Do you like it hot, nude or aerial? Or do you prefer it when doused in chocolate? Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions; these are just some of the styles of yoga available in many American cities.
Yoga is a way of life that was documented for the first time in ancient India by an ancient Indian saint, Patanjali, more than 3,000 years ago. His scripture, called Yogasutra, describes an ashtanga or eight-fold path of yoga viewed as a guideline to ensure a person’s mind, body and soul are in sync.
The first step is called yama, which dictates a person’s attitude toward people and the surrounding world; the second, niyama, is a person’s inward attitude toward the self. The third and most popular limb, asana, involves physical discipline and poses.
Pranayama is the fourth limb that teaches breath control; prathayara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal of senses. Dharana and dhyana are the sixth and seventh limbs, which mean concentration and meditation, respectively. If a practitioner fulfills all these elements, he reaches samadhi — enlightenment — which is the eighth and ultimate goal.
Many people today — especially Americans — have strayed from the traditional eight-limbed path and are practicing many different types of yoga.
“The beauty of yoga is that anyone can take their own preferred path. It allows tailoring for individual needs,” says Sheetal Shah, a senior director of the Hindu American Foundation and leader of the Take Back Yoga campaign. This liberty to select and branch out has given rise to the many types of yoga such as Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Hatha, Kripalu and others.
Most of these types of yoga emphasize the third step, asana, which focuses on body position. Though just one of the eight elements of yoga, the physical benefits that come as a wonderful byproduct of this branch have made it a popular workout in Western culture.
Shah points to American marketing genius, noting that whenever there is a market for something, someone’s going to make money. “The lack of a governing body makes it easier for people to come up with strange and innovative types of yoga or not yoga,” she says. Smaller yoga studios don’t make that much money, she adds, so they must find ways to set themselves apart from the myriad of options this $6 billion industry has to offer.
Nilotpal Sanyal, president of the Vedic Society of Columbia and a yogi (yoga practitioner), says the ultimate goal of yoga is to take us beyond our bodies. “Yoga is not about improving one’s physique or increasing one’s sensuality,” he says. “It is about having spiritual discipline that can be achieved through physical discipline.”
Susan Mathis, director of alleyCat Yoga, agrees. “People call us all the time, asking if they can lose 10 pounds in two weeks by attending our classes,” she says, noting that yoga was not created or intended to be a workout session. “It is a way of life, a practice that goes way beyond a 90-minute session in the studio.”
To be a true practitioner of yoga, people must incorporate all eight yoga elements into their lifestyles. Someone who does a headstand is not necessarily a yoga expert, Shah says. Yogis are compassionate toward others and in full control of mind, body and soul.
Even some teachers are unaware of the main tenets of yoga and do not practice it correctly, Sanyal says, forming a cycle of misinformation that passes from teacher to student.
“Attending yoga training boot camp for two days does not make you a teacher,” Mathis says. Although she has taught yoga for more than 10 years, she still visits the Kripalu ashram in Massachusetts to refresh her knowledge of the practice.
Attending a class of 30 or 40 people could turn out to be a recipe for disaster, she says. The benefits of yoga come from individual attention from a teacher certified at a reputable training school.
A good teacher will understand the student’s body and try to figure out what works best for every individual student, Mathis says. Her mantra for success as a teacher is reminding her students to breathe, relax, feel, watch and allow.
A one-hour yoga class, taught by a good guru, involves asanas, pranayama (controlled breathing techniques) and meditation to relax the body.
Recent articles from The New York Times describe how yoga can wreck the body. Shah attributes this failure to teachers emphasizing only the physical aspect of yoga and overlooking the others. Some asanas can be really strenuous and challenging; excessive practice can result in injury — just like any other form of vigorous exercise.
The root of yoga is Hinduism, which meets some resistance in Western culture. All asanas have Sanskrit names and some, such as the Nataraj asana or Kali asana, are names of Hindu gods and goddesses. Yogis chant the sacred Hindu syllable of om at the beginning or end of a class. The final goal of yoga and Hinduism is the same — to attain moksha, or spiritual freedom, Sanyal says.
However, the purpose of teaching yoga is not to teach religion, Mathis says. She considers yoga a spiritual practice that draws people to their own inner spark.
According to Yoga Sol founder Polly Sweitzer, yoga is neither a confining practice nor is it about religious conversion. Yoga can be interpreted in many different ways, she says, provided yogis take it beyond the class and into their homes; eventually, yoga becomes a lifestyle.
Mathis says finding an authentic American practice can be difficult. As she attends different classes around the state and the country, she says she encounters two extremes: Some teachers don’t even name and explain the poses before teaching them, while others teach breathing, postures and meditation so effectively that it cultivates positive energy.
Sweitzer comes from Southern California, where she trained under some of the country’s most celebrated yoga gurus. She finds that people in a small Midwestern town such as Columbia seek good and authentic yoga, and that makes her happy. She observes more and more Columbians are pursuing certification and teacher training in reputable institutes within Columbia.
Because Columbia is a college town, Mathis says, its residents include many educated people from different parts of the world; most know how to distinguish between an instructor offering authentic yoga and a work out session. “That said, it’s not unheard of that people here are getting sucked into some of these regimes that are tagged as yoga because of their wonderful marketing,” she says. “The sad part is people stick on to these and think it’s the right thing because they see instant results like weight loss.”
Mathis says her dream is to have an ashram (yoga retreat) atmosphere in Columbia where yogis can meditate, be one with their inner selves and realize the ultimate goal of yoga.
Local Authentic Yoga
Element Yoga & Health Studio
1506 Chapel Hill Road, Suite E
23 S. Fourth St.
210B Saint James St.
Global Yoga Journeys
914 Maupin Road