What Understanding of Yoga Are We Spreading?

We will be ever grateful to the wonderful land and wise peoples of India (Bharat) for developing and sharing the practice of Yoga with the world. In recent years interest and participation in yoga globally has soared. You have likely seen many advertisements for classes and courses with the word “yoga” attached, such as Hatha yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Bikram yoga, Anusara yoga, Hot yoga, Iyengar yoga, Restorative yoga, Aerial yoga, Acro yoga and others. However, the teaching of the Yoga practice is often limited to only two of the eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali: asana and pranayama. Likewise, most people associate Yoga with physical exercise, especially exercises for the purpose of increasing one’s flexibility and physical strength. This is not reflective of the essence and true purpose of the practice.  

India’s PM Narendra Modi and initiator of International Day of Yoga (June 21st), recently gave a good simple explanation of Yoga in his address to the UN General Assembly in 2014:

"Yoga is an invaluable gift of India's ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature."

The practice is meant to bring about inner and outer harmony, peace and love. It follows then that the practice should not bring about tension, stress or aggression toward oneself or others, physical or mental. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras even specify that asanas are postures which are stable/steady and comfortable (II Sutra 46). Nevertheless, many “yoga” practitioners report of countless injuries or tensions acquired from their practice. Teachers of “yoga” and flexible practitioners are the ones who suffer most. The two main reasons for this are likely: 1) practitioners do not understand the purpose of Yoga; and 2) practitioners are not wholly committed to achieving the goals of Yoga. As mentioned earlier, the desire for flexibility, physical strength and doing fancy poses most often overrides the intention to bring about harmony, peace and love within oneself. Thus, people hurt themselves and promote practices that may lead others to hurt themselves as well.

Fortunately, practices do exist that work to align themselves with the true essence and purpose of Yoga. The teachings led by Yogacharya Sharat Arora at the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre (HIYC) focus on nourishing harmony and balance in the body as well as deep awareness and concentration of the mind. The practice takes on a therapeutic approach, helping students to heal themselves and holistically evolve in their understanding of and relationship to life and other living beings. Many students come to the HIYC specifically to heal themselves of past injuries acquired from other schools of “yoga.”

Although we are lucky to have this option, the schools that misuse the name of Yoga ultimately spread a false and shallow understanding of the practice in the world. Those approaches through which many people injure themselves can especially give the image that Yoga is potentially harmful and not accessible to people who are not flexible or physically strong. This misunderstanding could hinder investments into the promotion of Yoga, a practice that is much needed to nourish and sustain a peaceful and harmonious world.

Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre
Polina Mischenko

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