Yoga’s future depends on its flexibility

My uptown Calgary condo is within easy walking distance of at least eight yoga studios, possibly even more. This is not unique — in most major Canadian and American cities the ubiquity of the yoga studio is commonplace. Clearly, North Americans love yoga. But are we truly in love with the ancient Indian art or are we just trying to twist, bend and sweat our way to a super-hot yoga body (and justify the purchase of ultra-trendy, $86, poly-blend yoga pants in the process)?

Over 2000 years ago, the great sage Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras. In this text he outlined the eight limbs of yoga which chronicle the devoted yoga practitioner’s inward journey to bliss. The third limb along this path is “asana,” which refers to the physical postures of yoga. In the Western world, asana often becomes synonymous with yoga, as this is usually what we are referring to when we talk about yoga. The other limbs of yoga, which pertain to such ideas as universal morality and inner awareness, tend to fall by the wayside. In our media-driven, capitalist society we seek outer beauty rather than inner peace. Let’s face it, the image of a downward facing dog is a whole lot sexier than balancing the seven chakras.

The Yoga Sutras encourage a minimalist, if not ascetic, lifestyle. Bikram Choudhury, the king of hot yoga, drives a Rolls Royce. The contradiction is blatant. Bikram is not the only one capitalizing on the yoga craze — billions of dollars are spent every year on yoga retreats, bootcamps, workshops, clothing-lines, DVDs, books and $15-$20 classes. Brilliant entrepreneurs have marketed yoga to the masses, claiming it will cure everything from hemorrhoids to heart disease. Despite the so-called economic recession, people from all walks of life are lining up to be a part of the yoga revolution, whatever the price may be. Patanjali would be rolling over in his grave if he could see the commercialization of what was once a simple practice meant to liberate the soul.

But is it really all bad? Yoga philosophy teaches us that everything is made up of the interdependent dualities of yin and yang and this is how I view our challenge of balancing new-age yoga with the original real deal. Neither is all good, neither is all bad. We do not practice yoga as it was in ancient India but why should we? We are not living in ancient India. Rather than criticize we should celebrate the progression of yoga and how we have managed to merge it with our modern-day lives. Besides, traditional yoga was not as flawless as we are made to think it was. For thousands of years it was only available to high-cast males — that is, it was classist and sexist. It wasn’t until 1937 when the first woman of yoga, Indra Devi, was admitted into this bendy boys club. (Hey, better 4900 years late than never!) At least in Canada’s version of yoga everyone is welcome regardless of gender, class or race. Yes, it is expensive to practice in a studio but many places offer karma classes (based on donation) and, if you search hard enough, you can even find the odd free class.

A modern-day yogi’s journey may begin with the most superficial of intentions but this is unimportant. It is not what brings us to our mat that matters, it is what keeps us coming back. Once the novelty wears off and we surrender to the practice, just breathing, just being, we start to gradually see the light. Just little glimpses here and there, but that is enough. Feeling lighter and calmer we keep coming back. Bit by bit, life gets a little bit simpler. Though separated from the founding fathers by time and space, maybe we really aren’t that different after all. Maybe yoga is the lowest common denominator of humanity.

But, if you still think “Western yoga” is not “real yoga” then call it something else. For me, a pose by any other name would feel as sweet.

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