Hey there, fellow yogis and yoginis: Let’s get our heads out of our asanas. We are living in a world of hurt – literally. War is raging "over there," the economy is staggering right here at home, the environment is reeling from our species’ continual assaults on it. People are suffering, animals and plants are suffering, our entire planet is suffering.
We who study and practice Yoga should know (but perhaps have forgotten) that it is a system of human development that was specifically designed, thousands of years ago, to free us from suffering. One of the most powerful, time-tested, effective systems ever created, in fact. So, what are we – as stewards of this incredible system – doing to get the word out to a suffering world?
Well, not a helluva a lot, apparently, based on my completely unscientific, seat-of-the-pants survey of the yoga media, as well as some vigorous googling of yoga classes and workshops available to the general public. Don’t get me wrong; there’s loads of "yoga-flavored" stuff out there, and it’s all within easy reach of the average Jane, as well as those few intrepid Joes who aren’t intimidated by working out in a roomful of females. You can take "fitness yoga" classes – yoga posture routines, frequently combined with aerobic or weight training exercises – at nearly every health club and most community ed centers. Plus, there are umpteen different styles of Hatha yoga classes – postures and breathing – taught at an ever-increasing number of dedicated yoga facilities.
Yet, as a yoga student, teacher and co-director (along with my husband, Herb Kearse) of the Bikram Yoga studio in Bloomington, Minn., I question whether many of us – those who consider ourselves "yoga people" – have gotten stuck on our asanas. Herb and I are concerned when we see dedicated yogis obsessing about the physical forms of the practice, while ignoring its meditative and spiritual aspects.
As yoga teachers, Herb and I see all the time what happens when this kind of tunnel vision sets in: students at every level (including some yoga teachers!) who tie themselves in mental and emotional knots over perceived imperfections in their practice. "I can’t stand on one leg. I can’t sit in Lotus position." And No. 1 on the Top 10 list: "I’m not very flexible!" To which we say, "Poppycock!" (or something stronger). Any serious yoga student knows that physical agility does not equal "good" yoga – theoretically. But how many of us still beat ourselves up in class anyway – with unrealistic expectations, unfair comparisons and competitive attitudes? Although we might be aware of ahimsa (the yogic principle of non-violence in thought, word and deed), we don’t apply it to ourselves on the yoga mat.
Why have so many in the North American yoga community evolved/devolved in this direction? Try this theory on for size: The yoga industry wants it that way. There’s way more money to be made by selling image than introspection. Hatha yoga gets most if not all the media attention – ’cause striking a pose moves product. The yoga industry’s target demographic (read: typical customer) is youngish (25-49), well-educated (at least some college), fairly well-to-do – and female. This group is a marketers’ wet dream; they’re the biggest consumers of all manner of goods and services. As yoga studio owners, Herb and I are constantly being courted by vendors selling Every Thing Yoga: activewear, books, CDs, DVDs, gear bags, juices, power bars, props, supplements, sticky mats, super-absorbent towels, water bottles (filled with "designer" water, of course)…and the list goes on. The fashionable, well-equipped yogini just can’t get enough, apparently. We also receive promotions for yoga events galore: cruises, lectures, retreats, seminars and workshops.
Big bucks, no whammies, right? Nope, there’s a glitch in this business model – and that darn yoga put it there!
It’s a curious side effect of mindful yoga practice: the gradual loss of interest in acquiring worldly goods, in struggling to keep up with the Joneses. Not that there’s anything wrong with material abundance, mind you. Yoga does not preach that money is the root of all evil. In my own life, I’ve observed that getting and spending just isn’t a high priority as it used to be. At first, I thought it was only me who was experiencing this phenomenon. Then I discovered yoga philosophy actually has a term for it: aparigraha (non-possessiveness, detachment).
In the meantime, we work with what we’ve got. For most Westerners, hatha yoga is our entree into the world of yoga. My teacher, Bikram Choudhury, whose Beginning Yoga Class of 26 yoga asanas and two breathing exercises (pranayama) has brought hatha yoga’s healing benefits to hundreds of thousands worldwide, rightly insists, "Before you can meditate, you have to fix your junk body!" However, he readily acknowledges that yoga is far more than a workout – it’s a lifelong path to self-realization. Think of Hatha as the first rung on yoga’s ladder, a vitally important starting point. But what’s next, once you’ve found firm footing on that first rung? Will you choose to remain there indefinitely – or climb higher?
I’ll often say to my students, anything that brings you to yoga is a good thing, whether it be an aching back, a need to dump some stress, a yearning for self-realization…or a desire to sculpt a sexy yoga butt. There simply aren’t any bad (shallow, vain, selfish) reasons for beginning a yoga practice. Our desires are NOT evil, despite what some would have us believe – they goad us on to learn the life lessons we have set ourselves.
Therefore, if a yoga student (you and me included) is only interested in the physical aspects of the practice at first, it’s not a "problem." Once planted, the seed of yoga may take years to grow…but eventually it always does, deeply rooting in body, mind and spirit. Don’t be surprised to discover one day that yoga, like the proverbial 400-pound gorilla, has walked into the living room of your life and Sat Down Anywhere It Wants To.
Would you like to deepen your yoga practice now… explore what this self-realization thing is really about…experience spiritual/mental/emotional transformation? You can do it – and no, you don’t have to give up your Hatha yoga practice (or anything else, for that matter). All it takes – simple, but not necessarily easy! – is a willingness to receive new information, and to apply that information in real time in your life. There’s no fancy equipment required, and you don’t have to spend a lot of dough. Keep a yoga journal, read some books and explore meditation, even if it’s just sitting with your breath for a few minutes each day. As Kundalini yoga’s founder Yogi Bhajan says, "Meditation is when you open yourself, and let the Universe come into you."
We change the world by changing ourselves.
The Heart of Yoga, by T. K. V. Desikachar
The Nature of Personal Reality: A Seth Book, by Jane Roberts
Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, by Stephen Cope