When most students in the West enter yoga, it is through the door of Raja yoga, specifically focusing on the slice of Raja known as asana (physical movement). With over 42,000 yoga and pilates studios (Ibis World, 2021), and over 41,000 gyms in the U.S. (Statista, 2021), there is a question begging to be asked - "Why are there more yoga studios than gyms?"
When I had my yoga studio many moons ago, I found that most of my students came to yoga classes for some sort of stress relief. No one seemed to come to just learn to stand on their head, learn about the deeper meaning of life, or work on getting six-pack abs. Instead, they sought one, two, or three hours a week to give themselves permission to unwind and let go of the suffering in their lives. Ironically, this is one of the very reasons why we seek yoga.
Yoga is a spiritual philosophy that was born from a multitude of indigenous beliefs that we call Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). It is a label for one of the largest belief systems in the world and encompasses so many different facets. Yoga's primary purpose is to obtain moksha (liberation). Most of us can understand this concept when thinking of Lord Buddha obtaining enlightenment. It is the end result of lifetimes of work on ourselves so that we free ourselves from suffering and then continue to do the work to eliminate suffering for everyone else.
However, despite the entry point for yoga being to eliminate suffering (i.e. stress), many are not drawn to finding out more, practicing beyond the asana.
kascid yatati siddhaye
yatatam api siddhanam
kascin mam vetti tattvatah
Lord Krishna, in the "Bhagavad Gita," (7.3) says that out of thousands of people, only one might seek this perfection (i.e. liberation). And out of all of those, hardly no one knows him.
Spiritual inquiry is not an easy (or popular) path. As Pantanjali outlines in the "Yoga Sutras," (2.29)
yamaniyamasanapranayamapratyaharadharanadhy anasamadhayo-a-shtava anggani
Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratya hara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi, are the limbs of Yoga.
The Yamas and Niyamas are the ethical parts of Raja Yoga. They ask for you to do no harm, tell the truth, things that we are used to seeing in so many different belief systems. However, it also asks you to do self-study. It says
Yoga: Hey you. Want to not be so stressed out all the time? O.K. Let's work on that. Why are you so stressed?
Me: Uhm...well. It's the pandemic so, I lost my job, someone hit my car, I got into a fight with my family, I've gained fifteen pounds this past year, and to top it all off, I got poison ivy from gardening this week.
Yoga: Well, that's fine.
Yoga: So, why did you give yourself poison ivy?
Me: I didn't give myself poison ivy. Why would I do that? The damn poison ivy gave me poison ivy. If my husband didn't complain about me weeding around the shrubs I wouldn't have this. So, technically, it's his fault.
Me: What do you mean interesting?
Yoga: Were you not killing the plant?
Me: Well, yes...it's poison ivy.
Yoga: Do you not love your yard and your family?
Me: Of course I do. What kind of question is that!
Yoga: So, there is this Yama called Ahimsa. Do no harm. Yet, you were killing the plant and upset it hurt you when it was just living. And you are upset at your husband, but he didn't rub it on you. Caring for something and someone is a gift. It's part of the yogic path.
Me: You just don't understand me.
That's why many don't want self-inquiry. It asks us to remove ourselves from a victim mentality to one that takes self-responsibility for everything. (And I mean everything!) That's hard work. You get angry and it asks you to look inside and uncover the root of your suffering. It asks you to accept your suffering. It asks you to love your suffering until you see it was never suffering to begin with. However, when we are brave enough, even for minutes at a time, to do the work, a whole new way of looking at the world begins. That's where we finally begin to understand what yoga really is.
Journal writing exercise. Explore the following inquiries.
1) What led you to yoga? What is the difference between your practice when you started and now?
2) What is your relationship with suffering? What is one aspect (or thought process) of suffering that you would like to shift?
Industry Market Research, Reports, and Statistics. IBISWorld. (2021, March 15). https://www.ibisworld.com/industry-statistics/number-of-businesses/pilates-yoga-studios-united-states/.
Gough, C. (2021, June 17). Number of gyms in the US (health/fitness center) 2000-2019. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/244922/us-fitness-centers-und-health-clubs/.