A speech presented by Shaan R. Ali on 7 May 2018, Nepal Yoga Academy
I would like to begin with some statistics. There are 300+ million yoga practitioners worldwide. This constitutes about 5% of the world’s population. It is also growing, and fast. In the US, yoga is the fourth fastest growing industry, and in Japan it is the fastest, having grown 413% between 2005 and 2010.
This is yoga we’re talking about, right? Or is it? Downward facing dog, incense-filled studios, plush eco yoga mats, cork blocks and organic foam bolsters, super fit teachers. Vinyasa. Hatha flow. Your yoga membership at your yoga studio. That’s the yoga we’re talking about. But is that yoga? How does that compare to four weeks learning about Patanjali’s eight steps, or the different cleansing methods that purify not just your physical body, but also your soul?
In the west, 82% of yoga practitioners are female – a statistics that is presumably remarkably different from when yoga was first taught 5,000 years ago; from one male guru to another, with the disciple being invited to learn before practising exclusively by himself. A side note for us here is to ponder why the modern, western male is deterred from practising. Is it something about the mix between stretching and breathing? Or the fact that it is not seen as enough of a workout? These are questions for another time and another topic.
But it is important to note that only half the teachers in the US are actually certified as teachers. It needs to also be said, however, that having a certificate alone does not make one an excellent, nor a qualified teacher. For that, there are many facets.
One final and disappointing statistic shows that poor people (and those who have not attended college) rarely practice yoga. This is another example of a current trend that does not align with the original intention of yoga being a practice for holistic well-being and self-realisation accessible to everyone. The face of yoga in the West is an upscale white woman with Lulu Lemon tights. All we need to do is examine any yoga journal, magazine, or even Google some poses and instructions on how to do them. This kind of presentation and portrayal of yoga is not an all-encompassing and welcoming image. And so enter Green Tree Yoga.
Green Tree Yoga, South LA
In many ways, the exclusivity and racism in modern, Western yoga is so implicit that we do not even notice it. Amy Champ, who holds a PhD in Yoga Studies from the University of California Berkley poses an important question. Dr. Camp implores us to ask: “What does yoga have to do with my community?” In other words: how can we make yoga relevant for the community we belong to, and the community where we practice? It is a question that Green Tree in South LA asked when forming their yoga studio.
Green Tree opened in south LA, a neighbourhood with mainly African American residents (~80%). It is placed next door to a tattoo parlour, and opposite a used car dealership. The face of their studio is not a white woman in expensive leggings. In contrast, membership is free and classes are by donation. There are no candles, no mirrors and strictly no preaching. Green Tree has considered how to bring yogic philosophy home; in south LA there are 12 churches in less than a 500 metre radius. And so the owners of Green Tree feel that their audience has no need for spiritual teachings, for philosophy or for the more esoteric side of yoga – just the practise. And for its practitioners, this is yoga. This works.
And so, one of the challenges that western yoga faces is its fluid status: both as a sport and a spiritual exercise. Where we find it to sit, how we teach it and which influences we draw from remain for each of us to decide as yoga teachers.
Limb number three: Asana
The modern conception of yoga - with its emphasis on outer transformation - is based on the third of Patanjali's eight steps, asana (postures). Asana emphasises physical fitness for the purpose of getting the body ready for the stillness that is required for the inner journey taken in the subsequent steps.
But prior even to asana are Patanjali's first two steps of yama and ni-yama - principles to guide one’s everyday conduct and to prepare oneself for inner realisation. Yoga emphasises the importance of self-discipline as a foundation for harmonious physical, mental, and spiritual development. But these steps aren’t taught in the modern yoga class. Yoga it seems, is filing the gap that the rest of our western lives leaves out. But it seems the emphasis here is on being ‘healthy’.
Today, being healthy is promoted everywhere we look. People love things that as early as the 90s were seen as things only small segments of the population (hippies, New Agers, etc.) did. Organic food, meditation, yoga, and other things that were even mocked or ridiculed have become ingrained into the social consciousness so deeply that even multinational corporations have begun seeing there is enough of a demand for them to make profits on. So if yoga, a previously ‘spiritual’ and ‘soft’ pass time, is now trending in the west, what can this tell us about the future? For me, it means that perhaps the more spiritual aspects of yoga, which are now somewhat left out by the mainstream western yoga studio, will eventually make themselves part of our practice at home.
Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, professor of religious studies at Indiana University attributes the popularity of secular mindfulness programs in the West partly to the decline of other traditional religions and to our modern frustration with technology. As we become more and more dependent on our smart phones for connection, perhaps having a yoga class specifically oriented around meditation (dharana as the 6th step in Ashtanga Yoga) or concentration (dyan as the 7th step in Ashtanga Yoga) will become necessary.
