A Language of Love – The Essence of Yoga
““With an understanding of the philosophical roots of yoga from Patanjali and the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, reflect upon the cultural appropriation of modern yoga, based on your previous experience and your time observing or assisting in classes as part of this course. Discuss how you feel you can best represent the essence of yoga through your own teaching that feels congruent with your understanding so far.””
Written by Jemima Rose Brash, Graduate of Yogasara Teacher Training 2018/19
Part 1 – An Introduction
Modern yoga. A popular fitness trend in the Western World. Dominated by the images of slim, white women in co-ord leggings and crop tops. Endorsed by celebrities such as Gweneth Paltrow, who is said to have the perfect ‘yoga body’. Publicised by magazines, who’s front covers parade women in lycra. A Bikram yoga session to sweat off last night’s bender. Face yoga. Or even a spot of goat yoga?
According to a 2016 Yoga Journal report, 36.7 million people practice yoga in the US, up from 20.4 million in 2012. The yoga market is now worth $16bn (£12bn) in the US and $80bn (£74bn) globally. (Delaney, 2019).
“Yoga” was one of Google’s most searched-for words in 2016. Yoga leggings by Lulu Lemmon at £80 a pair, have been described as a “cult obsession among a certain set of gym- minded women and busy mums across the country”. (Delaney, 2019).
There are over 12.5 million posts on Instagram tagged with ‘yogi’. (Delaney, 2019). . And if you start to scroll, the large majority of these images are of slender, white women in contorted yoga poses.
“The irony is that a practice originally intended as a vehicle for transcending the ego has become a seemingly vanity-driven pursuit.” (Delaney, 2019).
How was yoga intended?
Yoga flows much deeper than a pose. It has an immense, rich history, and although its exact origin may not be precise, it is understood from ancient scriptures that yoga was a deeply spiritual practice.
Just as it is interesting to know your own heritage, in order to give you a deeper understanding of your own unique place on this Earth, it is also interesting to know the heritage of yoga, in order to gain a deeper understanding of yoga’s place, and consequently, your place in yoga.
Yoga can be divided into four main eras, although a great deal of uncertainty surrounds its origins, history and practice, not least because of its highly secretive nature.
It is thought that the first yoga poses were documented on stone tablets between the period of 3000 BCE and1800 BCE, by the Indus Valley Civilisation. (Preceden.com, 2019)
The earliest scriptures written were the Vedas (1200 BCE), the oldest religious texts of the Hindus. The Vedas were a collection of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests. The Brahmans documented their practices and beliefs in a huge text called the Upanishads, containing over 200 scriptures. (Mathews, 2019)
“The most renowned of the Yogic scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, composed around 500 B.C.E. The Upanishads took the idea of ritual sacrifice from the Vedas and internalized it, teaching the sacrifice of the ego through self-knowledge, action (karma yoga) and wisdom (jnana yoga).” (Mathews, 2019)
In contrast to the ‘pre-classical’ period of yoga, which was a jumble of offerings and beliefs, the classical period of yoga was defined by Patanjali (200 AD) (Mathews, 2019), a sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras, which has become widely recognised as one of the authoritative texts on yoga.
Patanjali devised an eight limbed approach to yoga.
- Yama: Universal morality
- Niyama: Personal observances
- Asanas: Body postures
- Pranayama: Breathing exercises, and control of prana
- Pratyahara: Control of the senses
- Dharana: Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
- Dhyana: Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
- Samadhi: Union with the Divine
“The central human wisdom, Patanjali teaches us, is that pure awareness resides, impervious, at the core of each and every kind of sensation, thought, and feeling whether we see it (vita) or not (avid). And the route to knowing this wisdom fully is yoga.” (Patañjali. and Hartranft, 2003)
Post Classical Yoga
Another part of yoga that is hotly debated is a practice called Tantra, which was said to have developed into common practice around the fourth century, after the rise of Patanjali’s classical yoga.
“Tantra believes that there is literally no particle of reality that isn’t capable of revealing ecstasy and that everything that exists is full of light and awareness,” (Yoga Journal, 2019)
There are now hundreds of branches, schools, and lineages of tantra. This exploration of these physical-spiritual connections and body centered practices led to the creation of what we primarily think of yoga in the West: Hatha Yoga.
Yoga gurus from India later introduced yoga to the West, following the success of Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the 1980s, yoga became popular as a system of physical exercise across the Western world. (En.wikipedia.org, 2019)
Philip Goldberg, a spiritual teacher and author of American Veda, tells The Huffington Post.
“Ever since the ideas of yoga came here in book form and then the gurus started to arrive, it’s all been a question of how do you adapt these ancient teachings and practices, modernize them and bring them to a new culture, without distorting or corrupting them, or diluting their effect? That’s really the key issue here.” (Yoga Journal, 2019)
Part 2 – Cultural appropriation
From my experience and research, what is clear, is that the majority of yoga classes are based largely on ‘asana’, with many classes marketed and sold as a solely physical practice.
