visions of yoga: a work in progress

Traci M. Childress seeks the wisdom of twelve contemporary yoga visionaries as she investigates the essence of yoga.

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“When we try to answer what the essence of yoga is we have already lost it or strayed from it,” says Chip Hartranft, author of a recent translation of the Yoga Sutras. “[The essence] isn’t something that resides in a historical period or in a culture or in a gender or in a group of people or in a language. It has nothing to do with a language or Sanskrit; it’s something that’s universally human. It’s a universal human practice.”

Yoga may be universal, but more and more we see it being shaped by cultural and consumer forces in the West. Recent years have seen an explosion of hybrid and specialty yoga classes such as yolates, yoga and weight training, and yoga for seniors. This is partially a result of the need for specialization due to the high number of trained teachers. With the explosion of teacher training programs over the last five years, full-time teachers are challenged to support themselves in what is a competitive and saturated market. Having spent two years trying to make it as a full-time teacher, I can relate to both the desire to make yoga the core of one’s life and the challenge of manifesting that. It is a commercial context and it brings with it the obvious challenges: competition, the need for marketing savvy, and, often, the need for other sources of income.

...Despite the potential trappings of some of the current cultural nuances of the practice, the essence reveals itself in people’s lives and practices. What appear to be trappings may even bring people to the practice. Swami Radhananda, ascent columnist and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram, points out one positive thing about the proliferation of yoga in its many forms in our society today: “It gives us more chances to brush up against yoga. All the myriad forms have still been inspired by the essential teachings of a spiritual tradition, and that essence is still available to us if we search it out. People have to start somewhere.”

It seems clear that yoga is powerful, cumulative and transformative. There is an essential nature in the practice that connects us to something larger than ourselves. But I am still curious: What is this essence? Where does it reside and how do we express it?

What value should be placed on the historical and cultural roots of this practice? Do we need to travel to India, study Sanskrit, know Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras? Has the essence changed as the teachers and teaching have come to the West?


Traci M. Childress is a dedicated teacher and yoga practitioner, a writer, and a program coordinator at Omega Institute in the Hudson Valley, NY. She believes that the practice of yoga should be made accessible to all people and all bodies.


Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life