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By infocityzen, Aug 22 2013 03:45PM

This blog post is in response to a question I came across about the usage of the word 'Yoga'. Can 'yoga' be used to describe activities which are 'healthy' or 'feel good' but not 'spiritually' transformational?


In a nutshell, yes it can because it already is. It is the nature of language to change and over time the meaning ascribed to words themselves can alter. However the original meaning of ‘yoga’ has little to do with some of the activities it now describes.


In the West, as we adopted yogic practises and taught and retaught them, the original intention became a little lost. The more immediate side effects of yogic exercise (health, good physique, flexibility, looking young and vital etc.) often ended up being the aspiration for those attending yoga classes. As such Yoga has been incorporated into the health and beauty industry. In the process the underlying spiritual intent (transcending the personal ego, service to others, embodying the universal qualities of wisdom, love and compassion) have become alien even to some ardent practitioners of yoga.


A spiritual discipline (for transcending identification with the body, lower mind and ego), has become quite widely used as part of the modern craze of worshipping the body beautiful. I’m sure Patangali (whose teachings many yoga schools are founded on) would turn in his grave! Or at least give a wry smile at the stubborn persistence of our folly.


But this is perfectly okay and part of the natural process of cultural assimilation. There is no need for us to be precious or attached to words.


The word ‘yoga’ has changed in meaning from one of obscure, specialist esoteric (hidden, mystical) usage, to one of common, almost mundane association. Now we see it applied to physical postures or exercises purely for cosmetic and physical gain (looking good, feeling good). Or sometimes to something that makes us feel better generally.


It’s easy to see why ‘yoga’ in particular was not a concept that could easily be grasped by our materialistic mainstream culture. In its original meaning, what makes something 'yoga' or 'not yoga' is the result rather than the method. Yoga is often translated as ‘union’ or ‘yoke’. It’s meaning being the experience (or method) of changing our identification from the individual to the universal. Since the determining factor for this is often related to consciousness, application and intention rather than exactly what is done.... from a practical perspective 'yoga' could encompass almost anything. So naturally there is a type of yoga associated with all of human activity and experience: emotions (Bhakti Yoga), understanding (Jnana Yoga) and actions (Karma Yoga).


Nowadays, some activities classically understood to be yoga (such as using yoga asanas/postures) may actually not be 'yoga' in its original meaning (not result in union or movement towards union). This is because if the consciousness and intention guiding the activity is only ego based (me, me, me), then the benefits may not go beyond having a healthier body. I have on occasion even met teachers of yoga whose motivation seems rooted in showing off their perfected bodies and their status as a teacher. I doubt that from a spiritual perspective their students receive more from them than tools for relaxation and keeping the body healthy. Which is great as far as it goes, but relaxation and health are useful preparations for 'union', rather than 'union' itself. We can buy a wedding dress (put it on and even show it off to our friends as much as we like), but that doesn't mean we are married. To do that we have to take ourselves to the meeting point and say our vows. And even that is only the beginning. The dress which seems so important and integral to getting married, by itself has no substance at all.


Returning to modern usage of the word 'yoga':


At least 'yoga' is a word that now evokes interest rather than scorn or apathy, and that is helpful. It is inevitable as anything become accepted by 'mainstream' that its purity is also diluted and may even be eventually lost. Just as now 'religion' for some people has become a dirty word, divorced from its original intention (a structure/method to promote 'union' between human and divine).


In the age of Kali Yuga (the spiritual darkness of our modern world) there will probably never be a term for uniting the individual with the universal which has mainstream acceptance and remains true to its original meaning. Desire for this unity is not a concept that has popular understanding or interest. But it does not matter what become of the term ‘yoga’. The spirit of yoga, just like the original spirit of religious practices, is indestructible. It is truth and purity itself. It will outlast even our solar system. So there isn’t any need for alarm. The most important thing is that we (who aspire to improve ourselves to make the world a better place) stay as true as we can.



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