On the hottest days of early fall, schedules fallen away, various chores and errands done for the moment, we stay longer on our mats in the very dry heat. What keeps us involved in our yoga practice despite the possibility of a hiatus?
Briefly, yoga is a process of building awareness through a regular practice of asanas (yoga poses) and pranayama (breath regulation) which help to create the conditions for knowing oneself. A regular practice will up-lift the energy of the body. Our natural state of consciousness can be known as we begin to burn away the dross of the body and illusions of the mind.
Is this view actually embraced in the wide spread grass roots level of everyday practice?
Let’s look at the recent history and the current culturalization of yoga. In the mid twentieth century, post war and cocky with relief and youthful ambitions, North Americans shifted their appreciation of the body from the delicacy of the boudoir to youthful looks and vitality. From that point of view, yoga appealed as a health and fitness activity undertaken for its promise of strength,muscle tone and flexibility. Gyms, fitness centres and sports departments at Universities include a wide range of yoga classes. Another link to health is the claims that yoga can make for alternative healing of a wide variety of physical challenges. Any online medical and scientific research will turn up extensive studies.
An equally attractive benefit of a yoga practice is stress reduction. Hans Selye’s seminal research mid last century established the term stress and the attributed causes;”..the frustrations of constricted urban living.” That same lifestyle can be sedentary; one moves from bed to car to office chair to the couch at home.
Both fitness and stress management are the principle reasons people give for coming to class. And why do people stay with yoga when the general trend is to vary fitness and wellness activities? The appetite for a new experience in North America is fickle and cavernous.
There’s a third reason that yoga has become part of the mainstream here and in urban centres around the globe. It has to do with what Elizabeth de Michelis (2005) refers to as “(a) secular healing ritual”. de Michelis outlines the decline of religious affiliation and practice in North America and Western Europe. Religious needs are privatized and individually satisfied or neglected.
Yoga offers ritual within the class structure beginning with a brief period of sitting quietly or chanting OM the Universal prayer of peace, or in more advanced classes the Invocation to Patanjali dating to the early eighteenth century. This moment provides a separation of the yoga student from the preoccupations of daily life and some appreciation of the sacred. Since its inception, yoga has been a vehicle for devotion and more recently, dedication of the merits of one’s yoga practice to the Universal good in the form of selfless service.
Most yoga studios offer some emblematic references to the sacred in the decor or in the introductory ritual. But many gyms and fitness centres will avoid this aspect rather than risk offending.
Whether one is in yoga class to relieve backache or relax in order to sleep well, the rituals frame the sequence of poses and offer a form of cleansing emotionally, mentally as well as spiritually.
The final phase of the class is sivasana, also called corpse pose, which is lying on one’s back, doing nothing. The teacher guides the relaxation sometimes with visualization or meditation. This is another cleansing and reviving aspect of yoga. Symbolically one “comes back” from corpse pose reborn having had an experience of an alert body and quieter mind, and the opportunity to explore the sacred or Divine aspects of life.
Yoga in its modern manifestation offers recognizable cultural values of health and wellness along with the individual and group pursuit of self-awareness and solace in a world in which both may elude us.
Kelly Murphy is owner of Bend Over Backwards Yoga Studio in Nanaimo.