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Rediscovering Yoga’s Soul

Are we just too conceited to admit that the practice can add a new dimension to our lives?

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Okay, tune into this … “I am not preparing beauty packs for this campaign. Everyone seems to be worried about my skin, but I feel, if I eat right and sleep right, it will get me through. I will take ghee in Horlicks bottles from home. I am sure I’ll get rock salt and potatoes along the way to have rice and mashed potatoes. As I travel through the countryside, there will be fresh vegetables. I am not too much into meat or fish consumption. I may take along a little juice-maker. I just have to sleep well, but I guess the excitement will carry me through!”

With a leading sports apparel brand recently launching a yoga wear line, you know that the practice of yoga has come into its own in the collective consciousness. The face of the line is a celebrity American model-turned-yoga-instructor. She espouses a yoga that is open to all, stresses that there is no esoteric Sanskrit chanting and more importantly, no gurus. This is an approach to yoga that has taken the yoga world by storm and has also offended many a yoga purist. When this philosophy started, I dwelled upon its merits. Yes, yoga should be open to all, what’s the point of chanting something you can’t understand and blind faith in someone is just wrong.

At the time, I really thought there was some meat in it. However, in the last few years, this philosophy has snowballed into something quite different. Sure, buzz words such as “all embracing,” “everyone can do it,” “it’s for everyone” are still ruling the Western media. But all this unnecessary fuss makes it sound like yoga needs zero discipline, zero commitment, no method, no skills, no guidance and no rules. I recently read an article about “atheist yoga.” I’m stumped. Do you have to prove that you’re an atheist to practice this kind of yoga? Or will you become an atheist by practicing this type of yoga? As I type this I feel ridiculous. Ridiculous because yoga doesn’t have a religion. And ridiculous because tenuous philosophies such as these are getting media coverage.

Frankly, this sort of talk is insulting to an ancient philosophy. A philosophy that predates religion. A philosophy that expounds holistic living. A philosophy borne out of centuries of studies of the mind-body complex. Credit must be given to the people who spent their lives observing and writing about yoga centuries ago. Those yogis cared enough about learning and sharing the philosophy they loved, in stark contrast to how the “non-denominational” (in their own words) yoga community today is treating the philosophy. And it is more than a little disheartening.

Why is the western media so wary of the traditional philosophy of yoga? The exponents of traditional yogic philosophy have never rejected the tangible benefits; they practiced it as a whole. For all the fuss about being more inclusive and accepting, it feels like this new generation of yoga philosophers are actually ridiculing and chastising those of us who hold beliefs that are different from theirs. Those of us who may have endeavored to understand what the Sanskrit shlokas are all about. Who may feel that their practice is not only about standing on one leg, but about holistic balance also.

Yoga, like any other philosophy, has its greats. The Picassos and the Vermeers of Yoga, if you will. Many practitioners see an art in the philosophy of yoga. And serious art students study the greats, yet not copy them. They take inspiration from them, yet paint their heart. In yoga, you can take inspiration from the greats, yet the practice is yours, in your heart, in your body, in your mind.

And I wonder why is the idea of a guru being vilified by so many people? The word is treated as a dirty-word. “Gu” means darkness. “Ru” means light. Ancient yoga philosophers put both them together to form “guru” to mean someone that takes you from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge. Are we just too conceited to admit that the practice can add a new dimension to our lives? Are we too proud to say that yes, someone knows more and we may be able to benefit from their knowledge? A guru is a teacher, is a guide. Is the western world eschewing the name just because it’s a Sanskrit word? Do I smell a hint of discrimination? Does calling a push-up a “chaturanga” change what it essentially is? Instead of stubbornly insisting it is a push-up, why don’t we focus on accepting that both are the same thing? The brouhaha in the western media makes me feel like I have a bunch of eyes looking down their English-speaking noses at me for saying “guru” instead of ‘teacher’.

I don’t subscribe to the view that you can do yoga without guidance, caution, or study. If you don’t practice yoga under an experienced teacher you have a very strong possibility of getting hurt. Face it, the more your teacher/yoga guide/guru knows about bones and alignment, the better they will be able to guide you, so that you know what’s going on in your body and how a particular movement helps your body. I’m not saying that you must know the details of alignment of a particular asana, but should I want to know, then it should be fine.

This debate is really starting to get to people like me, those who believe in the wholesomeness of a practice we love and respect. I feel as though in an attempt to distance themselves from a rigid and inflexible attitude which may exist in the yoga community, the exponents of “new age” yoga have invariably created another movement which is, ironically, just as rigid and inflexible. There’s a frenzy in the media to defend or support a particular “new age” teacher, studio or practice and in the midst of all this are those of us who just want to know how to improve our Bakasanas without being judged.

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Life | Health | May 2014

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