Flexibility and Spirituality, the Dilemmas of Modern Yoga
Flexibility & Spirituality, the Dilemmas of Modern Yoga
Time and time again I hear, “I can’t do Yoga, I am so inflexible” to which I usually reply, “It’s not about flexibility, it is an ancient technology, a philosophy, practice, and a way of living that encourages your balance and wholeness, greater flexibility is just a perk.” And if I am being really honest, Yoga is a Spiritual Path, it is rooted in practices that reveal the connection of the Divine Presence and the ultimate awareness that we have our being in it, we are inseparable.
Sometimes I have heard, “I love Yoga but I don’t like all the Spiritual stuff.” To which I take a deep slow breath. I listen, and I take a long calculated pause. When I hear these thoughts expressed it illustrates to me just how far away from the roots of Yoga we have come in parts of the West, that somehow an expectation of Yoga study should be a series of calisthenics or a great sweaty workout, devoid of history, foundation, and the dharma of Yoga.
I think one of the great dilemmas of Western Yoga has been the dismantling of the art and science of Yoga so that it is a better fit for Western values and the Western mind. The first time, in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda introduced the foundations of Vedanta and Indian religions to The Parliament of Religions in Chicago it had already been classified as Hinduism. The term Hinduism is a colonist term introduced by the British during their occupation, it grouped all of East Indian philosophies together without regard to their differences. The many variations of Yoga and lineages from Vedanta, Shri Vidya, Shaivism, Jainism, Tibetan Buddhism, Tantra, and hundreds of more nuanced practices, are now found under the umbrella of the word Hinduism.
Yoga was traditionally taught by a Guru, a master, one who was initiated into a lineage, by his Guru. The student was given Asanas, Pranayama, Mantras, and in some cases mudras. Teachings of Sacred texts were shared with commentary by the Guru. The history of Yoga is dated back to somewhere around 5,000 years ago, Gurus and students met and practiced in the forest, and secrets of Yoga were whispered into the student's ears, the word Upanishad, means sitting close, as in the teacher (Guru) and the student sitting together, as the Guru whispered the secrets of the Universe. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali spends a lot of time on where to practice Yoga: One should sit on an animal skin, in a room with ambient temperature, free from insects, and so forth, unequivocally stating that Yoga is a process of the re-establishment of the soul in its absolute purity.
And there it is, the mention of the soul, if there is a soul then certainly this is a hint of the vast cosmology of Yoga, a deeper understanding of where the soul fits, what it is made of, how we should use it, where it comes from, where does it go, and ultimately what are we supposed to do with it? If there is an individualized soul, then is there an absolute? Patanjali has this to say about Asanas in Sutra 2.46: Sthira Sukham Asanas: asana should be a balance between steady, stable, alert effort (sthira) and comfortable, easy, relaxed effort (sukham). There is no mention of flexibility.
And yet…peek into most modern Yoga studios, peek into my class, and you see lots of movements, postures, and flow sequences that require flexibility. We work towards better alignment, more difficult postures, and building our stamina and strength. But Patanjali says it should be sweet, comfortable, and easy and it should anchor our awareness on the Divine nature of our being with the purpose of merging with the Absolute. The Absolute is the Divine Power of life, greater than ourselves, that creates, destroys, conceals, reveals, and sustains all of life. It is called by many names; Ishvara, Shiva, Shri, the Absolute, Brahman, the uncreated eternal and infinite, the first cause, the Universal cosmic energy of life, and it is called God in the Germanic languages.
Our dilemma continues. Yoga is spiritual. To remove its spiritual roots and foundational purpose is to make it something it is not. Can you have a belief system different from Vedic belief and still practice Yoga? Can the cosmology of other beliefs parallel Indian Philosophy? Yes, in my opinion, Yoga philosophy is perennial, non-dualistic, and focuses on the expansion and recognition of the individualized soul returning home to ________________ (insert your word of belief here). The Sufi poet Rumi said it was like a drop of water returning to the Ocean. So while Yoga’s cosmology is deep and rich with unique terminology and a vibrational language, it is also a personal practice of discovery. It is by its nature a system for the development of the soul and union with the Divine.
Other concerns are the use of Sanskrit terms in modern classes, if we strip the asanas of their Sanskrit names we are removing the mythology, the story, and the inspiration of the pose. Without this inspiration, the asana becomes a posture, a pose, a calisthenic, a stretch, and so on and so forth. Let’s take the asana Uttitha Trikonasana, or Triangle pose, for example. Uttitha, or upward, triangle, is the symbol for Shiva, the Divine Masculine, and the pose is in reverence of and for the merging of one's self with this power. It is about moving towards liberation. When we know the asana by its Sanskrit name and know the mythology behind it, our practice evolves. Most every asana has a name with deep meaning, reverence, and a plot twist associated with it that inspires the practitioner. These names are associated with sages, gods, goddesses, yantras, and animals or Vahanas (the animals that the gods ride on), which have spiritual attributes. The great Vedic myths are filled with fantastical tales and shapeshifters who show up daily in our Yoga practice. To practice them is to know them, to embody them, and be inspired by them. We don’t have to be fluent in Sanskrit but we benefit from keeping it close.
An important point is that many people may think Yoga is polytheistic and it is not, it is pluralistic, meaning that although there may be many names, characters, and aspects of referral, they are always an aspect of the ONE Great Reality.
I walk tenderly on my path as a Yoga teacher as I am well aware of the appropriation of traditions and the misuse and dilution of sacred teachings. I am known to most as a ‘traditional’ Yoga teacher and try to introduce the fullness and dimensions of Yoga in my courses and classes. I have taken the path of Jnana yoga, studying, practicing, and studying more. As I have aged I have had to adapt my asana practice, I meditate more and practice Vinyasas less vigorously. It is no surprise that many of my teachers from years ago are having to do the same. It has enriched my experience of Yoga, as what I thought might be a letting go has really become a letting in.
What I want most for Yoga and its practitioners is love, whether you are flexible or inflexible, religious or agnostic, I want this wild beautiful philosophy, this ancient wisdom that has been whispered by Gurus into the ears of their students while deep in the forests for thousands and thousands of years, this philosophy that offers the secrets of well-being and self-realization to all and with harm to no one, to be practiced in love.
If we practice in love then we can be free from the dilemmas of Yoga being this or that, and ultimately we find peace in its inclusivity and enduring nature. We should step onto our mats with feet of lotus flowers.
OM & Blessings, Kate
- Do you consider Yoga a spiritual practice?
- What does Spiritual mean to you?
- How does appropriation historically relate to the practice of Yoga?
- Sthira Sukham Asanas, contemplate this sutra, how does this land in your own meditation and Yoga practice?
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