Once upon a time when I lived in the Midwest I ate a food called “chili.”  It was a tomato based stew with meat, beans and about a quarter teaspoon of chili powder.  When I lived in Texas I was surprised to learn that chili there was often made without beans.  (I had naively thought the beans were “chili-beans” hence the name of the stew.) And then I moved to California where vegetarian chili is often served. . . at long last I had chili in New Mexico where tomatoes were not even part of the recipe.  What then constitutes “chili?”  What makes chili is the chili peppers, not the chili beans, not the meat, not the spices, although the chili spice is all that remained in the MidWestern incarnation of this dish.  That’s re-definition for you.  And perspective.

There are other re-definitions that a less obscure.  Take the word “unseen.”  Take it please! Unseen’s become viral overused.  When I was a kid “unseen” meant not visible.  As in, “She passed through the crowd, unseen.”  But these days the word means to “un-do”, as in “once seen, can not be un-seen.”  Use this word to protest vulgar Instagram photos or unsavory Facebook memes.  Words like “quaint” have evolved, once synonymous with “smart” or “fashionable” quaint has come to mean old-fashioned, or charmingly simple. The word “literally” has gone AWOL to mean exactly it’s own opposite.  “Christian” has been re-branded to refer to fundamentalist Christians while Catholics and other Protestant groups have been left to fend for themselves.  Despite our best intentions, words, like chili recipes morph and re-define.

Even yoga world is not exempt from re-definition.  Sometimes we get into trouble using a simple word like “yin.”  Did you know “Yin Yoga” is a registered trademark? Using “yin” to describe an soft, slow – feminine powered style of yoga should not be confused with the brand name.  Teachers who have not registered and paid the franchise have no business advertising as “Yin” (capital “y”).  This came to my attention recently as I was using the word “kriya” in traditional sense of the word.  I had forgotten all about the franchise Kriya Yoga.  I had no objective to discuss their form of sequencing or address their style.  I meant to talk about actions.  God help us if anyone choses “asana” as a brand name!

Patabi Jois muddied the waters for poor unsuspecting Americans when he named his style of yoga “Ashtanga.”  Ashtanga is (literarily) not metaphorically Eight-limbed, referring to the traditional breakdown of the eight arms of yoga. Ironically, Ashtanga as a yoga style focuses primarily on the one limb of asana.  Because of this unfortunate choice in name, a person wishing to learn the 8 limbs of yoga might believe “ashtanga” to be learning the primary sequence of poses as written by Jois. That would be incorrect.  His primary sequence is a fantastic example of asana, but hardly all eight limbs.  The eight original limbs of classical yoga were

1) Yama

2) Niyama

3) Asana

4) Pranayama

5) Dharana

6) Dhyana

7) Pratyahara and

8) Samadhi

What you would learn in an Ashtanga style studio might rest and over lap between arms 3,4, and 5.  If you were to travel to India or move into an ashram and develop a more personal relationship with your guru, you might expand your Ashtanga training to encompass arms 1 through 7. Certainly those who studied with Patabi Jois personally and were certified by him to teach, covered 1 through 6. Getting to 7 and 8 are a personal journey.  Samadhi might be likened to enlightenment (and who could certify that?).  Pratyahara is withdrawal of senses, which is defined rather vaguely in the ancient texts.  For all we know it means a state of suspended animation as found in science fiction.  I like to think of it as being “in the zone,” the feeling one has when fully focused in creative concentration.

So this is all a little confusing, to the average consumer.  What are Yama and Niyama anyhow, and how come they aren’t covered in the gym?

Generally Yama are yoga ethics, and Niyama are yoga observances.  Specifically the five ethics of yoga are

1) Ahimsa (non-harming)

2) Satya (truthfulness)

3) Asteya (non-stealing)

4) Brahmacharya (male celibacy)

5) Aparigraha (non-possessiveness, non-greed)

So of course you can’t teach these five in a gym.  Yoga teachers all over the place harm people, mentally by pushing them too hard, physically by pulling and pushing and adjusting inexpertly.  Truthfulness? I had a teacher in teacher training advise me to not claim the cash customers to the IRS. (yikes!) Number 4 is often re-configured to mean non-excess, or being sexually conservative.  I can report from reading the source material that it rather specifically refers to males spilling their “seed.”  ****So, asks the would-be yogi, “so am I supposed to be doing 1 through 5 ? ? Should I be practicing yamas? ?  I think it’s a good idea.  But I wouldn’t be the teacher to bring yama up in a ten dollar an hour lesson.  Spiritual beliefs and ethics to be authentic must be heart felt.  Honestly if you weren’t interested in three of these four things before yoga, I don’t know that starting yoga would help.

