No longer associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, when many Americans first turned to yoga in search of a drugless high, yoga has become a nationwide cultural phenomenon and a billion-dollar industry. If you don’t practice yoga, chances are you know someone who does. It seems that everyone, from athletes and celebrities to high-powered executives and politicians to stay-at-home moms and college students, is stepping onto the mat.
Modern yoga has evolved to become incredibly inclusive. Whether you’re religious, spiritual, or neither, fitness-oriented or less concerned with the physical, mainstream or more eccentric, there’s a yoga practice for you. Prior to the turn of the new century, yoga was never so widely available as it is today. Yoga is now offered in schools, prisons, churches, synagogues, city halls, senior centers, rehab facilities, gyms, hotels, and spas. Yoga studios have even become staples in strip malls across the country, and in large cosmopolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles, an overflow of yoga schools and centers offer sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of urban living. Starting as early as 5:30 a.m. and ending as late as midnight, yoga classes are held all day long, and they’re packed. And while studios aren’t as prevalent on the streets of small-town America, yoga is infiltrating rural areas via dedicated instructors who hold classes in small numbers wherever they can find the space. In short, people everywhere are practicing yoga.
Americans turn to yoga for various reasons, but in some way or another, they are looking to reap the practice’s many benefits. They’ve heard yoga is good for you. They’ve read that yoga is great for managing stress and dealing with depression and will help them sleep better. Their doctor has told them that practicing yoga can help increase circulation, build bone mass, and lower blood pressure. They were sent by their physical therapist to cultivate postural awareness, increase range of motion, and alleviate back pain. They believed Christy Turlington when she credited yoga for her perfect bum.
Everyone, from neighbors to mothers-in-law, swears by yoga, so more and more people are taking to the mat to discover for themselves what the hype is all about. They keep coming back because the mind-body discipline works: Yoga makes you feel better. So what is it?
What is yoga? is a loaded question and one that could take a lifetime to answer: Ask twenty yogis, and you’ll get twenty different answers. There are as many interpretations of yoga as there are Hindu gods (around 330 million). Most Americans, whether they’ve tried it or not, have an idea of what yoga is, even if their understanding is as rudimentary as
Yoga’s that thing you do on a yoga mat when you’re in yoga class that somehow involves stretching and breathing. And they are right.
Yoga is a system of exercise, and yet it’s so much more. Considered a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, yoga is an ancient belief system, a science of exploration, a process of self-discovery, a method of personal development and spiritual evolution, and an art of transformation. It is a complete approach to total well-being, and, for many, yoga is a way of life. Yoga is an all-encompassing approach to physical health, mental clarity, emotional balance, and spiritual attainment — whatever that means or looks like to you.
A fundamental tenet of the broader yogic tradition is that there is one universal consciousness. Call it supreme consciousness, the Divine, Brahman, God, Shiva, Buddha-nature, Allah, whatever, there is a
oneness that encompasses everything, including you. However, we become so caught up in our individual experiences of embodied consciousness (that is, our lives) that we tend to see ourselves as separate entities operating independently from one another. Yoga, therefore, is designed to shift individual perceptions of ourselves and the world in which we live, helping us to recognize not only our inherent oneness with everyone and everything but also our union with the Divine. How that union is understood and arrived at varies from one yogic school of thought to the next, but for all intents and purposes, yoga is the method by which we realize our innate nature and highest Self inseparable from supreme consciousness and completely supported by the universe.
At the heart of the tradition lies the understanding that all human beings desire to belong, to be connected to something greater than themselves, to be loved. On a fundamental level all people want to be at peace and free of disease. It’s safe to say that in every human heart lies an intense yearning to be happy. Yoga teaches us that these fundamental human desires are expressions of our innermost nature, that at our most basic level we are free, connected to everything and everyone, and nothing but love. We don’t experience ourselves as such, because we’ve grown accustomed to identifying solely with our mind, which is to say our ego. Through a process of cloaking, veiling our true selves, we begin to associate with limiting self-beliefs such as I’m alone, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve love.
We practice yoga to shine the
light on that which already resides deep in our inner consciousness, hence — en-
lighten-ment. Practicing yoga helps clear the lenses, so to speak, taking you on an inward journey back to your deepest Self and to the realization that you have everything you need within to experience the unbounded joy and freedom that is your true nature.
Meagan McCrary is a Los Angeles based yoga teacher and the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice. She teaches for Equinox Sports Clubs, works one-on-one with some of the entertainment industry’s leading professionals, and holds workshops and retreats nationally and internationally. Visit her online at meaganmccrary.com. Based on the book Pick Your Yoga Practice © 2013 by Meagan McCrary. Printed here with permission of New World Library.