By J. Brown
Fierce debate springs eternal among yoga enthusiasts regarding the merits of purely fitness-based sensibilities in yoga practice. Usually, it starts with someone from the more-than-fitness side feeling compelled to say out loud that Yoga is not just working out. To which, the inevitable response is that many people are utilizing yoga practice for physical fitness alone and it’s a beautiful thing so who are you to define yoga or pass judgement on anyone else?
In defense of the not-just-working-out view, common retorts involve references to ancient texts, concepts of energy or, more generally, declarations of divinity. At which point, those who care nothing for such things easily write off the argument as a bunch of hokum and the conversation either deteriorates into silliness or ends.
In a previous post, Mind-Body Connection Optional?, I attempted to make a distinction between physical fitness and yoga, drawing upon science and reasoned thought, but was still accused of casting aspersions and playing god. Last month, in No More Dancers Doing Yoga on Youtube, I asserted that “advanced yoga” can not be measured in poses and that an emphasis on developing mere physical prowess does a disservice to yoga.
Much to my surprise, there was virtually no backlash from the fitness side. In fact, the majority of comments were from those who agreed with the sentiment and felt inspired to expound upon what makes yoga “advanced” or not. From the responses, it is clear why deference might be given to the notion that yoga is about physical fitness. Because there is wide disagreement and a lack of common language, among those who embrace yoga as more than physical fitness, as to what the non-physical aspects of Yoga are.
In broaching the subject of what makes Yoga different than just working out, I think it’s best to use basic ideas and simple language. While I personally relish the broad tapestry of principles and concepts that make up the history and heritage of yoga’s most obscure teachings, I have not found it useful to paint the subtleties of practice with an esoteric brush. I propose that they are more practical than they are generally made out to be.
A few years back, I was having dinner with a group of people at a somewhat renowned institute for holistic studies. Most of them were seasoned practitioners who, with the exception of one woman, had studied with many different teachers in different styles. They had taken my class earlier and I was fielding some questions.
The inquiries were of a most elevated sort. Participants wanted to know if this asana affects that chakra or if that yoga sutra is referring to this passage of the Bhagavad Gita, etc. I was doing my best, to very little avail, to try and bring the conversation to something less abstract when the one woman sitting at the table who had no idea what we were talking about, a nurse from Arizona who was feeling intimidated to even speak, interjected: “I have a question, but it’s not really a spiritual question, it’s more of a reality question…I’m just wondering if you have health insurance?”
How ironic it was. Without a doubt, it was the most “spiritual” question asked. She wasn’t interested in grandiose ideas about fantastical things. She wanted to know about me, about who I was, and she was thinking that all this fancy talk was fine and good but doesn’t mean anything if I get hit by a car tomorrow and don’t have health insurance, and she was absolutely right.
Performing intricate body positions with precise alignment did not make me healthy. Pondering chakras, prana, koshas, Patanjali and Brahman did not provide me a sense of harmony. Only when I stopped trying to perform physical and spiritual gymnastics did the activity shift from accomplishment to experience, and there was room to notice how I actually feel. Knowing better how I feel, and letting that determine my practice and behavior, led to an increased capacity for favorably affecting how I feel at will.
My broader point is that the non-physical aspects of yoga may be more elusive than the technicalities but they are not esoteric. Naturally, we make high art of external references to explain the seemingly unexplainable and it’s easier to simply focus on the physicality. However, the “foundational and subtle” aspects of yoga are not learned through external sources, be they books or people. Through each individual’s own personal inquiry alone do such things become understood.
While the ancient texts are valuable and interesting, too often they are presented in a way that seems to confuse and confound rather than be of any practical use. Going about the activities of one’s daily life is a spiritual practice. Engaging asana or studying ancient texts is only so good as it helps us in the effort of living. Reality is spirituality.
In this accompanying video blog, I tell the story of how a swami in Rishikesh, India taught me that knowledge of yoga was worth nothing if i don’t know how I feel:
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com
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Thank you J. Brown and Yogadork for this. It deeply resonates with me. I am learning this lesson now, as unexpected physical discomfort guides me to be minutely aware of how I feel in each moment, each position, each breath. Even though it can be difficult to let go of my previous physical practice, I’m grateful for the continuous opportunities to grow in yoga.
The simple fact is that in a class of 30 around 20 of those people are there for the physical effects alone. Of course, they may experience more than that. The true test of the teacher is to give the same quality of regard to the spiritual seeker as the guy just trying to work on his golf swing.
I suppose that makes me a pretty crappy teacher.
I like to keep things ‘down to earth’ and simple. Just observe your body, observe your mind, feel your feelings. Go from there. Don’t worry about the rest of it.
“Reality is spirituality.” Well put. Yoga is not limited in a Yoga mat it is how we take Yoga into our every day life and on how it shapes Our Reality.
