There’s a picture circulating around the Internet that shows an iceberg, both the exposed and submerged parts. As you might already know, the majority of the iceberg is below the surface, thus the old adage, “That’s just the tip of the iceberg.” In this image, written on the section above the surface is the word, “asana.” Below the surface reads, “The rest of yoga.”
Presently I’m afraid we’ve become hung up on the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been practicing yoga for nearly fifteen years and teaching for five. As my understanding of yoga’s purpose evolves, I find that the fixation with the physical aspect of the practice is misleading and possibly even harmful to the lineage and to the people practicing it in this way.
Yoga Is Not a Religion
Yoga is more than the physical postures, but the non-physical practices of yoga are not religion. Most teacher trainings I’m aware of use the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as their foundational text. This written compilation of the yoga sutras dates from over 2,000 years ago and is derived from ancient oral traditions. It comprises the philosophical aspects of what is known today as yoga.
In an attempt to avoid the misconception that yoga is a religion, many teachers avoid delving too deeply into these philosophical and non-physical realms due to fear of alienating students. But the yoga sutras are one of the six Hindu darshanas (philosophies) – not religions. Knowing this simple fact is a great way to put your students’ minds (and your own) at ease that inversions don’t equal conversion.
A consistent yoga practice can be a support to whatever religious or spiritual path a student is already on. I’ve witnessed the practice help many students, from Orthodox to atheist, connect more fully with their personal belief system. Careful study of the sutras will strengthen your grasp on what yoga is and isn’t. You’ll become confident that you’re not trying to push a religion on your students. Your willingness to offer more than asana will allow students from varied religious, philosophical, and cultural backgrounds to find the full spectrum of yoga’s relevance to their lives.
Yoga Has Eight Limbs
Imagine a fruit tree in your yard with many branches, all of them bearing beautiful ripe fruit for the taking. But say you only chose to pick the fruit from one of the branches. You’d be missing out on quite a harvest.
It’s similar when, as yoga teachers, we offer only the asana limb. Let’s remember yoga is comprised of eight limbs and each one offers an abundant and unique harvest to the one who practices it. These limbs are: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratiyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
For our purposes I won’t go into the meanings of each. There’s plenty written about them to explore beginning with the yoga sutras themselves. There are infinite ways to incorporate these aspects into the asana practice we all know and love so much. To leave these elements out and become trapped at the level of physicality is counterproductive and perhaps what leads to so much injury in the practice of yoga today.
I recently heard from two different sources – one a Rolfer and one a chiropractor – that the majority of their practice is treating people with yoga-related injuries. In my experience, this comes as the result of a lack of mindfulness in large, mixed-level classes, moving through poses quickly, with little or no attention to breath (pranayama, the fourth limb).
Incorporating the eight limbs is bound to slow things down to a pace where mindfulness can be cultivated. This doesn’t mean classes cannot be physically challenging. It just assures that classes don’t venture into recklessness where students are reinforcing bad habits over and over again to the point of harm.
The ascending limbs end with samadhi, a state of union with what the yoga sutras refer to as the self (some say the divine). As a teacher to know that this, rather than a particular yoga pose done in a particular way, is the ultimate goal of a yoga practice is invaluable and informs the way you impart this lineage.
Yoga Is Not Gymnastics
Presently there is such an emphasis on inversions, arm balances, and contortions. I see nothing wrong with teaching or practicing these positions. I’ve done three handstands and one backbend in the course of writing this article. I did them to bring clarity and focus to my mind – an example of how an expanded vocabulary of movement supports mental dexterity. But too often people are giving the name yoga to what’s really gymnastics, so it’s good to know the difference.
Gymnastics originated in Greece and is largely a highly competitive sport focused on body development and physical feats of achievement. Yoga is a breath-centered practice that originated in India and takes into account not only the physical, but also the subtle layers of being in order to give the practitioner access to higher states of consciousness.
There’s a description in the beginning of the yoga sutras that can steer us in the right direction. In my favorite translation, it reads, “Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify with its vacillating waves of perception.”
According to this explanation, yoga is experienced in the mind – yes, the mind. This being the case, if we get stuck at the level of physical consciousness embodied in gymnastics, we will never experience yoga – that state of union with the self. So it’s important to remember that we’re yoga teachers, not gymnastics (asana) coaches.
Beyond Cultural Expectations
In a culture where 200 hours of study is considered “teacher training” when it would be more accurately named “in depth study,” we have to be so mindful not to get ahead of ourselves.
After five years of teaching I see clearly that 200-hour or even 500-hour courses of study are only the tip of the iceberg. This takes us back to the image at the beginning of this piece and explains why so much of yoga these days is focused on asana. It makes sense that the most tangible of the eight limbs would be the easiest to cover thoroughly when you only have 200 or 500 hours of education before going off to teach others.
There has to be a compromise somewhere and the over-emphasis on asana is the one that current standards have made. But doesn’t it then become our responsibility as teachers to go beyond cultural expectations? To continue studying, practicing, and expanding our grasp on what yoga is so we can impart it to our students?
If you haven’t cracked open the yoga sutras lately, maybe now is the time. But be compassionate in this process, understanding that your responsibility lies in consistent learning, not in knowing everything. It is about progress, not perfection.
Think about it. Here you are, a yoga teacher in the 21st Century, a time of yoga’s greatest expansion. There are bound to be some bumps in the road, and yet, isn’t it pretty awesome to have a role in helping this lineage maintain its purity even as it is required to meet humanity at its current stage of progress? I encourage teachers who might have the same inkling to branch out – pardon the pun – and to begin incorporating the eight limbs of yoga into their teaching.
1. Stlies, M., “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” Red Wheel, Boston. 2002.
Photos 2 & 3 courtesy of Shutterstock.