Did you know… that yoga is not just a physical exercise program that you might choose in place of other gym offerings like kick boxing, weight lifting, or Zumba?
If you delve in the history and philosophy of yoga, you will find that it is much more than the body-centered approach (Hatha yoga and its spin-offs) that has become immensely popular in our society. Yoga can be traced back 5000 or more years with ancient texts such as the Rig Veda, Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gîtâ, and Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras.
Like the Bible and other sacred texts written so long ago and in a different language, our modern English interpretations vary. I am most familiar with Patanjali’s definition of yoga as an eight-limbed path that can lead to enlightenment. It includes asana (the poses) as only one of the limbs. It can get complicated.
Yoga and the Serenity Prayer
I recently came across a simple description of yoga in one of Leslie Kaminoff’s newsletters that brought to mind The Serenity Prayer popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
For those not familiar with Leslie Kaminoff, he is a yoga educator inspired by the tradition of T.K.V. Desikachar who has led workshops for over 40 years and developed specialized education in the fields of yoga, breath anatomy, and bodywork. I have his book Yoga Anatomy, have been to his workshops, and (obviously) subscribe to his newsletter.
The prayer was composed by Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian, ethicist, professor, and commentator on politics and public affairs. Even if you haven’t been to any meetings for those struggling with addiction, you might have come across his prayer in other contexts — heard it in church, seen it on coffee mugs, cross-stitched pillows, or, possibly, tattooed on someone’s body.
In this particular mailing, Leslie used three Sanskrit words or phrases from the ancient texts to describe the essence of yoga — tapas, isvara pranidhana, svadhyaya — and he applied them specifically to the experience people have in yoga classes as they look around and notice the differences between what people can and can’t do in their physical expressions of the poses. This is what he wrote:
There is a three-part definition of yoga.
Tapas is about inducing change in the system. It’s about changing its activity or behavior outside of its normal habitual way of operating, which is why it’s often translated as austerity.
Isvara pranidhana is sort of the other end of that spectrum, which is you’re finding some phenomenon to which the only possible response is surrender: “This isn’t going to change. This is just the way it is and the only relationship I can have to something that is not going to change, that I can’t control, is to surrender to that.
And of course, the connecting principle is the svadhyaya, it’s the self-reflection. It’s the introspection, it’s the ability to sort out the things that we want to work on changing and the things that we want to work on surrendering to.
To me this sounds much like:
Tapas: Making an effort to change the things you can.
Isvara pranidhana: Accepting things you cannot change.
Svadhyaya: Having the wisdom to know the difference.
How does this apply to yoga classes?
- Try your best to achieve the poses as led and described by the instructor.
- If you notice that others look different, can bend further and stretch without effort; or if, on another day, you were able to do more or less, maybe hold the pose longer and stay more balanced… let it go. Detach from your expectations. Don’t hurt yourself physically or emotionally trying to achieve something that is not possible or necessary.
- Tune in to your body. Sense and understand your abilities and limitations so you can accept yourself where you are in the present moment.