It was only a matter of time really. I’ve been waiting to see the word “traditional” next to the word “yoga” to distinguish a class that employs intentional breathing and postures on a mat from any other myriad of practices and exercises currently listed under the “yoga” umbrella on gym and studio schedules everywhere. Lo and behold, a newsletter appeared in my inbox that advertised an instructor who offers a “traditional” yoga class.
I understand evolution is necessary in a modern world. And I am not opposed to learning different techniques, expanding my knowledge or growing my practice. In fact, one of my favorite mottos is “Evolve or die.” That being said, and I’m well aware I ask this at the risk of sounding like my mother — why have we sought to evolve yoga to the point of needing the word “traditional” at all? It worked fine — actually more than fine — for thousands of years — why the need to add 108°, flow, acro, power, or heaven help me, WEIGHTS to it? While I’m all for progress to heighten and enhance access to the ancient teachings, why are we messing with the teachings themselves?
I’m fine doing my thing on my mat despite being deluged by “instasana,” various law suits, and plain old uninformed “yoga.” I’ve found a tradition and approach that work for me. I’m sure others are finding their own way. My concern is that as we move more and more away from “traditional” classes, as they are now described, how will they survive at all? The ancient techniques and tools that can more than withstand the pressure of a constantly distracted and numb society are needed more than ever. How will they continue to thrive if no one is taking the time to learn or worse yet, teach them?
I encourage — actually, I implore you — to seek out teachers that know more than how to accomplish arm balances or “take flight” in asana. Ultimately yoga’s aim is to show you what is beyond your body. That’s going to be a challenging proposition if your only consideration is, well, your body.
There are numerous texts that outline hundreds of practices making it difficult to pinpoint in this blog every asana and practice that could be considered “yoga.” However, I thought I’d offer some guiding principles to discern whether or not the class you roll out your mat for on a weekly basis would be considered “traditional” yoga. Here are a few key elements to look for so you don’t lose the true goal of the practice.
This is fundamental to the practice of yoga. Without awareness and direction of the breath you are not practicing yoga. You are stretching. And no, they are not the same thing. If you are panting and gasping for breath during the hottest vinyasa class in town, it’s not yoga. I’m not sure what it is. But it’s not yoga.
- Awareness of prana or energy
Technically speaking, this is the focus of Tantra, however, ultimately, you want your yoga practice to increasingly direct you to the subtler faculties of the body. In yoga, we attempt to discern and access feeling or sensation beyond the muscular level. We want to feel prana or energy. Harnessing and mastering this energy is the first step to mastering the mind.
- Purposeful pauses
In order to understand how your practice affects you physically, energetically, and mentally, you should be given or give yourself moments throughout the practice to stop all movement and assess how you feel. Notice what shifts occur after you do a series of postures or breathe differently. If you rush through class sans-awareness, it’s truly no more than a mere distraction.
It’s like the American Express card. Don’t leave class without it. Just. Don’t. It’s the ultimate pause and where your body and both the conscious and subconscious minds assimilate and absorb the benefits of your practice.
I’m not saying you need to park yourself for an hour and dismantle the subconscious in one sitting. However, if I may make a bold statement, this is why we practice yoga. To get the body and mind still enough to see what lies beyond it. As my teacher so wisely puts it, yoga isn’t a body game, it’s a mind game. There is no greater tool we have to view and understand the mind than meditation.
Yoga’s promise is a lofty one — not that you can have a different body, but a different life. The tradition of yoga offers us methodical and accessible tools to do this. I know this because, as a result of a dedicated yoga practice and caring and wise teachers, my life is different in the best possible way. Seek out tradition and what has been time tested and proven to work and begin your journey to your most fulfilling and satisfying life. The transformation begins on your mat, but ultimately applies off of it. Eventually, with a thoughtful and at least somewhat traditional practice, you realize you don’t do yoga. You live yoga.