23 Aug What is Authentic Yoga?
Is Open Awareness Yoga actually Yoga?
Do you know I once considered dropping the “yoga” part of Open Awareness Yoga? I was thinking about how my classes are often taught in multiple modalities and how I, being a white woman with no cultural ties to this ancient tradition, could not possibly claim to be teaching something that’s authentically yoga.
Maybe I should just call it Open Awareness, I thought, maybe then I won’t be guilty of cultural appropriation. I’ll have extricated myself from this system of cherry picking spiritual tradition in a way that adulterates the practice and harms the Southeast Asian people it belongs to.
What about Cultural Appropriation?
Well…that was one possible solution to the very real issue of cultural appropriation in yoga, but it was a pretty bad one. More of a cop out than anything else.
As I continued to reflect, I had to admit that yoga is the foundation of what I practice and teach. Yoga is the foundation of how I live my entire life.
Not calling what it is I teach “yoga” would be a lie, and by ignoring and dismissing where my practice came from I would only be exacerbating the issue of cultural appropriation. Or, to remove it from the language of social justice, it would be rude and hurtful to take yoga and teach “Open Awareness” with no credit where credit is due. It’s like plagiarism, and I don’t think that’s cool.
Studying the Context
But the fact remained: I can only ever approximate authentic yoga. I’ve not even been to India to study the practice, much less did I grow up learning how to practice from my family’s yoga teacher and other elders in the community.
Knowing this, I dove into a much more serious study of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which you’ve heard me talk about many times. Not from New Age interpretations where an inspirational writer waxes poetic about what the concept of purity means to them. Not that that’s not valuable, it’s just probably not what Patanjali was trying to get across.
I currently study from a translation of the Sutras whose author includes translations from the traditional commentators on the Sutras, and historical and religious context that fits the text into the bigger picture it’s a part of.
The funny thing is, when I first started reading this translation I was totally disenchanted by the practice!
The poetic waxing of a modern writer resonated with me way more than what I was reading and trying to understand. Of course it did! Patanjali and the traditional commentators weren’t trying to sell me, a 21st Century American woman, on the spiritual validity and beauty of yoga. They were trying to write down what the yogis and sages before them had developed, learned, and orally passed down. It wasn’t about inspiration, it was about what yoga is, why it is practiced, and how it is done.
(As an aside, studying this translation is why you’ll not hear me call myself a yogi. I’m not. I practice some of yoga, but not all of it.)
Beware of “Spiritual Guides”
It was good for me to be disenchanted. Especially in this day and age where anyone with meme savvy and a popular social media account can claim to teach the ancient truths that will make you happy, healthy, immune to covid through the power of your mind and rock hard abs, and a consumer of the latest essential oil supplement or actual horse pill.
Us humans are so easily manipulated (this is why marketing is such a profitable industry), and when we’re reeling from the trauma of life on earth and distanced from any real sense of community, it’s easy to understand why a person might crave enchantment, answers, escape. And the truth is, yoga HELPS! I mean, if you’re reading this you probably have already experienced that.
Yoga helps, and is also all tangled into our system of power, profit, likes, and sales. For me to be a responsible practitioner, I need to understand the real context of what it is I practice (even if I’m not inspired by it; that’s not the point). For me to be a responsible teacher, I need to share that with you.