On the Language of Yoga
by Kino MacGreggor
Yoga has an almost addictive quality to it. If you start doing yoga, it starts doing you too. The search for knowledge, wisdom and truth morph into numerous shapes and forms along the inner journey. When you enter the world of yoga sometimes you’ll even find a whole Indian performance awaiting you: harmonium, chanting, flowers, pujas, small women demonstrating yoga postures, deities blessing you, henna painting and vegetarians–it’s a Bollywood show that draws you in.
The experience of yoga is intricately tied to an experience of culture and a new culture is sometimes so exciting that you can develop a kind of fascination with it. When you interact with the yoga world be careful not to sell your Western soul for cross cultural eye candy. Yet it must be acknowledged that there is something real about welcoming the powerfully transformative elements of the authentic yoga tradition into our practice and our lives. The question is then, what exactly are the truly authentic elements of this 5,000 year old tradition called yoga? What knowledge, wisdom and teaching are available for you to integrate into your life right here and now?
Living in the global marketplace, we are all entrenched within our given paradigm. No matter how much henna you paint on your body, how much Sanskrit you study, nor how many sarees you wear you will never be Indian and you will never be as culturally complete in your yoga as our teachers in India. You can, however, find elements of another tradition that speak to you in ways beyond society. You can also integrate, learn and grow from the Far Eastern world from which yoga originates. You can have a truly authentic yoga practice and you can authentically put your heart into what you do, whether its chanting, henna painting, Indian music, yoga or being a vegetarian. It just won’t come as part and parcel of your environment in the same way as it does in India, for better or worse. You will have to make a conscious choice to integrate portions of the yoga world, now a five billion dollar annual industry in the U.S. alone, into your life. In other words you can make it yours if you want to.
Sanskrit to yoga practitioners represents authenticity, connection to an ancient past that gives us a taste of real long term history. It is also one way for the Western mind to begin learning about the yogic tradition. The first time I attended a guided group yoga class I was awed by the chanting and repetition of this very old language. To be honest with you, I still am. After years of searching I can say that the Sanskrit language, chanting and the Yoga Sutras are an intimate part of my spiritual life. Most traditional yoga classes use Sanskrit chants to invoke the specific tradition and offer blessings. Although it’s new and different for most of us when we first experience it, in relation to the yoga tradition, Sanskrit chanting, OM and the Yoga Sutras are as simple and ordinary as hearing the Bible quoted in a Catholic church or hearing the Latin language used in a church choir, punctuated with Amen. Yet studying Sanskrit can help place your experience of yoga within the historical reality of its past, present and future.
Sometimes I wonder how much our fascination with yoga is just another form of occidental mystery taking us by the heels of our own imagination. People are in love with what they’re not. And lithe, flexible, super strong, Sanskrit chanting, henna painting, auming, deep breathing meditators most of us here in the Western world simply are not. But we love it and the Japanese love American baseball and Indian families love Domino’s Pizza for their special Friday night dinner. The truth about globalization is that it allows the best of each culture to reach across the world with a quick double click. When you can watch a yoga master on youtube, trade mutual funds for your retirement, google your way to enlightened dialogue and get a pedicure all in the same day, you have to ask what is’ real and begin your own search into lasting meaning. What is authentic and what is just a sound byte of another culture? Don’t just buy into the myths and iconographies of someone else’s heritage for the sake of their difference. If you dig deep enough what you might unearth in these ancient traditions of the Far East is a way to honestly connect with a part of yourself that was always there in the first place.
There is no “need” to learn Sanskrit, chanting, paint yourself in weird symbols, be vegetarian, twist yourself into strange postures, meditate or breathe deeply–unless of course you’re drawn to it. If it happens naturally in your life and if your desire comes from a balanced and genuine place inside yourself, then the situations, teachers and events in your life will lead you effortlessly toward the path of yoga. I once had a friend say to me that you don’t choose yoga, it chooses you, grabs you by the head and draws you in. Along the way remember that it is not the accoutrements of yoga that make it holy, it is the space inside your own heart that creates an opening to the divine.