When yoga was brought to the West by Hindu monks in the late 19th century, most people didn’t know what to make of it. Although embraced by curious intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, the hoi polloi were left perplexed. At first glance, the discipline appeared to be an exotic workout routine. But traditional yoga was far more than a purely physical system of exercises; it also incorporated religious and philosophical elements. In other words, it offered something for the practitioner’s mind, body, and spirit.
The system was far too complex and foreign for most Westerners to accept, which is why yoga did not gain a loyal following in the occident for about a century. When it finally did become popular in the Western world in the 1980s, it was promoted as a system of exercises, rather than a spiritual or religious one.
What is yoga, really?
It depends on who you ask and where they reside. In the West, yoga is a generic word for a system of physical, sometimes spiritual disciplines that originated in India. These ancient ascetic practices were invariably tied to spiritual or religious routines, often observed by members of the Hindu or Buddhist faiths.
The literal meaning of the word “yoga,” which is from a Sanskrit term that means “to join,” “to add,” “to attach,” “to unite,” “to use,” or “to perform,” is not exactly elucidative. In other words, it means different things to different people. To Westerners, modern yoga almost always includes a series of exercises or postures that are designed to improve strength, flexibility, and circulation.
With an estimated 20 million practitioners in the U.S. alone, yoga is one of the most popular physical systems of health exercises, in part because it has become more secular over the years. The average Western student has little interest in the spiritual or religious aspects of traditional yoga. But he/she does respond to the health benefits, which include better heart, bone, and circulatory health. Whether spiritual or simply relaxing, yoga can also help people focus through meditation and stretching routines.
Where to find a yoga teacher
As the discipline grows ever more popular, there is a growing need for qualified yoga teachers. Tens of thousands of them teach at local yoga studios, health clubs, and YMCAs. Most have earned their diplomas, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily ready to teach. Just like any other form of education or instruction, a teacher must have patience, excellent communication skills, and content knowledge and skills. Then there are the things that simply cannot be taught.
Take beginners’ classes
Even if you are an intermediate or advanced student, the most reliable way to locate a good yoga teacher is to go back to the basics. Many of the best instructors spend their time teaching tyros since those are invariably the largest and most popular classes where people need the most help. It is also important to note that it can take years to master basic poses, so you might still consider yourself a novice for quite some time. More advanced classes, on the other hand, often ignore the basics, which means intermediate and advanced students sometimes attend beginners’ classes to improve their form.
Because there are so many different kinds of yoga, especially in the U.S., the techniques and teaching methods of instructors vary widely. Some are hands-on and talkative, while others simply pose at the head of the class and barely say a word. As a result, a new student must understand that not all yoga classes are identical. It’s not like aerobics or spinning sessions. The teaching style may ultimately be as important as the subject, which is why one class is rarely enough to determine if you like yoga or not.
What is yoga?
Once again, we come back to this simple question. Unfortunately, it is one that many yoga teachers cannot answer. Many contemporary instructors believe that yoga is essentially an exercise class. But if so, why do people practice it with such avidity? Certainly, there are much easier and more effective ways to stretch, get strong, and sweat a bit…cardio classes, Pilates? The truth is that even in its most secular forms, people are attracted to yoga because it is somewhat spiritual. At the very least, it provides meditative release that goes far beyond simple exercise routines. A good teacher should understand, practice, and promote this basic tenet of traditional yoga.