Over the past 40 years, yoga in America has evolved from a niche activity of devoted New Agers into part of the cultural mainstream and a
$27 billion dollar industry.
In 2014 The Huffington Post reported that there were 20.4 million yoga practitio- ners in the US (83% women) and much of what we see around the conversation of yoga in the West is a focus on the physical benefits, muscle tone, apparel and lifestyle issues—Yoga Lite. This has many people wondering:
How do we adapt yoga’s ancient teachings and practices, modernize them and bring them to a new culture without distorting or diluting their effect on spiritual development?
Such distortion or dilution can lead to confusion and encourage spiritual bypass — a term used in psychology to describe the tendency to jump to spirit prematurely usually in an effort to avoid various aspects of earthly realities such as challenges, unresolved emotions and memories.
To develop a better understanding of this, let’s start with laying a foundation to define the essence of yoga.
Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to yoke or bind. It refers to the state where we become aware of our inherent unity. In other words, yoga as a noun refers to a state of wholeness and presence where compassion, flow and integration are felt.
Yoga also provides insight into a basic yet important human condition: suffering. It suggests that our suffering lies in the belief that we are separate from others and our environment.
Take for example a person who decides to cut you off while driving
and nearly causes an accident. Your immediate reaction may be to feel angry and express that anger outward. Such
a reaction indicates that you’ve taken the action personally “How dare they
do that to me? Who do they think they are?”When in reality you’re seeing an end effect in a long chain of events
that caused the person to cut you off.
If you take a deep breath, you real- ize that their action is unsafe yet not personal; it is merely a reflection of a larger environment that we are con- nected to.
The remedy to suffering lies in our ability to become increasingly present in life. When we become present we begin to peel away the layers that cre- ate and recreate the illusion that we are separate.
Suffering stems from our avidya, our inability to see things as they truly are, and we perpetuate our suf- fering through negative mental hab- its such as taking things personally or when we reignite the pain caused by a dysfunctional relationship we can’t seem to let go of.
The yoga sutras (a collection of aphorisms) suggest our reactions come from not truly seeing ourselves, and hence each other, clearly.
Instead we are wrapped up in mental patterns that keep us from doing the personal work needed to heal. Practicing presence in a circum- stance where we find ourselves tight, uncomfortable and in pain allows us to connect with the essence of our existence — self.
Becoming present helps us recon- cile the habits of the mind, which allow the veil of our illusions to dis- sipate. From here we start to gain clar- ity into our true Self and what really matters which is often experienced in our Aha! Moments.
Yoga as a verb highlights the exercises that help enter the state of yoga de- scribed above. The yoga sutras point to yogic exercises such as dharana — con- centration, which paves the path for dhy- ana — meditation. Focusing our minds on the presence of our breath, the sound of birds, traffic outside the window, the sensation of our muscles as they tremble in asana (poses), or anything else is a very useful exercise to cultivate presence, awareness and ultimately to maintain a day-to-day state of yoga.
A daily practice of creating space and presence not only helps us in finding this very space in the tight and uncomfort- able situations that arise in everyday life, but it may also help us uncover some important truths about who we are,and from what we need to heal.
So here is the catch: the exponential growth in accessibility to yoga classes has led to a new phenomenon called Yoga Lite; where the physical practice of asana has become the primary focus at the expense of spiritual teachings on consciousness. To focus on just the phys- ical act of asana reinforces the belief that we are our body or our mind (which creates separation) when in reality we have a body and a mind but we are a spirit — an “invisible energy field” that is infinite and equally present everywhere. Think about this for a moment.
You are an infinite being equally pres- ent everywhere. When you move beyond the illusion of separation of mind, body and spirit, you cultivate the ability to come out of suffering and into presence with the infinite, and ultimately feel more unity, peace and ease. Opening
into presence gradually has the capacity to expand who you are so radically that it permanently shifts the quality of your life. This happens only if you let go of Yoga Lite and approach and cultivate the practice of presence.
*This article was original published in the Hippocrates Health Institute Magazine in August 2015.