I've read a lot lately about the debate between "traditional" yogis and "the others." At its core, the debate is about whose yoga is better, and whether the "new kids on the block"are stamping on yoga tradition. In all honesty, I’m not really sure why there even needs to be a debate (and frankly, don’t we hear enough debates about increasingly ridiculous things every day from politicians?). Clinging to "traditional" yoga smells strangely similar to many of those so-called issues.
Yoga came into practice 3000-5000 years ago. Since then, it’s taken many forms. In America, yoga is often marketed as a type of exercise. I don’t think of yoga only as exercise, nor do most yoga teachers or long-time practitioners; however, I see nothing wrong with benefitting from the physical aspects of yoga. We live in a society that appears to grow less healthy each day, due to the combination of people living mostly sedentary lives in front of computers and televisions, relying on vehicles to bring them everywhere, and eating frozen packages of “food” and pink slime. Ours is a culture that NEEDS exercise, so what, may I ask, is wrong with someone finding their exercise in a yoga practice?
A teacher recently said to me that he thinks of his classes as “tricking people into meditating.” Personally, I love this way of putting it. For the most part, people don’t meditate. A lot of people new to the practice of yoga only come into it because they think it packs a great workout (which it does). To give those people a chance to meditate without even realizing it is an amazing opportunity! If more people meditated, relaxed, and tuned into themselves, I think we’d have a more peaceful society.
Now back to the question of, “Why does it matter to some people if yoga has changed and grown?” Yoga is about the individual. Yes, it can bring people together and help develop a compassion for others, but the practice of yoga is about doing what’s best for you and finding your own inner peace. If some people find this through power yoga and others find it through simply sitting cross-legged and meditating alone in a room, who gets to say which is the right way? I say, no one.
The physical aspect of yoga, called the asanas, are very helpful in allowing people to come into the meditative state. Struggling over a pose and having to find that balance between effort and ease, as well as discovering one’s own reaction to struggle and finding ways to possibly change that reaction are identical to the same struggle that can happen mentally in life. Learning to overcome struggle, to learn more about oneself, and to find that focus of the mind during physical work allows one to grow as a person. Not everyone can simply sit and attempt to meditate and feel that same growth, at least not at first.
The Huffington Post recently held a debate entitled “Change My Mind: Yoga is a Hindu Practice” between Tara Stiles and Suhag A. Shukla, Managing Director of the Hindu American Foundation. Shukla agreed that yoga was a Hindu practice and Stiles disagreed. I was on Stiles’ side. Her argument was, “Why would we put up with the ownership of yoga? We don't have to. To put ownership where it belongs -- not as divisive and separating, but shared equally in each one of us -- we have to participate and contribute, practice, invite others into the practice and share it freely.” If we limit yoga to a religious practice only to be enjoyed by followers of that religion, we create more division between cultures in a world that desperately needs people to join together in a human-wide bond instead of retrograding to the days of “my religion is better than yours and I’m going to persecute you because of it” (admittedly days not truly over but hopefully becoming a part of the past.)
So I say, if people want to do yoga to lose weight, who cares? They’ll be attempting to lose weight in a healthy way with unintended benefits making them healthier mentally as well. Let each person practice as they will, and as long as one person’s physical yoga isn’t preventing anyone from practicing their own manner of yoga, then practice and let practice and all will be ommmm.