Author: Sujesh S

Is Yoga a group practice or an individual journey?

Yoga has spread from its roots in India to become one of the most popular fitness activities in the western world, adopting multitude of changes along the way. While purists maintain that we abide by the teachings of our ancient Gurus, we should be mindful of the fact that those guidelines were set in a different era. Yoga is not a rigid practice set in stone; it must and has been evolving with the times. However, we should be aware of the changes yoga has undergone, as looking at yoga merely as a group fitness activity or a weight loss program takes away the essence of the ancient practice.

Looking at yoga merely as a group fitness activity or a weight loss program takes away the essence of the ancient practice

In this article, we use “yoga” to indicate Hatha Yoga, where one works with body and breath to influence the mind, and thereby lead one forward along the path of a spiritual journey. In the last century, many practitioners have discovered yoga’s tremendous physical, physiological and psychological benefits. However, even while doing asana practice as a health and wellness program, it still is an individual journey. How our body aligns and feels in a posture or how we breathe is going to be completely different from the person next to us, or even the instructor.

Beginners and regular practitioners should always strive to learn the fundamentals of the practice instead of mechanically following instructions. For example, while doing a forward bend do we make sure that we are folding from the hips and not worrying about touching the forehead to knees? In a group setting there is often someone who is super flexible and they will do the postures exactly as shown by the instructor. But trying to follow that may be detrimental to our long term practice and could eventually even harm us. We owe it to ourselves to work on learning what each posture is focusing on, start from where our body is now and then move forward from that base.

Let us take the example of a simple seated forward bend, Paschimottanasana. A very common mistake in this posture is leading with the forehead because that is what we notice in advanced practitioners. But it is easy to overlook the spine alignment where the fold comes from the hips and then the abdomen, chest, chin and finally forehead rests on the legs. In every posture there is a clear spinal position defined. It could be neutral, forward bend, back bend, twist or lateral bend, and our focus should be on getting this right rather than worry about how we align our limbs. Some yogis even suggest that we should compromise how we position our hands and feet and where we look, to get the spinal alignment right because that is the base of every posture.

Another important individual versus group element is that people are not cast out of a single mould. While doing any posture, apart from our lack of practice, the biggest limitation is structural. To take the same example as above, in Paschimottanasana we can see that some keep their forehead on their shin and some on their knees even if they have perfect hip flexion and their forward fold is complete. This is because of different leg to body length ratio. Even though it is rarely mentioned in group classes, this is a major factor in how we do our postures. While we develop our practice we should work on understanding our body proportions and structural limitations. This helps us in adjusting postures accordingly, and derive the maximum benefits from them.

Similarly for breath practice, we should work on deepening our breath and not keep rigidly to the count of the instructor. When a yoga instructor does a breath count, they have to maintain the average of the class and cannot suit everyone’s pace of breathing. We have the choice of going with their count or working on deeper breath. For example, if the instructor counts for 5 breaths when holding a posture, but our breath is deeper than the average, then we have the choice of taking just 2 deep breaths within that count. It does not benefit us to take shallower breaths to match the count. We are not compromising by taking a lesser number of breaths as the posture is being held for the same length of time, we are only ensuring that we breathe to our level. It may be appropriate for beginners to take 7 to 8 breaths in the same time. Bear in mind that the instructor cannot feel what goes on inside our body. When we struggle to breathe or find it too easy, our body is signalling for a change and we will do well to respond accordingly.

Many practitioners compare themselves to others and lament that they are unable to replicate a certain posture despite many years of practice. This is the biggest drawback in a group setting, where we ignore what our body is experiencing and start looking at those around us

This is true for every posture, breath practice or meditation: Group settings provide an environment to learn and practice the basics, but we need to work individually focusing on our body and breath to derive full benefits. Many practitioners compare themselves to others and lament that they are unable to replicate a certain posture despite many years of practice. This is the biggest drawback in a group setting, where we ignore what our body is experiencing and start looking at those around us. This can change once we start building our self-practice with nobody but us to compare. We can learn so much about our body, breath and mind that every time we attend a group session the learnings are manifold.
Without a strong individual practice to raise our self-awareness, both physically and mentally, yoga becomes just another fitness program. The energy of a class helps us learn and move forward in the discipline, but do set aside time for self-practice and learn about yourself as much as you can. Any instructor, however accomplished they are, can only guide us up to a certain point. We alone have to find our own path to take the journey.

