What is the goal of yoga?
My opinions on yoga today – what it is and isn’t
by Katharine Bierce, RYT-200 Yoga Teacher
I was talking with someone recently who went to a yoga teacher training and got injured as a result of it. Why? The trainer encouraged her to keep pushing herself past her limits. And she herself also wanted to keep pushing. To the point of injury.
This isn’t healthy.
I think the problems we have today in the yoga community stem from Western ideas about the goals of yoga practice and when it’s appropriate to “push your limits.”
I find it upsetting that yoga is from early seen today as a workout, or as part of a fitness routine to change one’s outward appearance, often with instructions that emphasize doing over being. In American culture, or at least the Protestant work ethic, there seems to be an emphasis on productivity and an assumption that “more is better.” Or as the Daft Punk song days, Harder Better Faster Stronger.
I have completed over 560 hours of yoga trainings, taught over 300 hours of classes and yes, I’ve also injured myself doing yoga, too. When and why? Just like injuries happen in any other exercise:
Because I wasn’t warmed up enough
Because I was angry one day and wanted to push through
Because I wanted to do a fancy pose rather than listen to my body
Yoga is about transcending the ego.
It’s not about what shapes you make.
You don’t need to be flexible to do yoga. The only requirement, really, is to breathe.
Originally, asana (posture) meant how to take a seat for meditation. But over the centuries it has evolved to mean more than just seated postures to include movement practice.
A Brief History of Yoga
Krishnamacharya, considered the grandfather of yoga, had multiple students in the early 1900s, the most famous of whom were Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar and Indra Devi.
He customized his teaching to the unique needs of his students. And his students became teachers who taught what their students needed most.
The starkest contrast is between Jois and Iyengar. Jois taught yoga to teenage boys. So it’s not surprising that he ended up creating sequencing with a lot of upper body strengthening postures and rapid movements. Kids gotta burn energy to sit still in school! Meanwhile, Iyengar had many chronic ailments. He developed Iyengar yoga which is slow, methodical, and involves lots of props. Not jumping around.
Which is better? Neither.
The answer to whether something is good or bad –whether it’s food or yoga –is “for whom and when?”
If you’re sitting at a desk all day, more movement may be helpful. But if you have a repetitive stress injury from typing 16 hours a day, movements like chaturanga or handstands that stress the wrists are not helpful.
If you’re running around a conference and walking miles and miles, you may benefit from a yin or restorative practice that is more inwardly focused and still.
I teach many styles of yoga – vinyasa, hatha, yin, restorative and prenatal. How and why do I do all that? Because I need different practices at different times and so do you.
Too much of yoga today is one size fits all, pushy, overly athletic and not based on the 8 limbs of classical yoga. So what? Yoga asana – the postures – are literally one eighth, or 12.5 percent, of yoga as a philosophy.
If you’re using the yoga sutras as a guide, 7/8 or 87.5 percent of yoga is not physical.
The physical is just the most obvious element of classical yoga philosophy, and with our passion for self-improvement, can look like applying your inner critic that says you’ll never be good enough to your workout routine.
So, keep these in mind the next time you go to a yoga class:
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
1-Yama – what you don’t do (like ahimsa, nonviolence)
2-Niyama – what you do (like santosha, practicing contentment)
3-Asana – the physical postures
4-Pranayama – breathing exercises to work with energy
5-Pratyahara – the practice of going inward. Withdrawing from the senses. You still can feel but you don’t identify with them as much.
6-Dharana – concentration – the practice in meditation of repeatedly placing the mind on one object, such as the breath
7-Dhyana – meditative absorption – I think of this when you are focused such that the breath is not absent from your attention (foreground) or awareness (background) at all
8-Samadhi – being 100% present with each moment. Enlightenment, by some definitions.
For more on the last 3, see:
Fully 2/8 (or 25%) of classical yoga is morals and ethics and 3/8 (or 37.5%) relates to meditation.
So what makes a good yoga class?
Where you find you are able to cultivate more than just the physical. Where you focus on being, not merely doing. Where you get to know yourself - including the inner critic who wonders why you can’t do what that other person is doing – and you can bring meditative introspection to your thoughts.
The physical practice of yoga makes it easier to sit for long periods. And mediation can make it easier to be with difficult thoughts and emotions without trying to change them.
The Buddha said that the root cause of suffering is wanting to make things different than they are. In this way, accepting your body and mind just as they are is the most radical practice you can do. Which requires a little desire for self improvement, ironically, to endeavor to practice self-acceptance.
So I encourage you, the next time you take yoga class, don’t push your limits physically, push them mentally. Push your limit of how much you can love yourself. Strive for 80%. Be willing to say no to a pose that your body doesn’t want to do. Be willing to say no to a teacher who thinks they know your body better than you do.
May all beings be peaceful and at ease.
Want to discuss this? Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org