The ancient system of yoga has gone from being a rarified esoteric philosophy to a multi-billion dollar international exercise franchise, possibly losing a little integrity along the way. Given its spiritual roots, a number of myths have grown up around yoga practice, useful in terms of creating an intriguing consumer product, perhaps, but not useful with regards to the promotion of truth. Here are a few key misleading notions that we would do well to put right:
Physical yoga practice does not reach back into the eons of time
Contrary to popular, mythologised belief, the physical yoga exercise we practice in modern classes isn't very old. The Vedic, or Hindu, philosophy that frames it can be traced back several thousand years, but the physical form we recognize today was developed in the early 1900s and owes more to Scandinavian gymnastics than anything traditionally Indian. Until then, yoga 'exercise' was more concerned with mental techniques and breath control for the purpose of spiritual advancement. Any physical movement, as far as it went, was simply a precursor to the more subtle feats of meditation and contemplation. This doesn't mean that physical (hatha) yoga has no benefit – far from it. However, it needs to be placed within a wider context in order to become the spiritual practice it is commonly touted to be.
Attaining the perfect posture serves no purpose
Contemporary human beings, particularly those constrained by a Western mindset, are active, outward and goal-orientated by nature. So it is unsurprising that modern yoga practice has become heavily preoccupied with exercising the body and achieving status by demonstrating daring and complex physical manoeuvres. Unfortunately though, strength and flexibility alone do not promote spiritual growth, and striving to achieve something actually takes us further away from the harmonious calm we might hope to experience by practicing yoga in the first place. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the primary texts of yoga philosophy, tells us repeatedly to 'perform action without attachment to the result', which is relevant whether we are on the mat or off. So to really taste the essence of yoga in a class setting, we need to meet our practice for what it is, let go our expectations and honour our boundaries with compassion. Attaining the 'perfect' pose in its outward manifestation means nothing if our inner world has not been attended to in the process, or if the destination has been valued over the gifts inherent in the journey.
No one style is the 'right' or 'original' style
In my experience, it is common for different schools of yoga (particularly those with more established lineages) to quietly assert that their way is the right way, because it is rooted in 'tradition'. However, a quick glance at an overview of the various styles shows that each, without exception, has been developed out of something else. For example, two towering figures in the world of modern yoga, BKS Iyengar and K Pattabhi Jois, both shared the same teacher in their early years, but their signature styles couldn't be more different - which one is 'right'? No two translations of a Sanskrit text will be the same, no two commentaries will have the same emphasis. But then, no two people in the world are the same either, so it is wonderful to have a system of spiritual awakening that can be adapted to resonate with everyone. However, if a school or teacher puts pressure on you to follow their method and no one else's, be cautious. Yoga has many faces. Explore freely and choose the one that feels right for you.
No teacher is infallible
Over the past few decades (and particularly over the past few years) the yoga world has been rocked by numerous scandals. These range from mild impropriety to shocking violations perpetrated by teachers who had secured our trust. What seems most disconcerting when news of these behaviours becomes public is not so much the tawdry events themselves, but that they were performed by so called 'spiritual' mentors who we looked to for guidance about how to lead better lives. Why this happens so often and how it can be prevented is beyond the scope of this post. But what we must remember from these repeated examples is that no yoga teacher, however hallowed, is infallible. Teachers play a vital role in society and it is important that they be respected, but if their behaviour is at odds with their teaching, their validity (and possibly their method) must be questioned. We need mentors and it is difficult not to project our hopes and ideals onto a suitable candidate, but let us not forget that we are all, teachers and students alike, perfectly, humanly, imperfect.
Image: Truth Mandala by Jo Thomas Blaine
Penny Jane Fuller 2015