Pajamasana™

Yoga for a better bedtime

Change and yoga

| 2 Comments

Current events have made this a good time to point out that all human practices, including yoga, change over time according to their cultural contexts.

William J. Broad‘s forthcoming book, “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards,” and its teaser article that ran Jan. 5 in the New York Times have elicited many thousands of words in the public conversation about yoga. Good. People have debated the benefits dangers of yoga compared with other physical activities, whether there’s too much focus on it as a physical activity to begin with (particularly in the U.S.), whose responsibility it is if someone does get injured doing yoga and even, recently, who should be allowed to teach yoga to begin with. All good.

Students have e-mailed me and stayed after class to ask my thoughts on the matter. I’m glad to see them thinking about how and why they do yoga, questioning their teachers’ and their own roles. I believe it can only increase their awareness of themselves and the world – a worthy goal for any yogi.

In answer to their questions, I would turn a page to the next chapter in our class, and in doing so look back to one of the canonical texts of the yoga tradition, the Bhagavad Gita. The next several weeks of my classes at Yoga Sanctuary will be based on various themes from the Gita. In his brilliant (although perhaps overly academic for non-scholar readers) introduction to the edition I studied with my teacher, J.A.B. van Buitenen places the composition of the Gita in a time of significant change in the practice of yoga.

For the historical details of what was going on when and where the Gita was written and how the story fits into all that, it’s best to read van Buitenen. Suffice it to say, he describes a shift that places more emphasis on individual action and contemplation, with less reliance on the assistance of a priest and his exclusive knowledge of rituals for spiritual salvation.

In this interpretation, Krishna‘s urging Arjuna to take up arms and do his duty as a soldier takes on a meaning we can easily understand today. The ancient codes and texts , as well as our teachers, serve an essential purpose on our spiritual path, but each person has his own duty to carry out on that path (albeit without attachment to reward, etc., which we’ll get to later).

To reduce this to the terms of the current debate, I must be properly trained, get continuing education, buy insurance, be mindful of students’ limitations and assume the many other responsibilities required of a teacher. Nevertheless, students aren’t guaranteed enlightenment, weight loss or even a good time in exchange for the fees they pay to take my class. What if they were? I can imagine the ad taglines for places selling such an ideal – “permanent bliss, or your money back.”

The world of yoga has kept changing since Krishna signaled the beginning of householders appropriating yogic power from the brahmins – for as many equally complicated reasons as those van Buitenen addressed. Today, unimpaired adult students in a yoga class are expected to take responsibility for their own well-being; the waivers they sign attest to this. Most American studios don’t adopt a strictly guru-centered approach, in which all one’s hopes (and conversely, his failures) could be pinned on a great enlightened one. Another way to put it is, there’s no one Yoga.

If there were, it would be easier to answer with a simple yes or no the question, “Can yoga can wreck your body?” You would only have to investigate the prescription  in question. As it is, the effect yoga has on you – whether physical, spiritual, mental or emotional – has a lot to do with your teacher, yes, and a lot to do with you, too.

Author: Heidi Kyser

I am a freelance writer and part-time yoga instructor in Las Vegas. I started my yoga practice in 2000, at City Yoga Los Angeles. In early 2004, I moved to Las Vegas and began practicing at Sherry Goldstein's Yoga Sanctuary. In 2006, following some big changes in my life, I went through a teacher training and started teaching at Yoga Sanctuary. I knew after my first class that I wanted to keep teaching yoga for as long as I could. In 2007, I completed a 200-hour Anusara teacher training with Noah Mazé and City Yoga founder Anthony Benenati. As part of that training, I received Yoga Alliance RYT 200 certification. From 2008 to 2011, I also was an Anusara Inspired™ instructor. While continuing my career in journalism, I've simultaneously nurtured my skills as a yoga instructor, in order to better communicate with and help my students. The trainings and workshops I've taken have focused increasingly on the therapeutic benefits of the practice. Thanks for visiting. If you like my posts, please subscribe and comment. I hope that you will read and contribute often.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent commentary. It seems to me that Krishna and Patanjali are both prescribing a change in consciousness. That is, a change away from self-centeredness. This can be a hard sell in a materialistic society that glorifies/condemns the individual. I think you are right on that it has to all come down to what the student is ready for. Arjuna was a soldier. And though he wanted to know more about the spiritual life, in the beginning, at least, he was torn about his reputation if he fought or if he didn’t fight. Krishna met him where he was and talked to him about duty. And he made it clear to Arjuna that he would have to loosen up his concerns about outcomes if he wanted to move forward spiritually. There’s the potential of yoga. If we can keep it from being commodified down to just another toy suitable for late-night infomercials, it can have a deep positive effect on many, many lives, and the good ripples out from there. But there is currently a lot of nonsense running around out there, imo. Thanks for the insightful post.

    I want to know more about your understanding of the Gita, so I will check back from time to time. Thanks.

  2. The Bhagavid Gita is such an interesting text, perhaps a reflection of Krishna’s own story and plight. It takes on the most difficult of subjects – that of being pitted against one’s own family, friends, teachers, or society. And, in a sense, yoga is ancient warrior training. It is not that we should prepare for war, for in fact we are already engaged in one. It is a spiritual battle for our own soul, waged against our inner self and the world we live in.

    The conversation of the Gita is conducted on a battlefield. In this story, the two opposing generals were given a choice: Either Krishna’s army, or Krishna’s wisdom. Arjuna chose Krishna’s wisdom, and as a result Krishna rode in his chariot, though he did not participate in the battle.

    This in itself is a huge metaphor. Do we practice yoga for the physical benefits (Krishna’s army), or for the spiritual benefit of coming to know God (Krishna’s wisdom). There are many physical benefits of yoga, but traditionally it’s quest is to come to know God, who is found in one’s inner most being.

    The reason this text, along with the Yoga Sutra, is one of the fundamental yoga references we have, is because yoga is a process of change, and it is a battle. To follow the path of yoga is to continue the journey and process of change. That can be difficult.

    People get injured in battle. People die in battle. That is understood. People also get injured practicing yoga, and if it not by a teacher who is over zealous, then it is by their own ego and pride. It needs to be taken seriously to be practiced properly, and teachers who teach it must also take it seriously. It takes more than a one month, 200 hour course to certify one in all things yoga. It is a continuing process and requires disciplined study. Raja yoga is a way of life.

    Comparing the injuries common in yoga to those in other fitness programs would probably reveal a much lower numer of incidents in yoga. I agree with you, Heidi, that this controversy over the possibility of injury and yoga is a good thing for the growth of yoga in our society. It is a valid conversation, and a necessary one for yoga to be taken more seriously. Good article. Hope to see you again soon. Scott Chisman.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: