Why do I practice yoga?
By Louis Cortese
I’ll try to answer this question as honestly as I can. I don’t want to subconsciously regurgitate platitudes. I will try instead to delve deeply, with raw honesty and without any self-consciousness, into the real reasons why I continue to practice yoga. As I do, depending on my particular state of mind or mood, the answer is either cynical or idealistic.
Let’s start with the idealistic version first.
I find the physical movements of Hatha Yoga to be graceful and magnificent. Witnessing someone going through the movements of a vinyasa can be very beautiful and lissome, balletic, but there is an internal aesthetic that`s perceptible to me as well. The more absorbed I am in asana, the more apparent this becomes. There is a corporeal elegance that is immanent in it and yet also transcendent as ever more subtle nuances are endlessly being uncovered.
It is an internal and eternal adventure of discovery: A previously inexperienced lengthening, a twist, ease, or a glimpse of that which feels true and unencumbered. The travel is at a slow speed with unpremeditated direction.
There is also a feeling of liberation as though all tethers have been cut, a busting out from the shackles of the physical body. Yet paradoxically, a keener sense of body cognizance occurs, a more intimate relationship with the body phenomena and a deeper familiarity, an exploration with sentience. The longer one has practiced, the deeper the relationship and the more effortless the expression. Yoga is transformative; ossification evolving into malleability, effort surrendering to stillness. It’s wide open, it`s focused. It’s liberating… but not as an escape from something, just pure freedom.
There is also the possibility that yoga can instill a speck of the unknown into the mundane, at least be a pathway to such or even an answer to the larger existential questions. I’m not so sure about that, but that’s a whole other discussion.
Now for the cynical, sneering, scoffing viewpoint.
Yoga is nothing more than a glorified exercise routine. It’s a way to get a workout, similar to Pilates. The difference is that we apotheosize a few Indian practitioners like Sri T. Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, and we apply rock star status to their more modern versions: Rodney Yee, Richard Freeman, John Friend, Vinnie Marino, Kathryn Budig, Shiva Rea and many more. It is marketed like soap or fancy automobiles and attempts to appeal to people’s egoistic and materialistic tendencies. I could go on, but you know the spiel.
I myself wonder sometimes about my motivations for doing yoga. Are they as pure as the idealistic version described above? Chances are, not totally. It’s probably more likely I am driven by the challenge of achieving a more flexible, stronger, fit body. But then, why don’t I lift weights, or practice Pilates, or ride a stationary bike, or a myriad of other exercise? Could it be that I am drawn to yoga because it carries a certain new age cachet? It is five thousand years old and it evolved in a country halfway around the world. It is in the mix of esoteric Eastern thought as opposed to the crass Western way of life.
Yoga is, after all, being presented and practiced more and more with the Western style ethos. Baron Baptiste has a “boot camp” yoga class where you are tested to your physical limits. Rodney Yee has videos promising stronger abs from yoga. John Friend licensed his name to a yoga mat. Katherine Budig is photographed performing acrobatic hand balances as a model for Toe Sox. (I thought you’re not supposed to wear socks when doing yoga?)
There are all kinds of yoga fashion. It’s getting to the point where Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana will probably soon start a couture line of yoga clothing. Super model yoginis will soon be doing sun salutations on the runways in Milan.
It’s too damn confusing. Is yoga an internal exploration of the Self, or an outward expression of my aggrandized ego?
Today I felt guilty all day because I couldn’t get out of bed at 5:30 in order to do my practice. Why? Because I think if I don’t practice diligently on a regular basis I will not (dare I say it) improve. Don’t all esteemed yoga teachers, from Pattabhi Jois on down, tout a consistent daily practice? Doesn’t that imply improvement, placing emphasis on achievement? But isn’t all that the stuff of ego building? Confusing.
It seems yoga practice as I approach it, as most people approach it, is just one more example of living in the material world. It’s a world that rewards performance. We are conditioned to strive. This is the paradigm under which we operate. But yoga is supposed to be about being with what is. The cliché goes something like this: “Everyone is at a different level and the level you’re at is perfect.” But the hierarchy that is such an inherent part of it is unavoidable. The Ashtanga tradition has ever-progressive difficulty levels categorized as series 1 through 6; One Iyengar teacher certification level is Intermediate Senior Level III, another is Advanced Junior level. Don’t ask me which is considered more advanced. I think the reason it takes such a long time to become certified in the Iyengar School is because you need to spend months learning the confusing myriad certification levels.
Why is every demonstration of a particular asana by a student in an Anusara class praised with applause?
If achievement is not in the lexicon of yoga practice, why do we place the star yoga teachers on pedestals and shower them with fawning adulation? Aren’t these contradictory messages that are being sent?
Why are sexy nubile yoginis always on the cover of Yoga Journal? (not that I’m complaining) Why isn’t someone like Aadil Palkhivala ever on it?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I am not even being critical of what seems to be a bit of hypocrisy. I am just pointing out that these conflicting notions rumble around in my head and they remain unreconciled.
In the meantime, I continue to practice more intently and more drawn to it than ever, still not sure of my motivations. Sometimes I think though, that the very finality of settling on an answer is limiting. Staying with the question, instead, leaves the door open for wider potentiality of insight.
About Louis Cortese
Lou , in his life, has been a precocious young boy in an anachronistic town in the mountains of Sicily, an immigrant at the age of 8 arriving by way of an ocean liner to the shores of the west side of Manhattan, a guido from the Bronx, a hippy, a Zen Buddhist, a businessman, a yogi and a conventional family man with three sons and two grandchildren, among other things, none of which describes his true self and all of which in the aggregate do not give a full account of him. If his story is not he, then what is? He’s still looking.