The core question of ancient yoga philosophy and modern yoga/meditation is this: how to harmonize inner peace with outer reality.
The unasked question is this: why yoga, why now?
Something about yoga has always been invaluable to humans. The practice has endured and evolved over thousands of years of teachers and students, shifts in Indian then global culture, fitting every stage of technology we have invented, from paper to podcasts. What’s new is not that it exists, but that it is popular.
The teachings have been attainable for thousands of years, but only in the early 1900s did Indian teachers attempt to popularize yoga, and only in the 70s onwards did the Western world make it a success. So much a success that we can hardly imagine yoga as being anything other than a timed, instructor-led, almost-spiritual, definitely-sensual, fitness experience.
When yoga went mainstream, it left underground ancients roots in Vedic philosophy, practical knowledge, and tradition of asceticism. What is above ground has been split into two branches. Today, those who are interested in mental disciplines go to meditation, Buddhism, and a host of apps. Those who are interested in low impact, stress reducing physical fitness go to yoga, Pilates, and another host of apps.
In our search for downloadable and quick-fix convenience, we’ve forgotten that both the Buddha and Joseph Pilates studied yoga, but even deeper than that, we are immersed in a culture that has separated mind from body. And that is exactly why we are drawn to yoga/meditation now. In our individual journeys of cultivating well-being and connection, we are realizing that surface answers still leave us with a deeper longing for completion.
Psychedelics, religion, spirituality, back-to-nature movements are all popular avenues for seekers, and yoga/meditation has become bundled into this package. But if we pull out yoga out of this milieux and hold it up to the light, reuniting its roots with its surface form, we’ll find a complete guide to the mind-body fulfillment every seeker has sought.
Exploring the ancient philosophies gives us a powerful framework for what we are already doing well: making yoga and meditation more accessible. Currently, those who want to learn yoga theory go to trainings and workshops that introduce the very surface of yoga philosophy, presented by western teachers for western students, or by Indian teachers catering to western students. The trainings are run as business, with focus on commercial value. Intellectual rigor and creative applications give way to the popularity of dogma and dollars, which is why yoga seems so standardized today.
Rarely do the philosophers excel at fitness; rarely do the athletes care for intellectual theories; rarely do the skeptics agree with the believers. What we need is a new perspective on yoga that inspires and enhances our current understanding of the exercise system. We need an intelligent system that connects philosophical and scientific theory with cultural sensitivity and artistic discipline, to deepen what is already accessible into a fuller body of knowledge.
Yoga being an ancient practice makes it perfect for our health needs today: with the system overwhelmed by unexpected pandemic, every human is united in needing sustainable and effective self-care for mind-body-energy vibrancy and resilience. We can look to the ancient practices as coming from simpler times, when we had more time to ask the big questions, answers created by humans with bodies and desires exactly like ours, searching, as we do, for peace of mind and strength of spirit.
A good place to begin is the beginning, when yoga was defined as what we call meditation today. The most ancient text that explains yoga is written in short, simple Sanskrit phrases. Translated into modern English, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras begins with these two sentences: Now, we talk of yoga. Yoga is the stilling of the mind.
Now, talking in 2020, these lines sound like a mashup between a home-fitness ad and the conclusion of a seminar on meditation. Today, we call physical fitness “yoga”, mental stillness “meditation”, and debate how to pull Indian spirituality in and out of theses practices. Thousands of years, conquests, and colonialization are bound to create a telephone effect. The original message has come undone, cultural confusion and misappropriation is everywhere. Now is the time to talk of yoga as stilling of the mind, reuniting mind with body, theory with practice, philosophy with movement.
Continue to think of yoga as exercise. Begin t think of the mind as a muscle, a flexing and relaxing, moving and resting entity expressed visibly by the body. To ignore the mind while exercising the body, or vice versa, splits us in the very actions we take towards feeling better, feeling wholly healthy within.
Now that we are talking of yoga as inclusive of meditation, the body as inclusive of mind, let’s look at the second sentence of the Sutras: Citta vritti nirodaha. The Sanskrit directly translates to: stopping the fluctuations of mental chatter. Apparently mental chatter has been a hindrance to humans for all of civilization. The Toltecs called this technique “stopping the world.” Ancient Indians called it yoga, as both a verb (to get a grip on oneself) and a noun. Yoga is a state of being one can step or slip ini and out of, a state ini which the inner stillness eclipses the chaos of the world.
Creating stillness from chaos requires energy, concerted effort applied steadily, systematically, strategically, or, in other words, intelligently. It is not a scheduled block on the calendar to check off the to do list, like “order groceries”, “play app”, “burn calories”.
Yoga, meditation, is a continuous polishing and repolishing of the. Inner perfection reflected as the yogi’s glow of skin, tone of musculature, serenity of composure. The yoga body, the fitness aspect, is a playground for the mental aspect, the discipline of stilling the mind. The real world waits just beyond the mat, ever changing in unpredictable ways. The world of the yogi, of medtiation, is to persevere in exploring the inner depths of silence, creating order and stillness, truth and grace, from what the world presents you. No amount of outer stillness will do this for you— your life experience is your direct perception of it, flowing from your minis, your body.
The evidence of practice is in the ease with which you live. With steady, continuous, intelligently applied effort, you will naturally become more resilient, returning to equipoise with greater ease, adapting because you are adept at bringing yourself to a state of balance. You will become skillful in your body’s behaviors and in your mind’s actions, embodying the Bhagavad Gita’s definition of yoga: skill in action. And this is the answer to why yoga, why now: for as long as humans have been contemplative, we have desired to know the straight path to experiencing this life to its fullest.