Who Moved My Yoga Mat?

By Elaine Ee

With yoga now part of mainstream exercise, it’s important not to lose sight of what it really means.

Throw a stone these days and there’s a good chance it’ll land on a yoga mat. From personal yoga trainers to independent studios in shophouses to fitness chains, yoga is everywhere. It’s become so widespread that it’s almost rare to meet someone who hasn’t tried it at all in some way, shape or form. Certainly, everyone has heard of it.

So ubiquitous has yoga become that you can buy a mat at a convenience store, if you wish. And choose from a huge range of yoga products—clothes, accessories, music, books, DVDs etc.—from dozens of retail stores, on the high street or online. And you can attend yoga conferences, festivals, seminars, training courses; even go on yoga holidays.

The varieties of yoga that have evolved are as numerous as the types of studios. From ashtanga to Bikram to hatha to Iyenga, schools of yoga practically run from A to Z. Each expresses yoga in its own way, with its own method and approach, style and form, with some schools being compatible and similar while others are diametrically opposite.

With this profusion that has amassed around yoga, this ancient Indian discipline has turned into a modern day industry. Instructors, studios and yoga organizations vie for students, who in turn seek the right type of yoga, the right teacher, the right studio. And as in any industry, organizations sometimes poach from one another, each wanting the best for themselves.

The yoga celebrity has also emerged. These are big name instructors, perhaps founders of a particular type of yoga, who have become famous, sought after and valuable. They lend their names and their presence to yoga events; make videos and DVDs, write books, host yoga retreats and garner a flock of devoted followers.

Of course they are excellent practitioners and instructors, but the cult of celebrity status sometimes adds a layer of pizzazz that is not necessarily authentic to yoga. And for every authentic yoga business out there, others are less true to this profound practice. Sometimes it’s hard, at least at first, to tell the good ones from the bad, the real gurus from the showstoppers.

Amidst all this, it’s easy to get caught up, as a practitioner or an instructor, or anyone involved in yoga. It’s easy to start comparing, to start competing. To aim for big brands, the star names, the best value, the biggest business potential, the latest trend—in short, all the wrong things. The yoga industry can lend credence to the practice, give it recognition in today’s world, but it can also obscure the real purpose of the practice, covering it in plumes of success, like too much make up masking the natural beauty of a woman.

Because at the end of the day, when you are on the mat, what is it all about?

It’s about union.

The original purpose of yoga, it’s underlying philosophy, is to bring about union of mind, body and spirit, which ultimately leads to self-realisation. Serious followers of yoga will know this, and that yoga is so much more than the postures practiced in yoga classes today which have become synonymous with the whole of yoga, largely overshadowing its other aspects.

Other arms of yoga include karma yoga, which is doing good deeds; bhakta yoga, which is devotional yoga; jnana yoga, which is yoga of knowledge; and raja yoga, which is learning to control the mind. Part of raja yoga is using postures and the breath to bring the mind under control, and ashtanga yoga falls here.

Yoga is also a way a life, a way of looking at life and yourself. It is about finding the perfect equilibrium, cultivating a peaceful, strong, compassionate outlook—and in so doing setting free your true, glorious self, being the amazing person that you were always meant to be. It’s about finding a contentment that stems from within, so that whether you are in a six-star resort in the Bahamas or a slum in Southeast Asia, nothing disturbs your joy. As an old Tibetan saying goes, “You can tell a yogi by his or her laugh.”

If all this sounds esoteric, well, it is. But this is what ultimately yoga is about. It’s not about doing a 360-backbend or the standing splits or balancing on one finger—those are means to an end not ends in themselves. So when you hear someone say that they are not flexible or strong enough to do yoga, you know that’s missing the mark.

To find this truthful path to yoga, you don’t need fancy studios, expensive memberships, nice yoga costumes or idyllic locales. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things of course, but you don’t need them. A good instructor is important as he or she acts as a guide, but even then your yoga practice is your personal journey to make. Another saying from the yoga vault goes, “A photographer gets people to pose for him. A yoga instructor gets people to pose for themselves.”

All you really need is a mat. And an understanding, and the desire to practise. From there, everything else starts to falls in place.

To cite a final quote, “You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state.”