How after 30 years of yoga practice I still can not see any way to label it.
I started practicing yoga (as many people do) for personal development. Yet despite my 30-year commitment to the practice and the study of its origins, I feel I still have not built a complete picture of the philosophy due to its vastness and subjective ambiguity.
My interests and motivations do not fully align with some aspects of the more popular philosophical textual sources. And I do not feel my yoga experience could ever be defined or measured as it seems to be for many.
I’d like to share my subjective experience with the practice and understanding of the philosophy, having evolved alongside the growth of a billion-dollar industry as it has unfolded from a niche discipline to a mainstream health sector pastime.
Before we go deeper, I want to clarify that this article is not intended to belittle anyone’s unique yoga experience.
On that note, let’s dig in…
The promise of yoga
Many people these days immerse themselves in yoga practice to become more physically healthy. Others aspire to an improved psychological state of being. Some become intrigued by the effect it has on cognition. Some are fascinated by eastern iconism and use yoga as a ritual discipline.
When I first started practicing yoga, it was an obscure subculture. In the early ’90s, I was traveling to India, to spend time at the Osho Commune in Pune and also to get a bit naughty at techno parties in the jungle in Goa.
It was in Goa that I spent some intimate time smoking chillums with Shaiva Sadhus. As they recited sections of parvas from the Mahabharata, I was intrigued, at the same time trying to make sense of these epic texts’ association with my yoga experience.
Back in Japan, one of my teachers, Josi Valicheri, would anarchistically guide us through an unpredictable variety of obscure practices varying from asana & pranayama to partial colon enemas and or gazing at candles for hours on end.
For years to come, I would wake up at the crack of dawn to do a full Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practice, preceded by or proceeding to a meditation and breathing routine.
The main reason I persevered with the practice was that the outcome of the commitment revealed a way for me to more clearly analyze my motivations and put them into context with whatever I was doing in my life.
So was I able to get a deeper understanding of my motivations? Yes, I did. Yet for me, that came with a price: hypersensitivity.
I believe that by doing a hatha yoga practice (the physical posture practice, pranayama, shatkarma etc.), one may become more healthy, more aware of their body, the physical limitations, and or how to work within those limitations to either eventually surpass them or learn to coexist with them. Although all these things may be attainable, the outcomes are circumstantial.
A few years ago, a neurologist at a progressive clinic in St. Petersburg, Russia, ran a bunch of tests to try and determine what was causing my chronic migraines, vertigo, tinnitus, and troubles with sleep.
After all the tests revealed nothing pathological, the doctors' educated guess was that after all the years of yoga practice, my mind had accessed a place where it would usually not go for most.
Traditional yoga texts often promise superpowers such as clairvoyance and immortality. In contrast, in my case, and avoiding different doctors’ recommendations for medicating to cope, I had to take two years off my work projects to establish a productive way to coexist with my heightened senses.
Although I have learned a lot through my yoga practice, and feel healthier than ever before, I am convinced that there are less invasive ways to reach the same goal for good health.
One thing that I have always felt questionable, is the direction the health and wellness industry has gone with the one-way ticket to happiness interpretation of the goal of yoga.
The only way I can decipher this coherently is that many people influencing the popularized growth of the industry have superimposed their subjective ideas/motivations onto yoga.
Better mood and physical health can be attained through many sports and fitness practices.
The sense of love, belonging, and happiness can be achieved via religious belief, social interactions, and community building.
Better emotional regulation can be balanced through behavioral and cognitive therapy, as well as being an active part of a community.
Most of this can be done without the associated side-effects and setbacks that I experienced through intense yoga and meditation practices.
I feel that many people turn to yoga to attain something readily available elsewhere without being informed about the potential outcomes and polarities of change that result from committing to an intensified practice.
If somebody said, “I want to explore the depth of my mind, and I am ready for the challenge,” I would recommend yoga, martial arts, and meditation as some of the different viable tools to get results. But if somebody said, “I want to be happy,” I can not recommend yoga as the first place to start.
I know this may sound controversial, but this comes from my 30+ years of experience in my practice, as well as observing other long-time yoga practitioners’ processes.
In fact, I could easily write a book about various physical, mental, and social dysfunctions I had witnessed in yogis, alternative health practitioners, martial artists, and long-time meditators.
I know there are opinions and even clinical studies on how yogic practices are good for health: how enemas are good for digestion, or how physical movements lead to better organ and glandular blood flow.
