What is yoga?
“The blocking of the activity of the mind” – Patanjali, as interpreted by N. Sjoman
“A timeless pragmatic science” – B.K.S. Iyengar
“The most versatile spiritual tradition of the world” – G.Feuerstein
These statements are by just three of the experts on the subject. It is perhaps all of the above, to some degree. The word in Sanskrit means to join, to unite, to yoke – essentially meaning bringing unity, harmony, integrity.
It is important to make a distinction between the ‘traditional’ discipline, that was and is primarily a spiritual/internal practice, and the contemporary, narrowed-down takes on its various components, what we could call ‘modern’ yoga.
There are many methods, styles, techniques, many schools and many teachers – the field now has great diversity.
To me yoga is a form of art. In the field of arts there are many disciplines – painters, writers, sculptors, musicians, etc. Within each of these disciplines there are different styles, within styles different artists produce their work, bringing their own interpretations, adding their own ‘colour’ to the vast palette. So too in yoga – there are many styles and sub-styles – for example the broader style of ‘hatha’ contains revivalist forms such as ‘Shivananda’, ‘Iyengar’, ‘Ashtanga’. The Ashtanga Vinyasa practice style sprouted many further modern sub-styles such as Power Yoga, Vinyasa Flow, Sun Power, etc. I consider all these schools and styles ‘revivalist’ forms, as they are just a few decades old, rather than centuries. Most of them have drifted far from the true nature and the original purpose of yoga.
There are styles that do very little physical practice, and there are some that are very much driven by the physical. In our ‘modern’ world the most commonly found forms have much narrower takes on it, using only certain aspects of the classical discipline. We now have yoga for fitness, for relaxation, and a lot of it just for showing off… There are numerous adapted forms that appeal to people – but these should not be confused with ‘traditional’ yoga.
It should also be noted that contemporary postural practice (asana) is broadly misunderstood and misrepresented. Evidence continues to emerge that the posture practice we have today has been the result of the physical culture revolution around the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Sri T. Krishnamacharya, nowadays seen as the grandfather of modern yoga styles, has incorporated many influences into the systems of practices he developed, some of them of western gymnastic origins. Anyone wanting to explore this in more detail should read the books ‘The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace’ by Norman Sjoman, ‘Yoga Body’ by Mark Singleton and ‘The Path of Modern Yoga’ by Elliot Goldberg. These authors are yoga experts and teachers and shed light on yoga dispelling many myths and misconceptions. You can pick up a lot of useful info about recent research on the Hatha Yoga Project and the Modern Yoga Research websites.
Volumes have been written on this subject – in the end ‘yoga’ is just a word. This word can be filled with many meanings. What will make the difference is what it means to you. You can hear about it, you can read about it, but finding out what it can do for you can only come about from exposure to practicing yoga – “yoga should be known through yoga” – claimed in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (the patanjalayogashastra).
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