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The Heart of Yoga

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..and its commercialization
 

These days yoga is big business, east and west. Yoga centres, varieties, accessories, certifications, and teachers have sprung up like mushrooms in the last ten years. A Yoga Journal article reported that it was the biggest growth industry in the US. Everyone and their dog wants to do yoga. It's trendy. It's in. And then a couple of months later they want to be a yoga teacher. What to make of all this?

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When I first started, yoga was seen as something "esoteric". The idea that people had of a yogi was someone with scruffy matted hair and long beard sitting unmoving for days in full lotus in some rocky Himalayan cave. Nobody had any "equipment" back then in the form of what's now a standard sticky mat. You did your Downward Dog on a straw mat at best, to find your hands slipping one way and your feet the other, your lower back unavoidably rounding.

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Fast forward to 2006. The yogi archetype: a glowing, well-contoured young woman in latest spandex fashions, perfectly poised in some improbable gymnastic pose, make-up still intact, in some glitzy downtown studio.

 

The commercialization of yoga is part of the general trend, since the 90s, towards the commodification of spirituality as a whole. Where before, students would embark on a personal quest to look for ashrams in India and study with their teacher often on a donation basis, nowadays students go no farther than the studio in the next block, and spend thousands of dollars on "yoga vacations" in the Bahamas. And you can literally go from zero to "Certified Reiki Master" in one week - if you have the cash for it. Yogis have become rock stars, and vice versa.

 

The popularity and accessibility of yoga is a double-edged sword. While it certainly reaches a much broader base and is no longer something esoteric, it has already been removed from its traditional spiritual context, co-opted into secular consumer culture, and reduced to a system of physical exercises.

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Yoga is far more, and far deeper, than that. In what is still regarded the source text on yoga, Patanjali, right at the start of his Yoga Sutras, says: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” (read “stillness”). This is the heart of yoga. It is a complete system of inner and outer transformation. It encompasses ethics as well as meditation. To practice it merely for its “beauty and wellness” benefits, to get a nice tight butt, is to have completely and tragically missed the point. To aspire to ever more acrobatic abilities, as though that’s the final goal of practice, is superficial yoga, hollywood yoga.

We live in an age where style often matters more than substance. I have no interest in becoming a rock star yogi or to start a multi-national yoga business empire. What I love is sharing the spirit of yoga and staying true to that spirit.

There is, undoubtedly, a strong physical basis to hatha yoga. It is a celebration of body and breath. It awakens untapped energies. In the early stages especially, it is important to build strength and flexibility in muscles and joints, to open and lighten the body. But every asana expresses something much deeper than just the musculature that holds it together. This is the journey of discovery that is yoga.