In the yoga industry there are differing opinions on what is considered yoga and what is not. People who can make really impressive shapes with their bodies and demonstrate an extreme amount of flexibility in their photos on Instagram, say they are doing yoga. Many people who troll the internet feel the need to correct them by telling them that they aren’t practising yoga, they are just contortionists or acrobats. It leads me to the question – what is the meaning of yoga? And why does that meaning for one person get disputed by another?
The most simple answer is that yoga means “union”. We unite body and breath by breathing in time to the movement of our body, and we also unite mind and body by self-enquiring into how our body is moving. But it also means to unite our physical body with our higher consciousness. Now that is a hell of a lot more subjective.
Something interesting I have discovered along my journey is that whenever I practise yoga asana (postures) for the purpose of taking a photo or videoing it to share on social media, I aggravate my old injuries. At first I would think to myself “serves you right for being egotistical and wanting approval on a God damn app”. But then as it continued to happen (obviously I didn’t learn to check my ego enough) I started to look deeper into why my body has this reaction to this particular egoic thought process.
I noticed that whenever a camera is on me while practicing, my mind would be in a state that uses my body like it’s a tool or machine, rather than regarding it as the vessel that carries my experiences. When I practice without any regard to aesthetic or external approval, I am actually working on and feeling what’s happening inside my body, not what’s on the outside. I realised I’m trying to capture an internal experience through an external medium, but in doing so it automatically takes away from the inner work and as a result makes me feel pain where I’m physically vulnerable.
As one of the Yamas in the principles of yoga is Ahimsa, or ‘non-violence’, the fact that I am awakening injuries when I practice with importance placed on the external means that it is taking me away from yoga, or “union” with myself, and causing “violence” in my body. So therefore, the opposite of that would be practicing with importance put on my inner experience, where I can move towards what is considered yoga in terms of union between body, breath, and higher consciousness.
So if yoga is something that can definitely be felt, then what part of it is seen? And what allows the judgement of others to define what is yoga and what isn’t? We exercise and do drills and postures in yoga to of course improve our body physically, but the failures and triumphs that go with practicing these movements are what really changes us, rather than the poses themselves. The changes we undergo through consistent practice results in the body we have, the way we carry ourselves and how we show up in life.
I remember once after teaching a class one of the gym members approached me to ask how she could start moving her body as easily as I made it look, and would she have to practice for hours every day. I said I did practice every day but not in a way that I’m always physically pushing myself to get better at yoga, it was more in a way that I constantly show up for my body and pay attention to it. That means sometimes I do a strengthening gym session, and sometimes I do a slow and easy yoga session. I use physical movement as a way to connect to myself and wake up to what’s happening inside. When I feel that connection starting to wane, I reconnect by moving again.
I also told her that I felt the point of my practice was not to improve how I looked or how I moved, it was to improve how I felt. And as a general rule, when what’s happening on the inside is good, how you look on the outside is also good. It’s like with our skin; we can use all the expensive anti-ageing creams and blemish gels we like, but if our diet and hydration is poor, if we are stressed and don’t get enough sleep, our skin won’t look healthy. So when I feel good on the inside because I have been practising and paying attention to my body, it shows on the outside and you can see it in the way I move.
The energy you carry around you is also a direct reflection of what’s happening inside you. Someone who looks aesthetically fit with big muscles would obviously have a lot of physical movement in their life, but that’s not to say they’re aware of what’s happening inside of them. They can still be carrying around a lot of weight in their mind and feel very stressed, so unless they address the mental and emotional aspect of what’s going on inside them, they will emit that stressed energy into the world.
The same goes for shy or anxious people, who hunch over to protect their vital organs since their body is always in a state of panic and feeling threatened. By the same token relaxed people swing their arms and hips freely, and have an open body and manner. Yogis that choose to be vegan on the grounds of Ahimsa (non-violence) choose not to ingest violence, so their body often reflects that by having a calm, serene energy.
So what the gym member was seeing wasn’t just hours upon hours of physical practice, she was seeing a relaxed and fluid energy, the result of consistent self-enquiry and inner work to achieve a calm mental and emotional state.
This brings me back to the original question – Why does yoga mean different things to different people? The answer I’ve come to is because we all have our own experiences as individuals. What feels good for one person may not feel good for another. Someone may feel completely awkward and disconnected filming or taking photos of themselves doing yoga, while another may feel completely at home and at peace in front of a camera. No one can say whether the “contortionist” on Instagram is doing yoga or not, because we can’t see what’s happening inside them, what their inner experience is, in that snapshot of a miniscule moment in time.
We can’t know if that person was feeling incredible with their feet above their head with their spine doubled over backwards, or if they are holding their breath because of the pain of their spinal compression just holding on until the photo was taken. The latter is not what I would call yoga, because it represents a disconnection. However, that sense of discomfort and pain could lead that person down the path of finding connection and peace within themselves, simply because they’ve felt the pain and want to move away from it, which in the end results in yoga. How do we know peace when we have not known turmoil?
I think all in all it just goes to show that we are in no position to judge someone on what they are doing or what they think is this or that. Everyone is on their own path and finding their own way to happiness in whichever way works for them, whether through yoga or not.