Being yoga isn't just doing yoga; it goes beyond hatha, the physical practice. It entails living day to day what "yoga" actually means. In a word: union. But the definition of yoga is loaded in the way the definition of love is loaded. It's powerful, complicated, and described in as many different ways as there are different people.
So what is yoga, and how can you "be" it? The Omega Institute's annual Being Yoga conference retreat August 20-22 sought to answer that question. Held at Omega's remote, wooded Rhinebeck campus three hours north of New York City, the retreat brought together 400 guests to practice yoga, meditation and dance.
"Yoga is the investigation of the human consciousness," described Shiva Rea, one of 25-plus esteemed yogis -- Beryl Bender Birch, Seane Corn, Amy Ippoliti, Rodney and Colleen Yee -- who taught at the retreat. Sitting on a bench by the garden, eating a salad before her two o'clock vinyasa class, she continued, "Yoga is the observation of the nature within us. That's why it's a science."
In the years since this ancient Indian practice traveled to the West and eventually, in the last decade, took it by storm, Americans' understanding of yoga has metamorphosed. Our idea of yoga has grown from a fitness workout that will give you great toned arms to a way of life incorporating body, mind, spirit and a higher power that connects the entire universe.
Yowza. It's no surprise yoga can seem intimidating for newcomers and onlookers. Yet the paradox, explained Rea, is that making the transition to a mindful, present lifestyle isn't really a leap at all. When people begin exploring this "new" kind of consciousness, it feels natural. And for many, our very being is demanding it, she said. For years Western culture has concentrated on developing the mind -- the brain -- and largely neglected movement or spirituality. According to Rea, "People are beginning to experience a kind of cellular rebellion that happens when you don't feel fully alive."
Later that afternoon at the start of her kundalini class, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa painted a picture of the American struggle for happiness. The 68-year-old yoga master living in Los Angeles discovered yoga in 1969, when, as she put it, "no one knew the difference between yoga and yogurt." She devoted her life to it and has since taught the likes of David Duchovny, Cindy Crawford and Madonna out of her Hollywood studio.
"This whole idea of searching for happiness is very Western," Khalsa said as her students sat cross-legged on the floor. Where should I go; what should I do? Should I move to New York? I thought that would make me happy. Am I happy enough? Maybe I should move back to LA. I need a vacation; I'll go to Costa Rica...
"And we lallygag sometimes to our last breath, don't we?" she said, adding after a pause, "When we live beyond our duality, we find it doesn't matter where we are." Living Beyond Duality was the name and theme of Khalsa's class that afternoon. She spoke about eliminating the separation between mind and body to achieve union, first within yourself and eventually with others, striving for interconnection among all beings.
If there is no duality there can be no "me and you," no "us and them," no room for an "other" and therefore no prejudice, explained Khalsa. "Yoga has no space for discrimination. Just imagine what the world would be like ... What would happen is peace would come and we would find a oneness."
But where is the connection between downward dog and inner peace? Pigeon pose and love for your fellow man? The bridge is breath: conscious breath fosters awareness, including the awareness that every one of us breathes, or as Rea put it, "is being breathed."
"How do you know if someone's a spiritual person?" asked Sharon Gannon during the popular Wild Child of Yoga class she taught with her Jivamukti co-founder, David Life. "Check to see if they're breathing!"
If breath is the bridge, the path is practice. Yoga's many asanas, or postures, are designed as tools to resolve your issues -- psychological, spiritual and so on -- to eventually achieve enlightenment, explained Life during class. Spiritual leader Pandit Rajmani Tigunait put it this way at the retreat's opening event: "We are all here to get rid of what's undesirable in us."
Nearly 16 million Americans engage in some form of yoga practice, contributing to a $6 billion industry, according to a 2008 Yoga Journal study. Yet many are just beginning to get in touch with the spiritual side of the practice.
In a world with seemingly unending problems, the yoga masters and students at Omega's retreat came together to show that "union" can be the road to peace.