What is Modern Yoga?

by Nina
Taro Fields by Heidi Santschi of Heidi Santschi Garden Design
Lately I’ve been writing a lot about the original meaning of yoga (see Spiritual Ignorance and Finding Your Own Yoga), but as we all know yoga has been evolving in many ways since it was defined in ancient texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. So what’s an easy way to explain to someone who thinks that yoga is an exercise or stretching system that it really is something a whole lot more than that?

This came up for me yesterday when I spent time with some cousins from out of town who were dying to talk with me about yoga. They were really excited about the yoga classes they had been taking, but as we talked I began to see that so far to them yoga was just one of several gym classes they’d been taking. (I had a suspicion that maybe it made them feel “good” in a way that spin or Pilates didn’t, but that’s not something they said to me.) 

At the end of our time together, I did say a few things to let them know that yoga really wasn’t about exercising. I said that yoga was a spiritual practice and that you could practice it by meditating and never doing any of the poses. And to challenge their thinking, I mentioned that Gandhi was the greatest yogi of the 20th century. But after I left them, I felt unsatisfied. I wished I had had some handy quote about what yoga was that I could have left them with. But I couldn’t think of what it should be. My usual favorite quotes, such as “yoga is equanimity” from the Bhagavad Gita, wouldn’t really reflect what modern yoga has become.

Then I started to wonder: how and when did I myself learn that yoga was something other than an exercise system? When I started practicing yoga in around 1981, I definitely thought it was an exercise class. In fact, some of us got together about organizing an in-house exercise class and work, and one of the guys said his wife, Rylin, could teach it, and so we decided to give her a go. He didn’t even mention the word “yoga.” But when Rylin came and taught us our first class, I not only loved it immediately but she let us know that first day that what we were doing was “yoga.” After that, what else did she tell us about yoga? To be honest, I cannot really remember. 

What I did remember this morning was that I bought my first yoga book a couple of years after that because I wanted to practice yoga at home. And the book I bought—quite possibly at Rylin’s suggestion—was Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar. Surely reading that book, even if there was much I didn’t understand at the time, would have helped open my eyes to something about what the real meaning of yoga was!

So I decided this morning to look at the beginning of Light on Yoga and try to imagine myself back them reading about yoga for the first time. Even before opening the book, I noticed that it was an English edition, with the price in pounds, so I concluded that I bought it in 1984, the year it was printed, when I was living in Cambridge. And not only was the book old and well worn, as I have referred to it on and off since 1984, but the front cover fell off at some point.

Then I opened the book to the first page of the introduction and right away I saw that the second paragraph was this short definition of yoga:

“Yoga is a timeless pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years dealing with the physical, moral, mental and spiritual well-being of man as a whole.” —BKS Iyengar 

Wow, I thought, not only do I see how this book is what introduced me to a deeper understanding of what yoga was (though I still had a lot to learn after reading it—and in fact I’m still learning even now), but this was the very quote that I wished I had been able to share yesterday with my cousins!

What I liked so much about this definition of yoga is that it describes what my actual “modern” experience of yoga is as opposed to the kind of yoga that was practiced in ancient times. And how wonderful I found it by going back in time in my own yoga history to understand what it is like to be someone who started out by thinking that yoga was just an exercise system but who is very curious about the practice and wants to know more.

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