“People feel bound to their mobile phones and computers, so part of the appeal is the non-secular, mystical part of it. If ancient religious people have done it for a long time, it must work, modern people think,” Dr. Brown says. She also stresses that as traditional religions - especially Christianity - are losing traction, the promise of mindfulness is increasingly filling the inevitable moral vacuum.
A modern translation for a cryptic code
Patanjali’s final five steps beyond asana relate to a progressive deepening of the seeker's journey toward realisation of the universal self, with meditation providing the pathway. However, Patanjali’s writing on these final five steps can be cryptic to beginner yogis and yoginis, with no guidance on how to execute them. To fill this void, Paramahansa Yogananda, introduced the West to an advanced but long-lost ancient technique of meditation, Kriya Yoga.
Yogananda was born in 1893 in India and came to America at the age of 27. He dressed the ancient teachings of yoga in the practical modern form he called ‘self-realisation’. This, he taught, is the transcending of the individual soul to realise and reclaim the universal soul. Giving ancient techniques words that resonate with our western ears was Yogananda’s breakthrough.
Kriya “works like mathematics,” Yogananda stated, emphasising the empirical, scientific nature of this technique. Through regular practice, he claimed, Kriya will change the neural pathways in the brain. The more cynical members of the west were quick to question whether the act of mindful focusing and internalising our consciousness could actually bring about physical changes in the brain.
Yet today revolutionary new findings in neuroscience are showing that meditation does in fact bring favourable changes in the neural pathways of the brain. Scientific laboratories are now stumbling upon truths experienced and practised by yogis across the ages. Modern practitioners are taking these findings inwards: to the inner laboratories of their personal experiences on the mat.
But on the other hand...
To some, the yogic pursuit of inner perfection may appear a little selfish. At times I ask myself whether the yogic journey is too self-oriented. While others struggle with hunger, flee from war, and break their backs to access clean water, we yogis and yoginis ‘forward fold from the hips’ and ‘walk the dog’.
I at times cannot help but ask: Shouldn't we be solving the world's most vexing problems, rather than withdrawing into blissful inner communion?
And this takes me to a quote that changed my life some years ago. I was working in Greece, on Lesvos, a small island near Turkey. The island was the destination of hundreds upon thousands of Syrian and Afghan refugees fleeing violence and the first point of call on European shores. We pulled grieving mothers out of the water who’d lost their babies, husband’s who’d lost wives. We wept with scores of individuals with nothing but the salty, crusty clothes on their back as they found relief in the hopes of a new life free from violence. I had no time to practise asana. I had no space for breath control (pranayam as the 4th step in Ashtanga Yoga). And with such total sensory overload, as I dealt with my own stress I certainly had no space to withdraw my senses (pratyahar as the 5th step in Ashtanga Yoga).
But then something changed. I came across this and that I try to live by to this day: Yesterday I was clever, today I am wise.
This choice between outer service and inner joy represents a false dichotomy. There is no ‘either’. The yoga we learn from Patanjali’s teachings and the yoga we learn in the east emphasises balancing service with meditation. Yoga, when taken holistically, highlights the expansion of consciousness that comes when we are able to go beyond our human self and open ourselves up, to a deeper connection – not just to ourselves, but to every living being… in fact, to every atom in the universe.
For us as Teachers
As you roll out your yoga mat at home or the studio next, get into your favourite yoga pose, and feel that gentle peace sweep over you, perhaps you can take a moment to consider all the experiences in consciousness that might lie just outside your present reach if you also embark on yoga's fuller, inner journey toward self-realisation.
Great teachers look into the vast beyond and then craft their message to speak not just to their immediate audience but to future generations as well. If current trends continue, over 1 billion people will have made yoga a part of their lives by 2025 and as teachers, we have incredible power to shape this experience.
Yoga teacher who run these trainings in the east spend anywhere between 10 and 30 years dedicated to their own self practice before even thinking about sharing these finding with others, as did our Guru Ji. If we look at yoga back home, I think it is safe to say there are few teachers who can claim the same. And so therefore, while our course comes to a close and we get our certificate for our 200 hours, we must remember that we are still students.
And for our whole lives, we will be students.
Yoga is never ending. Yoga is not just asana, nor is it the poses we pull briefly for an Instagram pose, nor is it 4 four weeks enjoying Durlov’s cooking, Didi’s company and Krishna’s flexibility. It can seem cliché, but Yoga is like the entire ocean. What we have learned is but one small drop. There is still so much more to learn and to carry with us in our teachings and practices back home.
And for our whole lives, we will keep learning.
This speech was presented by Shaan R. Ali for the ‘Philosophy Examination’ as part of the 200hr Yoga Teacher Training at Nepal Yoga Academy in Bhaktapur, Nepal.