As we near the completion of the first twenty years of the 21stcentury, the adoption of the practice of yoga increased dramatically since its first appearances in the mid-twentieth century in the Western world. In many places and cities, it is common to jokingly describe the prevalence of yoga studios to be as common as Starbucks coffee stores. Yoga is inculcated increasingly into the common vernacular of society reflecting an increased acceptance of yoga in daily life. Additionally, medical professionals now advise their patients to practice yoga as part of holistic measures to treat intractable chronic pain issues. In our commercialized society, many name-brand stores and locations offer items for yoga practice such as mats, blocks, and yoga pants as part of their merchandise. With the increased adoption and presence of yoga in society, we should ask if yoga is real?
To answer the question, we can ask what we can discern of the practice of yoga over time. When we compare the modern-day perceptions of yoga with how it was practiced in its early days (classical yoga), a stark contrast exists between the two. First, classical yoga was only practiced by men. Today, women more than men are commonly identified with the practice of yoga. Classical yoga was practiced as a means to deepen a sense of spirituality and to enhance a journey toward a spiritual ideal. Nowadays, most yoga practitioners seek the physical aspects of yoga with a paramount focus on the poses. In classical yoga, the poses were referred to by their original names in Sanskrit, whereas today many yoga teachers announce poses using the modern translation in English (or their common language), sometimes along with the Sanskrit name. Yoga was practiced mostly in India for many years prior to its global expansion in the Twentieth Century, particularly in the Western world. Finally, whereas classical yoga was practiced in whatever physical location available to them, the yoga mat today is the where we go to practice yoga. A consequence of the ubiquitous nature of the yoga mat is the spawning of a commercial market of yoga accessories that includes a variety of mat types, yoga props, and most especially, yoga attire. So, recognizing the new aspects of yoga today, is yoga still real?
It is the yoga mat that is a commonality among yoga practitioners. The “experience of yoga” on the “common” yoga mat naturally leads to a common shared experience between yoga practitioners, particularly among those who practice different styles of yoga. In our society, we constantly compare our yoga belongings and our yoga experience. For example, when we talk about our mat, we often ask what color do you have? What types of designs do you have? Who made it? Is it a sticky mat? Do you like your mat? A nice conversation can ensue from just these few questions. Similarly, the same questioning happens with other yoga accessories and yoga clothing such as yoga pants. Such conversations describe the totality of our yoga experiences on our mats with each other and contributes to our understanding of what is real.
But is there more to yoga than what we experience on our mats, that makes it real? Why, yes, of course. There is yoga that is off the mat! As we practice our yoga on the mat, we can take the micro-experiences we have on the mat and recall them when we are engaged in the parts of our lives that that forms our reality not on the mat such as at work, at home, or in our community. These micro-experiences include the encouraging feelings of strength we get when we are able to master a pose that has challenged us or the feeling of rejuvenation while in Savasana after completing the more arduous parts of the class. They, and others, are a resource we can tap into to help us endure or overcome situations that challenge our sense of security and being. Yoga provides us the opportunities to learn about ourselves and to help ourselves become a better person in spite of the challenges of life. We do this when we take our yoga off the mat. Every Day. Every Moment.
So, is yoga real? The answer to this question varies. We have perceptions formed by our experiences and beliefs. As we live through our life, our understanding of what is real will continue to change as we gain new experiences. As yogis, we have been blessed with a time-lasting discipline that allows us to gain new experiences through the practice of yoga. When we come to our mat and practice, in every moment of that practice the experience is real. Why? Because all that matters as we practice is what we are experiencing when it is “now.” Similarly, if we can relive those experiences on the mat in the parts of our lives that are off the mat, then we can bring that sense of “real” to those new moments of “now.” So, it is simple. Be present, experience the “now” not only the mat, but off the mat. Then, we can say true reality is both on and off the mat, regardless of origin or style. And so, when we next come back to our mat, and we will find yoga is real.