Is yoga about being on the cover of a magazine? Is it about being in front of hundreds of students? Is it about teaching yoga at all?
Or is it about the quiet steadiness that holds relationships together? Is it about the caring that binds people? Is it about the mental strength that is required to support others through their ups and downs?
In the extroverted, publicity driven, winner-takes-all culture that modern society rewards, it is easy to miss the point of yoga. Yoga has never been about material rewards but personal success – the decrease of unhappiness and the increase of well-being.
How does that well-being come about? The largest and longest study on happiness, the Grant Study from Harvard, finds that happiness depends largely on relationships rather than material achievement.
A week ago, we had International Women’s Day. For many generations, most cultures have fostered patriarchy and sometimes outright misogyny, implicitly and explicitly supporting an attitude entirely devoid of factual validity or moral justice, based on biases that were rarely questioned. We have come some distance since then, at least in some countries, while in others, atrocities beyond imagination continue. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand; reforming culture is the work of many activists and much effort over time, some visibly vocal and others quietly persevering.
Even in the generally progressive yoga community in egalitarian nations, while most practitioners are women, major scandals have usually centered around significant abuse by a few male teachers in positions of authority. Not a particularly new or different story, sadly. A sobering reflection of how difficult fundamental change is.
At the root of this problem is the perception of yoga as an inherently top-down teaching passed on only at the inclination of the giver when the recipient has met veiled requirements. This implicitly diminishes personal power and responsibility, and paints a social context supportive of exploitation. This is a world view that has midwifed many unsupportable cultural mores and unconsciously ingrained attitudes - the same ones we are trying to move beyond as modern societies. This should not be encouraged in yoga learning or teaching either.
Yoga is not a mysterious state achieved by esoteric transmission through a hidden pathway from an all-knowing guru. Yoga is about what we do with our lives. It is about moving toward emotional wellness and mindful presence over time. But that inner movement is fundamentally dependent on ethical engagement and meaningful connections outside, both as an individual and as a society. It takes a better world to create better people, and vice versa.
How hard so many people have struggled in the past to create positive change, to win the freedoms that we enjoy today! We pay tribute to the famous among them, but there have surely been countless others outside the narrow spotlight of recorded history.
Yoga is mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, friends and colleagues, neighbors and strangers, going on with their lives and responsibilities, facing challenges, some great and some small, with kindness, courage, and grace. That calls for discipline, strength, and flexibility, more than any yoga pose.
Let us cherish and offer our gratitude to these unsung yoginis and yogis we all have in our lives and in the world!
- Ganesh Mohan