20 November 2009

this is my real yoga

“You are a life saver. Without you I would be a stressed out 20 year old bitching about everything. Now I live my life and I’m writing my own story and I have never felt better. I tell everyone about you and how you guide people to find not only happiness but themselves. I thank you for opening my eyes to that.”
[college student, 2009]

With all the yada yada about how old yoga really is (see discussion in comments), the name-branding of yoga and the Show Biz Yogi Lifestyle (TM of course), what is "real yoga", Bikram's desire to have yoga (uh, asana) competition in the Olympics, ad infinitum, it all makes me want to scream "STOP!"

Don't get me wrong, I love a good discussion, but I have to ask: when is enough, enough? Buddha (basically) said not to take peoples' words as gospel, that you must experience things through your own lens and judge for yourself.

I know what works for me and I've written about it on numerous occasions. Brenda made an excellent point when she asked "if you just boil it down to asana without any kind of inner reflection, then isn't it just floor exercise?" I love her one word opinion about that.

But I will play devil's advocate and say, so what? So what if someone does some stretches when they get out of bed and calls it yoga? I asked Tom Pilarzyk that question when I heard him speak on whether American yoga is in crisis.

He said that he would compare that to the idea of Christmas. He asked, what if a person said "so what if I only like lots of presents on Christmas?" Tom said, OK, if that's all you want, but isn't the idea of Christmas really about something more?

I believe that yoga must contain certain things in order for it to be called yoga. Notice that I did not say any type of spirituality must be a requirement; I don't even say namaste at the end of my classes. I don't care if you've never read a yoga book and think Bhagavad Gita is the name of the guy who fixed your computer.

As I've heard Desikachar say, if yoga does not contain X, then you're just doing acrobatics. Nick Rosen, the "star" of the movie Enlighten Up said "yoga’s anything you want it to be and that’s very freeing..." Uh, OK...I'm going to swing from a chandelier in my chakra underwear and trademark it as "SwingYoga." Yup...just call something "yoga" and that makes it "yoga." Uh-huh. And if you steal this idea I'm going to sue your yoga butt.

Sometimes all this yada yada makes me want to go off and live in a cave. OK, not really, but it does make me question being a yoga teacher, especially when stuff like this happens. I tell myself, why bother, when people aren't getting it. I know a few teachers who have just given up. Then I remember what I heard Seane Corn say in a workshop: that she'd rather teach to the two who get it than the 10 who don't.

But then a student tells me what my college yogi told me. Or the hearts of the domestic violence survivors crack open when they know that maybe just for this moment they are loved unconditionally.

That is my real yoga, and frankly, I don't care what you do. I used to care, but I don't anymore. You do your "yoga" and I'll do mine. But please...don't insult me and my teachers and my teachers' teachers going all the way back to Patanjali by calling your morning stretches or your posing, yoga.

Don't insult the original yogis, the sramanas, those renouncers of the Hindu rituals who around the 8th Century BC to the 2nd century CE used their bodies and minds as laboratories for the direct experience of yoga and nondualism.

If something isn't changing for you off the mat, then don't call it yoga.

Instead of a Christmas analogy, I'll use food. If you want to make a chocolate cake but leave out the chocolate, can you still call it a chocolate cake? Or is it just a poor imitation?

Just askin'.


Grace said...

I was thinking about all this way too much, so I've pretty much stopped. I still ask myself if what I do is "real" yoga, but the practice does alter me for the better and I try to be mindful on and off the mat. I'm not always mindful in my poses, but maybe that's not the point all the time; it is a practice after all and it's not going to be "perfect" all the time, but at least I'm aware when I'm not doing it. I don'know.

Dhana said...

I do what I can to allow people to find freedom in their bodies, which usually translates to a certain freedom and quiet in their minds. But I do silently ask for some level of commitment. That their practice truly evolves into a practice and not just an excercise involving pink luon.

Bob Weisenberg said...

I agree, there's not much more to be said on the topic of What is Yoga! Anyone who missed the highlights can catch up easily by just following all your great links above.

As for me, I will continue to embrace diversity and welcome all types of Yoga (except the abusive, hypocritical, criminal or cultist, of which there have been many far too many instances, unfortunately.)

