Is that Yoga?


“Look in the mirror. Look at yourself.” Our teacher, in sports-bra and hotpants, directs the sweating heap of bodies flushed red in the ultra-heated room. I don’t often practise hot yoga, but once a year (usually in winter) I get the idea that it will help my body loosen up and shake off its winter stiffness. I forget that this style of class is a draw for gym-junkie yoga obsessives. It’s something about the look on their face—the intensity of their focus on their own reflection—that gives them away.

Across from me, a stocky man in glasses practises on his tiger-skin-print towel, which of course matches his tiger-skin Speedos. It’s my friend Josh, and he’s loving it. “This is awesome,” he says to me between poses. He has just signed up for a sixty-day challenge, where he has committed to attend at least one class per day for sixty days. I couldn’t commit to even six days. The heat is getting to me, and despite my decade of teaching and practising yoga, I start to struggle. My body isn’t used to being subjected to the extreme heat; halfway through the class I have to stop and lie down, and my ego doesn’t fail to notice.

As I lie there, I wonder how different this experience of yoga is from how it was originally practised. I have read stories about great bearded yogis in the Himalayas who lived to be hundreds of years old, who didn’t eat or drink, sustained solely by sunlight. But what about the less extreme, everyday yogis from ancient India, and what was yoga for them? “Get up and finish the class with us, all of you on the floor,” says the teacher. I close my eyes and continue to lie on my yoga mat.

Bikram Choudhary (the founder and guru of Bikram Yoga) calls his heated studios “torture chambers,” and I don’t disagree. The self-proclaimed creator of hot yoga is famous for his ego, and, expectedly, he is proud of this. He focuses on the physical benefits of yoga postures (or yogasanas in Sanskrit), such as the increased flexibility, toning, strengthening, cleansing, and even healing effects of the practice. This physical focus is common among the new wave of yoga classes being held in gyms and hot yoga studios that cater to people’s desire for physical improvement and self-mastery. As a result of this predominantly physical focus, yogasanas have become isolated from the other seven limbs described in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga Sutras (not to be confused with the brand of yoga known as Ashtanga).

Other foundational limbs—such as yama and niyama, which guide the moral behaviour and spiritual stability of the yogi— have been excluded. The word “yoga” is now synonymous with yogasanas, and this fact is confirmed by the schedule of the annual World Yoga Sports Championship: there aren’t any meditation competitions being held as part of the championship. Can this wholly physical practice still be called yogasanas? Can this limited focus achieve the goals of yoga when B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the forefathers of modern yoga, describes the practice of yogasanas without the support of yama and niyama as mere acrobatics?

Yogasanas were designed to refine the body, but the refinement was not intended to end there. Their practice was originally devised to prepare a yogi’s body to sit for long periods in meditation, and this intention is evident in their name: in Sanskrit, asana literally means “seat.” And not just any seat will suffice. The Bhagavad-gita, a five-thousand-year-old text from India, dictates that the seat should be “firm and clean, not too high or too low, and covered with kusha grass, a deerskin, and a cloth.” Quite specific.

The Bhagavad-gita further elaborates on the ideal conditions for the yogi, explaining that they should reside alone in a secluded space, free from desire, and devoid of possessions. A much later and detailed yoga text, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written by Swami Svatmarama in the fifteenth century, describes that the seat should be kept in a hut with a small door, free from filth and insects, and plastered well with cow dung. Thankfully, since cow dung and deerskins aren’t so easy to come by, these details are presented as suggestions rather than necessities. However, the intention is clear: sit.

In Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga Sutras, written not long after the Bhagavad-gita, he describes the term “yoga” as the “cessation of fluctuating consciousness.” I love this phrase, and I’m often tempted to begin teaching my yoga classes by announcing, “And now we begin the cessation of our fluctuating consciousnesses.” Patanjali details the means to attaining this state in eight not-so-easy steps: ethical disciplines, rules of conduct, posture, breathing techniques, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and spiritual stillness.

While Patanjali does not mention specifically what the yogi should sit on during these practices, he extends the purpose of yogasanas beyond the physical, defining them as “perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence, and benevolence of spirit.” Within Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga tree, yogasanas are foundational and support progress through the subsequent limbs: a firm body allows for continual sitting; continual sitting enables the yogi to practise breathing techniques; practising breath control supports the withdrawal of the senses from external objects; and withdrawal of the senses supports the inner progression from concentration, through meditation, to complete absorption or spiritual stillness. The yogasanas, therefore, aren’t the goal but are a tool for attaining still consciousness.

But what about yama and niyama and how do they transform a physical practice into a spiritual one? Yama consists of five moral imperatives to guide the yogi in becoming a morally refined beacon of purity: nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, chastity, and non-coveting. These can be simplified to don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal, be chaste, and don’t hoard unnecessary things. However, nonviolence (the “don’t kill” imperative) includes vegetarianism, which can be a deal-breaker for many aspiring yogis. Thankfully, chastity can refer to committing yourself to one relationship, which means that you can be a yogi and have a partner and kids—you don’t have to live like a monk.

The niyama comprise five individual disciplines that cultivate a spiritual refinement: cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study of the self, and dedication to the Lord. Being clean in mind and body, content, and even austere, is relatively simple, but study of the self and dedication to the Lord require a more philosophical approach. The self and the Lord that niyama refers to are known in Sanskrit as the atma and paramatma, respectively. Within the stillness that is samadhi, the yogi endeavours to purify the gross and subtle layers that obscure the realisation of the real self, the soul or atma.

This atma is considered to be different from the body and mind and is described as eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. The word “yoga” literally means “union,” which refers to the union between this atma and the paramatma. When the yogi discovers the atma and paramatma within, or the soul and the Lord, it is called sight of the soul, and this discovery is the purpose of yoga, as conceived by Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga.

With this awareness of the spiritual goal of yoga, it is easy to understand how the current trend focuses on yoga as a physical practice. Religion is a dirty word in contemporary society, and performing yogasanas as a religious practice is not as attractive to the yoga market, nor is it as tangible, as their physical application. In a body-obsessed culture, it makes sense to contain yogasanas to their physical aspect, but should we still call this “yoga”? Of course, regular practice of yogasanas still offers physical benefits and refinement similar to acrobatics, but what of the inner progression, the attempt to extend beyond the temporary, egoistic self?

Yoga, according to the traditional definition, is a means of holistic self-improvement—one that benefits the practitioner physically, intellectually, and spiritually—which contrasts starkly with the popular and lucrative practice common today: the former is a means of disrupting ego; the latter reifies it. Sure, yoga needs to adapt to suit modern culture—not too many people in Australia or New Zealand would be keen to line their yoga-hut with cow dung as Swami Svatmarama recommends—but if the practice has changed to the point where the purpose behind it has been lost, can we still call it yoga?

As the other students get up from their mats and begin to leave the room, I start to get a glimpse of my real yogi. His eyes open, adjusting to the predawn light that gives shape to his simple hut. He hasn’t been sleeping but has spent the night in meditation, conscious and lost within. He uncrosses his legs and leaves his kusha-grass seat, which is covered with deerskin and a cloth. By lamplight, he prepares an offering of fruits, flowers, water, and incense for his Lord, ringing a small brass bell as he chants Sanskrit mantras of worship in front of a simple altar. As the sun spreads light on his hut’s cow-dung and mud-brick walls, my yogi, dressed only in a loincloth, walks to a nearby stream to bathe, preparing his body for his daily practice of yogasanas.

“Wasn’t that awesome?” asks Josh, as he rolls up his sweaty mat, snapping me out of my reverie. “Yeah, it was an experience,” I reply.

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