Through the years I have witnessed numerous spiritual seekers, all of them well-intentioned, who have lost their way by not paying attention to their own addictive patterns … yoga is particularly prone to this syndrome. Abdi Assadi, Shadows on the Path (2007:11).
I often get frustrated with myself for visiting the yoga supermarket. Mostly online, because there’s only two ‘brand name’ yoga styles here in Alice Springs. Online, I jump from yoga style to yoga style, favouring one for a few weeks, thinking hmm…. That looks like the one, the real yoga for me, only to find another style that I’d like to train in a week or so later.
The problem is that deep inside of me there is an ontological ‘real yoga’ – a foundational structure against which I measure everything else. It’s powerful. It’s the yardstick. The thing.
And yet, this is a false ontology because real yoga, as in traditional yoga, is something else very different from my own foundational, inner ‘real yoga’. In this post, I undertake svadhyaya of my understandings about real yoga, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the construct within my own corrupt belief systems.
What is Real Yoga to me?
Very simply, the answer is: Iyengar Yoga. This was the first style of yoga class I practiced. It appealed to me because of its focus on structural alignment, technique and adaptation to individual skill levels. It also appealed to me because the instructors appeared to have undergone a very thorough and long training – they weren’t mass produced asana teachers that are pumped out in two and four week long intensives.
Yoga’s traditional purpose is to loosen the knot of the ego through movement and meditation; the introduction of that system into a highly competitive, individually-directed culture has inevitably created trouble spots that require our extra vigilance. Abdi Assadi, ibid.
I know this is completely nonsensical: my belief that Iyengar is the real yoga. How can a style of yoga that is only sixty years old, emphasizing only the three out of the eight limbs of yoga (in its public classes, not in its deeper training) be real yoga?
And that’s the thing. I know that real yoga –in the sense of the body of practices described throughout classical Indian texts- is more about meditation, mindfulness, compassion, service, prayer, and selflessness than it is about the perfect Virabhadrasana ll as performed by Mr Iyengar. The aim of yoga is not to act as a replacement for an exercise class. It’s union with the Upper Case I, the All-That-Is.
I Am, Therefore I Shop
Disturbed and confused, I trawl the Amazing World of the Internet, in search of the one true yoga for me. I look for guru. I look for the ultimate A-ha! I look, look, then I look some more.
And there is sooo much out there. There’s Ashtanga (yoga specially designed for long limbed twenty-year old Americans living in cities), Anusara (Iyengar with hugs, I hear), Bikram (yoga in a sauna – might be ok if you live some place where it snows – but in outback Australia, you don’t want any more heat), Power Yoga (Ashtanga, without the trend police), Flow Yoga (Ashtanga, without the impossible bits), Kundalini (the name is a huge New Age turn-off), Nude (eeww!), Hot Nude (double eww!! + spew!!), Sivananda (seems quite traditional), Satyananda (another traditional model), Doga (yoga with your dog. Yes. Really), Forrest Yoga (I’m scared already), Shadow Yoga (looks extremely cool), Tripsicore Yoga (not for mortals), Restorative Yoga (hand me a bolster, a Bex and a good a lie down) and let’s not forget Lumberjack Yoga.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. There’s so much out there to distract and tease the senses.
A Hot Body with Spiritual Credits… Ain’t so Bad, is it?
At best, yoga offers a powerful discipline to harmonize the conscious mind with the body. But in our results-driven, narcissistic culture it too is often hijacked into a means of achieving a hot body while earning spiritual credits. Abdi Assadi (ibid).
Alright, I’ll ‘fess up. I like the idea of exercise being a spiritual pursuit. I’ve been a lifelong exerciser –which could be why being obsessive about asana doesn’t sit quite right with me (more about this in a moment). And I already know that a lot has been written about running or walking as a spiritual practice. I totally agree with literature. When I run or walk, it really puts me in a place where the inner dribble falls away. I’m clear and I connect with the deep space inside. When I do asana –especially vinyasa- this happens.
Then there’s the fact that I exercise a hell of a lot more than most people. Most days, I’m doing at least an hour and a half – sometimes two hours- of exercise. I suspect many people who emphasize the importance of asana do not share this trait in common with me. Asana practice will get an unhealthy person healthy (so will walking, incidentally) and it is for this reason I suspect that asana is part of yoga. It’s no use getting your mind in order if the temple it’s housed in is falling down.
However, as Abdi points out in the quote above, Western culture is obsessed by Ashtangi-like bodies. I think there’s great truth in this statement, and hereto lies the seeds of why I might reject a yoga practice solely based on asana. I’m just being a rebel and I already have a life-long exercise habit.
Back to Square One.
Iyengar yoga is the internal yardstick against which I measure all else. Can I really do anything about this? Probably not.
This means I’ll continue to go to one Iyengar class a week. But really, I’m getting such an amazing sense of community and much deeper spiritual teachings from the Satyananda classes I’ve been going to for about a year now that I’ve incorporated much of what we do there into my home practice.
AND AND AND: my actual home yoga practice –as in the physical asanas- is derived from my years of Ashtanga crossed with Paul Grilley’s Yin Yoga. The vinyasa with ujayyi breath gets me into the place where I then do the real work of yoga: the meditation and prayer at the end of my practice. The long floor holds of Yin yoga facilitate the transition from strong vinyasa into pranayama and meditation.
If this self-indulgent post has helped me to understand anything about my yoga journey, it’s that Mr Desikachar is right.
Our practice needs to be developed daily, taking into account our free time, our goals, and our needs. TKS Desikachar. Heart of Yoga. (1999:43).
But I still might need to check out Lumberjack Yoga some time!
