“Simply breathing deeply and doing some exercises is not yoga, as far as the Bhagavad Gita is concerned
So, you think you're practicing yoga?
By Nancy Cooke
This is a critical article, but it is intended for your ultimate benefit! I do not usually express my criticisms so openly, because it is my belief there is enough of that judgmental energy in the world already. However, as Srila Prabhupada says, sometimes harsh words are necessary and dancing around the topic is of no benefit to anyone. I hope you find this article beneficial and are inspired to go deeper into your study of yoga as a result. Namasté!
Revising my philosophy and teaching:
“At the utmost we can only gratify our personal whims by some pseudoadaptation of this [meditational yoga] system. Thus people are paying money to attend some classes in gymnastic exercises and deep-breathing, and they’re happy if they think they can lengthen their lifetimes by a few years or enjoy better sex life. But we must understand this is not the actual yoga system.”
(Srila Prabhupada in The Perfection of Yoga, p.6)
“Simply breathing deeply and doing some exercises is not yoga, as far as the Bhagavad Gita is concerned. A whole purification of the consciousness is required.”
(The Perfection of Yoga, p. 24)
Many of us in the west are hopping on the yoga bandwagon and making a real “commitment” to our practice by purchasing monthly passes to our local studio, or taking it one step further and becoming certified to teach yoga at said studio. Having taught for two + years as a CYT200 in the studio setting as well as independently, in the park or in my home, I met a lot of really nice people but very few actual yoga practitioners. The deeper I delve into my own study of the ancient science of yoga, the more I understand how commercial and fake our modern practice really is, and consequently, the more averse I grow to it. I aim this post at serious students of yoga as well as those individuals who call themselves yoga teachers.
If you are teaching yoga, you must be aware that you represent the totality of yoga to your students and you do them a great disservice by offering a limited understanding of the irrelevant body based practices we propagate in the studios. Studying the Bhagavad Gita is a requirement in any reputable yoga teacher training as this is the text that birthed the science of yoga. It is Divine dictation of the three major branches of yoga, giving detailed descriptions and practices of the different ways to practice yoga. It also defines the goal of all paths of yoga: spiritual realization. Studying Bhagavad Gita in my teacher training taught me that I am not this body but rather am the spirit soul that resides within. Yet here in the west we focus exclusively on the physical and perhaps sometimes the energy body in our practice. Does this not seem contradictory? In regular asana practice, we cultivate physical excellence and begin to discover the ways in which prana moves throughout the body, using breath awareness and conscious visualization. We may even become so skilled, we learn to manipulate the subtle body and gain mystical powers like material manifestation and clairvoyant intuition. In growing this type of gross “self-awareness” through modern yoga practice, we mistake our energy body for our spiritual self which leads us even further away from any true self-realization. The constant engagement with/focus on the physical and energy body is admittedly cool and empowering for the ego, but it encourages the identification with the physical self. Srila Prabhupada, a world-renowned yoga master and self-realized soul, explains many times over that the inherent aim of the modern yogi is to gain mystical powers, and not to advance spiritually. He rightfully calls our modern practice a “show of gymnastics” and nothing more. I refer anyone who seriously wants to study and/or practice yoga to the original book, The Perfection of Yoga by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Therein you will find the basis for my qualms of modern yoga outlined in this article. You can download this, and many other books entirely free by clicking the link above or by visiting the free ebook and audiobook page on this site.
The word “yoga” is defined as “union” which is popularly accepted as the cliché, “union of mind, body and spirit,” which only involves the individual. In reality, it is clearly stated in Vedic scriptures that we are unifying the self with the Self, or the individual soul with the Supersoul (God). This makes yoga a spiritual practice, not a physical one. This is why yoga is often criticized as being a religious practice and has been controversially argued in the news when entering into “neutral environments” like schools, for example. Because of this, we water it down in an effort to make it acceptable for those people who don’t feel a need for spiritual union, or feel they already have it via some other practice. In degrading yoga to a body and breath based practice, we manipulate thousands of years of wisdom to fit into our tiny comfort zones and in so doing, we are short-changing every student of yoga. We are depriving the majority of yoga students from any real purpose or meaning, to their practice and to their life as a whole. Being attracted to yoga is an underlying and sometimes subconscious soul urge to reunify with God; to escape material existence and return to our eternal home in the spiritual realm. On the ego/mind level, the student may think they are coming to yoga to improve their flexibility or help with their posture but these are superficial stepping stones leading us towards the rediscovery of our true spiritual identity. This is where most of us are at, so God works with us accordingly and gives us small doses we can accept and slowly integrate into our reality.
Now, with every criticism, it is best to offer a suggestion for improvement. If you are not concerned with spiritual evolution and are content with putting on a show of meditation and gymnastics, then so be it, carry on as you were. But please, for the sake of your students, represent yourself accordingly. As yoga teachers, we have a responsibility to represent the yoga system in truth and totality to our students. We should not keep them in ignorance of the spiritual focus of yoga for the sake of gaining their affection, or more likely, their money. However, if you are searching for more depth, spiritual fulfillment and self-realization through the science of yoga, I urge you to read any of Prabhupada’s books. Prabhupada offers many suggestions in The Perfectionof Yoga, the main suggestion is using the mantra yoga system instead of the meditational or hatha yoga system. He highlights the Vedic prescription of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare //
Hare Rama, Hare Rama,
Rama Rama, Hare Hare
for the present age of Kali. For more detailed information on the yugas, see the original addition of The Perfection of Yoga, page 5. When we chant and sing the praises of the Lord, we purify ourselves and inch closer towards regaining our eternal place in the spiritual world. This is called the process of Krishna consciousness, or God consciousness (you may call Divine by any of his many names, but the name Krishna refers to the Supreme Personality of Godhead). To be in pure Krishna consciousness, one may become a true yogi and attain the goal of yoga: spiritual union. “Thinking of Krishna is the essence of all yoga systems” (The Perfection of Yoga, p.9).
As a yoga teacher, you may have been short-changed by your own teachers and were not aware of the spiritual depths of yoga. In the west, it is increasingly difficult to find authentic instruction in the study of yoga. So many of the original scriptures that gave birth to yoga have been interpreted through the imperfect egos of other conditioned souls, representing themselves as authority, and have thus lost most of their spiritual potency and direction. You may have never read the Bhagavad Gita at all and you may be just now learning (like I am) that you have been teaching from a place of ignorance. In this case, I urge you to study Prabhupada’s original books, as he is assuredly a bona fide associate of Krishna himself and has no ego in his translations of the original Sanskrit scriptures. The closer to the source you can get, the more truth your teaching will hold and the more good it will do in the world. Wishing you the best of luck!
Like always, if you have any questions you are welcome to contact me and I will try to answer them as best I can. Namaste!