My Truce with Yoga

Chants and chakra-balancing asanas? Or hip-hop and butt-blasting power vinyasa? How one newbie found her practice.

I came to yoga not on a journey of personal transformation, but because I put my back out and couldn't sit comfortably in a chair. Taking yoga seemed a bit more wholesome and a bit less habit-forming than popping muscle relaxants -- a way to heal my tweaked lower back without taking an unfortunate side trip to the Valley of the Dolls.

For years I'd resisted yoga even though (or perhaps because) seemingly everyone in my white, liberal North Seattle neighborhood proselytized about its benefits. I thought yoga was for self-indulgent, middle-aged ladies with time on their hands, or for fanatical vegetarian former gymnasts. As an atheist, I also was unsettled by the idea of intoning prayers, especially from another culture. My initial search for a class appropriate for my back didn't exactly allay these concerns. If anything, it created more.

As I researched studios around Seattle, I noticed that yoga came in a dizzying array of flavors and strengths, often at opposite ends of a spiritual spectrum. At some studios, akin to stylish gyms, hip-hop music blared, the vibe was ravelike, and students went for the "burn." The atmosphere seemed roughly as sacred as Olivia Newton-John singing "Let's Get Physical" in a terry-cloth headband.

On an entirely different yoga planet were more somber, spirituality-infused studios, often called shalas, where incense burned, practitioners earnestly chanted, and bronze elephant statuettes gazed out from an ornately decorated altar. In these serene spaces, teachers often said dreamy, incomprehensible things, like "The om travels through the chakras."

At first, I was put off by both extremes. The thumpa-thumpa, aerobicized classes seemed to miss the point of yoga; even I could see that it should calm you down at least a little bit. But the shala classes just made me want to giggle -- or snore. When the teacher started talking sutras or koshas or chakras, it took everything I had not to clonk over sideways with boredom.

As a novice, I felt bewildered. I couldn't help but wonder: Was there one correct way to do yoga? Who's got it right, the soccer mom who takes power vinyasa at the gym in head-to-toe Lululemon, or the vegan purist who wears hemp and has her own guru in India? And if I take classes solely to heal my back, not to save my soul, am I "doing yoga" or just really smug stretching?

Questions like these have swirled not just through my mind, but through the yoga world recently as aficionados have debated the authenticity and identity of the practice in the West. Called the "yoga wars" by some media outlets, and spawning headlines such as "Who Owns Yoga?," the controversy has pitted spiritually minded devotees against nontraditional, fitness-focused enthusiasts.

Most purists believe that yoga is inherently Hindu and that its scripture can be found in Patanjali's "Yoga Sutras," the ancient text that lays out the historical precepts that shaped yoga as a cultural and religious tradition, known as the "eight limbs" of yoga. Physical practice, or asana, is just one aspect. Others include quotidian qualities, such as truthfulness, and mindful practices such as meditation, with descriptions of how best to live a spiritual life.

Yoga's traditions are many threaded and ever-changing. But purists mostly agree on one thing: Physical practice is not enough. True yogis also practice the meditative and moral elements of the eight limbs. "You can't talk about yoga without talking about God consciousness or self-actualization," says Molly Lannon Kenney, founder of the Samarya Center, a nonprofit studio in Seattle that emphasizes spirituality. "You're missing out on the best part."

Dismayed by the secularization and commercialization of Western yoga, a small but vocal group of Hindu Americans late last year launched the "Take Back Yoga" campaign, aimed at reconnecting the tradition to its spiritual roots. (New Age guru Deepak Chopra, who embraces Western styles of yoga, quickly responded on the Huffington Post, calling their claims "unfounded," adding, "Yoga is India's gift to the world, and it would be a shame to bring back the phrase 'Indian giver,' now banished from polite conversation, with a new meaning.")

So it's easy to see why modern yoga, especially as it's often practiced in the United States, where yoga is estimated to be a $6 billion industry, frustrates many purists. Although about 16 million Americans take yoga, Patanjali would hardly recognize much of it: Yoga Booty Ballet, Fat Free Yoga, Hot Nude Yoga. Many yoga (or yoga-inspired) classes and DVDs promise vigorous workouts and hard-body results with meager emphasis on mental and spiritual rewards. In America, yoga hasn't been sold as a path to enlightenment so much as a path to "yoga butt."

"People in the West are attracted to yoga for the physical aspect," says Baron Baptiste, the son of 1950s yoga pioneers, who has developed his own modern, athletic practice. Baptiste, who teaches yoga "boot camps" around the world, says yoga is still legitimate even when it's purely a workout.

