“Yoga is a way of life; it is an art, a science, a philosophy.”
– B.K.S. Iyengar.
“Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one’s being, from bodily health to self-realization. Yoga means union — the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul. Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one’s actions.”
This quote from BKS Iyengar who was the founder of Iyengar Yoga and considered one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world perfectly encapsulates the effects the practice can have on body and soul. He has written many books on yoga practice and philosophy including “Light on Yoga”, “Light on Pranayama”, and “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”.
As yoga’s popularity has accelerated and continues to splinter into ever increasing variations on a theme – yoga for cyclists, yoga for runners. yogalates, what keeps people coming back to this ancient practice is the physical and mental well-being that yoga provides. But if yoga is a science and an art why do more and more people insist on treating it like a religion?
Putting aside the debate on whether yoga is a religion – its origins in India and roots in Hindu texts like the Katha Upanishad and The Bhagavad-Gita are evidence enough for even moderate religious groups to label it as one the practice of yoga in the west as I experience it as a full time yoga teacher and student has increasingly more in common with religious dogma than the freedom of expression associated with artists and the ability to self examine and the resilience needed to be a scientist.
How people choose to pursue their yoga practice is dictated by many factors not all of which we are able to control. How often we are able to practice in a class environment will change as our roles in life do – as a teacher my role has developed into providing a safe environment for students to explore the physical postures and there ability to influence, integrate and harmonize all the levels of being – physical, mental emotional and spiritual, and ultimately to empower students with the tools to sustain a healthy body and mind over the course of a lifespan.
The culture of gossip and judgment of other’s lifestyle choices such as diet, choice of clothes to practice in, what mat to practice on, what music to practice to and beyond have more in common with petty regulations imposed by systems with a need to control others in order to feel more in control of themselves than they do with the with the qualities of acceptance and non-judgment implicit in the practice of yoga.
Going back to the quote above – ‘yoga means union — the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul’ if we are to pursue this goal surely it is better to do so with an open and curious mind. Consider for a moment how artists and scientists pursue their work. While these disciplines might seem like polar opposites, one is fact and evidence-driven, the other driven by emotion the similarities between how artists and scientists work far outweigh the differences. Both are dedicated to pursuing the big questions in life What is truth? Why does it matter? How can we move forward? Both search deeply and often doggedly for these answers. Surely the yogi should do the same.
Sculptor and Macarthur Genius Teresita Fernandez in a keynote speech to the graduating class at her alma mater Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts entitled “On Amnesia, Broken Pottery, and the Inside of a Form said that “art, like science, is driven by thoroughly conscious ignorance”:
“In those moments when you feel discouraged or lost in the studio, or when you experience rejection, rest completely assured that what you don’t know about something is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to understand. In many ways, making art is like blindly trying to see the shape of what you don’t yet know. Whenever you catch a little a glimpse of that blind spot, of your ignorance, of your vulnerability, of that unknown, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to stare at it. Instead, try to relish in its profound mystery. Art is about taking the risk of engaging in something somewhat ridiculous and irrational simply because you need to get a closer look at it, you simply need to break it open to see what’s inside.”
Couldn’t this also apply to the practice of yoga?
Yoga by its very nature can encourage narcissism in the individual. We are constantly told to look inward, to observe physical sensations in the body, to observe any thought that comes uninvited to the mind and then to detach from them. to just observe and then let them go; but sometimes all this inward navel gazing rather than serving to crush the ego has the exact opposite effect, we become obsessed with every single twinge of sensation in the body, every single thought we have sometimes to the point where interaction with others becomes strained and sometimes even breaks down completely. Relationships are neglected or even avoided altogether as we become more and more obsessed with our own practice.
Artists and scientists are both trained in the ability to self-critique – they spend the majority of their time alone with their work and need to be able to be both resilient and fail – often in public. If we can train ourselves to approach our yoga practice with this same mindset – the inner critical voice we are always being told to silence can become a valuable asset rather than a stick to beat ourselves with. It is worth noting that before internet message boards and comments sections gave everyone a dissenting voice critical thinking was in and of itself considered an art form.
Artists come in many different guises. Yoga is sometimes compared to dance and gymnastics because the physical shapes the body makes in asana are similar to this art and athleticism. Both dancers and gymnasts push boundaries and physical limitations of what the body can achieve but the ultimate goal is different. Gymnastics is a competitive sport in which the athletes strive for technical perfection to achieve the highest score possible from a panel of judges. Dancers on the other hand work endlessly to hone their technique so that they can then transcend it to achieve artistry and convey emotion. One is an art form and the other is pure athleticism.
If we again look at how yogis pursue the goal of asana the same two methods can apply. If we choose to pursue the postures with the mind of an athlete, as something to be conquered or mastered, with an external goal in mind it becomes something akin to religion. A set of rules to be followed with an end goal in mind – whether that end goal is perfection in asana translating into approval from students or peers measured in likes on social media or perfection in thoughts or deeds leading into approval from an external force, a deity or an organization the intention is the same: but if we were to pursue asana with the mind of an Artist then something bigger comes into play. The same steps are taken but the intention becomes something bigger, to transcend the body and experience pure consciousness. ‘the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul’
Maria Kowroski a Principal Dancer with the New York City Ballet when she talks about performing says: “When you’re really in the moment, you just feel all of the blood rushing, my arms, my legs, I can just feel something so pure and raw and you’re just.. living” This is what we strive for in Yoga – the ability to be perfectly in the present moment.
Another side effect of the explosion of yoga’s popularity especially across social media platforms is the constant rehashing of spiritual quotes from the same sources. While these can be a useful and concise way to express an idea in a class situation after a certain amount of time they can begin to sound trite and even meaningless. One of the things I have heard in interviews over and over with writers, artists and dancers I admire that continues to resonate with me is that you don’t become a better artist by just staying in your field. Equally if we can widen our source of reading material there is a wealth of inspiration from writers outside the realm of the spiritual texts that deal with the same human condition and questions but with a broader and more questioning outlook.
Ultimately what I am suggesting is that as yoga teachers and students we approach this beautiful, ancient practice with the reverence and respect it deserves but with the mindset of the Artist and The Scientist not as meek and obedient servants. Be endlessly curious about what the body can do, find devotional delight in repeating the same movements over and over again, question your physical and mental responses, question your judgments and opinions and be willing to reform them over and over again and allow others the same. The artist Richard Serra said, “When you want to understand something, you have to take it apart or apply another kind of language to it.”
Let your yoga practice enhance your life not dictate it. Let your time on the mat be your time in the studio or the laboratory. Teresita Fernandez in her speech also says: “Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth… will also become the raw material for the art you make.”
Let your Life imitate Art.
“And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not; and this is the space where all art exists and all magic”
Donna Tartt: ’The Goldfinch”