Yoga’s been growing in popularity in the western world for awhile now, but it’s been a particularly hot topic lately with practitioners being accused of involvement in sex scandals and Wiccan cults, the New York Times writing about yoga wrecking the body, and now talks of it being an Olympic sport.
I find this incredibly disheartening. First of all, these news items do not take into account the other five branches of yoga. Yoga is not simply physical exercise; it’s not just contorting yourself into strange shapes. While exercise and physical health is a large part of yoga for many people (myself included), it’s really more of a guide for living a meaningful life. The branch of yoga that most think of when hearing the term is Hatha yoga- asanas, or postures, that are intended to clarify the body in order to calm the mind. This is definitely important, but there are also Bhatki (yoga of devotion, love and acceptance), Raja (yoga of self control), Jnana (yoga of the mind, intended to unify wisdom and intellect), Karma (yoga of selflessness), and Tantra (using rituals to experience the sacred). The idea is that a person can use a combination of any of these paths to travel towards enlightenment. Each branch is important in its own way, and the most optimal way to approach nirvana is to integrate all of them into your life.
I love that more people are integrating yoga into their lives. I truly believe that everyone can benefit from following any one of its branches, even just a little bit. Yoga is an ancient set of methods designed to try to help citizens of the world heal physically and mentally to reach a state of peace. Yoga as an art should not be judged because a few people abuse its ideals for personal gain, and it should not be judged because those who are inexperienced and lack a proper teacher injure themselves.
Yes, Hatha yoga started as a branch of Tantra- but even Tantra isn’t exclusively about sex. It’s about experiencing the sacred, and while union between man and woman is part of it, it also includes many other aspects such as dedication, purity, and truthfulness.
You can injure yourself in any physical activity if you don’t know what you’re doing. Would you try pole vaulting without someone carefully explaining it to you and taking you through small steps to get there? Of course not. Just like you shouldn’t immediately try balancing on your head without a careful teacher guiding you through the steps preceding it. Yoga is entirely safe if you know your body’s limits and take it slowly.
This brings me to my last point: Yoga in the Olympics. As I mentioned before, yoga is not just postures. It’s a lifestyle. If you can do the most advanced and complicated postures, that’s great- but that doesn’t necessarily make you a better yogi than someone who can barely manage a down dog. Yoga is in the mind just as much as it is the body, and bring a competitive aspect to it is borderline sacrilegious. I absolutely appreciate watching graceful yogis move through asanas, but I would never consider judging them. There is no way to tell what a person is thinking, assess the flow of his prana, see how focused he is while he is practicing- and that is what yoga is about. Bringing yoga to the olympics cheapens the yogic experience to merely contortion and physical strength. I love the idea of accomplished yogis getting the attention and reverence that they deserve, but it shouldn’t be competitive and it shouldn’t be based solely upon asanas. All yogis and yoginis should be honored for their yogic accomplishments in life so far and their progress on their spiritual journeys.
Shanti, friends. Namaste!