THE YOGA PROBLEM
Episode 15: With 36 million Americans practicing yoga, this ancient science of transformation is more popular today than ever before. But is what so many people are practicing really yoga? And should you care? Join me for an exploration of why millions of people are practicing yoga and falling spectacularly short of getting the amazing benefits they deserve.
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36 million Americans are practicing yoga. But is what 36 million Americans are practicing really yoga? And who cares?
Welcome to Real Yoga, a podcast dedicated to helping you use yoga's ancient wisdom to unlock your life of radical happiness, connection and meaning right here, right now. I'm your host Eric Walrabenstein, and I'm glad you're here.
So, for today's episode, I have a bit of a disclaimer.
As you've probably already picked up, we're going to be talking about yoga or at least, that's what it's going to sound like at first. But even if you don't have an interest in yoga, I'm going to invite you to stick around if you have the slightest inclination toward inviting more joy, clarity
and energy into your life.
Here's the crux of it.
What most people think yoga is and what yoga really is are as different as night and day. And more importantly, what most of us think yoga can do for us and what it really can do for us… Well, let's just say the difference is staggering.
And this is what we'll be investigating today.
So, don't click away just because you have an aversion to bending and sweating and huffing and puffing, because that's not at all where we're going with this.
End of disclaimer.
Ask any 100 people what yoga is, and you're likely to get many different answers, but almost all of which will share a common theme: Yoga is a physical discipline that involves stretching.
And while in the most objective sense, this is true. This truth applies only to an infinitesimally small slice of the bigger picture. It's a partial truth. A narrow perspective about yoga that is a caricature, at best, and a tragedy, at worse…more on that later.
There's an old parable about five blind men that comes to mind.
These men had been told a strange new animal had just been brought into town. The animal, called an elephant, was said to be marvelously different from all of the other animals in that part of the Kingdom.
So out of curiosity, the five blind men decided to investigate.
Once they arrived at the town center where the elephant had been corralled, the men were led to the grand animal and commenced to inspected by touch, because of course, lacking sight, that was the only way they could get a true sense of the beast.
The first man grasps the elephant's trunk. ”It's like a big thick snake.” he said.
The second man, who had been holding the ear, said “No, it's like a very large piece of unleavened bread.
The third man was feeling the leg and exclaimed “Not at all! It's like a thick and mighty pillar.”
The fourth man pushing against the side of the elephant said “You're all wrong. It's like a mighty wall.”
And the fifth man, who held the tail in his hand called them all fools because the elephant is like a rope.
Now, of course, from our perspective, we can see that each of these men are correct.
The elephant is indeed all of these things. But from the limit experience of each man, he's concluded that his experience of the elephant is all that the elephant is. And in this way, we can see that each man's limited experience of the truth. Is the very thing that stands in the way of his experience of the complete truth?
I mean imagine someone who had never been exposed to any kind of Christianity. In fact, he hadn't been exposed to any kind of religion at all.
He stumbles into the middle of a Catholic mass. And he sees the congregants are all lining up.
So, to follow suit he steps into line and he waits and he watches as each person receives the communion wafer or the sacramental bread.
He gets to the front. He opens his mouth and down the hatch, it goes. As he turns around, the pews are filled and, seeing no seat for himself, he leaves.
Now again, keep in mind this gentleman has never before heard of Christianity. So, this brief encounter is the sum total of his experience with it. From this, it's fair to say that he would come away with an extremely limited perspective on the religion.
For him, Christianity is standing in a line to get a cracker.
And so it goes with yoga.
In the same way, that the man who had the extremely narrow view of Christianity, when asked if he'd like to practice Catholicism might say “No thanks. I don't like crackers.”
And the person with today's extremely narrow view of yoga, when asked did they like to go practice? Yoga may say ”No thanks, I'm not flexible.”
In both cases, a part of the truth has obscured the whole of the truth. And in obscuring the whole, a great opportunity has been missed.
None of this is any kind of surprise. As yoga has migrated to the West over the last hundred years or so, our modern culture has cherry-picked the pieces of the practice that aligned most neatly to our immediate needs and desires.
Our appetite for fitness for weight loss and exercise has us gravitating towards the more physical aspects of yoga. So much so, this dumbed-down, hyperphysical version of yoga has become
what yoga is recognized to be for most people: a physical practice.
And this limited perspective, by the way, is the perspective held even by a great many yoga teachers.
You know, it's funny because years ago when I was asked what I did for a living I would tell people I'm a yoga teacher, because, well, I am. But not so much anymore, mostly because it invariably leads to an overly circuitous and frustrating line of questioning that typically goes nowhere.
When I tell most people these days that I'm a yoga teacher, there's about a 97 percent chance that I'll get some variation of one of three responses.
