What comes to mind when you think of Yoga? If it happens to be sleek leggings, swanky studios, and deep stretching – you are definitely not the only one. However, what many fondly know as “yoga” here in the United States is actually a far cry from the origin of this ancient practice.
The history of yoga dates back thousands of years. Deeply rooted in Indian culture, yoga began as much more than a physical practice. The principles of yoga shaped the way of life for those who followed the yogic path. Moral and ethical codes were defined by eight key principles, with Yoga Asana (asana meaning poses) being just one of those eight limbs. Other principles highlight integrity, spirituality, self-awareness, and self-discipline.
The physical practice of yoga asana began as a tool to prepare the practitioner to sit in meditation. By practicing yoga asana, one would move to open the body and create a physical sense of balance, so that they could comfortably sit in stillness for an extended period of time. Many of us are familiar with yoga asana, and some form of meditation, but it does leave us wondering… what happened to the rest of it?
Fast forward about 5,000 years and across a large ocean, yoga has gone through a major transformation. The physical practice of yoga asana has become the primary purpose for many. The guiding principles are often not recognized as part of our modern, western practice, if mentioned at all. What is meant to be a preparatory practice for meditation often ends with a less than 10-minute savasna, and even this can often be disrupted by a buzzing cellphone or a student that needs to excuse themselves before this short period of rest is complete.
With much of the historical significance of yoga lost, cultural appropriation runs rampant in the United States. Prayer flags and Ganesha statues adorn swanky studios, often with no explanation of what such objects represent. Additionally, yoga has become a highly commodified business. From leggings to yoga mats, price tags easily reach $100 or more for many yoga “accessories.” According to Bloomberg, American’s spend $48 billion dollars on activewear each year – a mind-blowing statistic considering how a key component of this practice teaches us that we already have everything that we need, and to avoid over-indulgence.
Despite these major challenges with the yoga industry in the United States, there is an upside. From stress reduction to pain relief to increased movement; the watered-down, western version of yoga is offering many amazing benefits to a stressed-out, over-stimulated population. So, the question begs to be asked – where do we go from here?
To be honest, the path is unclear. Yoga, even in the most basic form as a movement practice, is good. American’s have latched on to the practice for a myriad of reasons – but the majority stemming from a desire to feel better, do better, be better. If that is the case, should we just let it be what it is? Or, is it our duty as yoga teachers to do a better job of sharing the roots of this practice? Do we shun the swanky studios and fancy accessories, or do we just accept them as part of the world we live in? The answers to these questions are not black or white, however they certainly deserve some contemplation. Here’s hoping this post will spark exactly that.