I don't know about you but I am rather intimidated by all the yogis on Instagram posting endless photographs of their incredible strength and agility, their beautifully toned, scantily clad bodies, often in stunning locations. I, like many of you I expect, began my yoga journey later in life when I already had some ingrained habits that have proved particularly stubborn in shifting. Unless I do nothing but practice asana for hours and hours every day, my body is very unlikely to be able to pull off such feats of strength and agility as I see on a daily basis and I am often left feeling rather inadequate after viewing these pictures. But I have to remind myself that yoga was not created so that we could develop perfectly sculpted abs; the purpose of yoga is traditionally to be able to sit comfortably in meditation, in the union of mind and body.
So has yoga lost its way? This was a question posed to a number of yogis from around the world in a documentary I watched recently on YouTube.
It is true that many classes in the west are asana focused. You only have to look at all the different styles of yoga that have been created to see the change from the meditation focused traditional yoga. There certainly seems to be a culture in the media of showing the yogic body as beautiful, young, strong and svelte. No wonder many people think they are not flexible or strong enough to do yoga.
The response to the question of whether yoga has lost its way was wonderfully explained by an Australian teacher. He suggested that there are two types of body; traditional and modern. The traditional body is inhabited by the type of person who grew up squatting, sitting on the floor and carrying goods on their head, giving them great posture and flexibility. The modern body or you could say, western body is very different. We in the west are encouraged to sit on a chair from an early age, do very little exercise, sit at a desk all day and lead stressful lives. Our culture creates a whole different form to our bodies that certainly do not function in the same way as the traditional body.
As a yoga teacher, I cannot help myself but look at posture and shape wherever I go. I recently sat in a University hall with around 50 other people. Not one other person in the room sat upright. Everyone had 'round' shoulders, there was many a pelvis tucked under and I even saw people rubbing their necks in discomfort. We have become chair shaped! Our knees rarely pass 90 degrees, our glutes become over-stretched and weak from sitting whilst our hip flexors tighten and shorten. Our stomach muscles become non-existent. We are encouraged to work harder or as Theresa may put in, to 'spend more time doing than being'. It is no surprise that mental health issues are at an all time high presently.
So, as the Australian yoga teacher interviewed in the documentary explained, unless you have been fortunate enough to begin yoga from a young age and develop the strength and flexibility to cultivate an Instagram yoga body, you are far more likely to come to a yoga class because you are stiff, have poor posture or an injury, you are stressed or suffering from anxiety or depression. And if like me you began your yoga journey later in life, you are very likely to have formed a body out of years of habitual patterning that will take time and patience to change. You may also come with a condition such as rheumatism or arthritis. And all of this is okay because yoga is here to unite our bodies with our minds.
Western yoga has to be somewhat different to traditional yoga because we could not spend hours sitting in meditation, but the focus can still be the same. Through asana practice we can find more comfort, ease, strength and space in the body, so that we might function better. But we need to focus on the breath as we practice so that we develop greater self awareness and connection to our inner selves. The yogis believe in an energy called prana that through our breath, we can direct throughout the body. 'Where attention goes, prana flows.' We can also address our mental well-being using specific pranayama practices and mindfulness techniques. Practices that teach us to be comfortable with who we are; be comfortable in our own skin and to manage the daily grind with compassion and self care.
I invite you to watch this video on The Science Behind Yoga. The video gives a wonderful modern, scientific overview of the benefits of yoga and includes dialogue from a number of renowned teachers, scientists and researchers including Sat Bir Khalsa Phd who lectured on my training with The Minded Institute. And after watching, take a minute to think about what yoga means to you. Why do you come to yoga? What do you want to get out of your practice? Try out different classes and styles so that you find the practice and teacher that brings you all that you hope for. In our busy lives we may not have the will power to practice at home, so attend as many classes in a week as meets your requirements, so that you discover the real you, so that you find comfort in your own skin, so that you function better, so that you are at ease in body and mind. United!