My own personal interest and practice is in the original spiritual Yoga of the big three ancient texts (Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutra).

My life's passion right now is to try and help those who are interested understand this profound philosophy better and make it a natural every-day part of their Yoga lives.

Bob Weisenberg

Anonymous said...

Personally I think there's a lot of academic wankery ('scuse the French) going on of late. Its partly why I stopped continuing the debate with Nick. As I said there, I'm not overly interested.

But it seems Nick's buddy over at Elephant Journal has chimed in, backing up Nick's position. Haven't gotten around to replying to that one yet, but I will.

For me, yoga is practical, not theoretical. And all of this "Oh, but MODERN yoga is only X years old..." What?!

Yoga IS a cpnstantly evolving practice. Let's say yoga is 1,000 years old (not that this can be definitively proven either way). The yoga that was practiced 900 years ago vs the yoga that was practiced 500 years ago is *bound* to be quite different in some ways. That's the thing about time.

So who cares, really? But it does kinda get under my skin when people talk about how old yoga is definitively. Because it simply can't be proved or disproved, for so many reasons.

Personally I think a true understanding of yoga can only come from a sustained and regular practice - whether its asana, meditation or a combination of the two, plus pranayama and whatever else you want to throw in (except maybe swinging from the chandelier in your chakra undies!).

Because yoga is an exploration of the Self. And not one that can be understood in-depth just by reading books.

Taught another class today, with about five people attending, including a friend of mine (not a fellow student). Two comments stood out at the end. A fellow student said that during savasana at the end (with some yoga nidra thrown in) its the first time ever she's actually fallen asleep (suggesting she was really relaxed). And my friend who came along said very simply: I feel so much better after that class than I did before I went in.

For me, there was some kind of transference or communication going on at a very subtle level. So deep and gentle that even though I was leading the practice, I felt as though it wasn't just me in charge there.

That's part of what I define as yoga for myself. But only part! Stay tuned, I'll be commenting on the Elephant Journal post tomorrow night, thoughtfully and in detail.

After that, hopefully I can just get back to my practice without being targetted by any other friends of Nick Rosen, cynical start of "Enlighten Up"...

Linda-Sama said...

"Because yoga is an exploration of the Self. And not one that can be understood in-depth just by reading books."

YES! which is why those ancient sramanas went off into the forests. and my timeline of 8th century BC to 2nd century CE comes from Stephen Cope at Kripalu.

honey, if you want to do a guest post here, I would welcome it.

Bob Weisenberg said...

Well put, Svasti.

Just a quick question. You write, quite correctly of course, that "Yoga is an exploration of the Self. And not one that can be understood in-depth just by reading books."

I personally haven't ever encountered anyone who thought that Yoga could be understood in-depth just by reading books. Who are are you thinking about when you write this, just out of curiosity?

Bob Weisenberg

Nan Sheppard said...

Oh dear, I haven't done my "physical" yoga, i.e. the floor exercise, for a few weeks. Maybe I will lock myself in a room tomorrow and have a good long session. Your blog reminds me these things. Haven't eaten meat in ages, though, without realising it. Hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

@Linda - thanks!! I'll have a think about it, and see what I can come up with. I would be honoured to write a guest post for you *blushes* :D

@Bob, just noticed all the typos in my last comment (horrors!). Okay, so it was kind of a general remark. Because I know there are a lot of people out there in academia who study yoga without actually practicing it. Not all, of course. But they exist. And then they write books on the history of yoga and/or yoga philosophy etc. Which is in part, why I object to people using academic texts only to understand what yoga is!

Bob Weisenberg said...

Svasti. That's why I was curious. All the scholars I've read are also accomplished practitioners--Rod Stryker, Graham Schweig, Stephen Cope, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Swami Muktibodhananda, David Fawley, Eknath Easwaran etc., etc. I really don't know any Yoga academics of the type you're describing.

Bob Weisenberg

Bob Weisenberg said...

I meant to add that not only are these scholars practitioners, but their books are the opposite of academic. They are often deeply personal accounts of their love affair with Yoga.

Bob W.

Brenda P. said...

Oop, now my academic-friendly hackles are rising a bit and I gotta chime in.

