I have a friend who doesn’t practice yoga. But he insists that running is his yoga. He gets up early in the morning, runs long distances, focuses on his breath and the movements of his body, and goes into deep states of meditation. Another friend says that when he lifts weights, he listens to his heartbeat between reps and enters a sort of trance state during his workout. And a musician friend tells me that when she plays, she feels like she becomes one with the music. So, my question is: Are they all doing a form of yoga?
In the West, we’ve come to think that the postures we practice today are from some secret and ancient lineage, but that’s not entirely true. According to modern day yoga scholars, like Mark Singleton, the yoga poses we now practice partially originate from European gymnastic techniques that Indians adopted in the 19th century. Other scholars have come out to make similar statements: that yoga poses are simply calisthenics that have been linked, over recent years, with breath and mindfulness practices to make them part of the yoga tradition.
If our postures aren’t from an ancient tradition (they are not mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, nor in most of the important texts, after all), then can any physical act be yoga, so long as it is done in the name of stillness and compassion, and has a focus on breath, concentration, and union? Like … what about baking? Singing? Driving? Knitting? What if all of these things can bring us into a place of dhyana, or meditation? Does that make them yoga?
Or, do you believe that the word yoga has to remain linked, albeit often unclearly, to modern day asana? What gets you into a yogic state? Write in and tell us what you think!
I’d certainly say that a mindful jogger or weight-lifter is more of a yogi than someone who goes to class, pushes themselves beyond their body’s limits, compares themselves to everyone else there and thinks about what to buy for dinner during Savasana. But that’s just my two cents.
I agree with that. Nice way to say it!
I agree w/her agreement:)! Yoga is not about postures on a mat – tho that (asana practice) is usually the introduction for most Americans. In fact, it seems the various phrases: “yoga practice”, “My yoga practice”, “practicing yoga”, etc has come to mean – again for most – practice of asanas. My belief is that, especially for modern yogis, but really since it’s inception – yoga is every breath we take. Peace, belle
I’ve been practicing (yes, meditation!) since 1972/74 and teaching since1999 – just for a wee bit of context;)!
I have experienced that feeling of meditation in running myself. It is a linking of the mind with the body through the breath. What I find different within my yoga practice is the conscious balance between strength/will and surrendering. The real difference though, is the yogic philosophy that is brought to the mat with the intention to practice yoga off the mat as well .
Yes, I do think the philosophical component becomes a large part of the practice, and that’s not always a component in other focused activities. This raises a good point.
Yoga is not at the center of the universe; it’s not the source of all enlightenment and physical well being! (It’s a damned good one, but not the first and only one.) Meditation and a mind-body connection are aspects of most any focused, deliberate activity which sparks a mindful and physical connection (including yoga).
But, I do like what you’ve brought up here–how amazing the mind+body connection can be. That remarkable experience–when whatever it is we do sends us into a zone of unison, effective purpose and transcendence–is one of the best feelings in the world. Whether achieved by practicing yoga or sex, prayer or the waltz, it’s something everyone deserves to experience, no matter how we get there.
Modern yoga is not adopted from modern gymnastics, maybe some of the poses. The majority of the asanas come from ancient Indian traditions like the Indian martial arts and south Indian classical dance. But these arts have also adopted from hatha yoga, there has been mutual influence in these arts. It’s not true that the yoga scriptures don’t mention any poses, just look at the hatha yoga pradipika for example. Not all poses were recorded in these texts either and a lot of them have been taught from teacher to student.
The Hatha Pradipika, as I am sure you know, has a pretty limited amount of asanas. It focuses more on other principles of Hatha yoga. Obviously some asanas are in the old texts, but many came along later on. And yes, today’s asanas are a mix of things, and have many influences, including South Indian dance AND European gymnastics. All of that said, you actually haven’t addressed the real question, which is whether or not yoga asanas are what makes yoga yoga. If you feel so strongly that the asanas we do today were all birthed in India and are imperative to the spiritual practice of yoga (which is a valid point, even if current research has come up to debate it), perhaps you could mindfully express why and how?
The hatha yoga pradipika is by no means an exhaustive list of asanas that existed at that time, the text itself mentions that it only deals with a selection. There are also many other hatha yoga texts which are relatively unknown in the west. Also, in India not all knowledge is written down in text form, but only thought from teacher to teacher. The reason I mentioned the hatha yoga pradipika is because it talks about mayurasana, as you might know modern gymnastics also uses this posture in their training. Many of the yoga postures are also known in China where they are practices in forms of qigong and daoyin. Krishnamacharya went to Tibet to learn more about yoga, with all this evidence it’s most likely that hatha yoga has been practiced and developed around the himalaya region. There are people who argue that shoulder stand was not part of hatha yoga because it wasn’t mentioned in the hatha yoga pradipika. The hatha yoga pradipika mentions viparita karani. But if you think about it logically, did the Indians really need western gymansts to find out that they could do the same posture with their torso and legs in one line? I don’t think so. Having said that, I do not deny western influence on the practice of modern postural yoga, but it is often highly exaggerated by so called yoga scholars.
