Why modern yoga is without purpose and direction.
When I first started taking yoga classes at studios in CA, it was approached and taught as just a physical practice. The emphasis was on alignment and how to move in and out of asana safely. While my body enjoyed the benefits in terms of feeling relaxed and calm, my inner being or sense of self felt neglected.
I would walk away feeling lost and directionless. I was missing purpose and guidance beyond the mat. Unfortunately, these types of classes exist even today, where the sole purpose is devoted to the annamaya kosha; known as the physical layer.
Over the years I have seen how yoga has slowly been distanced from its roots and the teachings diluted to reflect personal interpretations. Lately, western scholars claim that because Hinduism is a modern concept, therefore ‘yoga’ does not belong to Hinduism. I cannot tell you how this statement reeks of control and this sentiment is reflected within yoga platforms and the industry even today. Patanjali’s Sutras are quickly glanced over during teacher training and the yamas and niyamas are often misunderstood and side-lined.
While living in India I noticed how many, including my parents, would start their day with an offering, a gesture of surrendering to Ishvara (God). In embodying this practice, faith which is a quality of trust becomes established. Faith is what you believe in with sincere conviction. Within the practice of yoga, shraddha or faith is central to indigenous spiritual practices.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.29.1) says that the home for faith resides in the heart and logical thinking within the mind. Divinity is invisible to the senses and the rational mind cannot comprehend this concept. However, within Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), having faith in the scriptures, the teachings and in dharma creates purpose and gives meaning to one’s life and practice. Faith within Hindu culture is reflected in our worldviews, values and actions. Faith births trust, devotion, dedication and commitment.
Over the years my practice evolved from what was physical and without internal direction to one that is rooted in faith, intention and purpose. Over time, I have seen my yoga move beyond the mat. This was and is still due to the element of ishvara (divine) pranidhana (surrendering) with conviction.
In 2020 leading up to April 2021, my practice was about the steadiness of the mind and this was not a conscious-driven practice.... it was more about instinct and subtle listening. Asana to me is a means to move the body to release heavy or stagnant prana. I was seeking guidance and purpose in my life. Thus began studying the Bhagavad Gita. Little did I know that these very teachings would support me through the most traumatic experience of losing both my parents (within 12 hours of each other), during India’s second covid wave.
In the past, I would always step back and reflect on the how’s and why’s and would inevitably find myself turning to the scriptures. Connecting the dots between what I practiced and the insights I gained on the mat, would end up being the very tools I would use and need to guide me during that difficult time and what was to come afterwards. As I sit here writing this, I think back to what my body and mind have been through. Mentally I find it difficult to digest, but my heart understands the effect it has taken on my overall health. Once again, I turn to my faith in yoga as it guides me to a more restorative practice both on and off the mat.
This is just one of those difficult moments in which faith shows up for me. The beauty of ishvarapranidhana is that it heightens one's sense of intuitive listening raising awareness of every action in life and encourages one to be open no matter what shows up.
There are times when we do experience this deep surrendering but as a last resort, whereas within a spiritual practice it is embodied in everything we do. It involves deep listening and respecting the sacredness that this practice brings. Inviting this essence into every aspect of our lives. It cannot be picked or dropped at any given moment… it is about having faith in the process and the subtle wisdom it brings. This vital essence is what transforms yoga into a sacred spiritual embodied practice that goes beyond the confines of any mat, studio and trend.
To many western yoga practitioners, this approach of ishvarapranidhana or surrendering with conviction to the higher consciousness is not only odd but rarely established within western yoga and is often seen as giving up one's agency. Western practitioners find this threatening, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. When yoga traditions and knowledge are converted into marketable commodities it loses its value and when something is devalued it ends up getting destroyed and when it is destroyed it becomes devoid of any reverence and purpose to the practitioner and this negatively impacts Hindu culture.... the very culture from which the teachings were taken from.
Ishvarpranidhana is the acceptance of something that is higher than us beings and the wish to be influenced by that as we progress on the yoga path. It is through this that we are able to shift the focus from our obsession with the 'ego' to that of being reunited with our true nature....Brahman.
Artwork: S. Rajam