This question is quite a common one, and as much as people crave reductionist simplistic answers so that their world makes more sense to them, that is not what I shall be offering.
You see we are all driven to know more about our human condition, and have been this way since time immemorial. Many an advance in technology (for better or for worse) and a whole range of philosophical, spiritual and technical innovations have resulted from the quest to know the TRUTH about our own condition. When it comes to yoga and spiritual practice this quest is often intensified and students of yoga long for answers to what is Authentic Yoga, what is the true path, what is Enlightenment, how can I attain Moksha, etc etc.
The easy answers to these questions are: Authentic Yoga is those teachings and practices which are found in the Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Siva Samhita or other such texts most yoga students will never read. The true path is the one outlined by Patanjali, Enlightenment can be attained through intensive practice according to these texts
These answers quench a certain thirst in the student’s mind for answers. They would probably also improve the bank balance of those giving them, as you could learn about all those answers on their one month yoga training intensives or in their latest book or magazine article or DVD (want some steak knives with that?). The thing is: just as we as humans have a longing for knowledge, for answers to life’s burning questions, there are people out there who long to give them. This at times can satisfy their own personal need to be valued, to be respected, to be held in esteem. It is one of the reasons I left a somewhat short career in academia, I didn’t really want to argue with other people about my philosophical ideas and journal papers. Nor did I wish to engage in the somewhat ego centric game of becoming an ‘expert’.
Now this is obviously somewhat tongue in cheek – as by writing this I am reflective enough to understand that it is yet another person telling other people the way they see it. But I suppose the difference is that I don’t wish to offer you any straightforward answers to your questions about yoga. If I have cultivated expertise in anything, I hope to have cultivated some expertise in creating a space where my students can find the answers to the questions they have, and then respect whatever answer it is they find, even if it is not an answer I particularly resonate with.
So back to the question at hand: What is yoga? Well yoga clearly is a variety of things to a variety of people. It is impossible to answer this question without clarifying what on earth do we mean by yoga? An important step when asking an important question – clarify the question (HINT: In doing so you may find the answer you seek).
I think one of the first things to consider in answering this question is the etymology of the word yoga. Yoga means connection / or to yoke. So what is it that we see as the connection? As far as some yoga texts tell us, and within certain schools of Hinduism this means reconnecting the smaller self (Atman) with the larger self (Brahman). The problem with this answer given in this way to a student is that it’s complicated. Sure it seems simple – reuniting of Atman and Brahman – but the problem is it is SO MUCH MORE than that. It contains within that explanation an entire cosmology and way of seeing the world that is essentially Hindu. What if the person asking the question is Christian, Muslim, Atheist? By answering the question – if we ourselves know what the words yoga means, and hopefully we do if we are trying to articulate this to someone else – we may demonstrate that YOGA as we have explained it is just another theory, religious perspective or DOGMA in some way. To be clear – for many people when we offer up such a simple answer as ‘Yoga is that which we find in the Yoga Sutras’ or some such definitive, reductionist statement we create disconnection, confusion and disharmony for many people. WHY? Because it doesn’t speak to their experience of their practice.
It is very easy to tell someone else what spiritual practice is, or to define yoga for another person according to your own worldview. However, just to be dramatic, it is DANGEROUS! Heard of ethnocentrism (judging ones culture based on the assumptions of our own culture) or Narcissism? Our world has seen much damage and violence because of this. And beware of the quasi Hindu teacher – the one who always tells you “yoga is not religious – it is spiritual” but solely quotes from Hindu literature. Spiritual texts are not only found in India, there are rich textual traditions worldwide which speak to what spiritual life may be.
I suppose the short answer to what has become a rather long post is YOU define what Authentic Yoga is. I can’t answer that question for you. I can only tell you what I have experienced it to be, or what the many texts describe it to be. YOGA is also not something that is static. Yoga can be whatever it needs to be for you, NOW. And over time we can see that definitive statements on what YOGA is are irrelevant, as depending on our time of life and personal circumstances how we understand yoga will change and evolve. In terms of my own teaching I can only hope that I might create the space in which you either get the chance to ask the question, or even preferably, don’t need to ask because you can feel it when you are at the beach on a lovely day, when you are playing monopoly with your 8 year old, when you are delighting in your baby’s smile, running at the park with your dog, kissing your beloved, or on your mat struggling to get through. As someone else said “It’s ALL yoga baby”
Namaste and Happy 2015