By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio
Yoga is always in the news somewhere. In October, a Baptist leader claimed “Yoga isn’t Christian” (Associated Press, Oct. 7, 2010). In November, one Hindu group argued to “take yoga back” (“Debate over yoga’s soul,” New York Times, Nov. 27, 2010). And through it all, the American Yoga community is wondering “What happened to yoga?” as it has become increasingly commercial (Boston Globe, Oct. 14, 2010).
A part of me also wonders what happened to yoga. I am baffled by the idea that yoga somehow belongs to or is a threat to any cultural or religious group. By most historical accounts, the practices of what we call “yoga” have been around much longer than any organized religion, taking numerous and varying forms over its thousands of years of existence. The eight limbs of yoga make up an individual life practice and philosophy, offering tools that enable any of us to know ourselves better. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the primary text describing the eight-limbed path of yoga, is a philosophical guide with a universal approach.
The Yoga Sutras provide a step-by-step process for aligning body with mind for the purpose of integrating our external action with our internal truth. If, for example, your internal truth is a connection to Jesus Christ, then through yoga you may become aware of how your own mental and physical actions and reactions align or don’t align with those of Christ—not taking you away from your faith, but possibly making it stronger. This alignment, or union, with our own truth gives us clarity of mind and balance of consciousness no matter what our background or religious belief. A recent tragic experience in my life reminded me how important it is to understand our own mental and physical states and to be able to express them. This personal awareness is the true gift of yoga.
A deeper self-awareness ideally brings about less attachment to the external, material world, the source of much of our pain. But this “true meaning of yoga” has been getting lost in American commercialism. Yoga is now practiced more by Westerners than Easterners. But we don’t just practice it—we market it and profit from it. Yoga is a lifestyle in the West, but reflected more in the clothes, jewelry, accessories and food fads. Our once-a-week class has replaced the disciplined, long-term practice that is the source of the real benefits of yoga. This commercialism turns yoga into bhoga (“yoga for pleasure”) and makes us blind to the most powerful aspect of yoga, internal transformation.
However, I can’t completely discount the role Western commercialism has played in yoga. Without it, yoga may never have spread so far around the globe. If it had been kept by the gurus in the caves of India, I and millions of my fellow practitioners would not have been introduced to it. Westerners have generated an overwhelming number of “styles” of yoga to fit every personality, enough to give anyone the ability to feel comfortable giving it a try. I am thankful to the Hindus, who understood yoga as a universal practice and taught it to others, for the Christian university in Texas that was not afraid to offer yoga as continuing education so that I could give it a try, and that I have teachers who share the depth of practice without the influence of fads.
All you have to do is try yoga for yourself. Look beyond the news, beyond the fights and the fads, and find a practice that works for you. Dig deeper than the magazines and beauty queens to gain the profound benefits of practice. In the end, the truth of yoga will always speak for itself.
For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit www.yogarockford.com or call (815) 968-9642.
From the Dec. 29-Jan. 4, 2011 issue