By Jayanthi Gopalakrishnan
I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what yoga, in its purest form, is. When I was a child growing up in India, yoga was not popular. It was only recently when Bollywood actresses adopted the practice as part of their fitness regimen that yoga gained a following in India. Even there, it has become trendy.
During the 1970s and 80s, few people practiced yoga in India and for them it was a personal pursuit. They never publicized it. My grandfather was one such person. Every time he would visit us or we would visit him, I remember how he would practice every day for an hour or more at the same time. Apparently he never missed a day and towards the last 10 or so years of his life, he limited his asana practice to just doing Sirsasana (headstand), Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), and Padmasana (lotus pose), staying in those poses for about 20 minutes each. In hindsight, I realize that his dedication to yoga, the precision in everything he did, and continuous self study are what made him well connected with his higher self. It’s very rare to find a person who knows exactly when he will leave this world. He had a powerful personality, was well respected, and very caring for the well being of others. He was extremely disciplined in everything he did and wanted others to be that way. Needless to say, he was feared by all.
Now, 30 or so years later, when I started practicing and embarking on my journey to become a yoga teacher, the exposure I had to yoga as a child has definitely molded my perception of yoga. When I started practicing yoga in 2005, yoga was much more popular in the US than it was in India. But I was surprised to find out how yoga had been so far removed from its purest sense. Instead of it being a quest for a personal relationship with your inner self, it was marketed as a form of exercise. It was being offered in gyms, and terms such as “hot yoga” or “vinyasa flow” were the norm. Whatever happened to the traditional form of yoga? They were there but were few and far between.
Yoga in the modern world — even in modern day India — has become more of a social activity, something to add to your list of things to do. It has become trendy — you have to have that athletic look and wear designer yoga outfits. Although it makes me happy to see that something has been taken from India and adapted all over the world, it is upsetting to see that the adaptation has been done without focusing on the purpose of yoga.
Based on my observations, I found that there were three broad categories of yoga practitioners — those who do yoga purely for the physical aspect (to feel good), those who think they have attained spiritual enlightenment from performing yoga, and those who are sincere, that is, practice yoga to connect with their soul.
The sincere practitioner recognizes that asana is just one of the tools to achieve union with the soul. Yoga is a way of life and there is a lot more to yoga than asana. I believe it’s a personal pursuit and one that should not be taken lightly. Sadly, people in the modern world can’t comprehend the concept of union with the soul. As a result, they adapt their yoga practice to their way of life and are disillusioned into thinking that what they are doing is yoga.