They’ll tell me they did Hot Yoga once usually followed by some confession about them not being flexible enough.
Or they'll share that someone close to them, their aunt or sister in law or neighbor cat, is a yoga teacher too.
Or they'll ask me what style of yoga I teach.
Each of these then leads to an uncomfortable and protracted exchange where I attempt to explain how when I say yoga, I mean yoga not as yoga as it's come to be known, but the original yoga that addresses our mental and emotional selves as a means to reconnect spiritually to the Divine
or to the Self or to our truest essence. The yoga whose practices have little to do with performing complicated postures, although we do use the postures, but more as a laboratory to investigate the maladaptive patterns that live in the brain and the nervous system so that we can restore the body-mind’s natural balance and thus, enjoy more peace confidence and harmony in our lives.
You can see how this is a bit untidy. So, now when I'm asked what I do. I'm in the wellness business. It's just easier.
So, who cares if people are confused about what yoga really is? What difference does it make if millions are practicing the full and authentic practice of yoga or if they're practicing some small part of it?
I mean, even those who are doing nothing, but yoga postures are enjoying themselves.
They're getting healthier and they're feeling better and happier. So, who cares if it's not the full and authentic practice?
Well, I'm not the yoga police so I don't care for yoga's sake. But as someone who is hip-deep in the trenches helping people live happier and more connected lives each day, I do care for humanity's sake.
Here's the truth. We're living in an age of epidemics.
We have an epidemic of addiction.
We have an epidemic of suicide.
We have an epidemic of domestic violence.
And of anxiety, and of chronic stress, and of so many other things.
But here's the thing that no one seems to be talking about.
All of these epidemics can be brought under control with one simple thing: Inner Peace.
Now, I'm going to state this as a simple fact, but I'm going to ask you to really feel into the truth of this.
Nobody who is bathed in a deep and abiding sense of inner peace...
shoots up schools…
takes their own life…
beats their spouse…
or feels compelled to medicate themselves with potentially lethal substances.
All of these behaviors are driven by the opposite of inner peace. They are all products of inner turmoil.
The turmoil of tormenting emotions.
The turmoil of overwhelming impulses.
The turmoil of agonizing thoughts.
But replace this inner turmoil with inner peace, and we have a very different world.
The fact is that inner peace is the single thing that could cure so many ills, prevent so many tragedies, not to mention, lift the lives of millions from their everyday struggles and toils into lives of ever greater joy and freedom.
And yoga, the full and authentic practice, is the science of inner peace.
So, how does standing around in funny and uncomfortable shapes lead to profound and lasting inner peace?
Well, it doesn't.
That's why if a Mastery of the physical postures of yoga is as far as one’s yoga practice extends, well, let's just say you're leaving a lot of money on the table.
You see, yoga might be best be thought of as a vast array of tools, and Asana, or the physical postures, is just one of those tools.
And here's the important bit: Just as the carpenter who wants to build a beautiful house,
must rely on a wide selection of tools: hammers and saws and screwdrivers and measuring tapes and shovels and more.
The person who wishes to create a deep and abiding sense of inner peace also has to rely on a wide selection of yoga tools.
Not just one or two.
I mean, can you imagine trying to build an entire house with only a hammer and a tape measure?
But this is exactly what most people are doing with their yoga.
And I'm sorry to say. It gets even worse.
Here's the bigger problem. And by the way, this is not just a problem with yoga. It's a problem across all religions and spiritual traditions.
This is what people miss:
Yoga techniques are not about yoga, any more than religious practices are about religion or spiritual rituals. are about spirituality.
All of them are about the same thing: solving problems.
I'll say that again because it's so important: yoga techniques, religious practices, and spiritual rituals are about solving problems.
Which problems you may ask?
Well, any problem that gets in the way of your inner peace.
Remember, stillness of mind or inner peace is the so-called Holy Grail of all traditions. It's the immediate goal or objective.
From the Yoga Sutras, we hear that “Yoga is the stilling of the disturbances of mind.”
From the Tao, “To the mind that is still the whole universe surrenders.”
And from the Bible, “Be still and know that I am God.”
And so, the evidence is clear. A core objective of these complex spiritual systems is inner peace.
So, it only makes sense that the various activities and practices that are taught within these systems are designed to lead to that result.
I mean, let's stop and think about this logically for a moment.
Have you ever considered where the rituals and techniques of the great religions and spiritual Traditions came from? They didn't just materialize out of thin air, and they certainly weren't created randomly to simply help people pass the time. They were created with intent…for a reason.
The Via Crucis or the Stations of the Cross; pranayama or breath control; zazen or Zen meditation…
are all practices that were designed to solve a problem, a problem that stands between the practitioner and inner peace. But the creation of inner peace is unfortunately not as straightforward as one might imagine.
