I’ve been a student of Bhakti yoga for nearly forty years and ventured outside my practice to study various Vedas and India’s six philosophical systems.
Though my path is yoga, I wish we could drop the word “yoga” from the English dictionary and common usage: I dislike the way we Americans use the term incorrectly. All wordsmiths and dictionary editors: Don’t you agree that words should only be used with the correct meaning?
I looked up the word “yoga” in a few English dictionaries. The Random House Dictionary got two out of three definitions almost correct. The Collins Dictionary got one out of two partially correct, but at least they referenced the word’s origins, which points to the correct meaning. Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary gets an “F-”, for two incorrect definitions and no word origin. But I’d settle for a “D” because their first definition at least acknowledges yoga has a theistic philosophy. The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy fails in their incomplete definition, explaining yoga as mental and physical exercises aimed at spiritual enlightenment.
Partial knowledge of yoga by Westerners isn’t surprising, but gee, couldn’t we expect the dictionary to get it right? At least one of them! Nope, none of them understands the first thing about one yoga practice, much less that there are four.
And I bet you didn’t know this: The aim of each one of them is realizing the true self and achieving union with God. Oh, my gosh, yes. They’re all religious paths! Now is a good time to quote Dani Shapiro (I wrote about a book review of hers in Yoga Prejudice), “Let the eye-rolling begin.”
The paths are:
- 1. Karma Yoga, or selfless action
- 2. Jnana Yoga, or spiritual knowledge
- 3. Bhakti Yoga, or devotional action with spiritual knowledge
- 4. Raja (Ashtanga) Yoga, or meditation
The fourth, Ashtanga Yoga, is a later addition to the yoga paths, and not everyone includes it as a primary one. Ashtanga Yoga is an eight-step process that begins with physical exercises (the poses of America’s health regime). To achieve success, a person must practice >Ashtanga Yoga alone and in a secluded place. And this first step of eight steps – the postures — is meant to begin training the mind to focus on a single object. The seven successive steps (not all include doing postures) further hone mental skill until eventually the practitioner enters the deepest states of meditation and can see God in the heart.
American “yogis” drop the “God in the heart” idea — and for that matter full mind control — and use postures to promote physical and mental health and balance. The yoga postures, when practiced correctly, can afford these material benefits. But they are side benefits only and don’t, therefore, constitute Yoga.
Yes, I capitalized that Yoga. Maybe if we can’t remove the word from usage, we can capitalize the bona fide version and lower-case the yoga of Americans which has little resemblance to its namesake. After all, practicing physical poses without knowledge of the entire process is not spiritual, nor is it spirituality.
If lower-case and capitalization isn’t enough differentiation, though, maybe we could change the name for American yoga. We could have Pose Studios where we do Pose exercises.
Yoga could then be used by those following one of its genuine paths toward God whether through selfless action, spiritual knowledge, meditation, or devotional action.
What a pity we’ve stripped Yoga of its power and spiritual benefit.