The yoga industry is now facing questions over the cultural appropriation of yoga and how this transcends to yoga teaching in the western world.
The definition of cultural appropriation is: “A process that takes a traditional practice from a marginalized group and turns it into something that benefits the dominant group – ultimately erasing its origins and meaning”. (Johnson and ahuja, 2019)
While Indian spiritual leaders like BKS Iyengar, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Vishnudevananda brought Yoga to the West, they probably didn’t imagine that it would turn into a practice that would become bought and sold, or that it would turn into a sexualised practice used to market “yoga leggings” or flaunt the shape of a body.
“The problem is incredibly complex and involves two extremes: The first is the sterilization of yoga by removing evidence of its Eastern roots so that it doesn’t “offend” Westerner practitioners. The opposite extreme is the glamorization of yoga and India through commercialism, such as Om tattoos, T-shirts sporting Hindu deities or Sanskrit scriptures that are often conflated with yoga, or the choosing of Indian names. Yoga teachers and students are starting to ask the questions, ‘What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?’ and ‘How can I still practice yoga without being offensive?’” (Yoga Journal, 2019)
As teachers, we have the opportunity to share the beautiful message and richness of yoga. But there is a demand for yoga classes to provide a workout – such as a fast Vinyasa Flow to pumping music, with no space or time to notice the breath – it’s cardio on a mat rather than the spiritual practice of yoga.
Chanting, or a yoga practice in silence may seem daunting and uncomfortable. But perhaps that’s where space for self awareness and transformation lies.
I have been to countless different yoga classes over the years, and arguably, many, if not all of these yoga classes were culturally appropriated. Does the fact that there are numerous different yoga styles mean that it devalues what’s being offered?
There is a saturation of yoga in the western world, not only in studios but also on social media sites such as YouTube, who host millions of yoga classes -“Yoga With Adriene” now has over four million subscribers on its YouTube platform. (The Irish Times, 2019)
What makes her fans so devoted? “Adriene was the first teacher who really got me to understand that yoga was about more than just physical flexibility or that kind of ego-driven thing that goes with modern yoga.” (The Irish Times, 2019)
I wonder what Patanjali, Swami Vivekananda or BKS Iyengar might have to say about YouTube hosting yoga classes?
It really depends on the setting and intention of teaching yoga — it may have been significantly altered in some cases, but if yoga is taught from a place of love, kindness and truth – then perhaps it matters not how many many Sanskrit postures you know, how many pairs of fashion leggings you own, or if you host your classes on YouTube, but instead what matters, is that you feel, know and love what you teach. That you have stepped onto your mat each day, and felt, listened, and known what your heart says, teaching from a place of kindness, respect and love.
Perhaps it is a good thing that there are so many different yoga styles, because every single experience is unique – my experience and my practice might not resonate for everyone, but it could resonate for at least one.
“The distinctions of race and creed mean nothing because yoga is about the oneness of all of humankind. Yoga is a gift to humanity. It is a gift we use so to create peace inside of our own minds and bodies, so that when it comes to interacting with others, we will be able to make peace there as well. I have no doubt that the more people practice and internalize the teachings of yoga, the less conflict we might experience as a planet. There is also potential for Indians and Hindus around the world to feel honored that the practices of their ancestors are so renowned, and so helpful to people around the world.” (Medium, 2019).
What is my place in yoga?
I am a slim, white yoga teacher in the Western World. I like wearing leggings. I eat kale.
I am what the modern yoga market demands. Except, I am much more than that.
My path to yoga may have been initiated because I liked wearing lycra and showing off my flexibility. But I have since unearthed a secret. And that secret is to feel. To feel deep down into the depths of my heart. To let it shine. To let it sing. To get intimate with the heartstrings that may hold me back, to feel the stones that may weigh me down. To surround myself with such feeling, that beauty comes forth in the form of truth. Of longing. Of love.
I feel passionate about creating a space where people of all shapes, social class, age, gender, are welcome. I want to ensure I invest time in understanding and honouring the roots of yoga – I feel I have only just touched the surface of its history and ancient stories, and even that small bit has has been transformative.
That said, what is equally important to me, is that what I teach is genuine. I want to offer something from deep down – I feel much of that will be my own interpretations of my discoveries, such as inventive ways to teach Patanjali’s eight limbs, or the tantric sutras, in an accessible and inclusive way, in a manner that feels true to me.
I want to deeply understand what it is I have learnt before I can teach it. I have been holding onto one sutra for a few months, so that it is etched into my skin. So that when my mouth opens to sing, my heart is also singing.
Will the yoga I teach fall into the category of Cultural Appropriation? I guess so! I prefer to think of it as ‘cultural inspiration’. Or ‘cultural appreciation’.
I can’t help but compare it to music – another passion of mine. I wrote and performed my own songs for several years. I was certainly inspired by artists – artists such as Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith – who I listened to frequently.
And those artists were inspired by artists before them. And many more artists from many cultures and backgrounds and circumstances before them. Taking the beauty and depth of music and words, and giving them new life and meaning, generation after generation, is worth something, and means something to someone.
