A brief look at the modernization and Westernization of yoga compared to the classical structure of Ashtanga yoga.
It's no secret that yoga has become quite popular in the past decade for people from all walks of life, all shapes and sizes. The therapeutic benefits, doubted at first like most foreign or alternative modalities, have now become fact. There is evidence now, both scientific and anecdotal, of the proven health benefits of yoga. Body, mind,and even that illusive spirit, yoga is a legitimate therapy for a vast array of diseases and disorders, not to mention its invaluable benefits as preventative health care.
This article is not intended to prove the health benefits of yoga. There are countless case studies that do that, which the reader is urged to research. Rather, this article will focus on the westernization of yoga, and the loss, perhaps, of yoga's true aim. Condemnation is not in order here, this is not a critique on capitolizing or modernizing the ancient practice of yoga. It is only this author's intention to remind some and inform others of the foundations on which yoga is built. The rishis and yogis of antiquity in India were not simpletons, they did not merely get lucky and discover the spiritual science of yoga. Yoga is thoroughly systematic and built on an intentional, logical structure with a clear cut design and purpose. It may be time to take a closer look at our practices in the West and how they reflect the original nature of yoga.
Let's start with a breakdown of Ashtanga yoga, or eight limbed yoga, which is referred to in Patanjal's yoga sutras. Though there are many methods and schools of thought in yoga, ashtanga forms the basis for nearly all other traditions. There are eight steps in the tradition of ashtanga which will be outlined briefly, but cannot be looked at in depth in the length of this article.
The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga:
1. Yama (restraints): non-violence, truthfullness, non-stealing, abstention, and non-covetousness.
2. Niyama (observances): purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, and meditation on the Divine.
3. Asana: posture.
4. Pranayama: breathing practices, control of prana or life force.
5. Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses from the external.
6. Dharana: concentration, fixing one's entire attention on a single object.
7. Dhyana: contemplation of the object's nature on which one is focusing.
8. Samadhi: liberation, or merging with the object of contemplation.
When referring to yoga here in the West we're usually just talking about asana, the postures and body movements of yoga. in Ashtanga yoga asana is one limb of this system. Asana can literally be translated as seat, and this is a very literal definition of the purpose of this limb of yoga. The purpose of asana is to discipline and strengthen the body in order to sit. Certainly there is a lot more going on in the practice of asana than just sitting, as in any of the eight limbs of ashtanga, but it is important to remember the way the original yogis viewed asana. Asana is a means to an end, it is not at all the final goal of yoga. Once the practitioner has learned control of the body, he or she can sit more comfortably, for longer periods of time in order to move on to the next stages of yoga. The first four limbs are considered external cleansing practices with the main intention and focus being on the last four limbs once the practitioner has withdrawn from the illusive nature of external reality.
I'd like to take a step back here and make it clear that I am not soliciting a "right" way of practicing yoga, nor am I suggesting that there is one goal and one purpose for yoga. It is important for the individual to practice and contemplate yoga in her or his unique way. The path of yoga is an independent experience, and no two people's journey is the same. If I could have one hope for this article and for the reader, I would want for each person to inquire within and seek their own intentions for practicing yoga. If it is just to feel good and exercise the body that is great, and if it is to achieve ultimate liberation from maya, the world of illusion, then that is great too. Be a critical thinker, be truthful and be loving to yourself. If you practice regularly at a studio ask yourself if that studio and its teachers align with your intentions and beliefs, if so stay, if not, look elsewhere. If you practice at home set a daily intention and reaffirm it to yourself. If you are still unclear or unsure, then educate yourself, there's certainly never any harm in enlightening ignorance.
There is an issue that I would like to address with the modernization of yoga in the West and it has to do with the new forms and hybrids of yoga that are popping up everywhere. It is not my place to judge whether the creators of these practices understand the nature of yoga, or have pure intentions in their teaching and marketing of these forms. Again, it is up to the individual to make this call, personally. Education is certainly in order as to the safety of these new yogaesque modalities. But most importantly, if yoga teaches us anything, it teaches us how to listen to our own wisdom. Ask yourself, practice some self-study, and determine whether this type of yoga works for you, or whether another type may be better. You can only ask, and wait for an answer, and that answer is yours to do with as you will. Looking deep within, you cannot lie to yourself. This life is your journey and if yoga is part of it, then consider the ancient traditions and decide for yourself what aspects are important to you in this modern life.