While I don’t disagree, I also feel that reducing yoga to enemas and internal organ massage is undervaluing what it can potentially provide as an insightful experience.
Guidance in yoga
Some of the teachers I had in both yoga and martial arts were strict, belligerent, and rude (and I respected them greatly).
They always pushed me to my limits, and those experiences profoundly transformed me.
In Sanskrit, guru means teacher. Throughout the documented history and mythology of yoga, there are many accounts of seekers continually returning to the guru for clarity, approval, and confirmation. Many texts stress that spiritual attainments are impossible without a guru.
One interpretation of the word guru describes Gu as darkness, and Ru as light — literally, a mentor that shows others knowledge (light) and destroys ignorance (or otherwise being in the dark).
This interpretation might suggest that eventually, we find the way which reveals that the answers are within us and that the process of getting to that light is challenging, yet necessary on the path to self-realization.
Looking back, the way my teachers challenged me, sometimes completely put me out of commission. I don’t blame them. I consciously opted to go for it.
Inevitably, those experiences and corresponding realizations significantly shaped what I do now.
We are, however, at a point in time where information is more readily available than ever before. We could argue that we no longer need a guru (we have, as they say in Japan, Google-sensei).
And I understand why many people these days will be happier with a smiling teacher saying “namaste” in a soft voice rather than a strict and militant mentor whacking a zen stick on the student’s back.
The catch is that without discipline and guidance from a single designated source we may also be distracted by too many options — sidetracked from our intended goals, never quite being able to grasp the importance of committed practice.
The popularization of yoga
The image that comes up when many people hear the word “yoga” these days are Instagram photos of many ex-gymnasts, ex-ballerinas, and ex-athletes posting pictures and short clips of themselves doing impressive yoga poses that are unachievable (and questionably dangerous) for many.
The idealizing and or sensationalizing of any discipline may threaten to distort the perception of the experience, leading to disappointment when the actual result does not match the expectations.
In this way, many people who try and persevere with a yoga practice these days can become discouraged when they lack either the flexibility or physical strength that they believe is needed to excel in their practice.
Although developing greater flexibility, strength and joint mobility are the byproducts of the commitment to any physical practice (not only yoga), many yogis, athletes, and movement enthusiasts know that progress is a gradual and delicate process attained by developing humility, self-awareness, and integrity.
Yoga influencers with young, healthy, and agile bodies who have achieved superb physical abilities might still not have grasped that broad understanding that could define the yoga experience as more than a mere physical, aesthetics-focused sport authenticated on an Instagram feed.
We have to admit that being able to demonstrate such physical skills does represent one facet of credibility. This show of ability is often the inspirational eye-candy that attracts many people to learn more about the practice.
Yet, do we see Olympic level gymnastics as the most significant representation of attainment in yoga?
One common interpretation of the word yoga is to describe a state of union — the binding together of physical and nonphysical elements to achieve a balanced way of life.
Unfortunately, the modern society in which most of us live is based on a competitive adversarial notion of being not just the best that one can be, but in so doing, also aspiring to be better than others.
Becoming fixated on the aesthetic beauty or challenge of a physical yoga posture might not only belittle the practice process itself — , it may also (as mentioned earlier) threaten to turn the entire experience into a disappointment.
The yoga of discovery
With all this being said, although disappointment may sound morose, it’s not universally wrong to end up being disappointed. And I really do not want to promote rejecting everything I highlighted in the previous paragraphs.
The discovery of any disappointment and eventual mastery of the origin of that realization has the potential to take us more deeply toward the root of our introspection.
How I learned to accept the adversity and exhilaration of any committed discipline is the same process by which I learned to embrace the difficulty and fullness of life.
By welcoming the changes in my body, both invigorating and sometimes devastating, I leveraged those changes as a catalyst for the broadening of insights.
By analyzing the subjectivity of my thoughts, I appreciated how to more completely embrace the value of the thoughts of others, growing and evolving together just as nature evolves around and within us.
The evolution of those perspectives offered me the chance to become more than I once was — more knowledgeable, more perceptive, more balanced, and thereby more fundamentally content with the unpredictable transformation of my life.
Currently, I see yoga as both a pathway and a destination at the same time: oscillating between a variable state of physical and mental health, appreciation of failure (as a tool to learn), its polarizing victories, and the acceptance of the relentless cycles among all these things throughout life.