Since you asked me for my opinion on the original question, I will go ahead and share. It is not necessary to practice the hatha yoga asanas at all to be a yogi. The asanas are an integral part of hatha yoga as a beginning practice. Notice that yoga and hatha yoga are not necessarily the same thing. The asanas, chalas, pranayamas, mudras, bandhas in hatha yoga are meant to clear the nadis as a preparation for the higher internal practices of kundalini awakening which cannot be done without devotion towards and ultimately grace from Shakti. So whether weightlifting is a form of yoga, it should already be clear that it is not a form of hatha yoga, but it can be a form of mindfull practice just like anything else in life.
Good points! And I like the way you wrapped it up in that last line.
There are even examples of Hatha yoga influencing modern gymnastics, just look at mayurasana which was already described in the Hatha yoga pradipika and is now one of the exercises modern gymnasts use. The classic texts mention that there are more postures than described there, so don’t just assume that because it is not recorded in a text that it wasn’t there.
Sure, runners, weight lifters, or bakers can have achieve similar states of feelings as practitioners of yoga. This is because we are all made some the same stuff. However, what makes yoga distinct is its refinement. No doubt, the system has had many years to do so. The more i practice yoga, the more I appreciate the wisdom of the body, mind, and energy passed on to us by earlier yogis through text, or tradition, or word of mouth.
I often find it difficult to explain to friends and family about yoga. However, until they practice it themselves, then they can understand. I too was a runner, a weight lifter, but not yet a baker. I can tell you that yoga is none of those.
I think these questions come up because we now tend to use the word “yoga” to describe various traditions – and Western overlays to those traditions – which aren’t at their roots one coherent whole. The “yoga” that we practice today tends to include elements from hatha yoga (and the related siddha and natha traditions), vedanta (in particular the Yoga Upanisads), classical yoga (by which we tend to mean Patanjali) and tantric traditions. Whilst these often reflect different aims and approaches, and underlying philosophies, what they have in common as far as we are concerned is that they all originate on the Indian sub-continent and they all tend to differ from Western philosophy in the same general direction – so we tend to call them all “yoga”. I am by no means saying this is a bad thing, but it does make asking the question “what is yoga” almost impossible to answer. Yoga, as the term is used in the West today, must mean whatever anyone is doing and calling yoga – there is no official Head Of Yoga somewhere deciding what can and can’t count. Which is indeed, one of its huge benefits, as it can move with the times and be flexible. If you want to get specific about it, then of course it is possible to say “is this hatha yoga?” or “is this karma yoga?” or indeed any one of the original traditions.
I recently wrote a book about yoga and this whole topic made it very difficult indeed! It’s quite hard to know what to put when there’s no definition of the thing you’re writing about!!
Great points. What’s the name of your book? And when will it be out?
I didn’t mention the name as I didn’t want it to look as though I was just trying to promote a book! I love this blog, it’s so great to raise these kinds of questions in an open and unbiased way so that everyone can share their views. The book’s called The Incomplete Guide To Yoga. It’ll be out in October (O Books) but I think as an e-book before then. The point of it is to ask all the questions you can possibly
think of about yoga so everyone can add to the overall sum of knowledge (let’s face it, it’s extremely unlikely that I have any answers!) so if think it might add to your blog I’d be happy to share excerpts nearer the time for people to consider.
Sure, feel free to post things that you feel are relevant! I’ll look for your book. Thanks for reading!
Excellent points everyone is making regarding the thesis of what is yoga? I use the term yoga to refer to the fact that yoga as a word is a verb; a state, an experience, not a noun- a thing. So, to me then, any act has the possibility of melding with the One. However, what asana and related practices are teaching us are techniques for achieving this state with consistency, accuracy and a almost fool-proof way getting “there.” And, then showing us how to use these states for higher aims. The experience of melding with and collapsing our egos into the One is so much a part of the indescribable bliss as a felt experience…a state. Mindfulness meditations came from traditions that also taught philosophy and ways of being beyond the meditation practices themselves. So, I feel that everyone can experience the state of oneness from many directions or path but the techniques from the yoga traditions carry the experience, the history and the path to the freedom it promises that is tried and true. Asana becomes a vehicle to liberation or freedom when practiced with the intention, but otherwise it’s relaxing, healthy and fun to do!