What are you being offered in the name of yoga?

Yoga is everywhere these days. In Winnipeg, it feels like there is a new yoga studio popping up on every block of every trendy neighborhood. This is not a big city, so yoga’s growing presence is easy to note.

In an interview with the Manitoban’s Morgan Modjeski, Ian Whicher, a yoga practitioner and scholar who is also head of the U of M’s department of religion, offers insight into yoga’s current popularity. Tracing yoga’s ancient roots back to India, its relatively recent popular introduction to the West quickly became acculturated into society. This quick acceptance is based on a physical form of yoga that pays less attention to spiritual dimensions of yoga.

“Yoga is so prevalent today in the modern world. [ . . . ] We know it is practised by pop stars and it’s taught in schools; it’s offered in many different kinds of yoga centres and health clubs and shopping malls — so in a way, today we take the presence of yoga and its meaning for granted, basically [treating it] as a physical kind of culture,” explains Whicher.

This emphasis on physicality is known in Sanskrit as “asanas,” meaning postural yoga. Because ancient terminology is being used to describe current yoga practices, there is a tendency to assume that all yoga that is being practised today is based on ancient Indian teachings. Looking at basic historical evidence, Whicher has found that that this is not necessarily the case. “There is no real evidence in the Indian tradition for the kind of health and fitness oriented asanas practice that dominates the global yoga scene of the 21st century.”

Whicher posits that yoga’s migration to the West from India has been influenced by popular aspirations in Europe and North America. More specifically, the popularity of bodybuilding and gymnastics in Europe and North America affected the way Indian asanas teachers marketed yoga to these places. By emphasizing the physical aspects and benefits of yoga practice, Indian teachers appealed to the needs and wants of the West, and this has manifested in the dominant forms of yoga that are offered today.

Acknowledging that the current manifestation of yoga with its physical emphasis is not negative, it is Whicher’s intent to bring a deeper dimension back to yoga, emphasizing how it integrates with people’s modern concerns and sensibilities today. “Yoga has always been a profoundly innovative tradition. [ . . . ] It has a very profound philosophical understanding which links up with our psychological natures, our ethical capacities and our physiological being. So there is then the possibility to show through this popularity of yoga today, that there is a more accessible audience for people to go deeper if they want to.”

Given all of the yoga options available to Winnipeggers these days, it is difficult to know where to go and what classes to take. Whicher suggests trying out a teacher and seeing how you like him or her. He recommends getting a gut reaction and asking yourself: Does it feel good to be in the company of this person? Do I enjoy what I’m being offered in the name of yoga?

When starting a yoga practice, Whicher recommends always keeping a questioning mind. “Don’t let your mind get in the way. Be open and questioning because yoga is always about asking questions so that it leads our attention to a finer space inside. It’s all about opening up our energy and attention so that we have more energy and attention available for life. Yoga is really about liberating our energy and attention to know more and more what life is, who [we are] and what all this universe is.”

-With notes from Morgan Modjeski