What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of yoga?
Do you picture fit people performing asanas, or physical postures, like handstands or arm balances? Ever since yoga has become popular in the West, this is the way yoga has been portrayed in the media. Search for #yoga on Instagram and you’ll scroll through thousands of posts of young & fit white women performing impressive poses that are inaccessible and unrealistic for many.
I practiced yoga in the United States for several years before I could conceptualize how far off this portrayal is from truly representing yoga, or how narrow and exclusive this image of yoga is.
Strolling into my first yoga class at my local gym, 14 years old with my brand new pink mat in hand, I just wanted a good stretch. Sometimes, I kept my phone next to my mat during class so that I wouldn’t miss a text from my friends or crush. I didn’t consider that there could be any mindful or spiritual component to the practice.
Even when teachers would cue to listen to the body and “do less,” my goal-oriented mind would whisper that I MUST achieve the most advanced physical expression of every asana. At that time, my idea of success was external. I didn’t understand the concept of the ego or realize that yoga actually occurs both within the self and beyond the mat.
Like many Western yogis, I thought it was all about the asana.
Which one is “real” yoga?
Imagine my surprise to learn a few years into my practice that asana is just one out of 8 limbs of a yogic path called Raja Yoga. And Raja Yoga is just one of four major “paths” of yoga one can follow. I discovered that asana was only a tiny piece of a complex and interconnected puzzle, and yet it was the only piece I’d been practicing.
Mind = blown.
Once I learned that it can be practiced without asana, my concept of yoga was completely shaken. I decided to take it upon myself to scour gyms and studios far and wide to uncover: What is yoga, if not asana?
Over several more years, I practiced every style of yoga I could find to see if someone, somewhere would enlighten me to the true meaning of yoga. I sweated in Hot Power Yoga classes, practicing handstands to pop music in a swanky studio alongside LuLuLemon-wearing clientele. I quickly realized I wouldn’t find the yoga secrets I was looking for there, but the flows were fun and it sure felt hip.
I learned about chakras in Hatha classes, and synced my breath to my movements in Vinyasa classes. I fell asleep in Yoga Nidra, which literally translates to “sleep yoga.” I chanted and performed intense breathwork in Kundalini classes led by turban-wearing, white linen-clad figures. Sometimes, I reached deep states of relaxation during gong baths and particularly powerful savasanas.
Each of these practices called themselves yoga, yet all were wildly different from each other. How was I supposed to decipher which one was true yoga? Which practice would help me uncover the secrets of the ancient yogis?
A full decade after my very first yoga class, still searching for answers, I followed yoga to the place it began: India.
Taking yoga off the mat
I traveled to India to piece together the final components of yoga I felt had been missing from my practice in the West: Yoga’s history and traditional philosophy. And my 200-hour intensive yoga teacher training at PadmaKarma in Kerala delivered.
In India, I studied ancient texts including The Yoga Sutras, Tatwa Bodha, and The Bhagavad Gita. I learned that yoga is a philosophy of personal development that originated thousands of years ago, with four different yet interconnected paths a yogi could follow. I was surprised to learn that any asana beyond seated meditation was only developed in the last couple hundred years.
(Side note: The development of asana is fascinating. I recently discovered the connection between asana and colonialism. Read about it here.)
I learned that yoga is more than just something you do a few times per week—it’s a lifestyle. Yoga is as much what you do off the mat as it is what you do on the mat.
In my training, we were encouraged to follow 5 principles for incorporating yoga into everyday life: Proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet, and self-knowledge/meditation.
We quite literally lived and breathed these principles for one month. We spent 4 hours per day practicing pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, and asana. Another 4 hours was devoted to philosophy and teaching methodology. I gave up sugar, coffee, and alcohol and ate 3 simple ayurvedic meals per day to follow the yogic diet. We chanted to cultivate humility for that which is greater than us, plus the gurus that created and evolved this practice.
