What Makes It Yoga?


Having recently moved to a new city, I've been going to the local studios and sampling classes to get a sense of what people are teaching and who is going to their classes, and I've often been surprised—and sometimes confused—by what I found.

Some classes I've been to didn't include a single asana that you could claim is more than 10 or 15 years old, and definitely nothing you could find in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the classic manual of Hatha Yoga, or even Iyengar's Light on Yoga which is more modern by about 500 years and is arguably the most complete yoga asana reference book available. I realized that there are people teaching something they're calling "yoga" that has no connection to a tradition or lineage beyond what's been popularized in America over the past fifteen or twenty years.

You could make the argument that people who are teaching this way are teaching a derivation of Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which he got from Krishnamacharya and was modified in the 70s and 80s by people like Tim Miller who connected postures using the sun salutation as a template and created what is popularly known now as "vinyasa", "flow" or "power" yoga, but if they themselves don't have a foundation in Ashtanga Vinyasa, it starts to resemble a game of Yoga Broken Telephone.

I've started to think of this new form as "American Yoga" and I don't want to criticize or condemn it all—there are enough people doing that—but some of the classes have made me wonder why people are practicing this way. I'm talking about the classes that have pop music blasting throughout the class, that are vigorous enough that it's hard to catch your breath—let alone lengthen it—and that barely leave enough time to recover in savasana, let alone sit in meditation.

I find this fascinating—that a potential new form is developing out of the west, that seems to combine the American desire for exercise with it's desire for spiritual salvation (or Spiritual Gangsterism).

I'm just not sure that it's succeeding in either.

Why Are We Doing Asana?

The writer and yoga critic Matthew Remski has an ongoing project that asks the question, "What are we actually doing in Asana?",  which focusses only on injuries caused by Asana practice and tends to emphasize the negative without offering a clear alternative. If we ask instead, "Why are we doing Asana?", we can start to form some guiding principles and avoid a lot of potential problems before we even hit the mat.

So I started to try and put together some sort of guideline using classic sources as to what a yoga asana practice should include to "make it yoga".

We can start with one of the few references Patanjali makes in his definitive Yogic text regarding asana, which is "sthira sukham asanam" (YS 2.46), It states that a posture should be "steady and comfortable", which might possibly exclude something like the "Wild Thing" pose that shows up in a lot of American Yoga classes, and gives us some idea of the type of poses we should be practicing, or at least a quality that we can aspire to in any pose.

We should consider that if Asana is the third limb of Patanjali's Ashtanga (8 Limbs) Yoga, then it should prepare you for the next stages—Pranayama, Pratyahara and Dharana. So, the asana practice should not only prepare the body to sit in meditation (#7 Dhyana), a common reason given for asana practice, but it should also cultivate breath awareness and strengthen the respiratory system, it should prepare us to control the senses, strengthen our ability to concentrate and cultivate inner awareness.

I thought about the passage from the Bhagavad Gita that my teacher Mark Whitwell loves to misquote, "Those who are engaged in yogic practices, reach the breathless state of trance by offering inhalation into exhalation and exhalation into inhalation as a sacrifice". This puts some importance on the breath.

Patanjali even tells us that the end goal of this focus on the breath is to make it "long and smooth" (PS 2.5), but one could argue that you don't have to worry about that until you get to the fourth limb of Pranayama.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika offers that asana should be practiced in a room without distractions (goodbye bangin' playlist), that it's purpose is for gaining steady posture, health and lightness of body, and even gives specific instruction for which asanas to practice. An amazing resource for sure, and the closest thing to a manual that we have from the ancient world.

The Yoga Manifesto

I was thinking this was all sounding pretty good, and leading to what I hoped might be some sort of Yoga Manifesto, inspired by other great art manifestos like the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, or the Situationist Manifesto, which have some powerful, almost yogic pronouncements like:

"I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real." —RGM 1989

"Against the spectacle, the realized situationist culture introduces total participation. Against preserved art, it is the organization of the directly lived moment." —SI 1960

Then, as sometimes happens, I woke up at 4am this morning with this coursing through my mind—what seems to be a manifesto of sorts and for now I'm calling...


Our natural state is Love.

Any practice that helps bring you to this natural state is Yoga.

If your practice puts you in competition with others, it is not Yoga.

If your practice puts you in competition with yourself, it is not Yoga.

If your practice distracts you from what is present, it is not Yoga.

If your practice is injurious to your body, it is not Yoga.

If your practice makes you feel better than others, it is not Yoga.

If your practice makes you feel lesser than others, it is not Yoga.

If your practice takes you out of your head, it is not Yoga.

If your practice takes you out of your body, it is not Yoga.

Yoga is the active loving of your whole Self, mind and body.

When you are in a state of Yoga, you love other people, plants, and animals, wholly.

Yoga allows you to see your whole Self as holy.

The enlightened ones all say that God is Love.

When we are in our natural state of Love, we are in union with God.

This is Yoga.

"Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." — John 4:8

“Maharaji told us to meditate like Christ, and when I asked him how to do that, Maharaji closed his eyes and sat in front of us, completely still; so still that it felt like the whole world stopped turning. After a couple of minutes, two tears came down his cheek, and then he opened his eyes, looked at us and said, “He lost himself in love. That’s how he meditated. He’s one with all beings. He never died, no one understands. He lost himself in love.” — Ram Dass speaking about Neem Karoli Baba

"Love outlasts death and the ravages of time. All those that I have loved before, in this or other lifetimes, I love the same now."

"God is love, and love is the panacea for human suffering. There is nothing greater than love-God's quality of attraction and unity that is manifested in the soul of every being." — Paramahansa Yogananda

"All expansion is life, all contraction is death. All love is expansion, all selfishness is contraction. Love is therefore the only law of life.” — Swami Vivekananda

“If you must be mad, be it not for the things of the world. Be mad with the love of God.” ― Ramakrishna