Yoga Rockford: What have we done to yoga?

By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a dramatic and misinformed article sensationalizing the disconnect between the claims of yoga as a healing practice and the occurrence of injury among yoga practitioners. Distorted and incorrect information aside, the article made a point that elicited a lot of discussion and reaction within the greater yoga community. What is the “yoga” we are practicing? And, before we blame yoga as a whole, can we first consider that in many ways we aren’t practicing yoga at all?

For many in the West, asanas (poses) are considered “yoga,” though they are merely one aspect of an eight-limbed practice. When exercising our physical body for any reason, including in asana, we pose a risk of injury. Injury in asana can happen for many reasons, including lack of knowledge and guidance, distraction, and/or the pressure to do more from our own ego or overeager teacher. It is only when asana is practiced within the full eight limbs of yoga (Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi), with discipline and awareness, that a practice can truly be called yoga and offer the possibility of the healing we may seek. A focus only on asana, whether positive or negative, can create a distorted view of this very vast subject.

Yoga teaches us to study ourselves, so we must look at our practice and the environment we have created for the study of this profound discipline. The boom in yoga popularity has brought about an immense increase in practitioners and a demand for more instructors, many of whom end up not having much more experience than the students they teach. Yoga is offered widely in gyms with music pumping, heat turned up, and movements as fast as aerobic steps, becoming just another workout where the purpose is to sweat more, go longer and push harder.

Advertising bombards us with each “new and improved” yoga style — tweaked for someone’s personal preference — so we forget that yoga has a long tradition and philosophy with more than physical improvement or ego-gratification at its core. By definition, yoga’s fundamental purpose is to “still the fluctuations of the consciousness” (Yoga Sutra I.2). While popular media sell yoga as an easy cure-all characterized by sweating away in fashionable yoga-wear and committing to the latest food fad, the texts of yoga describe a disciplined life-practice that brings about mental focus and personal transformation.

After spending time in India and encountering personally the more than 70-year dedicated life-practice of BKS Iyengar, I am humbled by how little we understand the subject of yoga. The Iyengar method taught in the West, as with all Hatha Yoga traditions, begins with asana and the body as a tool to focus the mind. Detailed instruction of alignment in asana, a hallmark of the Iyengar tradition, is an exercise in discernment on the physical level, but is not only for physical benefit. This focus and discipline in asana sharpens mental acuity and aligns the body energetically. With diligent practice, it creates a pathway of increased awareness that moves to deeper levels of our being.

The Iyengars remind us that practice limited to poses assumed in the classroom cannot be called yoga. BKS Iyengar himself does not claim to teach “Iyengar Yoga” (a term coined by his students), but stresses Patanjali Yoga, the full eight-limbed path of yoga as laid out in the Yoga Sutras. He challenges us, like Patanjali’s writings have done for thousands of years, to study ourselves and practice the full breadth of yoga without distraction to be successful in a quest for inner peace.

Being conscious of and honest with ourselves about what we have done to yoga will guard us from false expectations and over-reactions. If we only don the clothes, eat the veggies and contort ourselves into countless poses, we can’t blame yoga for our injuries. Asana is a great choice for developing physical strength, balance and flexibility, and a well-trained teacher may help to minimize our risk of injury. But only yoga practiced in its entirety with uninterrupted devotion, discipline and awareness (Yoga Sutra I.14) offers the opportunity for transformation and healing on every level.

For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit or call (815) 968-9642.

From the Jan. 25-31, 2012, issue

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