The Eternal Question
Fierce debate springs eternal among yoga enthusiasts regarding the merits of purely fitness-based sensibilities in yoga practice. Usually, it starts with someone from the more-than-fitness side feeling compelled to say out loud that Yoga is not just working out. To which, the inevitable response is that many people are utilizing yoga practice for physical fitness alone and it's a beautiful thing so who are you to define yoga or pass judgment on anyone else?
In defense of the not-just-working-out view, common retorts involve references to ancient texts, concepts of energy or, more generally, declarations of divinity. At which point, those who care nothing for such things easily write off the argument as a bunch of hokum and the conversation either deteriorates into silliness or ends.
In a previous post, Mind-Body Connection Optional?, I attempted to make a distinction between physical fitness and yoga, drawing upon science and reasoned thought, but was still accused of casting aspersions and playing god. Then, in No More Dancers Doing Yoga on Youtube, I asserted that "advanced yoga" can not be measured in poses and that an emphasis on developing mere physical prowess does a disservice to yoga.
Much to my surprise, there was virtually no backlash from the fitness side. In fact, the majority of comments were from those who agreed with the sentiment and felt inspired to expound upon what makes yoga "advanced" or not. From the responses, it is clear why deference might be given to the notion that yoga is about physical fitness. Because there is wide disagreement and a lack of common language, among those who embrace yoga as more than physical fitness, as to what the non-physical aspects of Yoga are.
...emphasis on developing mere physical prowess does a disservice to yoga.
In broaching the subject of what makes Yoga different than just working out, I think it's best to use basic ideas and simple language. While I personally relish the broad tapestry of principles and concepts that make up the history and heritage of yoga's most obscure teachings, I have not found it useful to paint the subtleties of practice with an esoteric brush. I propose that they are more practical than they are generally made out to be.
A few years back, I was having dinner with a group of people at a somewhat renowned institute for holistic studies. Most of them were seasoned practitioners who, with the exception of one woman, had studied with many different teachers in different styles. They had taken my class earlier and I was fielding some questions.
The inquiries were of a most elevated sort. Participants wanted to know if this asana affects that chakra or if that yoga sutra is referring to this passage of the Bhagavad Gita, etc. I was doing my best, to very little avail, to try and bring the conversation to something less abstract when the one woman sitting at the table who had no idea what we were talking about, a nurse from Arizona who was feeling intimidated to even speak, interjected: “I have a question but it’s not really a spiritual question, it’s more of a reality question…..I’m just wondering if you have health insurance?”
How ironic it was. Without a doubt, it was the most “spiritual” question asked. She wasn’t interested in grandiose ideas about fantastical things. She wanted to know about me, about who I was, and she was thinking that all this fancy talk was fine and good but doesn’t mean anything if I get hit by a car tomorrow and don’t have health insurance, and she was absolutely right.
Performing intricate body positions with precise alignment did not make me healthy.
Pondering chakras, prana, koshas, Patanjali, and Brahman did not provide me a sense of harmony. Only when I stopped trying to perform physical and spiritual gymnastics did the activity shift from accomplishment to experience, and there was room to notice how I actually feel. Knowing better how I feel, and letting that determine my practice and behavior, led to an increased capacity for favorably affecting how I feel at will.
My broader point is that the non-physical aspects of yoga may be more elusive than the technicalities but they are not esoteric. Naturally, we make high art of external references to explain the seemingly unexplainable and it's easier to simply focus on the physicality. However, the "foundational and subtle" aspects of yoga are not learned through external sources, be they books or people. Through each individual's own personal inquiry alone such things become understood.
While the ancient texts are valuable and interesting, too often they are presented in a way that seems to confuse and confound rather than be of any practical use. Going about the activities of one's daily life is spiritual practice. Engaging asana or studying ancient texts is only so good as it helps us in the effort of living.