“That’s not real yoga,” she said. “No, you are a towel,” I replied.
Unfortunately I have never said that, though I would certainly like to, because the response makes about as much sense as the allegation. Here's why:
Claiming that a certain yoga class is not real yoga, or that a certain school of yoga is not real yoga, or that a certain teacher does not teach real yoga, is generally a misguided and groundless accusation. “That’s not real yoga,” is usually something uttered by someone who is either riding a spiritual high horse and/or lacks an understanding of the history of yoga.
Disclaimer: I made this pronouncement about two years ago, so I'm really just making fun of myself here. But if you are already feeling defensive, then that just tells me you see validity in my point.
First, some background on why I’m writing this: “That’s not real yoga,” is one of the most common complaints I hear or read about when it comes to yoga classes. It’s right up there with “the music sucked,” and “not sweaty enough.”
Some anecdotal examples:
- “They didn’t Om. It’s not yoga if you don’t Om.”
- “The class didn’t include much actual yoga.”
- "Not a true vinyasa."
- “Stand Up Paddleboard Yoga is not real yoga.”
- Or my favorite: A Buddhist monk recently asked me what I did for a living. Knowing what was coming, I reluctantly told him that I teach yoga. He told me that none of — none of it! — the yoga in America was “actually yoga.”
Now if I said all of these people were wrong, and then I told you what was right, I might as well be another bullet point on that list. I don’t want to be on that list, so instead, I’ll argue that they’re all right (and therefore all wrong). (Lol.)
They are right because the definition of yoga is about as loose as (insert possessive noun) (insert noun).
Editor's note: please send witty fill-in-the-blanks from the mad lib above to: firstname.lastname@example.org
For reasons I will briefly outline below, I’m not convinced there is one true yoga. So yeah, in that sense, you might be right in saying your power yoga class wasn't real yoga. But if you’re convinced that one style of yoga is the truth, then I would challenge you to examine the underlying assumptions of that opinion.
Let’s begin with etymology. What is the definition of yoga? I often pose this question to students in my classes, which tends to invoke a deafening silence amongst even the most faithful.
When someone does have an answer to this apparently elusive question, the response is usually: “yoga means union.”
Sure. Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word “yuj,” and first appears around 1500 BCE in the ancient Indian collection of hymns known as the Rigveda. Yuj means to unite, in its most common literal sense. “Yoga” is also essentially the same as our word “yoke,” from the latin “yungari” meaning “to join.”
“Join,” “junction,” “union,” “yoke” — they’re all fair translations of the word yoga. But yoga has literally hundreds of meanings, perhaps more than any word in the Sanskrit lexicon, and signifies any form of connection.
The earliest known yogic practices included Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, Jnana yoga, the yoga of direct confrontation with the mind, and Karma yoga, the path of action.
There are some common threads in yoga that begin to emerge in the fifth century CE, as outlined by David Gordon White in his 2011 book, “Yoga, A Brief History of an Idea.” One of these threads is that the goal of yoga is moksha or liberation. Put another way, yoga seeks to free people from suffering, to transcend the difficulties of life in order to have a better life. Or as I like to describe it, yoga implies a state of consciousness that is the opposite of what psychiatrists would call separation, the feeling of being cut-off from being.
But how you get moksha, and what that looks like varies widely across different philosophical or theological systems.
The fifth century also birthed new yogic paths such as: Tantra yoga, the yoga of indulgence (for lack of a better brief description), Laya yoga, today called Kundalini, and Hatha yoga, which is believed to be the origin of the physical collection of poses with which most modern day yogis are familiar.
Today we have power, restorative, gentle, acro, yin, aerial, vinyasa, and rocket, to name a few.
All of the above styles rely on asanas (poses) that did not even exist until the early 20th century. And vinyasa, perhaps the most popular style of yoga in the West today, did not morph into its current form until the last few decades. Practices like yin and restorative are even more nascent. And if you’re reading this article, I can almost guarantee you that many familiar poses like “wild thing,” did not exist before you were born.
Even the most revered yoga practices are evolving in real time. Or as Alanna Kaivalya, author of "Myths of the Asanas," wrote in a 2012 blog post for the Huffington Post: “Basically, we’re all just making this shit up.”
Yeah, it’s the cold, hard and also, in my opinion, beautiful truth. I make shit up in my classes every day. Last week I taught a class about balance. I began the class by asking students to balance on one foot, imagining that they were teetering on a slackline in windy conditions, and that they needed to use their arms like a tightrope walker would use a balancing stick. While maintaining balance on one leg, I proceeded to add in standing elbow-to-knee crunches as a way to warm up the core and wake up stabilizing muscles in the legs. This comes from the ancient tradition of shit-that-came-into-my-head-last-Thursday.
Is that real yoga? Does it matter?
Good enough for me, and I think for my students, too. It was fun, it was healthy, and with the exception of those too hung up on defining what yoga is or is not, it got practitioners into the present moment. If you don’t think that’s real yoga, then respectfully, I think you are a towel.