What is Yoga?

Yoga is one of those words that conjures up all sorts of definitions without any particular relationship between these definitions. Is it a form of religion, an exercise regime, therapeutic treatment, some woo woo Eastern thing or what? Then we have the newest definitions that the West has colonised yoga appropriating (and abusing) it from its origins in India.

I think this is a tribute to yoga in that it is so complex that it can be defined in so many ways. Yes there are aspects of yoga whose purpose is to connect with the divine. I was talking to someone who develops activities for a retirement home. Although she thought that yoga classes (appropriate to the age group) would be wonderful for the residents to improve balance, loosen stiff joints, etc., she was uneasy about calling it yoga. She felt that this term would make the conservative residents uncomfortable as their knowledge of yoga given their age is likely to be defined as a religion based on Eastern beliefs and would make the yoga classes unattractive to the residents. But because of the complexity of yoga, she recognised that there are aspects of yoga that make it very beneficial to her clientele.

Is it an exercise regime?  Anyone looking at yoga magazines or advertisements would certainly recognise that the purpose of extreme poses done in beautiful but dangerous places is saying that yoga can make you strongand fit (and apparently invincible – yoga as kryptonite!). And I believe that yoga teachers know asanas can improve students’ fitness levels, but they would also say that asanas are only a part of the yoga picture. But a person sitting breathing and/or meditating is not an exciting picture and gives a very unbalanced view to those unfamiliar with yoga.

So giving an overall, unbalanced view of yoga through advertising does result in many thinking that yoga is another form of exercise. However, many people start yoga for the physical benefits and then learn to appreciate the other aspects such as pranayama and meditation. So it can be useful to introduce people to yoga through asanas as these are the easiest to understand. I believe we do yoga a disservice to only advertise its physical benefits but if more people try yoga because of it then there are advantages. However the extreme poses done in extreme places does send a message that it is only the young, flexible and fit that can do yoga which is detrimental.

Yoga as a therapeutic regime is also more and more popular. Yoga Therapy is a profession with standardised levels of knowledge and proven experience. Practitioners use different aspects of yoga to assist people with chronic conditions or in ill health. Therapeutic yoga where aspects of yoga are used to help people with everyday conditions or diseases for which the western medical model has few answers is also valid.  Yoga’s therapeutic value is well known as more and more reliable research studies have shown the benefits of yoga practice for a variety of medical conditions.

Eastern woo-woo?? Well you have to make up your own mind about that. As a long time yoga teacher, I find some of the components of yoga to be most useful as metaphors, not as actual entities. But many other teachers believe that these components are actual parts of our beings and as such should be included in a yoga practice. So again the intricacy of yoga allows the practitioner to fashion a practice that is meaningful to them.

I have some sympathy for the colonisation argument. I participated in an around the world pushbike trip some years ago. One of the things that I found most irritating was the wholesale appropriation of another culture (usually from the United States) and the downgrading of the local culture. This is nothing new; I was in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia and I wanted to see the religious triptychs which is one of the few native painting styles of Russia. The only things on display were items from Europe from the 17th and 18th centuries.  This was considered the ultimate expression of culture of the time and the museums brought these items to Russia to demonstrate to Russians what they should like. The problem with this is that so much that is unique to a culture is lost.

On the same trip, I was in China and they had a mass wedding in a large hotel where we were staying. All of the brides had on the traditional Western white wedding dress which were definitely inferior to some of the lovely silk dresses that were available. (But the brides all had on red high tops because red is good luck and they were on their feet for the entire day.) So any time a culture produces something worthwhile or people are told it’s worthwhile, it’s going to be borrowed by other cultures. Those other cultures are going to change it to make it fit more easily in their culture. Yoga is just one of the latest; it doesn’t negate the original intent of Indian yogis and it doesn’t destroy the usefulness of yoga in a Western setting.

What is yoga? – It’s beneficial!