What is yoga? Iyengar.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. –attributed to Albert Einstein via the internet.

I don’t know if Einstein said this for reals, but it speaks to me. I can’t explain yoga, or the importance of asana in yoga, simply. Sad, and not for lack of effort. Therefore, in addition to looking within, I look to masters for their wisdom. In the below clip from 1976, BKS Iyengar drops some knowledge relevant to these two questions: What is yoga?, and Why Asana? I’ve transcribed the quotes below.

Based on my limited study of the Yoga Sutras, Iyengar’s definition of yoga is familiar. I get it intellectually, but I don’t get it in my bones. This is not his fault. His style isn’t simple, exactly, but it is clear and dramatic. His style also includes an amazing pair of tiny and bad-ass plaid yoga “pants”.

What is yoga? In order to experience…total freedom [in body, in mind, in the self itself], Indian sages and saints introduced…yoga. Yoga is a union with the body and the mind, mind with the soul so that man…lives in a state of peace and poise…Yoga is a means for freedom, and yoga is the end of freedom itself. Yoga means complete… sublimation of the ways of thought which move in various directions. …Man…when he stills the wandering mind…experiences the self which has no color, no form, no shape. In order to experience that self, yoga has various steps for physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual discipline…

Why asana? In order to… conquer this inner oscillation of the self with the mind, we have to come to the concrete: the body, which is the temple… the vehicle of the spirit…As long as the body…is not kept healthy, clean, pure and holy, the mind is not released from the bondage…If this body is abused or negleted, we are neglecting the self, so we are neglecting our freedom…The body…has to be conquered so that the mind is completely freed from the attachment of the body and get itself attached to the self….The subtle body, which is the mind, cannot be known, cannot be seen, cannot be understood, so these asana are meant to conquer the known, so that the known dissolves in the unknown.


Yoga news Sunday (Vivekananda, lululemon)

(At least) two yoga mentions in the weekend New York Times:


1) How Yoga Won the West tells the brief story of how Swami Vivekananda popularized Hindu and yogic philosophy in America. Vivekananda was India’s delegate to the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. His talks about Hindu philosophy were a smashing success–among his admirers, according to the article, were Leo Tolstoy, Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, and JD Salinger. He remains a household name in India but less so here. If not for my parents, who were born and raised in India and have mentioned him on more than one occasion, I’d have never heard of him before.

According to the article, among his most important teachings were: “all souls are potentially divine”, “you are not your body,” and “you are not your mind.”

He taught Vendata, the founding philosophy of Hinduism. Yoga meant just one thing to Vivekananda: “realizing God.” The SoCal Vedanta Society, founded in 1930 by Vivekananda’s followers, describes the connection to Hinduism this way: “Vedanta is one of the world’s most ancient religious philosophies and one of its broadest. Based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India, Vedanta affirms the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of religions. Vedanta is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism; but while Hinduism includes aspects of Indian culture, Vedanta is universal in its application and is equally relevant to all countries, all cultures, and all religious backgrounds.”

2) From the What I Wore column, a first person account of a fashionista’s daily outfits over the week. This is from Lola Burstein Rykiel, 25, the granddaughter of fashion designer Sonia Rykiel. Lola grew up in Paris and now lives in NYC.

I religiously go with [my friend] every Sunday to Dechen Thurman’s yoga class at the Jivamukti school. I recently discovered this brand Lululemon. It seems super-popular here. The leggings are so comfortable, and I wore them over a white Repetto unitard. I have so many unitards left over from when I studied at the Martha Graham dance school. I was going to be a professional dancer. Then I realized what I loved most about dance was the outfits.

Questions for class discussion: 1) What does Lola mean when she uses the  word “religiously”? Do you think what she loves most about yoga is the outfits? If so, why? 2) What is the relationship between yoga as taught by Vivekananda and yoga as practiced by Lola?

Where are the Indians?

Totally inappropro

I am often the only ethnic Indian in the yoga classes I attend. At first I cared but not much anymore. That said, reading this post about late Ashtanga guru Pattabhi Jois and his sometimes creepy adjustments reminded me of one of my theories about why more of my people don’t embrace yoga as we know it in America.

Therefore I would like to visit this state of affairs and have listed below my theories why Indians don’t do yoga (suspicion of lecherous fellow countrymen is #3).

1) It feels silly to learn this ancient Indian practice from Westerners.

2) Yoga as it is taught in the West is one-sided (asansas performed by lithe men and women in luon) , nowhere resembling the practice as our parents know it (breathing, philosophy, mediation)–therefore it feels false and incomplete. When I was little my dad told me about sadhus (holy men or yogis) that could slow their heart rates down to barely beating solely with the powers of their mind. And sadhus are understood to be skinny old ascetics that live in caves, meditating. (My dad, for the record, is a orthopedic surgeon, well trained in Western medicine.)

3) We are suspicious of fellow desis* that bring Indian stuff to the West, as Indians are corrupt and cheats, out to make a buck and grope white women (see picture).  In other words, Indians know that Indians are not the philosophical sages that orientalist Westerners** hope them to be. And yoga (in America) is the child of this.

4) Indians are not health conscious.

5) Indians are cheap, and yoga studios are expensive.

6) I am wrong and Indians do attend yoga classes in proportion to their prevalence in the population. Or maybe they go to different types of classes than I do, such as the gym or the YMCA rather than to studios (due to their cheapness as described in #5). This theory is a shout out to the economists out there.

Also, I have a somewhat related question: do Americans prefer to get their yoga from Indians or non-Indians? My feeling is that it doesn’t make a big difference, with non-Indians having the edge on physical teachings, and Indians having the edge on the mystical stuff. Mystical being a catch-all term for everything that isn’t asana.


*The Urban Dictionary defines desi as “a word derived from Sanskrit. Means ‘one from our country’; a national opposed to a foreign. Usually refers to people from India, Pakistan, & Bangladesh.” For example, although I am American, I am desi.

**Hyperbole for discussion purposes.