A routine encounter at the school drop-off the other day led to an epiphany: I teach yoga. While this may seem pretty obvious, especially the dear souls who have been my yoga students, I have struggled to own this simple claim since I earned my teaching certification nearly a decade ago.
After the dogs’ tails had ceased wagging and the summaries of our summer holidays had been recounted, the lovely woman shared that she was eager to get to her yoga class. Naturally, I inquired about it. She explained that she liked this particular class because it didn’t have any meditation or anything remotely spiritual in it. It was just a good workout that left her feeling amazing and radiant—just talking about it, she totally lit up.
While my instinct was to laugh at the wonderful irony that she loves her yoga- without-the-yoga class, I sensed that she didn’t recognize her own joke so I wished her a good lesson, and we bid each other goodbye.
Yoga is an ancient tradition that traces its roots over 5,000 years ago to what is now Northern India; what we call yoga today would be practically unrecognizable as such to the Rishis or seers, mystics who recorded their experiences of yoga, or unity, in the Rig Veda, a collection of devotional songs, mantras, and rituals that were practiced by Brahmans, the Vedic priests and original yogis. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the physical postures that we practice today crystallized, building on techniques for purifying and fortifying the body that the Tantrikas developed beginning in the 11th century.
In other words, popular poses like “Wild Thing,” “Hummingbird” and “One-Legged Wheel” have little to do with the original practice of yoga. And yet, both these acrobatic asanas and the ancient scriptures are yoga. While the workout version of yoga-without-the yoga that my friend takes at the gym apparently bares no resemblance to the yoga of Patanjali’s sutras, it is yoga.
How can this be? How can yoga be at once an ancient spiritual path rooted in mystical shamanism and an exercise regimen?
According to T.K.V. Desikachar, considered to be one of the modern proponents of yoga in the West along with Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, “yoga has its roots in Indian thought, but its content is universal because it is about the means by which we can make the changes we desire in our lives. The actual practice of yoga takes each person in a different direction. It is not necessary to subscribe to any particular ideas of God in order to follow the yoga path. The practice of yoga only requires us to act and to be attentive to our actions.”
Taken from this broad perspective, yoga is about practicing presence so that we might become co-creators in our own lives; something that we can aim for whether we are sitting still in meditation, sweating through a series of sun salutes, or exchanging pleasantries with acquaintances on the school steps.
Though at some point in my journey I had internalized this understanding that yoga is more about how we act than what we do, I still feel at times that I am somehow not a real yoga teacher because I am neither Indian nor ancient nor literate in Sanskrit nor enlightened nor can I rock advanced poses and the list goes on. But something in this encounter with the lovely woman reminded me what I already knew: I teach yoga.
I teach yoga in studios and on paddle boards and in living rooms and on floating docks. I teach yoga to women and men, to beginners and future teachers, to my own dad and total strangers.
And I teach yoga to my children who teach it right back to me. Like when my daughter schooled me earlier tonight: “Mama, when you’re upset, just breathe. That’s what I do.” Yes. I teach yoga and if I never taught another sun salutation in my life, I’d still be teaching yoga.
Because for me, teaching yoga means living yoga in the best way that I can right now. So when my precious five year-old reminds me of the most fundamental lesson of yoga, to connect to breath, I listen. I breathe. And I remember that any practice that brings us back to our highest and best self is essentially a yoga practice. Even if it takes place in a gym without so much as a single “Om.”