The following is an excerpt from Michael Rhadeya Plasha’s memoir, The Amazing Adventures of a Yogi in America. In it, he attempts to find the most accurate definitions of traditional Yoga, shares his personal journey of teaching Yoga, and describes his experience of Yoga’s healing power. It resonated so strongly that I felt compelled to share some of his words:
What is Yoga? I discovered many different definitions of Yoga in ancient texts. How do you define Yoga? Today, the common perception and understanding are that Yoga is for stretching or a way to workout. Today, I hear that Yoga is having a strong and flexible body. Or Yoga is sweating to purify the body. Yoga is for stress management. Yoga is for relaxing. Yoga is good for overall health. And if you practice enough postures you might become happy. All relatively true.
The American fitness culture embraced the physical side of Yoga in the 90’s. The psychological, philosophical, and spiritual roots of traditional Yoga were usually removed. Ninety minute classes were reduced to 60 or 45 minutes to accommodate gym schedules. The deeper practices like Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation), shavayatra (concentration, breathing, and relaxation training), pranayama (breathing practices) and meditation were cut.
Then hybrids developed to emphasize the physicality of Hatha like Pi-Yo (pilates and Yoga), Core Fusion (barre or pole fitness and postures), Yoga Sculpt (with hand weights), Aerial Yoga (cloth hammocks for suspension), Hot Power Yoga (sweaty speed flows and pushups), Trampoline Yoga, and Yoga Fit using exercise balls. Here’s a recent one: Vinyasa/Yin Power Sculpt—a combination of Yoga, cardio, and weights. I wonder why the timeless teachings of traditional Yoga are not enough for some teachers. They feel a need to add non-Yoga practices like loud, recorded contemporary pop music, essential oils, massage, Reiki and light shows. There are even Ganja Yoga studios in Colorado now!
These hybrids and postural Yoga styles have benefits. The focus, like any fitness goal, is usually a stronger and thinner body. This intention can play into America’s obsession with the body and movement. That has its place, but from my perspective, that is selling Yoga short. Sure, I want a stronger and slightly thinner body, too, but I primarily want peace of mind and an open heart. I want liberation from my ego, the cause of suffering.
My idea of a “hybrid” has been to try to integrate the aspects of the four major paths of Yoga: Bhakti (the Yoga of love and devotion), Karma (the Yoga of selfless service), Jnana (the Yoga of Self-inquiry) and Raja (the Yoga of ethical and moral virtue, mastery of the mind, and concentration and meditation techniques). Years later I learned in my first major training that Swami Satchidananda once said, “Hatha Yoga is a calling card of Raja Yoga.” This idea lit up for me and I have been inspired ever since to teach Hatha in the context of these other Yoga paths.
The traditional role of asana was to slow the body down and internalize awareness as an embodied practice. The postures were held much longer than a few breaths. I had heard that the Yogic sages considered the “perfect” pose to be one you could hold for three hours! I am glad they were referring to meditative poses and not cultural ones.
Some of the traditional goals of yoga that I found in my reading have included:
- Yoga is spiritual union.
- Yoga is discipline.
- Yoga is when the senses are firmly under control.
- Yoga is evenness of mind.
- Yoga is skill in action.
- Yoga is absence of pain.
- Yoga is the attainment of liberation.
- Yoga is the stilling of all thought.
- Yoga is transcendence.
- Yoga is an expression of Vedic Dharma (holistic and enlightened living).
These goals are what have always inspired my practice and what I occasionally experienced. The benefits are radically different than the popular fixation on a lean, postural Yoga body.
Even though there seems to be a surge of commodification in today's yoga culture, with the advent of yoga fashion and yoga fusion, yoga truly is so much more. Yoga is healing. Yoga is emotional release. Yoga is recovery. Yoga is medicine. Yoga is spiritual growth. Yoga is evolution. Yoga is peace. Yoga is enlightenment. Yoga is enough! It can be experienced right where you are in this moment. No Lululemon, no playlists, no dumbbells, and not even a mat is required.
For an experience of the deeper practices of traditional yoga, just lay back, be still, and enjoy this 10-minute Yoga Nidra video.
Be sure to let us know what YOGA IS for you in the comments!