Is Yoga a religious practice?

This is a question many yogis around the world struggle with. It is also arguably one of the main questions that keep people from trying out Yoga, another being the myth that Yoga isn’t intense.

Hatha Yoga is a practice where we work with our body and breath to calm and quieten our mind, please keep in mind that the word yoga is used here to refer to  traditional Hatha yoga practice. To answer the question, let us start by going to the dictionary definition of the word religion-

Religion is defined as the belief in a god or in a group of gods / an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules, used to worship a god or a group of gods.

The key word here is belief which is indicative of the nature of most religions where we are required to hold faith in a supernatural force which one may have never experienced. Because Yogic practices originated in a country which was predominantly Hindu, people associate yoga to Hinduism. Hinduism itself can be defined at best as a polytheistic religion which is a melting pot of a multitude of beliefs and rituals. Swami Vivekananda famously quoted that ancient India was a land of many religions, each person having his own – meaning that each person had his own path to follow. Religious rituals and practices differ a lot within India. For e.g. a Hindu from the south of India will not recognise most of the rituals and beliefs of someone living in the northern parts of India when praying to the same deity. So if we are to understand Yoga (Hatha Yoga) in the context of Hinduism we can say that it was just one of the numerous streams of practices aimed at spiritual growth and self-actualisation, which one could say is the end goal of most spiritual paths that came to evolve under the umbrella of Hinduism.

Now going back to its definition, religion by its nature requires you to believe in something which you have not already experienced, whereas yoga is all about the experience of life itself. Yoga in its core does not expect us to believe anything blindly but only to do our practice diligently. While one has to have a certain level of trust in the practice there are no rituals or practices which are expected to be done without understanding the purpose of it. Hatha Yoga can be considered as a learning process where we start from body awareness & control through various asanas, then progress to breath awareness & control through pranayama and then start becoming aware of the mind and eventually master it and go beyond. The key word here is awareness, which means we are not expected to believe that an asana gives a particular effect but we should become aware of our body through the asana. This is a very personal experience, while you may be learning as a group initially, with practice you start becoming more aware of yourself in body, breath and eventually mind.

It is better to avoid chanting than continue chanting with doubts in your mind about it because instead of calming the mind we are agitating it further.

Once we remove belief from the equation, one of the major reasons for yoga being considered religious is the various Hindu rituals associated with it starting from chanting OM, lighting a lamp or incense to the way many yoga practitioners dress up. While some of these like chanting OM or lighting incense can provide a certain ambience to the practice, it is not the core of the practice. If you do not want to chant OM, it does not make your practice meaningless or weak. OM chant is one of the ways to help regulate our mind and keep it calm and still. It is better to avoid chanting than continue chanting with doubts in your mind about it because instead of calming the mind we are agitating it further. This can be extended to any of the so called rituals associated with the practice. Having said that, let me also add that OM chanting the way it is used for meditation practice has nothing to do with Hindu religious beliefs. It is not a prayer to any deity but considered as a Mantra to raise your own self-awareness. Some call it the primal sound, but you can take it mean anything that will bring your awareness back to yourself. The fact that it is a Sanskrit word adds to this notion of connection to Hinduism, but keep in mind that Sanskrit is a language that was used in ancient India. It is like saying that if I teach a class in English I am practising Christian yoga.

In fact, Hatha yoga practice can be considered more atheistic from the point of view of religion in the traditional sense. In Hatha yoga practice we are not trying to reach out to a supernatural force that resides outside, but we are trying to become more self-aware and go deeper into ourselves. These associations to rituals stems from the fact that many instructors while being good at the physical practice, do not pay much attention to the spiritual aspects of the practice. In the effort to appear like an authentic teacher or studio, many add these rituals or symbols and thereby alienate those who want to practice but associate these to religion.

I would conclude by saying to those who want to start Yoga practice but consider it religious, make the effort to find an instructor who focusses on the practical aspects and do not bother to make an elaborate spectacle out of it.