Yoga: What Are We Teaching?

Is there a sacrifice in selling yoga?

The other day one of my students mentioned that he saw a yoga class advertised as having “no chanting, or any of that spiritual stuff.” I have come across such protestations from the anti-foo-foo crowd before, or at least from cautious marketers trying to capture a corner of the growing population that wants a physical workout without that other “stuff.”

As an instructor, I admittedly avoid talking about “spirituality.” It’s too abstract for me; yoga is a foundational tool for building awareness, so my talks tend to lean towards psychology and behavior, not concepts that may or may not be true. When you separate spirit from matter, you’re admitting defeat in the comprehension of union.

Overall, a fundamental connection to the intention of the practice should be adhered to. While self-realization may not have been the initial goal—yoga was most likely the invention of warriors quieting their mind for battle, and as it evolved it became more of a vehicle for community—when it merged with the Samkhya tradition, yoga was all about turning the mirror unto and into one’s self.

Both of those aspects remain important to the American yogi’s practice today: social cohesion, and self-reflection. What is so inspiring about the many forms that have grown from the Hatha tradition is that there are numerous practices to suit different inclinations. But if the intention isn’t turning the thoughts inside, if we are more concerned with branding our teachings and attaining larger and larger class sizes, then we are operating at a very low level of awareness, one rooted in the promotion of the ego and not for the service of the student.

A few months back I picked up a DVD in the Strand Bookstore with a fit woman on the cover doing some sort of tae-bo looking posture. On the cover it proclaimed that this video was “not for wimps;” it too claimed that “no chanting” would be found. I chuckled as I put the disc back into the slot, wondering how any “teacher” of this discipline would sacrifice a valuable tool in the practice of self-realization for the sake of having her face plastered upon the pretty movie screen.

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