You don't have to participate in the thing that you study to be a successful scholar of that subject. You don't have to be a yogi to study the history of yoga (more likely religion), you don't have to be an African-American to study A-A history, you don't have to be a rock to be a geologist. In fact, sometimes the distance can help when trying to take an objective, complete
look at a subject.

(And profession historians rarely get all of their information just from books--they go to original sources, first-person narratives, diaries, interviews, etc etc, since books are several steps removed from the topic under study).

I'm not saying participation doesn't contribute insight, but it doesn't have to be a prerequisite. Like I said, some times it helps to be on the outside looking in...

And I don't understand what would be lacking in an "academic" study, anyway. To me that just says the writing is a bit more formal and the attributions and facts are carefully footnoted (at least they should be)...especially in the case of conflicting information.

Okay, I'm done...

Bob Weisenberg said...

Good points all, Brenda. The fact is, it depends on the quality of scholarship. The best scholarship is rigorously truthful, both in fact and in nuance, whether based on observation or direct experience, or a combination of both.

But I think Svasti is talking about the other kind of scholarship, the kind that is full of facts but misses the meaning and nuance. I've certainly encountered plenty of this kind of writing in other fields, just not yet in Yoga. That's why I was curious to know who Svasti had in mind.

Bob Weisenberg

Brenda P. said...

Yeah, Bob, I think you're right. I thought about that after I signed off the computer, last night. I figured I would see what everyone else had to say...

But it does lead to an interesting question in light of all the hubbub these days:
Do you have to practice yoga to understand it? To experience it, to appreciate it, you probably do need to practice. But understand...I don't think so (see above).

Unknown said...

Mircea Eliade was not a yoga practitioner and wrote one of the classic academic books about yoga- Yoga: Immortality and Freedom

Bob Weisenberg said...

Good example, brendan.

I've been reading Eliade's "Concise Guide to World Religions". It's fascinating, but very much an academic "left-brain" approach to religion. I would say he could be used to support either Brenda's or Svasti's point of view, as shown in these quotes from reviews on Amazon regarding "Yoga:Immortality and Freedom":

"Eliade's book is aimed directly and just about exclusively at academicians. Furthermore, while Feuerstein is a practitioner as well as a scholar, Eliade makes no pretense of first hand experience."

"This is not a book for practitioners of yoga but a book for students and scholars of the literature of yoga. It is a challenge to read and appreciate and only really accessible to those with some experience with the literature. There is probably no serious yoga book written in the past quarter century that fails to cite it."

Bob Weisenberg

Anonymous said...

Bob, Brenda,

Question: what's the difference between me talking about academic books on yoga and Nick talking about how "modern yoga" is only 100 years old? Answer: Nothing. Not as far as I can tell.

Anyway, I'm writing up a guest post for Linda's blog right now and I'll elaborate, I promise...

Brenda, re: your question: "Do you have to practice yoga to understand it?"... from my perspective, I'd have to say yes. Absolutely.

Well, actually, that's not entirely true. Of course you can educate yourself about yoga, its philosophy, history, various aspects and everything related to it. Like you can with any other topic. Of course.

I might get crucified (again) for saying this (not that I care, really), but from my own experience, there's a big difference between book learning, and having an understanding of yoga that resides in your body and mind.

It happens in stages. First, there's the book learning. There's the stuff your teacher(s) tell you. Then you start practicing. Maybe nothing changes at first. But eventually, with enough meditation, enough asana and pranayama, the body becomes the library. The books only reference it.

Each time I learn a little more, my understanding changes. And yeah, I've had those direct experiences of things that I've previously only read about in books.

Most practitioners of yoga do have that kind of experience eventually.

Bob Weisenberg said...

Hi, Svasti.

I have the impression that everyone agrees with you when you write:

"...from my own experience, there's a big difference between book learning, and having an understanding of yoga that resides in your body and mind."

I'm not sure who you feel will crucify you for this. Maybe I missed some comments. Even those who have argued in defense of academic writing,like Brenda, would, I think agree that it's not the same kind of understanding as the actual practice. I haven't seen anyone claim that they are equivalent, just both important.

In my case, I was a practitioner before I read anything at all about Yoga. So I think it can go either way.

Bob Weisenberg

Brenda P. said...

