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What Is The Purpose of Yoga In Our Modern Lives?

philosophy Feb 22, 2020

At least once a week, I hear a student leave my class saying to a friend: “That was great, but that’s not real yoga”. 

I always wonder to myself what, exactly, this student thinks real yoga is. I assume they mean traditional western postural yoga, where a sequence is built squarely around a series of rhythmically timed sun salutations, standing poses and passive stretches with Sanskrit names. I don’t begrudge them this definition. We need names to distinguish between one thing and another, and I realize this format is usually offered when a class is named Yoga on a group fitness schedule. 

When I hear this, though, I often smile quietly to myself thinking of all the many different forms of yoga I’ve been exposed to over the years. Some active, some passive, some traditional, some hybrid, some movement-oriented, some more meditative--in the thousands of classes I’ve taken from hundreds of teachers there seems to be no single common thread that unites them into what I call yoga. Perhaps this is why I feel secure in taking creative liberties with how I structure my own classes. 

Hearing this also gives me pause to reflect on the purpose of yoga--both how I see it and how it was originally intended thousands of years ago in Indian philosophical thought.

The Roots Of Yoga

If we want to discuss the purpose of yoga, it’s historical context is worth mentioning. For thousands of years, Indian philosophy centered around the idea of sacrificial rituals. These rituals were codified and performed by priests; they were intended to produce supreme order in the world. 

Over time, new interpretations of thought emerged, making way for Buddhism, various branches of Hinduism (a word which is really a catch-all for many different types of Indian thinking), and eventually yoga.

These newer schools of thought internalized the concept of the ritual, freeing the common man from needing a priest to perform rituals on their behalf, and instead empowering the individual to produce positive change through various meditative practices. 

In essence, yoga was an invitation to the common man to undertake meditative practices in order to experience supreme freedom and union with the forces that create life. In the original yogic texts, there is little mention of body movement or practices--the prescriptions given in the texts are primarily meditative instructions for achieving union with the divine.

If you’re up for the challenge, Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton is a great read to explore the historical context of yoga more deeply.

Modern Western Yoga

The reason we know of the word yoga today in the west is because of living teachers who brought these teachings to us. Swami Vivekendanda, an Indian sage, is responsible for introducing yoga and other forms of Hinduism to Europe and the U.S. in the 1890s.

In the early 1900s, an Indian teacher named Krishnamacharya interpreted yoga texts to devise new practices around them. He created movement experiences designed to aid the meditative pursuits of yoga and encourage westerners to participate, as there was a booming fitness industry emerging in the west. Some of his students were B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, the founders of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga respectively. 

This is why we associate Sun Salutations, Warrior 2s and chair poses with yoga. These postures and sequences are not inherent to the original yogic texts, but they were packaged alongside these texts as they made their way into western culture. 

Purpose of Yoga In Our Modern Lives

The purpose of yoga today is the same as it’s ever been: To experience freedom and union with the forces that created life. 

Yet, we face a very different set of challenges today than the ancient yogis faced, or that the traditional yogis faced in the early 1900s. Today we are more sedentary than ever, our diets often lack the nutrients we need, and our technology has alienated us from the sense of connection that is needed for a meaningful and purposeful life. 

If we want to experience freedom and union from our yoga practice, we need effective ways of addressing the things that hold us back. We need a better understanding of how to move our bodies so that we can positively influence the pain, atrophy and injuries we experience from sitting too much and moving too little. We need new value systems that help us organize our relationships with ourselves and others in harmonious ways. We need a proper understanding of how our nervous system works and our brain’s role in movement.

When I walk into a yoga room to teach, it is these things that are at the top of my mind. The sequences and positions are secondary to this overarching purpose. This is why it feels totally normal for me to add jumping jacks into a sequence to promote heart health, or to teach joint positions rather than call out names of poses, or to break down sun salutations into component parts to give our brains time to process the complexity of these movements with accuracy. 

It’s for these reasons that some students leave my class thinking to themselves, “That’s not real yoga.” But for me, real yoga is not about choreography and shapes--it’s about learning to live better: to align our thinking and behavior with ways of moving that help us reach those goals. 

In my home practice, this is why I don’t think twice about adding a kettlebell, resistance band or free weight to my practice. It all serves the higher purpose of yoga, even if it doesn’t match the image we’ve come to associate with it.

 

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