The discussion is unlikely to ever get very far, because the methods and purposes of hatha yoga in this century, from Krishnamacharya onward (Krishnamacharya never taught the more esoteric aspects of his own practice to Iyengar or apparently to Desikachar or Jois), are radically different from the methods and purposes of the original hatha yoga tradition (whose texts included the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, etc.).
The original hatha yoga tradition was strongly influenced by — and a reformation of — the Buddhist tantra of the time, as well is an outgrowth of the alchemical tradition.
This original hatha yoga tradition was in turn radically different in its methods and purposes from the tradition of Vedanta as well as of Patanjali. Patanjali acknowledges the supernatural goals of the power-seeking yogis and does what he can to discount them as a mistake. The Natha Siddhas of the hatha yoga tradition sought nothing less than the quasi-divinization of the body through specific techniques related to the kundalini.
You just don’t hear that from the people seeking ‘union with Brahman,’ or in Patanjali’s account of yoga as leading to samadhi. It’s just not the same thing, folks, and our own reference to kundalini and chakras in contemporary yoga classes is equally worlds away — referring more to our own psychological and developmental goals wrapped in spiritual language than to the kind of transubstantiation of the physical body that the yogis of the Natha tradition were seeking.
And yet we assume that we are all talking about the same thing! The yoga tradition in general is rich and varied in its methods and purposes, and is not nearly as single-minded as we have talked ourselves into believing (with the help of figures like Vivekananda, who reinterpreted the history and tradition for our consumption).
A good part of the modern postural tradition following after Krishnamacharya is indeed fitness oriented and in that respect is unrelated to the earlier traditions. See ‘Yoga Body’ by Mark Singleton. So the ‘fitness’ people are really not so far off the mark with regard to modern yoga.
We are not just talking apples and oranges here; it’s a whole fruit market. This does not discredit the tradition; it just serves to point out our own overly simplistic understanding of it, as well as our own assumptions about it and desires for what we WANT it to be.
If we acknowledge THAT, then we make space for yoga to grow in relevance — and also leave room for the possibility that it may yet have something to teach us from an earlier time, as well as leaving open the possibility that some of the goals sought by people in earlier times were questionable, possibly misguided, possibly downright silly, while others were not.
In other words, we don’t have to buy the whole package, since yoga is not just one package. And also acknowledge that, just because an idea is ancient doesn’t make it wise; and by the same token, just because an idea is new doesn’t make it illegitimate or specious.
Great post, Doug. There’s been a lot of deliberate myth-making by Hindus and non-Hindus about yoga, its roots, purposes and history, mainly for fame and fortune reasons. Singleton has taken one nice axe to this myth-making, but as you indicate, other axes might fall here. Too much has gone underground to sustain the spiritual power agendas, and their permutations in the hands of modern hucksters.
BTW — What’s the best source you are aware of on the Natha Siddhas, and the connection of the original Hatha to Buddhist Tantra?
I particularly appreciated the story you told in the video clip, as you articulated a very similar experience to my own. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone straight from teaching a class, of which the entire focus was on noticing the subtle consequences of the poses and FEELING what you feel, only to show up at my counselor’s office and have her ask me how I feel–and be stumped!
Well, not stumped. Worse: I almost always had an answer, but many times I would say how I felt and my counselor would say, “That’s not true. That’s your head saying what you think you feel. Just sit and feel.”
And without fail after just a few seconds of actually sitting with how I felt, there it was. Anger, sadness, fear or a surprising joy or sweetness. And then amazement at how masterful I am at defending myself from knowing how I truly feel.
I can see it in my students all the time because I know it in myself–how we are masters at avoiding what is uncomfortable. Whether physical or emotional, we have all developed elaborate compensations that take us out of alignment with what it true.
That’s why yoga as a tool for focusing on feeling-based inquiry and growing one’s capacity to be with all different experiences regardless of comfort is so important. It’s also why it’s not very popular–it’s not always sexy or enjoyable to be in this type of inquiry.
I do agree with you, though, in that though it may be seen as esoteric and spiritual (and it is), the importance of this type of sensitivity is in it’s profound practicality. For as you said, unless you know how you feel, you can’t possibly know how to make decisions. And if you’re not making conscious decisions, you aren’t really living your life.
Thanks for being out there as an intrepid person who is willing to keep feeling!
There is a saying in 12-step programs: “Bring the old body around (i.e., to meetings), the mind will catch up later.” This describes my experience with yoga. I started taking classes because I thought it would be a good way to relax, reduce stress, and increase flexibility. As time went on, the asanas did their work, affecting and changing me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I have no scientific explanation for it, but it happens. Thirteen years, 500 hours of teacher training, and 2-1/2 years of teaching later, my asana practice continues to do its internal work. Keep doing yoga, keep your mind and heart open to all possibilities, and it will happen to you too.
J. Brown – Thanks for the post, Brother. Actually, I was even more impressed by your video. You are a very fine story-teller I think.
And that story is definitely worth telling. Cheers, SL