Is Yoga For You?

In recent years, yoga has taken the western world by storm and what was an eastern spiritual practice shrouded in mystery for us westerners has become positively mainstream. Or has it?  The vast majority of yoga classes out there today focus largely if not exclusively on the practice of physical asanas or postures.  Admittedly, reference is often made to the ‘other’ aspects of yoga, the spiritual, inward and non-physical practices, but for many the spiritual side is secondary, with our primary focus on physical fitness, strength and flexibility.  We see the other benefits like stress reduction and a general sense of well being almost as a bonus… that is, until for some reason we stop doing it.  It is at this point and for this reason I think yoga has been so tremendously successful here.  Our lives are so dominated in today’s society by stress and agendas that are not our own, that even a small glimpse of that restful oasis that is our regular yoga practice serves to remind us that there is truly more to us and more to life than the eternal hamster wheel of ‘to do’ lists that most of us live by.  Yoga has this uncanny knack of drawing us in and with or without our express intention to open to the spiritual element inherent in yoga, in time, it takes us there anyway.

Now at this point I should offer a proviso – the ‘time’ factor is somewhat critical.  For me personally, it was years before I had any inclination to pursue the spiritual aspect as I already had a spiritual practice, quite unrelated, that was and continues to be a big part of my life.  I was more than content to compartmentalize my physical practice and obsess over alignment and physical health for years on end and the beauty of yoga is that this is a perfectly acceptable approach.

Back to my question – has yoga become mainstream? Well, yes and no, technically, asana or the physical practice is only one of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga and doesn’t even register in some practices:  Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion; Jnana Yoga, the path of knowledge; Raja Yoga, ‘Royal Yoga’ concerned with cultivating the mind in meditation, to name but a few.  More ‘types’ of yoga are appearing every day as charismatic individuals formulate different styles from ancient practices and package them for mass consumption. There truly is no right way and in so many senses yoga can be what we want it to be.  In the west we have chosen in the vast majority of cases the physical practice as our point of focus, which though only one of the traditional, many limbed path, is nonetheless an entirely valid one, capable of the ‘union’ that yoga is all about.

The question in the end has to come down to: Is whatever I am doing bringing me together in some way?  Uniting my inner and outer worlds?  Making me whole, a more complete individual?  Connecting me with the world, with my fellow man or my environment?  Or maybe, just putting my body back into balance.  In this sense there are countless activities that can be seen as yoga and most of them are not remotely mystical – a walk in nature, an afternoon lying in the sun, helping friends or loved ones. Yoga is about union, sometimes translated as ‘drawing the strands of the mind together’ and how we do that is sort of immaterial.  Asana is unquestionably a potent tool, but it is not the only way and it certainly doesn’t require a wholesale buy in to the yoga craze or to spirituality.

I strongly believe each of us knows what we need best to keep ourselves whole, even if at times we are out of touch with that wisdom, if nothing else, yoga can put us back in touch with the person that knows best – ourselves.  We have a long way to go in the west to honoring the balance in our individual lives, and indeed the balance in our society, but the popularity of yoga classes may well be a formative step in taking us there, one yoga class at a time!

© Vanessa Francis 2010

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