These days yoga seems to be whatever anyone says it is. In that sense YOGA is kind of like WOMAN :)
Language is always just a representation and as such it will always be flawed. Words will never be more than a pale xerox copy of what it’s meant to represent. In the same way a map is very different from the country or region it's representing.
But still. The thing that’s being sold to us as ‘YOGA’ often just pays lip service to the rich and ancient tradition. To me, it often feels as if yoga is an image; a style or a dress code, like goth, punk rock or hippie (but way less cool naturally). We bring in some hindu trinkets and put them on an altar, we burn some incense, we chant OM and say namaste and then we proceed with our 45 min core yoga workout in our expensive matching lycra crop top and leggings.
Everyone who's hung around the yogiverse for any amount of time knows that yoga means UNION or that the root of the word means ‘yoke;’ to fasten, join, harness.
Often this so called UNION is presented as ‘the union of breath and movement,’ which is extremely simplified.
I currently attend two weekly classes with two different teachers. They are both called yoga. I really enjoy both offerings — the teachers do create sequences of movement, or so called ‘flows’ that are fun and makes sense, at least for my body. They offer good cues that help me move my body in certain way, and help me understand where to engage and where to relax. These teachers also help me explore certain parts of my anatomy and they encourage me to give weird shapes a go. They both play music I like (because in my opinion, so many yoga teachers have dismal music taste). I look forward to these sessions. My body gets a well designed fun workout, and when I lie down, relaxing afterwards, in savasana, it feels like I deserve it. And I am slightly high on the endorphins and other feel-good chemicals that my body produces.
All of this is AWESOME stuff. But is it yoga?!?
What is yoga?
I asked Chat GPT, and they said: Yoga is a holistic discipline that originated in ancient India and has been practiced for thousands of years. It encompasses physical, mental, and spiritual practices aimed at promoting overall well-being and harmony. The word "yoga" is derived from the Sanskrit word "yuj," which means to unite or join.
At its core, yoga seeks to unite the mind, body, and spirit, bringing balance and harmony to one's life. While there are various branches and styles of yoga, they typically involve a combination of physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation, and ethical principles.
According to B.K.S Iyengar, one of the world’s most respected modern yoga teachers (and also one of the few who hasn't been accused of sexually abusing his students) ‘Yoga is meditation and meditation is yoga.’
Those of us who have scratched the insta yoga surface just a tiny bit have discovered that the shapes and sequences most of us practice these days aren’t ancient but about a hundred years old, and the result of a cross-pollination between Scandinavian circle training and Hatha yoga. Again, nothing wrong with that —our bodies were meant to move and most of us don’t move enough — but I feel we’re losing out big time on the most valuable parts when we make yoga a fitness routine. Plus, so many people feel alienated by a modern yoga studio and the people who gather there.
I recently read an article in a big UK newspaper, where a yoga teacher of Indian decent, talked about her experiences in the London yoga scene. Such as auditioning for teaching gigs and being turned down for having too 'chunky thighs,' and general competitiveness and bitchiness within the teacher 'community.' I have not been turned down from any teaching jobs because of the size of my thighs, but I can definitely attest to the fact that most yoga teachers I know are no more evolved than other people (and I include myself here), and many 'yogapreneurs' are business people rather than what I sages.
Once upon a time, back when I was teaching at a big studio, myself and several other teachers there, were contacted by a big online yoga platform about filming some content for them. In the end they decided not to work with any of us, but instead picked someone with very little teaching experience, but who looked the modern yogiverse part: young, tall, very thin, very conventionally pretty.
Oh well. That someone turned out to be a pretty switched on and cool, genuine person, and it's not her fault that she was picked for her looks.
If one just does a superficial survey of the vastness of the yogic tradition, it’s quite obvious that yoga is an awareness practice. It’s about developing new ways of seeing, that bring about more freedom and clarity. It’s NOT a workout. It’s not about pretzel shapes. Or cool soundtracks. Or ‘flows.’ Or handstands. Or €100 leggings. Or style.
It’s about healing and self-inquiry (which go hand in hand). And meditation is inquiry. It's a deconstruction of the self we hold so dear, but it's when we let go of it that we flourish. This is what the ancient masters figured out.
Sadly, I see so little of this in what's being offered as yoga. Maybe I'm going to the wrong places?
Most of the classes I’ve taught in my 16 + years of teaching were definitely not yoga. I feel that in my last few years of teaching, I’ve gotten closer. Despite that,
I am in the process of (maybe) removing the word yoga from ALL physical classes that I offer. Because I’m not sure whether they are yoga or not.
And I also don't want to offend anyone's culture with my limited knowledge.
I know many skilled teachers that have gone down this path before me. Some have succeeded in continuing to attract people. For some it has been really challenging to find an audience when the selling point of YOGA is removed from the offering. I'm curious to see what happens. I would also be curious to hear your thoughts in the comments below.