Keeping Yoga Pure

Opinions about what constitutes the purity of yoga can be strident, more so than ever today as yoga becomes increasingly popular. “I love it here”, said a woman I met about five years ago at a small Mysore-morning studio in San Francisco. “No blocks, no props, just pure yoga.” The studio did have a beautiful energy, with about 20 dedicated long-term ashtangis practising together in the blue light of dawn. Though to my mind, a block or belt discreetly employed would not have detracted from that purity.

“If I did not trust in the Cosmic Will,” said a young Indian yoga master I studied with once, “I’d shoot them all. Why don’t they just call it Indian stretching exercises, why do they call it yoga?” To his mind, all the great names in modern yoga had defiled this ancient tradition, which belongs in the caves of the Himalayas, not in Western fitness centres.

But as karma unfolds through time, Divine Intelligence governs its flow, and in an absolute sense, nothing can happen counter to Cosmic Will, something the young Indian master clearly acknowledged, despite his personal view that certain things should be otherwise. Pure or not, yoga has become mainstream. This fact just hit me once again with stark relief, as I did a double take a couple of days ago in the San Francisco Airport.

I was flying into San Francisco from Seattle, where I had attended the Council of Vedic Astrology’s annual conference (more on that in another post). Skies were crystal clear over the Bay, the water a sparkling blue and the Golden Gate a deep vermillion, elegantly cascading between the glass skyscrapers of San Francisco and the golden hills of Marin County. It felt good to be returning to California, back to the sunshine and swimming pools and my yoga practice space on a redwood deck, surrounded by roses and blue hydrangeas and facing a misty sunrise over Mt. Diablo. This is the land of my birth, in one sense so familiar but in another constantly making me feel like a stranger in a strange land.

On my way to Baggage Claim, the following sign on the airport wall jumped out at me.

Yoga Room??? Here in the airport? My first reaction was definitely negative. What kind of corporate mentality is behind this, I thought, putting yoga on a list that includes shoe-shining services, an ATM, a vending machine? Talk about sullying this sacred tradition . . . I walked quickly past . . . until curiosity got the better of me and I turned back to see what it actually was.

Sure enough, tucked in behind a shoe shining station and a vending machine was a doorway leading into the Yoga Room. It was an oasis of peace. Big enough for probably six mats, with mirrors lining one wall and a shelf with mats provided along another, it was a simple space, its hardwood floor gleaming in the mottled sunshine that streamed through the high windows.

No one was there, but the energy of practice was palpable in the air. I stayed for a few minutes, my mind quickly flipping 180° around from its former position. What an incredible gift to the public! Here amidst the chaos of the airport is this beautiful practice space, free for anyone who wishes to enter. I thought of the many times I’d been stuck in airports. How wonderful to be able to dip into the serenity of practice, away from the noise and bustle, the boredom and stress of airport waiting rooms.

Here is a modern day cave, I thought. How totally amazing! Though certain excesses in yoga today are indeed excesses, and I do believe yoga needs to be protected from the sports/fitness franchises and cl