social justice, yoga

What is “yoga” and what is not? Another punchy FB thread…

If any imagery captures the vision of Yoga as mysterious and infinite, it's yantras. Here's a gorgeous one by Pieter Weldevrede.
If any imagery captures the vision of Yoga as mysterious and infinite, it’s yantras. Here’s a gorgeous one by Pieter Weldevrede.

Another yummy and sometimes frustrating Facebook sutra [see previous post on “sutra”] has arisen, wandering through yoga history, claims of antiquity, oral transmission vs. text history, and has developed into a discussion that prompted this note from me about what is or isn’t “yoga”:

When I speak with teacher training programs on Yoga history, as I will again this weekend, I emphasize an interactive pair of concepts: “sankapla” and “upaya”. 

Sankalpa (intention) speaks to the core orientation we take toward our practice and life as well as specific reasons for practicing and pursuing not just “Yoga” but anything at all in our life. Without identifying what we long for or where we want to go, it’s impossible to know what kind of practice to pursue.

Upaya (skillful means) are all the various methods for wholesome action available in this life, from exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle, to yoga, meditation, study, service, therapy, and everything else we could ever do intentionally in order to grow or change ourselves for the better in any way.

Conversations like this [that start to parse whose tradition is older, or more authentic, or whose practice is more “spiritual”] can become tribal so quickly (“this is authentic, that is not!”), but this is a fundamentalist trap that dissolves when we take a broad view of Upaya. Every kind of practice has been helpful for someone, or it wouldn’t have been invented. And humans have invented all of it (including myths of divine origin, and the cultural images of the gods themselves).

The task I take on as a Yoga and Dharma teacher is to offer practices that I have found helpful for me and seen help others. When a student seems to need a practice that I don’t teach, I want to know where to send them, whether that’s to Pilates, therapy, NVC, or backcountry wilderness. And in that broad orientation, I hew to the great definition of yoga in the Gītā: “Yoga is skill in actions” (BG 2.50).

Clearly, modern asana practice was invented based on conditions (late-colonial Indian social politics among them), and is still developing in response to conditions (hello, Pilates…). So were each of the earlier Yogic movements: the Hatha simplification and physicalization of earlier Tantra; the revolutionary layperson-oriented flowering of Tantric vision against the background of earlier Classical ascetic meditative practice; the extraordinary turning of the Buddha and the Śramana movement away from Vedic and Brahmanic sacrificial ritual. And within each of those so many more detailed shifts. 

All of these schools developed new methods, practices, rituals, images, and ideas in response to the changing needs of practitioners. This note is just a long way of saying that as a broad-minded yogi I have no beef with saying that anyone’s practice in inauthentic or not yoga in some way. “Yoga” has never meant just one thing, and this syncretism (and ambiguity) is its strength. [And I can’t even really use the word “its” here, since it doesn’t exist as a thing outside of its manifestation in practitioners and cultural movements.]

I’m a living example of yoga as a many-armed beast (including the unwieldiness and challenge of trying to meet many needs with different tools). Folks coming to my vinyasa class for a good workout? They’ll get it. And if they’re drawn to dig deeper toward the stillness side of practice, our meditation group is there for them. Sunday kirtan if they’re drawn to bhakti, text workshops if they light up for study, and trauma therapy when they realize that citta vrtti is another word for incomplete nervous system activation. 

All of it is yoga.

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