The ten year itch- the semantics of yoga (Part 1)

(the second in an occasional set of posts reflecting on ten years of serious yoga practice)

Doing what I do, I find myself with people that love yoga, who do enormous amounts of yoga, and like to talk about yoga.  A lot.  Over the past ten years, I’ve had any number of fantastic conversations concerning yoga- the body, anatomy and yoga, philosophy, integrating yoga into everyday life, travel for yoga, teachers, and even against my better judgement (gasp), gossip.  In these conversations I’ve learned a tremendous amount.  That said, for 2014 one of my few wishes for the yoga community at large is that we retire any conversations that include the phrase:


(I put it in caps because it is usually accompanied by some sort of exaggerated gesture or “humph”)  I’ve heard dozens and dozens of variations on the theme- it’s not yoga because the teacher cusses too much or moves too fast or isn’t vegan and didn’t mention Iyengar.  It’s not yoga because the music is too loud or we used too many props.  (or not enough)  It’s not yoga because the studio doesn’t recycle enough, or uses aggressive business practices, or paints its walls the wrong color.  This is not by any means a new phenomenon- my personal favorite is a quote attributed to Bikram about Baron Baptiste as he was getting big: “That’s not yoga.  That’s Jane Fonda.”  (Never mind that Jane Fonda made some DVDs in the 80s that made the general public aware of yoga in the first place…)

I’m exaggerating, but not by much.  And I get it- my yoga is beautiful, nourishing thing that has had a profoundly positive impact on my life, and I’m protective of it. And when I get protective, it’s a small step to carping about how other people can’t possibly be getting what I’m getting from it if it’s presented like THAT.

But here’s the rub- to say “that’s not yoga” is to try to put yoga in a box that is  much, much too small to contain it.  (If in doubt, just take a look at the Smithsonian’s current exhibition on yoga.  Hoping to get to it.)  To wit, here are just a few of bits of conventional wisdom and/or academic research about yoga, with the occasional anecdotal evidence thrown in*:

Yoga is a 5,000 year old path towards spiritual liberation.

Yoga is a $10-12 billion dollar industry in the United States

Yoga asana is an ancient system of movement and breath.

Yoga is culled primarily from European gymnastics infused with the politics of the Indian independence movement.

Anyone can do yoga.

“I’m so intimidated by what I see in a yoga class I’ll never go back.  It’s not for me.”

To be a real yogi you have to be a vegan.

My yoga teacher hunts their own meat.  With a bow.

Yoga requires nothing but a body and an intention.

“I can’t really get into my practice unless I have a great yoga mat.” (there’s a brand that uses this pitch, I won’t indict by linking to them…)

I could keep going ad nauseam, but you get the idea.  Now, if we want to argue about what is good, useful, and safe in a yoga practice, that’s a different conversation, one that needs to keep happening and one I’m happy to be some small part of.  (see the forthcoming part 2)  And I think those first two are at the heart of a lot of the tensions we’re seeing in the yoga world, because some smart yogi somewhere along the way said something like trying to marry spiritual liberation and material success was like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle…  (but, that’s certainly another conversation)

That said, arguing about what is and isn’t yoga- why?  What are we trying to prove?  Is that a positive use of our time?  The less we treat yoga, or a style of yoga, or even our practice as a sacred cow, the better.  The more we examine what we (and others) are doing, why we’re doing it, and how useful it really is in our bodies and our lives, the more chances we have of making things better for ourselves and others on any number of levels.  And from my point of view, that’s the best yoga their is.

*I debated whether or not to link to relevant resources about these quotes, and decided I didn’t want to create a rabbit hole.  That said, if you think I’m making these things up, I’m happy to send along the relevant links.

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