yoga and the evolutionary process

No, not yoga and evolution.  Yoga and YOUR evolution.  Change.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what my student said in class the other night, about what she thinks “real yoga” is.

It was her belief that mainstream yoga caters to this culture rather than trying to change this culture.

To this student “real yoga” is about change on the micro- and macro- level.  Or as I’ve heard Desikachar say, anything else is acrobatics.

I know the phrase “real yoga” irks some people.  People don’t like to hear that phrase used, considering it judgmental or arrogant.  They say that all yoga is good yoga and so what if someone does a 60 minute yoga DVD to get a slim, sexy body.  And contrary to popular beliefs about this Krazy Old Yogini, I agree to a point: so what.  The way yoga is advertised is a separate and entirely different issue.

Because as a wise reader told me recently, reality means that not everyone sings like Cecilia Bartoli or plays violin like Jascha Heifetz.  So why can’t we accept that there is talent involved in yoga and meditative arts also?  The democratization of everything (democratization being another word for mainstream) makes us think everyone should benefit equally from martial arts, yoga, or tea ceremony, but that simply is not true.

Many say that the more esoteric benefits of yoga will eventually come to those who practice for purely physical reasons.  I’ve never believed that because that assumes that everyone is on the same path, running at the same pace, equally.  That’s not true in a marathon and that’s not true on the yogic path.  There is also a little thing called karma.

There are plenty of people in yoga classes who practice for purely physical reasons and become stronger and more flexible, but they are still unhappy and depressed or full of fear. Some will be that way the rest of their lives, in varying degrees; others, not.  There are those who will run from teacher to teacher, from one ‘ism to another, and still die with their most intense fear buried deep within their hearts.  There are others who have suffered horribly in their lives, studying with one teacher or even none, but through their internal work will fly on wings of joy on their dying day.

Life. Change. Stages of evolution. Karma.

The reader who wrote to me believes that it is only natural that some will not connect with the esoteric levels of yoga and will remain happy with a basic understanding of yoga, the basic level being purely physical.  A lucky few on the yoga path will know enlightenment. Most will be stuck somewhere in between.  This has to do with talent, but also with what the Chinese call yuanfen.

So even a basic understanding of yoga and attaining purely physical benefits are better than none at all, but I have my own standards of what constitutes “real yoga.”  And just as there is nothing wrong with someone doing yoga for purely physical benefits, there is nothing wrong with my standards either.

As I’ve come to believe over the years, students get the teachers they need at the time, teachers get the students they deserve at the time.  Think about that.

One of my standards is that yoga is about physical and emotional healing.  Another standard is that yoga is about accelerating our personal evolution.  I’ve told my students many times that if something isn’t changing for you off the mat, then it’s not yoga.  If your path is only the length and width of your yoga mat, that’s not much of a path.  That’s my standard.  And someone can choose to accept that or not because frankly, in the end, I don’t care.  It’s your own personal evolution.  Or should I say revolution?

In his book A Life Worth Breathing Max Strom writes:

“Hatha yoga is a profound evolutionary system that will benefit everyone who has the passion to change his or her troubled existence into an extraordinary life. It has changed my life forever, and every day I see it transform more and more people into happier, healthier, and more empowered beings….


Imagine two people practicing side by side. One is still and struggling in a posture, barely able to open his hips, but he is not letting it bother him. Instead, he feels calm in this difficult moment, centered in deep breathing.


Then there is the second person next to him, able to wrap his legs around his neck, but breathing erratically, thinking negative thoughts. Whose practice is better? Flexibility is not the aim; it is a side effect….


If you find joy and you are living a meaningful life, then you are becoming good at yoga….


Remember, the goal is not to tie ourselves in knots — we’re already tied in knots. The aim is to untie the knots in our heart. The aim is to unite with the intimate, loving, and peaceful power of the universe and fully awaken into the highest level of human consciousness.”
(Max Strom, pp. 122-125)

A spiritual adept once told me that it is not my job as a yoga teacher to change people. They have to change themselves.

I can only give you a road map — you have to drive the car yourself.

12 thoughts on “yoga and the evolutionary process

  1. Very interesting post that raises a lot of big questions. How much free will do we really have? What enables some people to open up to the deeper benefits of yoga (or anything else), while others have the some opportunities but don't take them?

    The American belief is that every individual can do what he or she wants if only the will and determination is there. But even bracketing the (big) question of equal opportunity in the external sense, do we all have equal opportunity in terms of internal resources?

    While it would seem that the answer is “no,” it also seems that one can never say either in your own or someone else's case what may happen: Road-to-Damascus type transformations still can and do occur in the most unlikely times and places.

    So I guess we just keep teaching and trying and hope for the best, but as they say, let go of the outcome.


  2. as far as transformation, I can only speak for myself. in fact, in spite of what I have written here for 5 years, I keep my “Road to Damascus type” transformations private, because frankly, if I talked about it, I doubt anyone would believe me…or think I am crazy.

    and I'm all about the big questions…;) IMO, you either believe in karma or you don't. belief in karma does not discount free will.