After only a few weeks, I found that my body, mind, and Higher Self (definition here) felt more interconnected and balanced than I could ever have imagined. Thanks to intentional relaxation and meditation, I learned to separate myself from my emotions. I could locate where in my physical body each emotion originated and observe both positive and negative emotions with a more neutral, rational mind. I felt intensely present and engaged in every moment throughout the day.
Without beer, I felt clear-headed and alert. Without coffee, I could connect with my body’s true needs, rather than use caffeine as a crutch to push through a long day. I felt reluctant to pick these or any substances back up after the training because I felt so clear, content, and connected. I knew that adding in any substance was sure to detract from the benefits I was receiving from my yoga practice.
The mental and spiritual benefits were so powerful that my rapidly advancing asana practice and newfound physical strength felt like a nice bonus, despite the fact that this was the most fit I’d ever been.
After 10 years of practicing yoga, this was the first time in my life that I learned how to take yoga off the mat in a significant way.
Integrating Eastern and Western approaches
I left India feeling confident in what yoga means to me, yet also with the understanding that this was only the beginning of my yogic journey.
As my understanding of yoga evolved, I had to reconcile the differences between the yoga I knew from home and the yoga I’d experienced in India. As a new teacher, I pondered: How could I honor and highlight the history and philosophy of yoga while keeping the practice accessible and palatable for Western practitioners who don’t know or care about chakras, the Higher Self, or The Bhagavad Gita?
What I’ve come to realize is that traditional Eastern and modern Western approaches to yoga are not mutually exclusive and often yield similar conclusions.
For example, the benefits of meditation have been known to the East for thousands of years, but have only recently become accepted by the mainstream West now that study after study has validated what the Eastern ancients intuited. There are several (excellent) books by Western neuroscientists exploring the science of what happens in the brain when we are mindful, and even what happens when a yogi reaches the state of mind called Samadhi, or pure bliss, transcendence and ultimate oneness.
Even the most staunchly science-oriented and atheistic among us can find spiritual value in the traditional practice of yoga. Instead of connecting with God or the Higher Self, the not-so-spiritual could cultivate humility for the greater laws of nature, or for all that humans will never know or understand about the universe.
Now that I have seen and experienced value in these two vastly different approaches to yoga, I know that no one way is inherently right or wrong, and that a well-rounded view might contain aspects of both. Finally, I understand another one of yoga’s secrets: Yoga is universal, transcending time and geography.
What yoga is to me
Just as there is no one correct way of thinking, there is no one correct way to practice yoga. Yoga originated 5,000 years ago. Early meditation practices were created by and for male monks. Why should yoga look exactly the same now as it did then?
To stay relevant, it’s important for yoga to mindfully adapt with the changing times and practitioners, so long as these changes honor its roots. In my opinion, a practice is yoga as long as it acknowledges yoga’s history, encourages mindfulness and humility, incorporates yoga ethics, and is inclusive (notably, that an athletic white body is not a prerequisite). As a white yoga teacher, I recognize that there are inherent power dynamics at play when I teach (I’ll write an article about this later). My goal is to teach in a way that incorporates all of these ideas, without “othering” those that view the practice differently than me.
Many people, like I did, first come to yoga for the physical benefits. Many stop there, and that’s OK. However, stick with it long enough with an open mind, and eventually all of those deep savasanas and nuggets of wisdom from experienced teachers may unearth glimpses of something more.
Now that my understanding of yoga has widened, I aim to represent yoga the way that I wish the media represented it: An evolving form of self-development rooted in traditional Vedic philosophy that can be practiced by anybody, with any body.
Moving forward, I hope that when we scroll past those beautiful, fashion-forward, and athletic social media yogis, we can remember that the inner experience of yoga is so deeply riveting that it’s impossible to Instagram. I hope that, when we think of yoga, we remember that people have been practicing through the ages to live an ethical life, connect with their Higher Self, and attain the blissful state of Samadhi… without ever trying a scorpion handstand.