Svasti, sorry if you felt crucified...I certainly didn't mean my comment to be takent that way. As most everything else, this boils down semanitcs--to how one defines "understand." As in understanding with the heart vs the mind. I was talking about the mind.

I look forward to your guest post. (Thanks L-S for being such a gracious hostess to us all...)

Anonymous said...

Bob, that's cool. Except, I know of plenty of serious yoga books that don't cite Eliade's "Concise Guide to World Religions". Just sayin'. ;)

Bob Weisenberg said...


Clarification. The quotes were in regard to "Yoga:Immortality and Freedom", not "Concise Guide to World Religions".


Anonymous said...

@Bob, @Brenda - I don't feel like anyone here has been crucifying me. But I certainly can't say the same for other people over at YD. Not to mention Nick's buddy at Elephant Journal who seems to think I'm "mean". Something he suggested to me via DM on Twitter.

BTW, sorry for taking so long re: guest post. I've felt the need to sit with it for a little bit. Make sure I'm responding in the best way possible as I have no intention of getting into another sticky debate!

Rui Umezawa said...

Hi, Linda,

I am afraid I know next to nothing of yoga so most of the theories and terminology used by you and those in the comments are new to me. The level and nature of the frustration, though, seem awfully familiar. I am preparing a similar post on meditation to upload in the very near future. Hope you come back to take a look.

I think anyone who is passionate about a discipline experiences frustration when running into someone who takes a much more casual approach to the same activity. The frustration is multiplied when the casual practitioner insensitively equates his or her approach to that of the serious student.

The problem is that the fruits of meditation (at least how I practise it) and yoga (presumably, as again I know so little about it) are internal and mostly invisible to the naked eye. It's easy to compare, for example, the different levels of skill between a professional pianist and a beginning amateur. Such external indicators of expertise are not available to the casual observers of internal arts. But we can’t blame them for this limitation. In the end, as you yourself say, we just have do our own thing.

I hope you have a great trip, BTW. I hope someday to visit India also to feel the energies there first-hand.

All the best,

Bob Weisenberg said...

Hello, Rui.

What interesting and insightful observations you've made. You're so right about the truth about a person's practice being invisible. There are many devoted practitioners who turn out to be hypocritical jerks and apparently casual practitioners who turn out to be living a deeply spiritual life.

I hope we will see you often here in the Yoga blogosphere. Now I'm going over to check on your blog ( for other readers.

Thanks for being here.

Bob Weisenberg

Yogini B said...

I love the calmness of Rui's post. As a yogini-not-in-America (small island in SE Asia, actually) I confess to being a bit baffled (and enthralled!) by the depth of emotion that these debates have generated - and blissfully un-exposed to the types of chakra-underwear-wearing (ooooh, I laughed so hard when I read that), chandelier-swinging yoga that is infuriating so many people.

As Bob says: "There are many [...] apparently casual practitioners who turn out to be living a deeply spiritual life." And certainly, some who don't. But, really, why do I care? Who am I to question people's motivation?

The question that I find more interesting is, why does it bother us so much? Is that not just a manifestation of Ego, that we wish to preserve "our" notion of Yoga or regulate who can and cannot call themselves a Yogi? Why are we so desperate that others find spiritual transformation in Yoga, as long as we find it ourselves??

In ancient times Yoga was a protected and secret discipline. Only by induction from a teacher could a student begin on the path. Only when the teacher judged a student to be ready would the next secrets be revealed. In that sense we really can see a 'modern' age of Yoga - the information age! Where yoga knowledge abounds, once-guarded sacred texts are available by e-book, and yes, absolutely anyone can be a yoga student or teacher.

But that is the nature of our times... Would it not be better to exercise Aparigraha (non-attachment) and try to sink beneath the fury and be content with our own truth?

Just a happy thought...

Yoga Gypsy (

Linda-Sama said...

Thanks for reading, Yoga Gypsy, and especially stopping by from an island in SE Asia! My horrible cold and awful winter make me wish I was there right now. As to your comments...

"The question that I find more interesting is, why does it bother us so much? Is that not just a manifestation of Ego, that we wish to preserve "our" notion of Yoga or regulate who can and cannot call themselves a Yogi?"