  3. From one perspective yoga has been “dumbed down” but I also think that makes it accessable to beginners who would not be interested other wise.

    The true seeker will certainly find her or his way on the path.


  4. As Michael Stone writes, karma indeed does not discount free will. Your actions have consequences, that is karma, but you still choose your actions…

    Anyway, back to the post: I also believe that to each their own, some might stay with physical practice, others practice and live their yoga off the mat. As Carol writes though, you never know what might happen…

    I started practicing yoga to move my asana a bit, try to gain some flexibility (which I believed then would never be possible, I'm as bendy as a lamp post originally), and stress relief.
    Fast forward a few years, I'm discovering myself and what I'm capable of, and the journey is not over (will it ever be anyway?).

    You have no idea how much your post resonates with me, and I will stop there because I've already written a novel. But yeah, I totally definitely see what you mean 🙂


  5. This post is brilliantly written and has given me a lot of food for thought. As a beginner on my own yoga journey, I realised straight away that yoga was far more than the physical asanas, and I was perhaps hoping it would be more than that too. I was (and still am, it's a work in progress) looking for balance in my life, and strength to cope better with the harder times in life. I believe yoga is giving me that mind-body-soul experience. But I'm a beginner and alongside my near-daily asana practice there is so much more to learn and delve deeper into, and your post, and blog, is helping me to do that.


  6. Well as a yoga teacher your post got me thinking Linda.
    “…it is not my job as a yoga teacher to change people. They have to change themselves.” That points to a struggle for me in seeing folks who seem stalled after telling me that they have “done yoga for twenty years.” But they mean as a physical practice only. I get discouraged when they show up in my class. It's like “there is so much here, to nourish you.” But my sense is they are not interested.
    And the statement about YT “getting the students they deserve at the time.” Maybe its the students they can “serve” at the time. Not withstanding my first statement maybe there is a takeaway for them. I've had students who just lavish praise and promise they will be back! And I never see them again!? HMMM
    And finally the “esotheric benefits” may come just not in this life…And that is ok cause that's how it is right? I was attracted to and began practicing at 14 and felt deeply drawn in-no one else in my Af-American working class family had the slightest interest. Some of them are drawn to more traditional religions, but they dont' tend to seek a direct experience as a yogi does. Anyway love your blog!


  7. I love this post. I have always loved the physical aspects of yoga but I really love the mental and spiritual components. Yoga manages to integrate itself in my spiritual life in a beautiful way. I think yoga as a more than physical can be a scary option for many people. It took me a while to reconcile my practice of yoga and my more formal religious practice.However, I can see how that could be problematic and some people disdain any sort of spiritual undertones. What a thought provoking post.


  8. I do think people get what they need from yoga. My own teacher says that the concept of “timing” is really just what people are ready for at various points in their life.

    We are all sort of on the same path – but not all going the same direction, same pace, same time or same anything else. I'd like to think that in the end, everyone ends up becoming interested in their spiritual life but there's really no proof to that. Nice idea though. And karma definitely has a hand…

    The whole concept of talent is interesting though. I mean, they've done studies on champion athletes to work out the dynamics of their bodies and muscle tissue etc – the things that help them be better, faster and stronger than others.

    I wonder what sort of test – if any – could be devised for proving one's aptitude (or not) for deeper studies of yoga?

    In some ways it doesn't matter. I don't mind people only taking from what suits them – as long as they have access to the whole buffet, if you know what I mean.

    Re: “if something isn't changing for you off the mat, then it's not yoga”. I agree. And certainly, since I stepped onto the yoga path properly, my life hasn't been the same. Hardly from one week to the next, and it hasn't stopped yet! 😉

    The tricky thing about teaching yoga is that there's such a rich history and set of practices to share. How to pierce someone's awareness with the wisdom of yoga? It's something that can only happen over time, as it's meant to. And to the degree that a person can listen, with their ears and their whole body.


  9. Interesting post, Linda. I've met lots of people who have asked me about the physical aspects of yoga and who have no interest in the spiritual aspects, and I don't go into it with them, because a lot of time they have absolutley no interest in that aspect not because they're not spiritually inclined, but because that part of their life is already being fulfilled elsewhere, say Christianity. So where do those people fit in? Is yoga still just a physical pratice for them? I don't know. They may not care to know about karma etc, but certainly know lots about their spiritual path.

    For me personally, I have an interest in the other aspects of yoga; however, I wouldn't say it's my spiritual path, so I devote more of my time elsewhere when it comes to study etc. So I may not be able to hold my own in a discussion on yoga philosophy or describe in yogic terms what I experience on the mat, but it is still more than just a physical practice.

    Oh, one more thought . . . does this mean atheists can't have transformative experinces through yoga?

    P.S In the way I've understood your post, the answer is yes.


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