Often, in yoga practiced in the U.S., we do not discuss the philosophy that builds yoga. I myself will attest to this as a teacher. Before I understood any of this, I did not, could not, teach it. When I started to understand, I dribbled it out to students since I suspected they would flee my classes (which many did). Eventually, I came to a place where I honored my practice. I understood that my ethics were in a place where I could not unsee what I saw, and I could not not teach what I knew. You could say that I finally began understanding the yoga yamas and niyamas as Patanjali explained in the "Yoga Sutras."
As someone with an immigrant family, I found myself often as an outsider looking in. I believed the impact of this culture on myself was negligible. However, in my forties, and in this changed relationship with yoga, I recognize how much of an impact this culture I grew up in impacted my perspective of the world and yoga.
It's so easy in any culture one grows up in to be completely unaware of how your perspective is vastly different that those of others around the globe. When we do start to become aware of how differently our perception of life is from others, it presents itself many times in our own communities - political parties, economic class, and sex and gender, to name a few. As yoga students, that's when our work gets really hard. We see the invitation to explore our own preconceived notions and our tendencies to how we operate in those differences and varying beliefs. We have to face some pretty uncomfortable realities about ourselves. That is the work that yoga asks us to do. The niyama, svadhyaya, reminds us to study ourselves, explore the inner workings of our mind, and how this effects our yoga practice. Then we swing back to the yama, satya, and are reminded to be truthful about it.
Image: Lord Shiva, the AdhiYogi (first yogi). Elephanta Caves, @2015.
With yoga, I have seen in my twenty plus years so many ways my culture has impacted my practice. There was over a decade of not understanding yoga beyond the asana. There was choosing what I wanted to believe and incorporate and what I wanted to leave behind. (You know that hyper American individualism, right?) There was the separation of yoga from its origin country and culture and believing that yoga could be anything to anyone.
I don't believe I will, in this lifetime, ever truly understand what yoga really is. I'll keep going though. Keep self-examining. Keep asking questions. Keep sharing. That's what my practice has invited me to do. To keep remembering yoga is not something I do, or a place I go to. Yoga is how I live my life. It's a practice to help not only myself, but to help all beings until we are all finally free.
Journal writing exercise. Explore the following inquiries.
1) What is your understanding of yoga? Are there aspects you have been invited to learn about beyond your current understanding?
2) How does your upbringing, culture, personality, and beliefs influence your perspective of yoga? Is there room to adjust?