Of course I found myself examining my own ego in this debate. And have for a few years now. That's why I have said time and again "you do your yoga and I'll do mine." I know what "my yoga" is for me, which is a combo of my personality and my training. What anyone else does is none of my business and frankly, I don't care. Anymore.

But yes, I AM passionate about yoga and how it's portrayed. I'm attached, but I don't cling. There's a difference.

I used to be the type of teacher who thought "YOGA IS FOR EVERYONE", I.E., until I matured in my own practice and as a teacher. That statement is just as naive and uninformed as saying YOGA IS CRAP or any other blanket statement about yoga. Yoga is NOT for everyone in the same way that the same medicine is not for everyone.

"Why are we so desperate that others find spiritual transformation in Yoga, as long as we find it ourselves??"

Everyone is no the same path just at different speeds. I am concerned about my own transformation. Again, I have my own spiritual practice, I am a practicing Buddhist, someone else has theirs. or none at all.

And it's not just spiritual transformation we are talking about when we talk about yoga. It's ultimately about how we live our lives, for ME. Your mileage may vary....;)

thanks for commenting!

metta to you.

Bob Weisenberg said...

La Gitane.

Thanks for your very interesting and insightful response. And how great to have you join our increasingly international Yoga blogosphere (Linda notice I avoided "Yoga community" just for your benefit!).

We have quite a few bloggers from Australia. They're neighbors of yours, right? (That was a joke.)

I'm not so sure that Yoga was always such a secret society as you describe it in the past. It certainly became that way later. But everything that's really important about Yoga is contained in the Bhagavad Gita. Was this a secret text? Was the Yoga Sutra a secret text?

That's actually one of the reasons I personally much prefer the simpler most ancient Yoga to the later complex Hatha and Tantra developments.

The other problem (or maybe not at problem) many of us have is that we love to debate! And I learn a lot more by hearing different points strongly argued.

Thanks for joining us here, and I hope we hear a lot more from you.

Bob Weisenberg

Linda-Sama said...

I also want to add that when students come to my classes they experience MY yoga as it has been distilled through my personality and my teachings, which is a direct link to the teachings of Krishnamacharya. One of my main teachers was his student for over 30 years. My practice is also informed by my Buddhism and vipassana practice. The only label I give my yoga is Mindful Yoga because for me, what else can it be?

So if a student does not resonate with me or my style, that's fine, they don't have to return, and I'm fine with that too. I am comfortable in my body and how I teach and what I teach.

Bob Weisenberg said...

Another interesting point, Linda. It doesn't surprise me anymore that traditional Yoga devotees like yourself are also devoted Buddhists.

Much of Buddhism has more in common with the ancient Yoga of the Yoga Sutra and Gita than it does with the later Yoga of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or Tantra Yoga.

Bob Weisenberg

Yogini B said...

Dear Linda,

It's wonderful that you are so passionate about what Yoga means to you. I imagine that if faced with the same developments as you are in America, I might feel the same! As it is, I am one of only 3 yoga teachers on my island, so I try to give people as varied an experience as I can, and encourage them to pursue whichever of yoga's elements appeals to them. Even if it's not something that appeals to me personally, I am supportive!

I enjoyed your comment "I used to be the type of teacher who thought "YOGA IS FOR EVERYONE"", and thought I'd share what my teacher says about this:

"Yoga is for many people. It is for young people. It is for old people. It is for sick people, healthy people. It is for busy people, stressed people, retired people. But Yoga is NOT for LAZY people!" :)

Dear Bob - Australia is indeed my neighbour - only about 500km to the south.

I find the murky history of Yoga fascinating. Certainly the Yoga Sutras speak of an "exposition" occuring - does that mean that before them, the knowledge was secret? Even then, before the information age, how many people could read and write or would have had access to that knowledge?

Do you really think that Yoga is innate? Perhaps to the lucky few, those ancient sages who heard the vibration in the universe. But I think most people need a teacher to help them on the way, just as Arjuna needed Krishna to lay the path before him (and even then, needed to see through divine eyes before he truly believed!). Throughout the ages people have sought the help of teachers, gurus, sages... In essence the Yoga Sutras and the Pradikipa, and the Gita too, are the teachings of sages, passed down.

Thank you both for your comments!

La Gitane :)