That's because there are a great many problems that stand between us and inner peace.
Overwhelm is one problem, but anxiety is another. Fear is a problem distinct from unresolved trauma. Negativity is a completely different problem totally separate from hatred. And so it goes for lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
Each and every one is a problem that stands between us and the profound and lasting inner peace we crave.
But because each one of these so-called problems is unique, each one requires a different combination of tools for its cure.
The critical takeaway is this: a tool, any tool, is designed to solve a problem—a specific problem.
A hammer solves a problem that's different from the problem that a drill solves.
A scalpel solves a problem that's different from the problem that a stethoscope solves.
And in the yoga world, a mindful Asana or posture practice solves a different problem than Svadhyaya or self-study does.
What this means is that a tool has got to be used in conjunction with a specific problem.
And this is where we go wrong.
In yoga, as well as in other traditions.
In yoga, we practice yoga. We start with the tool. And in more cases than not, were not even conscious of what problem we're trying to solve with that tool.
I mean, can you imagine a surgeon with a scalpel?
“What are you doing today, Doc?”
“Oh, I'm going to do some scalpeling.”
“What's wrong with the patient?”
“I hadn't thought about it.”
When we put it this way, the use of the tool without having great clarity about what we're trying to accomplish with it… Well, it's downright ludicrous.
But here's the thing: expecting to get the most from your yoga tools when you are similarly unplugged from the specific problem that you're attempting to address is every bit as absurd.
And sadly in the yoga world, that's the de facto State of Affairs.
So, what to do?
Let me start by saying I'm not suggesting we try to fix the state of yoga. Millions are benefiting from yoga as it's being practiced in this Modern Age and that indeed is a good thing.
But for you and me, and for anyone interested in the real transformative power of this ancient science of body-mind mastery… Here's what we need to do.
First, don't be misled.
Yes, it's true. Some so-called yoga is stretching, but it's also true that the full and authentic practice of yoga is so very much more.
So, don't dismiss yoga as not for you based upon the narrow modern view of the practice. Recognize that yoga can radically transform your life no matter your fitness level, no matter your age, no matter your cultural or spiritual affiliation.
As my own teacher told me some 30 years ago. “This practice, done sincerely, is the one thing that will take care of everything in your life.”
At the time, if I'm honest, I didn't believe him. But today, I see he was right.
Second, we want to start with the problem and this is true no matter what tradition you may be practicing within.
Remember, the practices and rituals and techniques that are part of any tradition have come to be, not by accident but for a reason. Each one intentionally created to yield a particular result
or to solve a particular problem.
And this is true, by the way, even if this fact has been lost to many of its modern practitioners, teachers, or clergy.
In the same way that the surgeon carefully selects the best tool for what she's working on in the moment of the operation. So too, the spiritual practitioner needs to select the best tool for what she's working on in this moment of practice.
The problem you're trying to solve dictates which tool to use and how to use it.
If you're struggling with overwhelm, the best tool might be dharana in the yoga tradition, or concentrated Focus.
If you're wrestling with chronic negativity in yoga, pratipaksha bhavana, or focusing on the opposite might be a tool of choice.
If you're debilitated by chronic low energy, perhaps a combination of pranayama and asana, or breath work and postures, will begin to bring you back to balance.
And of course, I could go on.
All of this is to say the invitation becomes to move beyond practicing yoga and become a deliberate creator of your own evolution and your best life.
And lastly, seek a mature guide. As you are undoubtedly aware, yoga teachers are a dime a dozen in today's world. But the yoga that most are teaching is not the full and authentic
practice that will revolutionize your life.
So, choose wisely. Ask questions. And don't settle for vague smoke and mirrors answers.
Finding the right guide can make all the difference for you—and your life.
Finally, I will leave you with this: Practicalities aside...
Realize that great possibility awaits you. Right here. And right now.
No matter what your struggles.
No matter how you are being held back.
No matter how bleak or confounding are the apparent obstacles to your greatest happiness.
You can break through…and this incredible science of transformation called yoga can be your greatest ally.
With yoga, you can invigorate yourself with energy and optimism.
With yoga, you can infuse yourself with clarity and confidence.
With yoga, you can rejuvenate your relationships and connect with more meaning and purpose in your life.
More than you ever thought possible.
That's it for today friends.
I'm hoping our discussion has shed some light about how you can lift yourself to ever greater height using the ancient wisdom from the Masters.
As always, I'd love to hear from you. So do drop me a note from my website at www.ericwal.com.
And also, please help me spread the word about the life-changing power of these
amazing teachings by sharing the podcast with friends and family,
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Thanks again. I'm wishing you an incredible week of joy and wonder, and of course, if there's anything I can do to be of service, please don't hesitate to get in touch. I'll see you next time.