Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Yoga is about learning to pay attention and is designed to wake us up. But we don’t just decide to go to a yoga class to “wake up.” Most of us don’t even realize that we aren’t awake. We go to a class maybe thinking all we want to do is stretch out our hamstrings. But as we practice and breathe and focus, we learn to pay attention. Our minds get quieter. We begin to see things that were previously too clouded by the busy-ness of the mind. We like this. We feel more centered, more relaxed. We get hooked and we begin to pay attention even more.
How Yoga Hooks Us
Yoga is not synonymous with asana, even though most of the general public thinks so. Yoga is an experience. No one can teach you yoga. Teachers can only pass along a set of instructions to follow, and if they are followed, perhaps that will lead the student to the experience. The experience of yoga cannot be conceptualized, or defined, or explained. It can only come from practice. And we can only have it. We can’t talk about it or share it or brag about it. It is an experience of boundlessness, of connection. It is the realization that there really is only one of us here. Once that happens, we change. We become more conscious, more aware, more compassionate, more, well, connected. It becomes impossible not to recognize the suffering of others. Compassionate is not something you just decide to be. It must come from an “opening” in the heart, from the experience of connectedness, which is what the yoga practices are designed to create. But just as you can’t go from never having run a step in your life to running a marathon, in the same way you can’t go from your first asana class to a fully conscious, enlightened meditator in 21 days or less (unless of course you did some amazing work in your last lifetime!)… Yoga is an evolutionary process. It takes time. Most of us have to work our way through all the 8 limbs to come to an understanding of its deeper dimensions. So I think yoga is on this slow steady path of infiltrating the human consciousness and is going exactly where it needs to be going and is evolving at exactly the pace it needs to be evolving.
Why Some People May Need Goat Yoga
People ask me all the time, “Well, what about goat yoga? Or what about yoga in breweries? Or what about this yoga or that yoga?” My feeling is bring it on. I don’t think goats are any more or less sacred than any other distraction in a yoga class—whether it is babies, or dogs, or music, or beer, or chocolate, or whatever. If it gets people in the door, great, get them in. I mean there could be a few exceptions—some things could go a little beyond appropriateness. But to just focus on the goats for a minute: A friend of mine knows the yoga goats in Denver—they are clean, fun, well cared for, and having a great time with the yoga students. Are they more or less spiritual than music in class? A distraction is a distraction. But you don’t realize that until you realize that. A teacher should guide you. Eventually you come to the understanding that the practice of asana is leading you on an inward, solitary journey, and you don’t need goats or chocolate or music. In the end, we walk the path alone, as the senses turn inward and move toward the True Self. We discover its pure boundlessness and realize that we are connected to all things and beings in all time and space. That happens for most of us, ironically, in deep silence, stillness, and inner solitude.
Where Yoga Will Take Us Next
We are in crisis. Yoga is here now because we desperately need it in our lives. It isn’t accidental that we have more and more people teaching and more and more people practicing. Yoga is popping up everywhere and will continue to do so. In schools, hospitals, corporations, churches, the military, in prisons—everywhere. We are moving toward a quantum leap in human consciousness and although yoga isn’t the only way to become more conscious, it’s a pretty good way. As more people are helped and healed and awakened by the practices, they will bring others onto the path simply because that is what happens—we feel better and we want to share with others the benefits we have received
Yoga will continue to make its way into the field of integrative medicine, and more and more data will become available on the benefits of the various practices. What seems now, like heresy or crazy exaggerated claims for how yoga heals, will be substantiated by evidence-based data—since that is what the current medical protocol requires for endorsement. But that too will change. More and more teachers and students will begin to take their practices out into the world and focus on service. Once that experience of yoga happens, the realization comes that there really isn’t anything else to do with your life except to try and help others and be of service to our planet and all its residents. Seva isn’t something you do part-time, or only on Wednesday afternoons—it’s a lifestyle. It’s an awareness you bring into every aspect of your life. Everything you do is with compassion and awareness—and this comes from years of practice and paying attention.
About Our Expert
Beryl Bender Birch, founder and director of The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute and the Give Back Yoga Foundation, has been studying and teaching yoga and meditation for over 40 years. She graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in philosophy and English and traveled to India in 1974 to further her studies. She is the author of four books on yoga, including the best-selling Power Yoga.