Yoga Questions, 1996-2016

In 1893, the Indian sage Swami Vivekananda spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and first introduced yoga to the United States. From its humble beginnings in this country, yoga’s philosophy and practices have mushroomed in the past century and a half, with an estimated twenty million people in the US now practicing some form of yoga, many for the physical and spiritual wellbeing and balance it brings to their lives.

As the number of active participants in yoga has increased, so have the questions regarding yoga. When I set out to open my first 8 Limbs yoga studio in early 1996, the question I encountered most often was “What is yoga?” I’d chosen to bring what was then a little-known practice to the marketplace, and this came with a fair amount of explaining. Think back to the late ’90s, when no one knew that Sting or Madonna practiced yoga, when yoga mats were not found in every car or under every arm, and the mere mention of the word yoga made people roll their eyes or envision the shaved heads and orange robes of Hare Krishna devotees.

Over the last 20 years, however, with the growing number of people practicing yoga, the nature of the questions has evolved, challenging me to think about what yoga means to me, the benefits it can offer, and how I can reach beyond the familiar and create a space for yoga that is truly inclusive.

When our first studio opened in October 1996, I had learned just enough to realize that there is no one singular definition of yoga, and that it might take me a lifetime to truly understand what yoga was. I chose to name my business 8 Limbs, which referred to the eight aspects, or stages, of yoga. I wanted to show that we wouldn’t just teach the poses, known as the asanas, which are the third of the eight limbs. We would also teach pranayama, the fourth limb that focuses on breath control, and meditation, the seventh limb. We set our intention to be a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for all stages and practices of yoga, and I eventually felt comfortable with a simple answer to the simple question of what yoga was: “The physical practice of postures, with an awareness of breath, that helps to prepare the body and mind to sit in meditation.”

But by the early 2000s, a new question was emerging. “What style of yoga do you teach?” This inquiry signified a quantum shift not only in the availability of yoga, but also in the diversity of ways to practice. There were now yoga studios popping up all over Seattle and across the United States. This was a good thing, but now I needed to consider how and whether we wanted to be defined. After all, the yoga we offered at 8 Limbs was never one style. We had modeled our studio on the idea that the practice of yoga can take many different forms, because there are many different types of people. These different ways to practice yoga were all access points, places the individual practitioner could connect to in order to find their way to the state of yoga, which I now saw as presence, the ability to be present, clear, unclouded, and at one with all that is, as it is.

“Have you heard of Hatha Yoga?” I would ask those curious about our style. Hatha is the umbrella term for most of the yoga practiced in the US, with the exception of Kundalini Yoga. It is a physical practice––the meaning of hatha is “effort,” “force,” or “exertion.” It focuses on the yoga postures and breath practices that help to cleanse and strengthen the body to make it a vessel better able to focus––be it on a difficult decision or a meditation practice. When we clear out what’s not needed––toxins, thought patterns, stagnation––we are better able to be present. Strength supports our ability to stay the course and contribute to the world in a meaningful way. One easily accessible way to practice these principles is the simple awareness of our breath––when we exhale we release and when we inhale we build.

Then around 2008 the question of hot or not started coming up. Did we offer hot yoga? Were we heated? The preponderance of “Hot Yoga,” popularized by Bikram Choudary and other schools of yoga that heated practice rooms over 90 degrees, became a defining stage in the evolution of yoga in the United States. Hot Yoga caught on like wildfire (no pun intended), bringing thousands of devotees to the mat (and towel) to sweat out their toxins and return to the world refreshed, anew. And given its immense popularity it truly was, well, hot! For many, especially in cool rainy Seattle, the heat, and the opportunity to sweat buckets, was enticing. For a while I considered offering hot classes at our studio, but I also understood that the core classes we’d always offered were what made us 8 Limbs. And so we we stuck with the many ways to practice basic room temperature Hatha Yoga, which created plenty of its own heat, sourced from within.

In yoga, we call the creation of heat through effort tapas. Holding chair pose, with the knees bent and arms overhead, is one way to build tapas. Giving something up that you really like is tapas. And meeting a situation that is challenging, or sitting not only in physical but emotional discomfort, builds tapas, and helps to burn off resistance and ignorance.

A few years ago another question arose.

“Why is yoga so white?”

At first this question was often ignored, or got brushed off with overly-simplistic excuses, like “Seattle is just so white” or “it’s a religion thing” or “some people don’t really want yoga.”

But by 2015 the question hadn’t been answered. Instead, it was being asked with greater frequency, and many people in the yoga community and in communities of color raised a follow-up question. What can we do to change it?

Questions that address race and social inequalities head-on are by their very nature difficult ones, but the Seattle yoga community is responding. Teachers and studio owners have shown their commitment and passion for growth and change by joining together for several trainings aimed at unlearning bias and racism, with more to come. Several studios are also offering workshops that integrate yoga philosophy with social justice. Resources are being shared and conversations are underway.

We know that this is just a beginning. We can listen to people of color to understand what they want and need in a space for yoga. We can remove obstacles to participation, like money and location, to serve populations with limited access to yoga. We can continue to examine the ways we conduct ourselves and our businesses to make them less centered around the dominant culture.

I don’t know what the next big yoga question will be, but my experience is that the more questions that get posed, the better. Inquiry asks us to clarify, to dig deep, to practice awareness. At this time in our nation’s journey, these are qualities we can cleave to.

Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda
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