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Yoga: Stretching the Body, Stretching the Soul?

22 Sep, 2004 By: Brendan Howard


An Eastern Indian, swathed in white to cover his nakedness, contorts himself into prohibitively difficult poses as part of a practice to achieve enlightenment.

That's a stereotype of a yoga practitioner that's fallen away in the face of an onslaught of people in U.S. gyms today who take breaks from their high-impact aerobics to do “power yoga” or visit rooms heated to 105 degrees for “hot yoga.” They seek to sculpt their bodies, get rid of stress and alleviate pain, but are they seeking enlightenment?

What is there of religion and spirituality in yoga as it's practiced by Americans today in gyms, yoga studios and at home with the aid of yoga videos?

Yoga's Early Years
According to historical accounts, yoga-like poses can be seen in records dating back to 3,000 B.C., but the canonical text for the yoga practiced today is the Yoga-Sutra, written by Patanjali in India in the second century A.D.

In it, Patanjali explains the eight limbs of yogic practice: Yama, personal ethics; Niyama, social ethics; Asana, posture; Pranayama, breath control; Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses and preparation for meditation; Dharana, concentration; Dyhana, one-pointed concentration or meditation; and Samadhi, the absorption with the divine.

“In the times of Patanjali, one could not think of practice and theory as two separate parts,” said Lidia Pita, a teacher with The Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India, which teaches yoga as philosophy, not religion. “They were conceived as one: the practice actualizing the thinking and the thinking being nourished by the practical experiences.”

Further muddying the waters for newcomers to the philosophy is that Indian believers of Hinduism incorporated yoga into their religion.

“In Hinduism, some of the gods are practitioners of yoga,” Pita said. “In the mythology, the god Shiva is the founder of yoga.”

However, the yoga practiced in gyms and on videos usually works with only two of the limbs — postures and breath control — and eschews practices for proper speech and conduct or deeper meditation.

“Anchor Bay's yoga videos don't have a particularly spiritual element intentionally. They are more about enjoying yoga and its mind/body benefits, [in whatever way] each individual chooses to interpret them,” said Michelle Rygiel, VP of marketing for Anchor Bay, which has Basic Yoga Workout for Dummies and yoga titles in its “Crunch” series.

Pita, however, argues that practice and philosophy are interconnected: “[Yoga's] limbs are … dependent on each other. It is not possible to do yoga meditation — meditation as it is defined in classical yoga — without good physical posture, introspection, a certain attitude, etc.”

Spiritual, Not Religious
But many of today's yoga teachers aren't practicing classical yoga, instead teaching people to use the postures and the breathing and their calming influence to relieve stress, alleviate pain and increase flexibility. These teachers, though, say it can still be spiritually meaningful.

“It brings you to a deep state of relaxation that you don't get from jogging and pumping iron … a level of awareness that does bring people into a more spiritual practice,” said Susan Winter Ward, teacher in such videos as Embracing Menopause and Accessible Yoga for Every Body. “A woman in my class said, ‘It was the strangest thing, when we were lying there after the class, I felt like I didn't know where I was, and I couldn't feel my body anymore. Is that OK?' I said, ‘You just got the big payoff.’

“It's this amazing release valve,” said Baron Baptiste, who teaches yoga in heated rooms for increased sweating and flexibility and recently released Trainer's Edge: Long and Lean Yoga With Baron Baptiste from Koch Entertainment. “[They] feel they've been rinsed out. They become more calm. You can call that spiritual, you can call it practical.”

Christine Dormaier, who recently released the video Strong Bones Yoga and teaches at her studio in Seattle, said her form of yoga is geared toward individuals' needs, not the set traditional yogic poses.

“The yoga I learned from T. Krishnamacharya did three big things: taught yoga to women, separated yoga from religion and adapted yoga to the individual, looking at function over form,” Dormaier said.

Adapting yoga to people, not people to yoga, is a concept that sits well with some, like Winter Ward.

“Ashtanga and bikram [types of traditional yoga] have a set series of poses. That's what they do every time. I think our bodies are more creative than that,” Winter Ward said.

Even older, famous Indian yogis, like the one featured in Caroline Laskow and Mary Wigmore's documentary Ashtanga, N.Y., from First Run Features, leave out the philosophy for some audiences.

“[K. Pattabi] Jois does not teach the spiritual or religious [aspects] of ashtanga yoga,” Laskow said. “His yoga classes are about the physical practice, not ideas.”

This divorce of the physical practice of yoga from its philosophy isn't necessarily because the teachers themselves don't use the philosophy, but because some students are skittish about studying a yoga that might conflict with deeply held religious beliefs. A lot of that, though, comes down to terminology, not real religious dissonance.

“Because I started out teaching beginners and seniors, I didn't use a lot of Sanskrit [ancient Indian] words. I didn't integrate a lot of the yogic philosophy in yogic terms,” Winter Ward said. “If I talk about prana [breath], the Sanskrit might not go down well with a born-again Christian. But I can call it ‘life-force energy' or the ‘breath of God.' You can call the sun ‘sol' or ‘sun' or ‘that ball of gas.' It's the same thing, and it does the same thing.”

Some yoga teachers, thus, believe the philosophy of yoga can be adapted to different belief systems. But they all believe in the beneficial qualities of the practice.

“How do you appeal to the majority?” said Rainbeau Mars, who has a series of videos from Natural Journeys. “Offer what you know is medicine, but actually get the patient to take it? You coat it with an easy-to-swallow, sweet [covering], and you know that the medicine will eventually have a positive effect.”

“They may have a Protestant or Catholic or Jewish background,” Winter Ward said, “but this just enhances them. It helps them learn how to be quiet.”

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