What is The Purpose of Yoga?
I once heard a famous Indian guru say: “yoga is everything”. That clears up nothing.
Two famous and wealthy Indian gurus, Bikram Choudhury and Bhagwan Rajneesh, have similarities. They both owned dozens of Rolls Royces and wore diamond studded Rolexs. The purpose of yoga for these bad boys was acquiring wealth. Before he died, Bagwan changed his name — re-branded actually — to Osho. Both Bagwan and Bikram fled the USA to avoid legal liabilities too.
I’ve been athletic all of my adult life. At forty-nine, I discovered postural yoga, exercise. It’s wonderful, keeps me fit and strong. Postural yoga also has a calming effect. It quiets mental chatter producing a more relaxed psychological state.
In the late nineteenth century, Indian holy men came to The US and Europe teaching Hindu spiritualism. Yoga has its roots in ancient India. Originally, yoga was a reference to the spiritual, philosophical and ethical teachings of ancient India. Indian Swami Vivekananda spoke at a Chicago spiritual convention in 1888. He was a hit. Just this week Indian Prime Minister Modi, himself a religious Hindu, praised Vivekananda for bringing Hinduism to the world in an article in HindustanTimes. Vivekananda did not do postural yoga. In fact, yoga postures were considered vulgar by Vivekananda and upper class Indians. The postures came later.
By the time the sixties rolled around, postural yoga had become a thing. There is a convoluted history of where yoga postures come from. In “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America”, Yale historian Stefanie Syman concludes “There are over 500,000 Swamis in India, all of whom believe their way of teaching yoga is the only right way”. The best book I’ve read about the origins and history of yoga postures is “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” by Mark Singleton.
I first did yoga in 1999 because my girlfriend was a teacher. I liked the stretching. I viewed it as a supplement to my other exercises: running, swimming, cycling and weights. But over time, I found myself doing more yoga and less of the other work-outs. In 2005 I took a nine week training to become a hot yoga teacher. The training was intense. We did two classes a day in a room heated to 104 degrees (40C) for nine weeks. During that time I had a serious psychological shift, a cathartic event.
I am a retired New York City Fire Lieutenant. I lost 20 personal friends, among 343 colleagues, in the 911 attack on the World Trade Center. I am lucky to be alive myself.
During the intense physical experience of the demanding hot yoga teacher training, I forgave the people who killed my friends. It was not a decision I made. Forgiveness manifested itself through the practice of physical yoga.
I am a secular thinker and was determined to figure out what happened back then. I think I have. The practice of yoga, physical yoga postures, done frequently and vigorously, enhances our physical acuity. We feel more. Increased sensitivity broadens our connection to the environment, the world around us, we are a little more aware of our sensual experience.
I understand now why spiritualist and religious types like to attach postural yoga to their belief systems. Anything that can improve our connection to the world around us, including other humans, can feel profound.
The purpose of Yoga?
For me it is simple: physical, psychological and spiritual fitness.
Oh yeah, the bad boys? If you enjoy paying homage to guru types, go for it. I will concede they have created some value. But you don’t have to. Today yoga is ubiquitous. Find a system and teacher that works for you and practice a lot. Your way will unfold.