Ancient yoga, a way of modern life

Some schools now teach their kids to meditate to help them focus and perform better in class, war veterans overcome their post-traumatic stress disorder in yoga classes and a number of international airports even offer yoga rooms.

When I first started yoga 11 years ago, there were only two studios in Jakarta. Now in South Jakarta alone there are nearly two dozen studios.

Indeed yoga is a growing industry, at least in the US where the amount spent on yoga and its related products reaches US$27 billion in a year. Who would have guessed 15 years ago that women would pay $150 for a pair of exercise pants?

On social media people post photos of themselves contorting in various poses. Many are inspired by “instayogis” who reign over the visual-based social media platform Instagram by striking superhuman yoga poses in photos linked by a plethora of hashtags like #yogaeverydamnday.

The fact that the UN has declared June 21 the International Day of Yoga reflects how yoga has grown from an ancient spiritual discipline from India to the ubiquitous system of exercise practiced by millions of people around the globe today.

But yoga is so much more than the practice of stretching and lifting. Yoga is a philosophy, a discipline, a technique, a goal. It is a spiritual as well as a physical practice. It is as much mental as it is experiential. Most importantly, it is a way of life to still the restive mind, the cause of human misery, yogas chitta vritti nirodha in Sanskrit.

The physical yoga practice (asana in Sanskrit) is just one aspect under the umbrella of the vast yoga traditions and it wasn’t even systematically developed as a method until more than a century ago. Today, however, to most people yoga is nothing more than physical exercise.

Is that bad? Not necessarily. A well-balanced yoga asana practice is achieved through the executions of movements and poses with regulated breathing and a fully present mind. In the harried, fast-paced world of today where we are constantly bombarded with digital distractions, this practice can be an oasis of quietude and sensibility.

Yoga has been proven in many scientific studies to have various therapeutic effects on the body and mind. While this “healing” quality is often attributed solely to its stress-busting effect, what’s often overlooked is the empowering property of yoga.

I’ve seen people losing weight and never regaining it once they’ve started doing yoga, because it gave them the mental capacity to be mindful of what they eat and because they learned in their yoga practice that they could achieve anything if they focused their mind on the present moment. No wonder therapists now recommend yoga to help trauma victims and doctors prescribe therapeutic yoga classes to their patients.

But the dark cousin to “empowerment” is narcissism. In the last decade, it has become obvious to me that yoga, like a lot things, can fuel narcissism. This is nothing new. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, perhaps the most authoritative resources on yoga that was compiled around 400 CE, warns that increased power gained from yoga practice can inflate the ego (as can anything that gives us a sense of power, of course) and tempt us to abuse it if we’re not careful.

Just look at those fallen western and Indian gurus who had been caught in recent years sexually abusing their students or misusing money donated to their causes by their devotees.

Superficially, this is reflected in the popularity of the Instayogi celebrities, a new breed of elites who rise to the top on the merits of their flexibility, physical strength and their looks. Whether standing on their forearms at a cliff, or putting one stilettoed leg behind the ear with one hand holding a shopping bag on a busy pavement (grouped by hashtag #yogaeverywhere) — what do these have to do with stilling the restive mind?

My biggest concern is that the heavy emphasis on physicality fuels a culture of “grasping” in a world that is already over-consuming. It has inspired a legion of wannabes who enter yoga classes with the intention of quickly mastering an advanced pose, taught by newly certified teachers too eager to show off.

An adrenaline-fueled yoga industry in the West — which ironically in turn brought it back here to the East — has sent thousands to the hospital or physical therapists for yoga-related injuries. The New York Times journalist William J. Broad extensively documented the problem of injuries in his book The Science of Yoga, The Risks and Rewards.

And then there is the body image issue. When yoga is represented by slim, ultra-flexible, western (or Asian) women’s bodies, it sends the message that yoga is about physical appearance and flexibility of the body. Never mind the depth and the massive mental potential one can harness out of yoga, the life-long practice.

I was introduced to yoga as a stressed-out journalist with a bad digestive system and recurring migraine. It was a gentle practice in a carpeted rented hall that cost me less than $3 per class, a fraction of what it cost in a studio. I didn’t even have a yoga mat until my fourth session. Later I moved on to more vigorous types of yoga at different studios and took various workshops and teacher trainings in Indonesia and overseas, including India.

But just as my practice grew more internal and my interest in yoga shifted to its richly textured intellectual and historical aspects, my enthusiasm for the physical practice waned. I have not been teaching in nearly two years because of my work commitment, but it’s possibly an excuse to step back from the noises that is yoga these days.

Today when I meet with fellow yoga teachers or ex-teachers from back then, we marvel at how freely students and teachers these days take photos during classes to post on social media (ironic because back then a yoga class was the only time for me to get away from my laptop and BlackBerry).

We’re concerned about the high level of yoga-related injuries and we talk about the difficulty in getting ourselves back into the physical practice.

Whatever our complaint about the yoga of today, however, we remain grateful of one thing: that yoga has opened the door for us to discover a whole new path of consciousness and given us the useful skills and tools to still and cultivate our minds. The rest, as my teacher used to say, is practice.

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