The Many Faces of Yoga

Written by Sarah English.

Many articles concerning yoga tend to focus on an East/West division of attitudes; it's often suggested that the West focuses too narrowly on the asanas - the physical postures - and fitness elements of the discipline. While this is somewhat of a generalization, it is true that there is less of an appreciation here of the many branches of yogic training that exist. Occasionally, even those who have a dedicated physical practice are unaware of the philosophical roots of, and exercises associated with, yoga, of pranayama, or breath-work, and of the many non-physical benefits that accrue to a more comprehensive approach.

faces of yoga

Taking a poll of those exiting a class at a typical studio as to the nature of yoga will often support these conclusions; you'll hear much about injury-prevention and pain-relief, weight-management and mood, but not quite as much about spiritual evolution, moksha, or philosophy.

This is certainly not a criticism; it is very true that regular practice leads to a host of physical benefits. Done properly, which is far more an individual matter than many realize, yoga can help to ensure good health and longevity. This is true of most exercise, in fact. For various social and historical reasons, North America is a curious blend of sedentary habits and concrete, rational thought. It is unsurprising that a set of cultures wealthy enough for leisure, and that have moved slowly away from ritualized spirituality, takes of a system the most tangible elements, and discards the less easily defined.

As a personal trainer who came to yoga in an effort to work more effectively with rehab clients, I understand the ease with which we can pick and choose the useful parts of yoga. What we fail to realize, however, is that we miss out on the true wealth of the discipline by taking an expedient approach.

One of my yoga teachers once stated that gymnasts are not yogis, and for some reason, the essence of that message remained with me. I'd approached yoga teacher-training as a means by which to help clients through physical limitations; I'd had no expectations beyond that. I'd realized, after working with several injured clients and their physiotherapists, osteopaths, massage therapists, and chiropractors, that something critical was missing from their recovery programs. I simply couldn't work with these individuals according to a typical training model - the restrictions were too great. I initially thought that I needed to find gentler alternatives, and turned immediately to yoga. Like many, I thought that yoga was simply systematized stretching.

What I learned over the course of just under a year surprised me - it was no longer about pretzel contortions, but about physiology, bio-mechanics, hormonal regulation, mood, spirituality, meditation, and mental discipline as well. Whether from the Western or Eastern world, we can all appreciate the validity of long-established systems, and the rich history from which yogic philosophy is drawn is very humbling.

My own experience is still academic - in the same way that my continuing education has led me to ponder how much I don't know, my continuing study of yoga has led me to realize that there is a vast system that I've only begun to explore. This is true despite certification to teach and a regular sadhana. Yoga offers so much more than exercise - it can be a lifestyle, something encompassing. While our first reaction to the ostensibly non-physical aspects of yoga (ethics, for example) might be resistance, it's worthwhile to consider the essence of the teachings. In this way, we broaden our focus and open ourselves to the possibility of enrichment beyond the physical.

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