What about the fourth? I have met male yogis who give up sex in the same way other athletes in training of other sports do.  Not being male I can’t report on if the trade off is healthy.  If you are in a relationship and plan on giving up sex for yoga I suggest discussing it with your partner.  If the relationship is bad and you are using yoga to avoid intimacy, I can’t recommend this tactic as it negates the admonition of “ahimsa.”  Once should not harm, one should not exploit.

The five Niyama are personal abstinences associated with yoga.  Once again, a little too quasi religious to bring up in a $10 an hour yoga class – but I don’t disagree with the premise.  Depending on your definition of “god” your life won’t go bad for choosing to observe the classical Niyama of

1)  Saucha (cleanliness)

2) Santosha (contentment)

3) Tapas (austerity)

4) Svadhyaya (introspection) and

5) Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion i.e. to “God”)

Most people define God as something external to themselves.  Primitive religions seek to appease capricious Gods via rituals and sacrifice.  Some spiritual beliefs, including some forms of Christianity reluctantly provide for an internal expression of God.  But even this interpretation of God still seeks to delineate a separation between God and Self, with God as the superior structure.  A few spiritual beliefs advocate the self as God, if the self will amalgamate itself with the higher power.  I know of no religion that truly espouses a belief that You Are God.  Except, maybe you are.  If you are the mover and the shaker, the originator the creator – in a sense – you certainly are.  Accept at least this analogy: to your pet you are God.  To your pet, you decide the weather. You plan the walks, the meals, the housing, lights on, lights off – perhaps the fish have free will, but you control the rest.

If the fish, or hamsters, or dogs or cats figure out ways to snuggle into your heart causing more chew toys to appear, they’ve devised a religion of sorts.  Maybe reading minds is a low brain function rather than a high.  A smart dog reads body language better than an FBI agent.  Somehow without benefit of analog clock or iPhone, most dogs can hear their master’s truck and predict entrance.  (Or haven’t you noticed how a smart dog is at the door five minutes before everyone else ?)  So maybe you are God to a dog, but why not be god to yourself?

I know, i know – if we weren’t all handcuffed by the Politically Correct police we’d say this sort of thing more casually, more easily.  Truth is, if you chose the life insurance policy, the health benefits and the par for the course – you are god for yourself.  You chose the life insurance by creating risk.  If you chose to smoke and drink and skank on your bills – that’s risky.  If you eat right and exercise, that’s less risky.  You define the parameters whether you realize it or not.  There’s a screen shot pictured above that says “what to do for fun” and (I swear I don’t make this up) The Museum of Death is listed.  That’s just not how I define fun. . . .

But who am I to define anything? The world becomes modern by words swerving.  Once upon a time in the more practical era of ancient Yoga, as described in the yoga sutras of Patanjali adherents are advised to be clear eyed in their contemplation.  In what parallel universe did you imagine yoga to be clear?  We can’t define the word, the practice, or the practitioners with any agreement.  We’re truly left to our own devices here.  I suggest yoga, in the original sense of the word might be well translated as “re-cognition.”  How else does one explain the names of the chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, i.e. “Karma Yoga”, “Jnana Yoga” etc.?  There aren’t any sun salutes, that’s for sure.

If you heard that “yoga” means “union”, that would not be incorrect.  The question is, union of what with what?  Mind and body? Soul and universe? No matter how you slice it, re-cognition is as good a union as any.  Let’s see what has been seen before and perceive it clearly, that’s recognition, that’s yoga.  And what is a yogi? Some South Indian guru? A swami? A blonde haired California Instagram poster? Perhaps I use the word playfully, but I do think it has authentic meaning.  A real yogi follows the ashtanga (not Ashtanga) eight limbs of practice.  I guess I am in the minority when I say a person with a yoga practice (i.e. of postures and sun salutes) is a person who enjoys yoga not necessarily a yogi.  A yogi embraces the whole lifestyle, yup, even the Tapas.

Don’t worry about it if this seems a little arcane.  There’s no quiz.  If you want to come lose weight, increase flexibility, and bone density, start doing yoga.  If along the way you find the doors of perception fly open, go in! You might start re-defining yoga right away, you might take a few years to settle in.  There’s no hurry.  Talk again real soon

Sat Nam!