By Andrés Muñoz

Your body is about to snap. You are nothing but a collection of bones and ligaments that can barely keep the position the instructor holds ever so naturally. Why on earth did you agree to accompany your friend to this thing? All of a sudden, they go: “3…2…1…aaand relax.”

A few more of those stretches, and your mind and body start getting the hang of it. You begin to warm up. Your muscles stretch, and joints crack as you twist your hips and arms in unfamiliar positions. Later on, you lie down effortlessly, feeling your body’s energy and acknowledging it as it crawls from the tip of your toes to the top of your head. You sit down with your legs crossed, clearing your mind while listening to a mix of sitars and nature sounds. Then, the instructor smiles upon the class and says “Namaste” while joining his palms and bowing towards you. You might be thinking something along the lines of “phew, what a routine!”…but stop right there. 

Is this all there is to yoga? Another exotic workout you might do once a week before meeting your friends for drinks in the afternoon? I strongly beg to differ.

What IS Yoga, Then? 

To the untrained eye, yoga might seem to be just stretching exercises in the form of asanas or the repetition of utterances called mantras. But, the entire concept goes much far beyond. Yoga means “union” in Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world. Much, much, much more than a workout, it is an ancient set of Indian disciplines that spans the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of our lives. 

The word “yoga” as a practice had its first mention almost 3,500 years ago in the Rig Veda, a collection of ancient hymns and one of the four Vedas, the oldest and most sacred texts of Hinduism. It refers to the spiritual yoking, or the synchronisation of the divine thoughts and speech with the mind so one can start a spiritual journey. A far cry from the commercialised activity we now see in gyms and parks worldwide. The West has forgotten that the Vedas have been a way of being in unity with the energies around us and within us for millennia. 

On a trip to India a few years ago, my cousin asked her tour guide for “yoga outfits”. The guide looked at her oddly and told her that “Yoga is a way of life”. She realised that it wasn’t just another fitness activity that people would do. Thanks to this experience, a veil was removed from her face, and she was able to appreciate how the practice is such an ingrained element in the fabric of Indian culture.

But how did yoga make it to the West in the first place, and, more importantly, are we as a society respecting the central tenets of this ancient practice nowadays? 

Yoga and the West

The first record of yoga arriving in the West was in the late 1890s when Indian monks would travel and share their knowledge. Swami Vivekananda was one of the first to teach about it in the United States, calling yoga “a science of the mind” in a conference in 1883. Ten years later, at the Chicago World Fair of 1893, he would demonstrate yoga and spark mass interest in the practice and Indian culture in general. 

Today, the most popular version is Hatha yoga. The word hatha means “force” in Sanskrit, and it encompasses a vast range of physical techniques and practices. It is the closest version of what you would generally think yoga is. 

Indian guru Shri Yogendra was the first to globalise the activity, founding The Yoga Institute in 1919 and highlighting its medicinal benefits thanks to his work with doctors and scientists of the time.  

Another influential figure in modern-day yoga is Swami Vishnudevananda, who took the key ancient concepts of yoga and nested them under five main points: Proper Exercise (Āsana), Proper Breathing (Prāṇāyāma), Proper Relaxation (Śavāsana), Proper Diet (Vegetarian diet), and Positive thinking and Meditation (Vedānta & Dhyāna). 

The United States established a ceiling to the number of Indian migrants in the 1920s. When this restriction was lifted in the mid-1960s, the spiritual revolution took flight. For the first time, many people were experiencing the healthy practices and routines that had been embedded in Indian life for centuries. This interest, however, resulted in people in the West capitalising on the economic value of yoga and creating their own Westernisations of the concept, ranging from yoga fashion to beer yoga events (I’m not kidding!). 

The Western perspective needs to shift when it comes to yoga. People must see it less as an exercise or a mere fitness activity and more as a path to activating the true innate potential within us all.