Yoga in Context

Yoga is taught in America as a physical practice most often treated as exercise. However, yoga is an ancient philosophical and spiritual discipline growing out of many diverse belief systems in India—including but not limited to Hinduism—and influenced by political context, imperialism and colonialism. There is no one, unbroken lineage of yoga but rather its development was entirely pluralistic. While yoga’s popularity as a physical practice continues to grow, its philosophical, religious and cultural roots are often neglected, unacknowledged or misunderstood. Yoga as a discipline began as a pursuit of spiritual liberation and the physical postures we call asana came much later as a way of physically preparing practitioners to sit for hours of meditation. In its earliest form, yoga had four paths or ways to pursue the truth that we are more than our bodies, minds, emotions and intellect:

1. Karma Yoga is the yoga of action and selfless service. By detaching from the results of our actions or any expectation of personal gain, it purifies the heart and eliminates selfish tendencies. Everything is done with a priority on oneness and connection to the soul or true self.  

2. Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion and claims that losing faith in the divine has led to disconnection from our divine selves. The offered remedy is love, surrender, and devotion to the divine qualities in everything. Bhakti Yoga asks us to focus the mind on sacred thoughts and send our love and emotions into the divine essence in everything/everyone to leave behind egotistical self-love. Examples of Bhakti Yoga are chanting, puja, and devotional rituals. 

3. Rāja Yoga is the yoga of meditation, asking us to calm the restlessness of the mind and its stories through meditation in order to experience the Oneness at the core of our deepest essence. The way to do this is through the Ashtanga (8 limbs) system, as outlined by Patañjali in the Raja Yoga Sutras. Most yoga classes today focus on asana which is just one of the 8 limbs.  

4. Jñāna Yoga is the yoga of will and intellect and says that our egoic ignorance  prevents us from knowing our true nature. Removing the illusions of ignorance and forgetfulness through knowledge reveals the unchanging Truth in our hearts.         

These 4 paths are interwoven and interconnected and all point to Oneness. 

The point here is not to demonize practicing the physical postures as “not really yoga,” but rather to acknowledge the breadth of the discipline that preceded it and understand that what we do in yoga classes is a very small part of that. As a white woman teaching yoga, Rachel seeks to continue studying and learning about the philosophy, culture, and history of yoga in an effort to appreciate its origins rather than appropriate. She chooses to teach the physical practice to cultivate self-awareness and presence along with a spiritual grounding. Some of the spiritual messages in her teaching are inspired by concepts in yoga philosophy, and some come from learning from modern day teachers who adapt yoga practices for life today. She’s a student, not an expert.

The emphasis on community in American yoga is very much about what we need now and not part of its original practice. It was historically taught by one teacher to one student and done in isolation from everyday life. It was also deeply classist in its sole  practice by the spiritual elite. Only later with the radical development of Tantra, was yoga practiced by the masses. Today, people often flock to yoga for a sense of belonging and Rachel seeks to create a container that respects yoga’s roots and also allows for innovation to meet people’s needs today. She seeks to encourage self discovery and the pursuit of deeper levels of consciousness in today’s busy world, in a safe space where equality is first and foremost. She seeks to expand access and welcome all bodies, cultures, races, genders/orientations and mindsets to the practice. 

Rachel appreciates this articulation of a modern adaptation of what it means to teach yoga by Tracey Anne Duncan: “It is not our job (as yoga teachers) to offer people a way to bypass discomfort—with spiritual practices we stole/borrowed/appropriated from brown people, no less. It’s our job to teach people how to be curious about discomfort—whether it’s physical, emotional, or psycho spiritual—and offer them tools for navigating the world in the face of frustration…Yoga and meditation can be relaxing and life-changing, yes, but it is a relaxation born of self-knowledge and acceptance. It requires full frontal self-confrontation that is simultaneously gentle and unflinching.”

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If cost is a barrier to participating in group classes, contact Rachel about MMDC’s financial assistance opportunities to ensure equitable access. This is for lower income, minority groups often excluded from yoga opportunities. Rather than a scholarship, it is meant to acknowledge historical injustice and oppression that disproportionately affect some communities and a humble attempt to lessen that harm.