As a part of my Yoga Philosophy course at Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, I wrote an essay on authenticity of contemporary yoga. My conclusion is that Hindu culture and Hindu religion are tolerant and flexible, and yoga has developed incorporating and adapting to new influences. Therefore as long as it contributes to promote human wellbeing, whatever style it takes it is still yoga.
A friend of mine is a professional contemporary dancer and many years ago he took up yoga purely for physical benefits. After a few years of Ashtanga practice, he had turned into a vegan and was getting up at 6 every morning and meditating for 1 hour. Eventually he moved away from Ashtanga to more meditative practice.
In fact, as a yoga teacher, I don’t mind whatever motives people have in practicing yoga. You may want to be fit or flexible. You may want to lose weight. You may want to reduce stress and learn to relax. Or you may be seeking something more. As far as I am concerned, as long as you are focusing on your breath, what you do physically is not important. With diligence and discipline Yoga will deliver what you want, be it fitness or peace of mind.
But I am slightly concerned about the recent trend or media perception of yoga. Beautiful skinny people in skimpy designer yoga kits. Super bendy young females in amazing back bends. Instagram friendly advanced postures on exotic beaches. Apparently yoga is a multi-million pound industry with white male CEOs paying themselves a lot of money.
I don’t think any of these are problem in themselves. You can be skinny and beautiful and wear designer kit. You can do advanced backbend on beautiful white sanded beach. You can put your yoga shots on Instagram. You can be a white male yogi with good business sense. None of these matters.
What matters is that I sometimes sense that yoga is becoming something it’s not meant to be. (Or maybe it is just being portrayed so by the media, which is really off putting for many people.) Namely being competitive and ego-orientated. ‘Don’t be competitive with others and with yourself, and keep your ego in check.’ This is one of the first things I was taught from my teachers.
So sometimes it is helpful to go back to the classical teaching of Yoga Sutra. Chitta-vritti-nirodhah. Stilling the mind. This is the purpose of yoga according to Patanjali.
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