Are You Practicing Real Yoga?
I admit, “Are you practicing real yoga?” is a rather obnoxious question. It’s probably like walking up to a woman, especially someone you don’t know at all, and say, “Are those real?” I’m gonna bet she’d get pretty offended and slap you in the face. (I will never have this problem, so I can only speculate).
My intention is not to incite or invite any such hostility, though I’m aware that it’s bound to come up. My intent here, and elsewhere in this blog, is to give a sort of “report from the field” from my personal exploration of what yoga really means to me. The more entrenched I am in the study and teaching of yoga, the more I see the complexity of intertwining this ancient personal practice with business and profits in our modern world, one in which brand names, image, and marketing matter just as much, if not sometimes more, than the actual substance and content of the practice itself.
I’ll always remember the day when a coworker looked me in the eye and told me, “that’s not real yoga” when I told him that I do Bikram. I was offended. “Yes it is!” I wrinkled my nose and growled back. “It’s not real yoga. It’s not Authentic Indian Yoga.” Well, ok… I had nothing to say to that, not to a native from where yoga came.
Determined to be right, I found a quote by Mr. B.K.S Iyengar in Light on Life to make my case:
The stress that saturates the brain is decreased through asana and pranayama, so the brain is rested, and there is a release from strain. Similarly, while doing the various types of pranayama the whole body is irrigated with energy. To practice pranayama people must have strength in their muscles and nerves, concentration and persistence, determination and endurance. These are all learned through the practice of asana. The nerves are soothed, the brain is calmed, and the hardness and rigidity of the lungs are loosened. The nerves are helped to remain healthy. you are at once one with yourself, and that is meditation.
See? Since I am working on my English bulldog determination and endurance in a heated room for 90 minutes, I so am, totally, 100 percently, truly doing real yoga! Eat your heart out, coworker. (Humph!)
If I could, I would give a huge hug to that younger version of me, that 25-year-old so devoted to yoga, who would religiously take a bus or drive 45 minutes to a yoga studio, to practice, practice, practice, but didn’t have any yardstick to measure her progress against, and didn’t have anything substantial to say about what makes a yoga practice “real”.
Yoga Will Ruin Your Life
In one workshop, my teacher Judith Lasater said, “Yoga will ruin your life, and thank God.” She then further explained that doing yoga can make us re-evaluate everything about our lives. It can change the way we eat, the way we act, who we hang out with, what we read, what we do on the weekends, etc. In other words, yoga changes everything (I keep hearing that children do this too, but I wouldn’t know).
It’s pretty common to hear someone gush that yoga changed their life, and for good reasons. You can lose weight and feel better and experience all sorts of wonderful benefits that a regular yoga asana practice can offer. I will argue, however, that any regular physical exercise program can bring forth those benefits and changes. Running, swimming, lifting weight, cycling, climbing, etc. they can all change our lives to a certain extent.
Vrtti, Vrtti Everywhere
There is no denying that hatha yoga is enormously beneficial, and I love it just as much as the next yogaite. The changes that yoga brings that I’m talking about here, though, is much, much subtler than the physical changes and the general good feeling that follows a hatha practice. The kind of changes I’m talking about is behavioral, and the yardstick is to ask, “Is my yoga practice making any inroad in how I function in life?”
Vrtti, or vritti, is a Sanskrit word that roughly means the activities in our minds, the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of an experience. What kind of conversation am I having with myself? How much shame, blame, and guilt is going on if I see a friend getting what I want? How much do I lose it when someone cuts me off in traffic? When my dad nags me about where to park the car, how much am I tensing up in my neck and shoulders and rolling my eyes and telling him to stop telling me what to do? How tuned in to my body to know that I’m eating when I’m not hungry?
My teacher Theresa Elliott said once, “I do yoga to take a vacation from myself.” She’s talking about the incessant chit chat in our minds, and how well we can effectively turn it off, which brings me to another question, “How much thinking am I doing in Savasana?”
Stuck in a Moment
I played in a soccer game this past weekend, and my boyfriend and I planned our whole day around the time of the game. We drove across town to find out that the team captain had mixed up the time, and our team had missed our game. It was a huge bummer, but what’s done is done, so we rolled with the ball (yes, please groan) and stayed to do some practice drills.
Luckily, the other teams needed subs, so I also got to play. Soccer relies on tight teamwork and strategy, and playing on a new team threw me off. I was playing defense when an opponent scored. The game carried on, but for a little while, I lived in the past. “If only this, if only that…”, I kept playing the What If game in my head. As a defender, there’s this huge sense of guilt when the other team scores, and if you’re not blaming yourself, you’re blaming others.
In a moment of clarity, I realized what I was doing. In the lyrics of U2: “You’ve got to get yourself together / You’ve got stuck in a moment / And you can’t get out of it”. So the question is, “Is my yoga practice helping me be here now? Like, *right now*. Is it helping me realize when I’m stuck in memory?”
Will the Real Yoga Please Stand Up?
In the October newsletter of the American Sanskrit Institute, Vyaas Houston wrote something that blows my mind (in a good way):
There’s nothing inherent in a Sanskrit mantra or a yoga posture that’s liberating. It’s only yoga when the real definition of yoga is having an impact on the experience of the mantra or posture and each of these becomes a new type of experience, a progressively purer experience, freer from the intrusions of identity hoping for a good result, or fearing that it will not be reached.
There’s nothing inherently yogic about Tadasana or Mountain Pose or Standing in Line at the Grocery Store or whatever name in whatever language you want to call it. There is, however, a choice of what we do and think. We could get aggravated because the line is too slow, and give someone a stinkeye because they have sixteen items in a 15-or-less line. Or, we could catch ourselves getting completely livid, surrender to the situation, let the shoulders settle, sneak in a couple Kegels, enjoy the fact that we can breathe in and out, and wait for our turn to check out.
The other day while thinking about Graduate school, I noticed that I was holding my breath in my chest, I was getting so anxious thinking about the possibility of getting rejected. After learning to watch the breath and observe what’s happening in the body in yoga class, I realized that I was doing it off the mat. My “yoga habit” has bled into other parts of my life. Judith L. said, “Just because we do yoga doesn’t mean that we don’t get angry. We are just very clear on when we are angry.” Yoga gradually makes us notice certain things that may not have been obvious before. So, another question I’d ask is, “Is my yoga practice helping me become an observer of myself?”
It doesn’t matter what style of yoga it is, to me, a “real” yoga practice should cultivate an acute sense of awareness in our body and mind. It should be something that, with time and practice, progressively keeps us more and more honest with ourselves. In a sense, it could ruin our lives as we know it.