Baptiste's approach sits well with the many Westerners who want the physical challenge of yoga but are disconcerted by the name-dropping of Indian spiritual traditions. As a friend of mine who recently quit yoga in favor of Pilates and running declared: "No more chanting!" (Chanting seems particularly to push people over the edge.)

John Friend, founder of the fast-growing school of Anusara yoga, explains the Western resistance to yoga's spiritual side this way: "In our society, we are not used to people discussing concepts of metaphysics and creation outside of the doctrines of formal religion, and this can make them uncomfortable." Or as Tara Stiles, a popular fitness-focused Manhattan yoga instructor and author of "Slim Calm Sexy Yoga," put it in a New York Times article, "People need yoga, not another religious leader."

Despite my own qualms about yoga's spiritual aspects, as I continued experimenting with studios, I found myself shunning high-octane classes for the relative serenity of the shalas. Not only was power yoga a bit too ambitious for my ailing back, it was a bit too chaotic for my restless mind. After all, if I wanted hectic, I could go home, where the baby would be crying and the phone would be ringing. The calm of the shala proved to be a welcome tonic.

Not that it was easy tapping into my inner peace. In those early yoga classes, I'd lay on my back in Savasana, or Corpse pose, and my mind would neurotically chatter and smart aleck its way through what was supposed to be a meditation. It was like being trapped in an elevator with Woody Allen.

Slowly, something changed. Not only was my back feeling better, pretty soon I found I'd begun to listen in class and had absorbed teachings about the eight limbs. I learned to chant without a) giggling, or b) looking shifty-eyed and awkward. And I noticed that when I left the studio, I felt, in some indefinable way, better. Not just physically, but in a way I couldn't put my finger on.

Then, one day, sitting in Cobbler's pose, my knees splayed and the soles of my feet pressed together like sweaty lovers, I experienced ... what was it, exactly? Something less than transcendence and more than silence. A kind of concentrated awareness. The tiny hairs on my forearms stood as if electrified. For the first time that I could remember, I'd experienced a connection to something outside of and larger than myself.

After that, yoga became a true practice for me. I kept doing the asanas, returning to the motions over and over. Even when I didn't feel that hair-raising tingle, yoga gave my brain a place to rest as I stepped into the familiar poses.

When I went back out into the world, it was usually with a serene energy that was new to me. I felt refreshed but not overstimulated, kind of like a human breath mint. This calmness often migrated into my relationships -- with my husband, with my 9-month-old, with the person ahead of me in the grocery line counting pennies and making me late.

More than a decade later, my yoga practice is thriving. And I've settled on a studio that offers a very physical vinyasa practice with a spiritual component leavened by a lot of humor. My evolution from skeptic to convert has made me question whether the sides in the so-called yoga wars are really so far apart; even if they truly exist. (The idea of sides really is not very yogic, is it?)

Under the surface, most practices I've seen are not exclusively spiritual or physical; instead, these qualities tend to sit cheek by jowl, sometimes awkwardly, but together nonetheless. For instance, the Anusara-inspired classes at my local gym incorporate chanting and prayer. There's something delightful about hearing "Om Namah Shivaya Guraveh" ("I honor the essence of Being, the luminous teacher within and without") amid clanking barbells. It's aural evidence that yoga and its traditions can thrive anywhere and are available to everyone.

That's the true message of Anusara, says Friend. "No matter what a practitioner's intention, under the auspices of a skilled teacher, students can have a direct experience of their very core, which will transcend ideas of religion and complicated metaphysical doctrine."

Indeed, even if you do yoga just for the physical rewards (which studies indicate may include lower blood pressure, better circulation, and improved pain tolerance), you may be getting more spiritual benefit than you realize.

"We get people on their mat, and stress and energy that's been locked in their heads moves through their body and is released," says Baptiste. "That is the power and magic of physical practice." This creates a new kind of listening, which bypasses people's usual thinking. Physical practice is inherently spiritual."

Ultimately, I believe, this is yoga's great lesson: How we move can transform how we feel, think, and experience the world. Call it spiritual. Call it anything that won't make you want to run screaming from the room. Either way, yoga is an incomparable way to connect bodies and minds.

Whatever kind of yoga you do, whether it's hard-core, total-body, or woo-woo and incense-infused -- there's a place for you. There is simply so much yoga in the world now, there's no need for acrimony about who's doing it "right." It doesn't really matter to whom yoga belongs. Hindu or Christian, purist or jock; if you practice, yoga belongs to you.

Claire Dederer, the author of "Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses," lives on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound.

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