Isn’t that what we are doing with yoga? Being inspired? Adapting? Evolving? We may be borrowing from the past, using stories and scriptures from other cultures, but many of us are using them to help ourselves and one another, from a place of kindness and love.
We could consider modern day yoga to be the latest new leaf growing on the ancient yoga tree, with all of its tangled, embedded roots, intertwining to form more strength, more love, more unity.
Who gets to say who owns what? And from whom do we seek permission?
“The idea of inherent and inalienable ownership of clothing styles, foods or activities makes no sense when we consider that, not only are cultural identities constantly shifting and evolving, but also no individual can be the ultimate authority on all things relating to a shared culture. It should be ok to have ketchup with your fried Chinese dumplings, or put ‘Western’ ingredients in sushi or mix clothes from different traditions on your person or use Chinese watercolour techniques in non-traditional ways, or practice yoga purely for fitness and relaxation — and talk about all of that openly — whatever your background. Creativity and experimentation and appreciation of different things is where new cultures and traditions come from, and also represents and creates space for hybrid populations to exist and thrive; it’d be tragic to lose that.” (Medium, 2019)
Live, know, share and practice yoga, not just asana.
In addition to asana we can study the depth of practice beyond the postures. I have started to immerse myself in Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga – in the beginning I found it daunting to read, but now I find much interest and inspiration from his offerings.
My time observing and assisting at YogaSara has equally given me great insight into the deeper teachings of yoga, such as how you can weave beautiful messages into your teachings, including the Yamas and Niyamas, without preaching or alienating.
Honour your individuality. This is what will make students want to come back.
Be playful. This word came up a lot in my time observing and assisting. Allowing creativity to unfold and to keep a sense of humour.
Be passionate. Let your love shine through, and invite the love you feel for other areas of your life to inspire your teaching.
Be welcoming. Your students want to see another person that’s like them. They don’t want to feel intimidated. Welcome everyone, greet, smile, share.
Be gradual. Give yourself time and space to feel and find what works for you, before you bestow it upon your students.
And keep learning. I know the importance of attending yoga classes that you love. Not only for personal benefits, but also for continuing teaching inspiration.
Part 3 – The Essence of Yoga
For me, yoga is not restricted to my mat. It is invited everywhere with me. It has become my shadow. There to ask questions. There to help me respond rather than react. There to offer growth and realisation. There when walking in the hills, when caring for my children, being a partner, a daughter, a sister, helping an elderly woman in the street, singing and playing my guitar, photographing landscapes…
It can be present in everything, everywhere. It is kindness. It is love. And it is beauty.
And beauty is there to be discovered in every nook and cranny, under every stone. In the rain, in the sun, in the guidance of the moon.
“A beautiful thing, though simple in its immediate presence, always gives us a sense of depth below depth, almost an innocent wild vertigo as one falls through its levels.” (O’Donohue, 2005)
“Beauty envelops the heart and mind. In beauty’s presence there is no longer any separations between thought and senses, between heart and soul.” (O’Donohue, 2005)
My gift is my ability to deeply feel. And this will be my gift to my students.
It is that time I am still. I am breathing. I am listening. I am observing. I am feeling. It is not the shape of an asana that is right, but the feeling of an asana – what feels the best for you right now?
And that will form part of my role as a yoga teacher – to help people to feel. It is my intention to refocus the importance of flexibility in yoga with awareness instead of how the pose physically feels in our bodies.
Is it helping me to focus? Is it helping me to relax my shoulders, my neck, my tension? Is it hurting? Is it putting too much pressure on a vulnerable area? How can I adapt the pose to make it work better for me?
I’d like yoga to help us be more comfortable in our bodies and our skin. Instead of all these stereotypically perfect ‘yoga’ bodies, I’d like to nurture people of different shapes and abilities doing poses in the best way for them, using whatever adaptations that they need.
In class, rather than saying, if you keep practising, you’ll be able to touch your toes, I might instead say that maybe you’ll get more flexible and stronger, but do you know, that is not the goal, it is not the essence of yoga.
The essence of yoga, for me, is so much to do with listening. Feeling. To feel the postures, feel the sounds, the signs, the smells around you, what feels good and what doesn’t, to know what your heart longs for, what it lives for. So much so, that kindness, love, compassion – come naturally. Like they were always there. Because they were always there, weren’t they?
Yoga is a language of love. It is my language of love! And I give it to those around me, to the wild, to the world.
“Love calls our attention and engages us. When we give love our tender attention, we are in the realm of tantra. Life is a mysterious, self-renewing process… Ask your body to reach you and to take you on adventures into intimacy with your own essence. This is the yoga of wonder and delight.” (Roche, 2008)
And so, with great excitement, gratitude, wonder and hope, my journey as a yoga teacher truly begins. I hope I can serve justice to all those who inspire me and ignite my love.
“For a New Beginning
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
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O’Donohue, J. (2005). Beauty. New York: Perennial.
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