- Conner Emery
Yoga: Meaning Beyond the Mat
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
The practice of yoga was developed thousands of years ago in the Indian subcontinent and spans numerous forms. Originally, rishis¹ used the physicality and mentality of yoga in pursuit of a blissful state of being, completing sadhanas² considerate of the self and body. The yogic tradition of rishis was significantly spiritual and pranayama³ was included within daily ritual. This personal, varied experience began to formalize as sutras codified its practices, and teachings on the discipline of yoga sustained its continued development.
In 2016, over 36 million Americans were reported to be doing yoga and over fifteen percent of Americans reportedly practiced in the last six months. However, a substantial portion is part of a physically mindful demographic. The source survey, featured in Harvard Health Publishing, further notes that three out of four Americans believe “yoga is good for you.” and around three fourths of yogis exercise through sports or a specific fitness activity as well. This group is associated with the popular notion of healthy yoga.
Analysis by BGSU, evaluating the depictions of the Spirituality & Health magazine, identified yoga as being contextualized for outcomes and health benefits more often than it was related to spiritual notions. This research reflected upon decades, and the expansion of physically driven yoga throughout the western world has highlighted the variety of styles. While various studies have associated yoga with improvements in cardiovascular fitness, reduced stress, and more, many participants hope to maintain its spiritual meaning.
In 2010, the Hindu American Foundation launched a “Take Back Yoga” campaign, motivated by the consistent exclusion of the term “Hindu” from pieces in the Yoga Journal. The “Take Back Yoga” campaign sought to recognize the Hindu heritage of yoga, senior director Sheetal Shah explaining in 2012 that concentrating on pranayama and asana⁴ techniques overlooks several other limbs of yoga and their values. “If it’s just physical, it’s not yoga.”
In 2015, yogi Julia Gibran discussed her yoga experience with Vice. As someone introduced to yoga through the Bhagavad Gita, she is wary of the hyperfocus on asana and advocates that classes recognize their guidance by traditions. “In the West in general, we focus on one limb of yoga, and that is asana. It’s become a very physical practice. But there are ways to acknowledge the roots [of the practice.] People can put a little focus on meditation, or bring in breath work.”
To contribute to this discussion of yoga as a physical practice, I spoke with Ms. Jenna Ebert, the Yoga and Dance teacher at our school, about the curriculum. “I did not introduce yoga to CV,” she informed me, “...although I am the only teacher who has taught it. I intended to listen to my students and peers, and bring them the class they desired. I asked a lot of questions, listened, solicited feedback from my students every few months, and I adjusted the class to suit their [needs and desires.]” To contribute to the curriculum as best she could, Ebert wanted to implement feedback and “...provide a well rounded class.”
In regard to the limbs of yoga, she explained that her approach was to be understanding of the classroom. “I approach the limbs very superficially, keeping our class non-dogmatic. The limbs come from yoga’s roots in Hindu, and since CV is a public school, I introduce the limbs as a concept of yoga, but keep the teachings in the classroom solely based on the physical postures.” However, Ebert does value the mindfulness involved in yoga. “We do incorporate mindfulness, as a form of self reflection. I invite students to reflect on their thoughts, actions, desires, and goals, [without judgement], but with observation.” Prior to distance learning, weekly journaling was used as an outlet for this concept, either through prompts or free writing.
At Clayton Valley Charter High School, Ms. Ebert is describing elements of hatha yoga and vinyasa yoga. Hatha yoga places emphasis on asanas, pranayama, and meditation, while vinyasa yoga can approach asanas and postures for their execution and relationships. They are among many types of yoga of which sutras have popularized and current practitioners teach. Jennifer Schmid, an employee at the New York Ananda Ashram yoga retreat, suggests that the simplification of yoga be interpreted as providing greater accessibility. “Yoga, which is classically defined as ‘union,’ both encompasses and enlivens ALL religions, countries, cultures and people, while ultimately teaching us to go beyond them.”
If you enroll in Yoga this fall, reflecting on the class itself might be a thoughtful exercise.
³awareness and regulation of one’s breathing
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