That I can make a simple series of small mouth noises (or words) and conjure up specific images in your mind is pure magic. The written word is no less powerful, and even now, as you read this post, some mysterious force is translating these tiny shapes (or letters) into meaningful concepts.
Our language is based largely on agreements. Certain sounds and shapes represent certain objects, concepts, peoples, or places. These agreements are the building blocks upon which we create our consensual reality.
But although we tend to think of words as having a universal meaning, they are not necessarily resistant to change. And as words change in meaning, the concepts they once represented require new representation or they fade away altogether.
I believe the word yoga is changing. And I think that’s it’s quite possible that in the process we are losing the important concepts behind the original meaning. We are, in my mind, potentially ruining the word.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word that shares the same root as the English word yoke, and has a similar meaning: to unite (or yoke together), and to place under disciplined training (to bring under the yoke). Both connotations are present in the Sanskrit word. Defined as such yoga is a means of undergoing a disciplined training for the purpose of seeking the experience of unity.
Unity as it is used here refers to a condition of consciousness in which one sees oneself as not separate from the whole. The mystical experience of this can reveal and compel the yoga practitioner to participate in an entirely new and enlightened ethic for living.
However, the word yoga today would likely be defined quite differently by the average person, even the average yoga practitioner. The word yoga has come to be associated mainly with exercise, and combined with the accelerant of social-media, the meaning of the word yoga is being warped into something radically different.
Traditional yogis were ascetic, they lived simple (not sexy) lives, and sought whatever means possible to humble themselves. Ego was the enemy to union, for it bred separateness.
Modern yogis are often egomaniacs. They are hedonistic, self-asserting, and attention seeking. Postures have become achievements, and rather than seeking to humble themselves, yogis today seek the widest possible audience to recognize their unique skills and abilities.
These days I even find myself hesitating when I tell people I teach yoga, because the images that the word yoga conjures in another person’s mind may not be at all the same images I hold in my own. We simply define the word differently.
What I don’t understand is why people can’t just call it something else. If whatever you are doing in the name of yoga really isn’t yoga, don’t call it yoga. If you are simply teaching movement to music, or basic body-weight exercises, or just stretching without any spiritual component, don’t use the word yoga. Call it sexy stretching, or ego-boosting exercises, or whatever you want, but don’t redefine an ancient word with some cheap, watered down meaning.
Right now if you ask Google the question “what is yoga” you still get a fairly accurate description: a spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practiced for health and relaxation.
But how long do we have before this changes? It already has for most people.