diving?

    Ok, obviously I'm half kidding about that last point.

    But I do think that in the west we have a more narrow definition of yoga - Raja Yoga - than existed traditionally. But as you say, that is what we have learned, what has inspired us, and therefore that is what we pass on as teachers, mentors and friends... And that is our yoga!

  11. Thank you for this post. I think it took courage. I've been struggling with the same ideas lately. I seem to be one of those people who upsets others because I don't judge anyone's yoga. I don't care what brings people to yoga, and I don't judge people who say yoga isn't for them. I just try to set an example that interests people in learning more about the practice (and I quite regularly fail at setting that example!).

    Also, @Kimberley, I wanted to mention how much I admire your courage in facing those rude people. You definitely belong there, and I'm sorry that what should be a safe, comfortable space is not always that way. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  12. this was a great post. Judging is something that I struggle with when it comes to the environment... and i'm definitely working on it :)

    what a fabulous point about athletes and meditative states- Andrew describes running akin to what we try to achieve through yoga.

    i really get looks when i say that it's OK for some people to not like yoga. there are other paths, like you said.

    thank you.

  13. Bree,
    What a great post! "Paths are many. Truth is one." For me, yoga is far more than asana and my practice looks very different from one day to the next. Since I don't live or practice around a lot of other yogis on a daily basis, there isn't a lot of comparison. However, I get the comments on Westerners labeling. My practice is far more about "living my yoga" than anything else.

    Also, since I teach to a lot of beginners, I often tell them that many teachers are different and styles definitely vary. I tell them that if my style doesn't work for them, they should seek out other teachers. I think its important. Creating an open yoga environment that invites acceptance for all will only bring more people to the practice, I hope!

  14. Yes yes and yes. I agree with you on many things you point out. I personally have fought with the fact that I HAD to put a label on "my yoga" and defend the style or lineage I practice.
    But as my practice continues to grow....I know that an eclectic blend of flow yoga and Ashtanga and yin is the best balance for me. It isn't the most accepted approach at the Ashtanga yoga shala, but in YTT it was all about the flow and being nondogmatic and doing a practice that suites "you" as my teacher calls it "your yoga" there you label or group to join. Just your yoga:)

  15. I just found your blog through "The Suburban Yogini". I love it. I also have a background in international development (global health) and I have a deep love of yoga! Thank you so much for writing, it is a delight!!!