Just a few decades ago, Yoga was practically nonexistent in Western mainstream society, and yet, in what seems like an instant, Yoga-in one form or another-has taken the nation by storm. Today, Yoga studios today are popping up on every street corner, in every city, suburb, and small town across the country. But, does this sweeping Yoga fad really help us to understand how this ancient practice can transform our lives and our planet?
With Yoga studios, Yoga teachers, and even Yoga pants inserting their way into modern American culture, one might believe we-as a country-have ascended to heightened levels of spiritual awareness, that we’ve found inner peace, even discovered our true self. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Though some Yoga teachers instruct their students to embrace Yoga as a way to know themselves deeply and have empathy for all Earthly beings, to most of us, Yoga remains a term we just don’t fully understand.
But, “How?,” you ask, “I go to my Yoga class every week!” And, ay, there’s the rub! Yoga isn’t an exercise class-its practice is an all-encompassing way of life.
According to the 2016 Yoga in America Study conducted by the Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, the number of Yoga practitioners has increased to over 36 million people. In fact, 28% of all Americans have participated in a Yoga class at some point or another, and, as a whole, Yoga practitioners spent over $16 billion on Yoga clothing, equipment, classes, and accessories in 2016 alone. Though you’d think the trendiness of practicing Yoga would improve society’s understanding of the word itself, it has, in fact, done just the opposite.
When do you think of the word “Yoga” what comes to mind? Likely, it’s a large, mirrored studio filled with brightly colored mats, an instructor, and people twisted into an array of interesting postures. (Depending on where you are in your practice, this might come as a huge surprise. Or not. We’re each on our own journey, so there’s no shame in being wherever you are right now.)
While postures have their place in Yoga practice, practicing postures isn’t the whole shebang.
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To understand Yoga as a holistic concept, let’s first break it down into segments-starting with the term quite often confused with the practice of Yoga itself: asanas.
What are asanas? They’re the twisting, stretching, bending postures taking place in Yoga studios across the country. In the vast majority of Yoga classes, you are simply practicing your asanas-not practicing Yoga. Asanas are the physical movements of the body, and the word Yoga is not, by any means, an interchangeable substitute. (Note: Don’t worry-it’s awesome if you’re practicing your asanas…we just think it’s important that you realize that you’re not practicing Yoga in it’s fullest expression.)
You’ve likely heard of the Yoga Sutra-it’s one of the most famous Yogic texts…in fact, it’s widely regarded as the authoritative text on Yoga. Yet, in all 196 sutras, the author only mentions the word asana three times! Lu DiGrazia, C-IAYT, Founder of The Hawaii Yoga Prison Project and Education Director of the Yoga School of Kailua describes the importance of the asana practice while reaffirming that asana practice is only one piece of the puzzle:
“In America today, asana practice is the predominant practice of Yoga classes-therefore, these classes should be appropriately labeled “asana class” and not “Yoga.” The word “Yoga” is misused and overused in commercial businesses, not for the spiritual practice which it is. Adjectives [like Hatha, Ashtanga, or Bikram] used in front of the word Yoga, divide and confuse practitioners…and yet Yoga means “to join.”
If asana practice alone isn’t Yoga, then what is Yoga? In Part 2, we’ll shed some light on the depths of Yoga practice and explain how you can embrace its philosophy, to bring wellness and balance to your life both inside and outside of the classroom.