Can you still be a yogi if you, like me, enjoy a glass of wine (or two or three) and a bowl (or quite possibly the entire share-size bag) of Kettle Chips on a Friday (and maybe also some other days of the week)? Probably not. A yogi, or yogini (if you’re female), is, according to the ancient Indian 700-verse poem the Bhagavad Gita:
- purity of heart
- perseverance in acquiring wisdom and in practising yoga
- subjugation of the senses
- performance of holy rites
- study of the scriptures
- freedom from wrath
- compassion for all creatures
- absence of greed
- lack of restlessness
- radiance of character
- freedom from hate
- absence of conceit
So that’s a no to binge watching boxsets with a Dominoes, then?
In Western culture we tend to use the word ‘yogi’ to describe anyone who can do a headstand in a nice pair of leggings and a matching crop top. But if we’re to use the traditional definition, it would seem that being a yogini/yogi is more a way of living and thinking than it is a level of flexibility or dedication to stretchy clothing.
But how many of us can realistically maintain all of the above characteristics, at the same time, throughout our entire lives? I’d hazard a guess at zero. We’re human beings after all and as such, we are sentient, innately curious, epicurean creatures. Being this intelligent (shit, there goes ‘modesty’) makes it somewhat challenging to ignore the colourful bounty of delicious sins the world has to offer. Desire, gluttony, selfishness, rage, pleasure, greed, temptation…when we’re aware of the limited time we have in life, how and why do we repress these condemnable, very un-yogi-like impulses?
What is the point of yoga? What are we getting out of it?
These are big questions that I am not at all qualified to answer seeing as my knowledge of yoga right now is rudimentary and gleaned from yoga apps, YouTube and a class I attend at my local leisure centre. However, I am able to draw upon the omnipotent powers of the Internet and can thus reveal that (according to the NY Times), the purpose of yoga is:
“To train the body and mind to self observe and become aware of their own nature. The purposes of yoga were to cultivate discernment, awareness, self-regulation and higher consciousness in the individual.”David Surrenda, the founding dean of the Graduate School of Holistic Studies at John F. Kennedy University in California
This NY Times article is actually pretty interesting. David Surrenda, a CEO of a yoga centre in America’s wellbeing capital California (with an excellent surname, I might add), talks about the Western take-up of yoga and the evolution from the introspective, spiritual element of the ancient tradition, to what seems to have become a predominantly physical, somewhat narcissistic practice focused on getting a nice lean, gazelle-like Elle Macpherson figure. He argues that yoga should be about ‘inner experience’ and the gist I’m getting is that ‘inner experience’ is more rewarding, or somehow richer, than superficial experiences like drinking lots of wine and eating cake.
Humans need taming.
We’re crazy creatures. Worse than orcas, our adorable, seal-torturing friends of the open ocean. Throughout our bloody history we’ve always needed something to reign us in – a good set of rules, or commandments, if you will. Without religion we’d never have made it here. We’d be raping, pillaging and murdering left right and centre until there was nothing left to steal, have sex with or kill. It wouldn’t be a pleasant place, and we wouldn’t be happy people. We’d be frightened and angry, and cold and hungry, and diseased and in pain. Or we’d be long extinct. As much as we all enjoy stimulating our senses, we also know deep down that you can’t have too much of a good thing without some kind of pay-off. Obesity, liver damage, poverty, incarceration, that sort of thing.
And so I think it must be inbuilt into us to desire restriction. It’s certainly wired into every religion I’ve heard of. Self-control, discipline. After a certain amount of self-indulgence, abstinence feels enlightening. It feels good. There is a perverse enjoyment to be had out of depriving ourselves of the things we like.
We can’t all be yogis and yoginis
Life requires balance and diversity. Personally, I believe that you can enjoy and benefit from yoga without adopting a strict yogi/yogini lifestyle. For instance, I’ve practised yoga hungover more times than I’d care to admit and I certainly didn’t feel worse for it.
I’m sure my feelings will change once I start my yoga teacher training and learn more about the history, purpose and techniques of yoga. But even if they do, I can’t help but feel I’ll retain a certain amount of realism and – dare I say it, Britishness, in my approach to yoga.