I really enjoyed this post. I also struggle with the “what is real yoga” question, and I also tend to think of Iyengar as “real yoga.” I like your quote from Desikachar though, real yoga is the yoga that we need individually, regardless of style. What is real for me, may not be real for others. Good reminder.
(and I loved your descriptions of yoga styles!)
wow- such a wonderful post. We’ve been ‘shopping’ around the studios in Halifax, trying new styles and instructors because we’ve become so entrenched in our little ‘yoga rut’ of the same style- same instructor type. Interestingly, it’s the fiancé who’s having the most difficulty moving beyond what he’s used to- constantly measuring other styles against ‘our’ studio.
I like yoga as a centering, meditative practice, but it’s SO difficult to avoid becoming caught in the ‘competitive’ asana track. The most important lesson of yoga I learned was at the YMCA- the instructor singled me out in front of the entire class (very uncool) and stressed the importance for me to do the asana’s ‘mindfully’, without speed, without competitiveness. It’s something I keep in mind while the girl next to me zips in and out of all the postures full speed ahead.
At the same time, I already have my own spirituality, and it doesn’t involve any ‘yoga’ or ‘Hindu’ dieties or beliefs…
Such a thought provoking post- thank you 🙂
Perhaps you are not looking in the right place? … so many practices with the word “yoga” attached to them … how can anybody not get confused?
Maybe you’ll find this helpful. It definitely puts it all in perspective, and paints a comprehensive picture of what yoga is really all about.
The Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali, Home Study Program …
Yours in Yoga,
This is a wonderful post! I love your descriptions of the different yogas!! Perfect. I, too have experience with the different yoga styles. And, I, too resonate strongly with the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar. For my body and mind it’s the real deal right now. Of course, it’s also where I’ve been placing my attention. Traditionally, the realization of yoga is seen as a house with many doors, so whichever way you choose will lead you inside. However, sticking with this image, if we are spending our time peeking into all the doors without ever really stepping inside, it could take a while.
@Jessica. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I find it hard to give up Iyengar – even if I know there’s somethings (like the way they do shoulderstands) that just don’t suit my body.
I’ve just started re-reading Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga again. Every time I read it, I take something else away. I recommend it as an awesome yoga read (and re-read).
I know, I know. The yoga supermarket is just so tempting. Although mine is confined to reading about amazing things (usually located in the US) rather than being able to go and experience them firsthand.
And what an awful thing to have someone do to you in a yoga class! How rude. A lot of participants just wouldn’t have come back if the teacher singled them out like that. Hmm… makes me think I should write another post on teaching skills that aren’t taught in many yoga trainings! Amazingly, those kinds of things are taught in trainings like Body Pump & Body Balance (Flow).
Thank you for visiting again, too. I’ll put your blog up on my blogroll over the weekend.
@Yogachayra. Wow! Thank you for visiting. I will admit that I have your site book marked and thought very seriously about doing your courses. I like what you’re saying and it resonates with me.
As you might have gleaned from the post, I’m well aware of the yoga as asana/yoga as exercise class perception that’s marketed. Part of my own struggle is with this: I often feel guilty because yoga to me isn’t about doing the most amazing super advanced posture or sweating my guts out on the mat (I do that in a gym class or when running). Yoga is about the pranayama, dharana, dhyana, study … and is about union with the All-that-Is. It’s off the mat, more than on.
Anyway, I’m sure you get the picture. I’ll keep reading your newsletters and visiting your site because you give me inspiration & support. Thanks for dropping in and taking the time to comment.
@Yogabrooks. Wow! Another really together yogini who I admire visiting my blog.
Yes, yoga as a house with many doors. I like the metaphor. I just get stuck in the room with the computer and the internet connection! All the pretty pictures, you know.
However, the little challenge I set myself (see https://anthroyogini.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/kill-your-home-yoga-practice/) is having a very settling effect on my yoga practice – and my life!
Thank you once again for taking the time to comment on my blog.
I’ve never really had the ‘shopping’ mind. I started doing yoga before I met my guru but it never really had any meaning for me until AFTER.
Perhaps because I’d been a dancer for years, it simply felt like more ‘stretching’ with some harder stuff I couldn’t do (upper body strength, still my weakness).
My first asana teacher taught a blended style – Hatha/Iyengar/Ashtanga/Vinyasa – based on Sri Krishnamacharya’s work. So, all the distinctions were lost on me at the beginning.
Then, most of my yoga has been purely Hatha yoga, with my guru’s flavour of Adi yoga as an overlay. I’ve done a little Bikram (which I think derranges almost everyone’s doshas), a moderate amount of Vinyasa (which I like), a little more Iyengar (enjoyable). And now I’m studying Hatha yoga (with a Satyananda/Sivananda flavour – and Sivananda, BTW was Satyananda’s guru), and doing Hatha and a little more Vinyasa.
I don’t know that doing different styles of yoga is shopping as much as it is refining. Learning what you like and don’t like, what rings truest for you.
To me, real yoga is anything that brings your Essence Nature to the surface to breathe. Its something that makes your insides sing, and your innate knowledge of yourself and the universe arise for you to take ownership of.
There’s a wonderful quote from Cave in the Snow which I’ll paraphrase. When Tenzin Palmo was frustrated at the patriarchy that refused her the teachings she desired (because she was a woman), she befriended the Togdens (elite Tibetan yogis) who told her – there’s nothing I’ve learned that you haven’t already learned. I’m not doing the highest teachings, just what works. It can work for you too.
So, whatever style of yoga you find works for you, go with that. And another quote from my guru: work with the tools you’ve got and work right where you’re at.
Great downward dog!
I think the Raja Yoga is the true yoga – that is the yoga of the mind. It’s important to be able to balance our way of thinking together with our way of being in all aspects of life. We need the asanas to be able to focus on our mind. But knowing what to think is the true yoga.
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