Yoga embraces historic and cultural divides

Image © Matt Madd

As diet and exercise become increasingly prominent in Canadians’ lives, many Vancouverites have turned to yoga to supplement their fitness regimen. It is now the second most popular leisure activity in the country. More than just a physical activity, yoga is also one of the most diverse spiritual traditions in the world, influencing numerous faiths and cultures.

The diversity of the yoga tradition may be shown in the very ambiguities of defining the term “yoga,” a word that has had different meanings for different people over separate time periods going into the present day.

“It’s a personal question,” says John Buchanan, Buddhist teacher and practitioner of Tibetan Heart Yoga, on the meaning of the term, “because every person that does yoga or does a form of yoga is going to have a different answer for that.”

The word’s etymology is just as diverse, indicating a “method” or “discipline,” deriving from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to yoke or join together.

Yog means to unite,” says traditional Hindu yogi Acharya Aman on the Hindi word for yoga. “To unite one’s individual consciousness with the universal consciousness. If you study science you know that the biggest mystery in this universe is what consciousness is. Yog is to understand that.”

This desire to unite has driven people to connect with other human beings along with a deeper spiritual order.

“If you try to follow the principles – the eight limbs of yoga, say – then you’re doing your best to figure yourself out,” says Buchanan. “I think what it comes down to is how anyone interacts with other beings, and that’s going to directly relate to how they interact with themselves, how much love and acceptance they have for themselves.”

Origins in Hinduism

The god Shiva is widely regarded as the patron of yoga in Hinduism

The god Shiva is widely regarded as the patron of yoga in Hinduism

The precise origins of yogic practice are, as with most ancient traditions, murky. Some evidence indicates that the seeds of yoga may have been planted during the beginnings of settled culture in India: the Indus Valley Civilization.

“Archaeologists were digging up the art there and they found statues doing yoga poses,” says Aman. “And that civilization was around 5000 years before now, so we normally believe yoga to be at least 5000 years old.”

Amongst thousands and even millions of early texts on yoga, two texts in particular stand out .

“The most popular books are the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra,” Aman says. “The Bhagavad Gita is more popular because it mixes everything together, expressing that all systems are one through which you can realize the truth, and you can choose any one or all of them together for your practice, and you can find out what is true.”

Many yoga disciplines cover multiple practices to respond to a broader spectrum of human experience.

“You can go study, and slowly, slowly you find: ‘Oh, my style is like this type, I will go for this,’” says Aman. “So people start choosing because it’s a very wide field. For example, when you go to school to study Mathematics, English, [and] many [other] subjects of study, slowly you find out: ‘Oh, this is my subject, I want to continue this way.’”

While the word “yoga” is still largely used to refer to a variety of meditative practices, it also denotes one of the six main schools of philosophy (darśanas) in Hinduism. The first attempt to transform yoga into a coherent philosophical system was the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali, the second major text in the yogic tradition.

Clearer vision

Yogic practice is integrated differently in traditions outside Hinduism, such as Buddhism.

Buddhist philosophy classes won’t use the term “yoga,” says Buchanan.

“It’s more in the esoteric teachings that you start hearing things that are more yogic, and you start talking about the channels of the body.”

In Buddhist yoga practice, these channels coalesce to create a non-conceptual experience that allows the practitioner to see reality more clearly.

A gateway to spirituality

Today, most people in the West are first exposed to yoga purely as a fitness practice, not being knowledgeable about the history or spirituality of the tradition.

Aman says that once people try yoga for health reasons, they start to become more interested in yoga’s spirituality.

Buchanan’s original purpose in doing yoga was to help increase his flexibility, but eventually he started noticing other benefits like inner bliss and a sense of calmness.

“I will give them health,” says Aman, “But also I will give them meditation, philosophy…I will give all those things to them.”