Yoga is one of the most highly valued commodities in the Bay Area, even though it’s not a physical thing. Fifty years ago, aside from music and sports, there was no collective form of bodily expression in the United States. Very few could have foreseen that an ancient Indian philosophical system could sell, in small, short doses, to so many people.

It has become an era of Yoga. When one searches “Yoga Oakland” on Yelp, one faces over nine hundred pages of results.

So, then, what is Yoga?

Branded Yoga in the United States has become a therapeutic system focused on the body. When one “does yoga” in the Bay Area, it means something vaguely spiritual, even if one is an atheist. Yoga, while it does make your most external appearance more pleasant, is intended for spiritual growth, a sense of compassion that overcomes the stress of the daily urban life, that allows oneself to separate from the fluctuations of the material body and meditate on transcendental knowledge.

In a Huffington Post article, blogger Dr. Eva Norlyk Smith writes, “It is easy to get caught up in externalized efforts to strike the perfect yoga pose and emphasize outer form over inner experience.” The term “inner experience” is ambiguous and mysterious, which makes the reader want to continue reading the article. In the dialogue that follows, Oakland yoga figure Rodney Yee (bestselling creator of a series of DVDs) wanted “to emphasize that the practice should illuminate what is unfolding in the present moment, not just what we desire to unfold” and he adds that

We see people who are incredibly healthy and physically fit and who have amazing range of motion, but they’re not actually piercing the essence of yoga, because they’re not coordinating the breath, the mind, the body and feeling the present moment unfold. They’re striving, in some ways, for something that they only desire for. You could say it’s the difference between a practice that touches the essence of yoga, versus something that’s hung up in the fad of yoga, which emphasizes the outward form over the inner experience.

So if yoga is not necessarily about health and physical fitness, what is he talking about? For decades, I never thought to ask this question.

Timothy Burgin, of YogaBasics.com, uses the word “inward” in describing the yoga process. On the surface, he says, we obtain a good diet, Annamaya Kosha. In Sanskrit, “anna” means food and “maya” the idea of the body. Each Kosha, of which there are Five, is an inward movement, toward inner experience rather than outer form.

After Annamaya Kosha is taken care of, one works on the level of Pranamaya Kosha, or the handling of physical energy moving though the material body. One orients the physical energy towards activities which emphasize service: for example, to one’s children, family, vocation, religion, etc.

Then one is able to experience Manamaya Kosha, the plane of mental thoughts, emotional feelings, and rational processes.

Finally, when one has examined one’s mental thoughts, emotional feelings and rational processes fully, one proceeds to Vijnanamaya Kosha, the stage of wisdom, intuition, witness consciousness and subtlety. This is what Marcel Proust called the “subtle body,” often also referred to as the soul.

If you are a being operating mainly from wisdom and intuition, you have transcended attachment to the material world. You then have recognized the true nature of self. At this point there are many Indian philosophies of the eternal, innermost self, featuring Siva, Vishnu, and Brahma, the Lords of destruction, maintenance and creation. They are each, in different ways, worshippers of both male and female energies, and there are those who worship female energy itself, Shakti. There are Indian temples all over the bay area which practice worship in the ancient traditions, which in many cases resemble those of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All organized religions may have developed from Yoga.

But even if one has no interest in religion, every Californian should study Yoga. It is the most important practice in one’s life. Why?

David Pettit of CNN writes, in “Why is California ‘Worst?'” that most pollution comes from automobiles, which is why there is high pollution in Los Angeles, despite high industrial regulation. The majority of pollution here is caused by drivers.

“The ozone smog that comes from this chemical stew burns the eyes,” he adds, “makes breathing painful and can cause chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and can worsen asthma. Children are at greatest risk from exposure because their lungs are still developing, and they are more likely to be active outdoors when ozone levels are high.”

Sending children to sports as a way to give them discipline is a good one, but it is difficult to balance with an urban environment.

The philosophy of Yoga teaches that physical fitness is not as important as the ability to breathe. Every yoga class involves the regulated use of the energy of breathing, and often other energies including the chanting of mantra. Breathing is the foundational form of meditation: if one’s breath is disturbed, one’s thinking is disturbed, and each of the Koshas in turn.

It is, in a way, our environmental debt to ourselves to study yoga: it is the price of driving our cars. The major 20th-Century architect Louis Kahn had a radical ambition, to create a city without cars, but it was stopped at every turn by city authorities. Maybe we should give his ideas a shot.

 

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
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