If you love yoga, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re less and less alone, as more people than ever have discovered yoga’s awesome benefits. Have you ever thought about what it is, exactly, that you love so much about the practice? Of course you love how good you feel after a yoga class, but where does that good feeling come from? Is it the result of being in better shape? Is it your less anxious self? Your quieter mind?
Yoga is a complex practice with a simple goal: union. In fact, the word “yoga” means union. There are many steps on the journey toward this goal, each with its own benefits. The farther you travel on the yoga path, the more you will benefit from the richness of your practice. If you’re just starting out, there are many things to discover.
Here are five things you may or may not know about the yoga practice you love.
- Yoga is really not about the poses. The physical postures are only a small part of yoga. In fact, the yogic sage Pantanjali, whose “Yoga Sutras” is widely regarded as the “bible of yoga,” describes eight limbs of the practice. In addition to asana (the physical exercises), yoga’s other limbs include guidelines for personal and ethical conduct, breathing exercises, meditation, turning away from sensory distractions, concentration, and finally, union with a higher power.
- The yoga you’re doing is not an ancient practice. While yoga is based on an ancient discipline that originated in India thousands of years ago, modern yoga has almost nothing in common with that practice. The postures we do today in yoga studios and gyms around the world are, for the most part, only a few hundred years old at most. Many modern styles of yoga were developed even more recently.
- The purpose of yoga is to connect the practitioner with the divine. There are many ways to say this, but ultimately, the goal of a yoga practice is not strong thighs, weight loss or stress management. The true purpose of yoga is samadhi—connection to one’s source. Samdhi is eighth limb of Pantanjali’s yoga, and it requires mastery of the previous limbs, including but not limited to, the physical postures.
- Until recently, women did not practice yoga. This may be surprising given the fact that, at least in the West, women outnumber men significantly—generally about three to one—in yoga classes. But until the early twentieth century, few women were allowed access to the practice. Then in 1938, a woman named Indra Devi became one of the first non-India female yoga teachers. Devi studied under the master teacher Krishnamacharya, who at first, did not want her as a student. In the end, Krishnamacharya was so impressed with Devi’s dedication to her yoga practice that he allowed her to teach. Indra Devi is widely credited with helping to bring yoga to the West, where women now dominate the practice.
- Yoga is currently a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. It’s estimated that Americans currently spend more than $10 billion on yoga products each year! Is this good or bad? It’s hard to say. Many of products and the yoga classes they are designed for focus mostly on the physical benefits of the practice, including looking good in downward facing dog pose. The fact that the number of Americans who practice yoga in some form has skyrocketed to 15 million in recent years may reflect the benefits of the practice, but it may also be due to savvy marketing that has modified and even watered down yoga in ways that appeal to modern desires and trends.
As the business of yoga continues to boom, it’s worth wondering how deeply modern yogis will delve into the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the practice—the things that don’t require props, products or special clothing but a desire for truth, a willingness to be connected to all that is, and a commitment to living in peace. Where, as spiritual seekers, can we practice yoga authentically when there is so much to distract us from yoga’s true purpose: to develop not only a healthy body, but a healthy mind and a healthy self as well.