What yoga is

Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell

You just need body and breath to do yoga

After studying and practicing yoga for about 15 years, predominantly in Canada but also in India, I had the pleasurable experience of listening to a very outspoken yoga teacher pierce the veil of western illusions about yoga. He basically said the emperor has no lululemons.

I don’t know what it was like for others in the room, but listening to Mark Whitwell at the Yoga Festival of Toronto in August, 2008, was, for me, a sound for sore ears. I am at a point in my yoga journey when I want to try and understand the original intentions of yoga – without the overlay of western thinking, ideas and culture.

If you want to do yoga to look good in tight, black stretchy pants that dip just below the tattoo of another culture’s sacred symbols on your sacrum, it’s a free country. Fill your boots. In fact, for many – including me – passing through the “fashion” stage of yoga can be a stop on your way to a greater understanding of yoga.

But attempting to achieve some kind of yoga ideal — as seen on the cover of Yoga Journal! — is not yoga. And it’s high time that some people are starting to speak up and to set the record straight. I think we in the west have been doing yoga long enough for some sense of maturity to set in.

Patanjali, mural in Kerala

Patanjali, mural in Kerala

Yoga is not a systematic, linear process intended to get you somewhere. A tighter butt. Your leg behind your ear. Closer to god. That is western dualistic thinking. Yoga comes from an ancient non-dualist tradition.

I like the way Mark Whitwell put it: “Yoga is intimate participation in the given reality.” It’s an interior process. A kind of prayer. You spend time every day consciously breathing into your body and experiencing an intimate relationship with the marvel that is you. The manifestation of “extreme intelligence,” as Mark puts it.

Yoga is Sanskrit for union or yoke. It means to link, to connect. It is the experience of connecting to yourself and the nurturing source reality that you cannot be separated from.

Mark encourages people to do a minimum of seven minutes of yoga alone in their room every day. “Do your yoga. Naturally, actually and not obsessively,” he advises. Make a commitment. See what happens.

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell

I’ve been doing it. And I follow Joseph Campbell’s advice. He said do your spiritual work, your rituals or whatever, and then comb your hair and leave your room. In other words, it’s a personal experience. It’s YOUR experience. Your truth is in your skin. Yoga gives you the opportunity to experience your truth.

“Yoga is the embrace of ordinary reality,” Mark said. “It’s the celebration of intimacy and attachment.” I love that he said that. Maybe that’s what I really needed to hear. Maybe that’s what we all need to hear.

You don’t have to look like a yoga celebrity. You don’t need brand name outfits. You don’t need a tattoo. You just need seven minutes, your breath, body and movement.

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15 Responses to What yoga is

  1. linda September 2, 2009 at 4:27 am #

    love Mark!

  2. Lamp of Joy September 25, 2009 at 2:04 am #

    I love what Mark has to say. Saw him at Being Yoga conference. He was awsome. Thanks for writing this. Nameste’

  3. Sherrie May 21, 2010 at 11:26 am #

    fantastic outlook – hear hear!

  4. Christa March 12, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    I like your comments, but I’m a bit confused about your disparagement of Yoga Journal. What would you have them put on their cover? More old gurus? Well, ask them to and they might! They do need to market the magazine, too, and I have not been offended by any of their pictures. There is nothing wrong with striving to ideals, or even acknowledging ideals, in a healthy way.

    I have found Yoga Journal online to be a very great and extensive source of the exact same kind of wisdom you share here.

    You probably do, too, and it was just a stray comment. I have learned through my own yoga teaching journey that not all people who look good are bad people. We need to remember that too. The shallow ones exist, but some who look great are also very deep and worthy teachers.

  5. Mariellen March 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Hi @Christa, thanks for your comment. I don’t think I actually disparaged Yoga Journal — if you read what I wrote: “But attempting to achieve some kind of yoga ideal — as seen on the cover of Yoga Journal! — is not yoga.” You should have heard Mark. He said, “The cover of Yoga Journal is soft-core porn.”

    I am sure there are many people who are inspired by Yoga Journal. And I was not intending in this post to judge Yoga Journal.

    I was simply trying to capture Mark’s teachings and express what I think is the essence of yoga — which is often lost in the western, commercialized, competitive version.

    Personally, my entire understanding and outlook on yoga was completely transformed by studying in India. I don’t look at western yoga the same way anymore.

  6. babita March 16, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    i just ran across your blog while on my own search of becoming a photographer & writer. and i have never read the words a westerner who “gets” india as much as you. the fact you understand & talk about the differences of indian yoga vs western yoga says it all!

    after taking way too many westernized yoga classes with tons of different teachers, ergo philosophies, i’ve discovered my own yoga. stretching & meditating every morning as soon as i wake up. as in on my bed before my feet even touch the ground.

    it’s easier to get the true connection when you cut out the middleman.

  7. Mariellen March 17, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    Wow, thanks Babita, I can’t think of a better compliment.

    I also think you hit on the essence of yoga when you say, “it’s easier to get the true connection when you cut out the middleman.” My understanding is, that’s the whole point of yoga.

  8. Colleen Friesen April 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I loved especially,
    “It’s an interior process. A kind of prayer. You spend time every day consciously breathing into your body and experiencing an intimate relationship with the marvel that is you.”

    Beautiful. I couldn’t agree with you more…though I do love my Lululemon pants(anything that passes the aesthetic/comfort/functionality/long-wearing test is something I like to wear).

    Michele Peterson sent me over and I’m so glad she did. Anyone who quotes Joseph Campbell has got my attention. Looking forward to visiting here often.


  9. Jay Manick April 22, 2011 at 10:16 am #


    Great Outlook ! Im an Indian, migrated to Canada, and now in Dubai trying to emulate what they call an “Urban Yogi”. But your fascination for Yoga, India, its culture and its philosophy humbles me completely.

    ” A kind of prayer…experiencing an intimate relationship with the marvel that is you” Intense & profound at the same time!

    Someday I hope to get there with my attempts at ” Silence & Stillness” and your blogs keep nudging me closer.

    Keep writing !

  10. Mariellen April 23, 2011 at 4:02 am #

    Hi Colleen, Hi Jay, thanks for your comments. It’s wonderful to see that many people are looking beyond the limited western version of yoga, with its emphasis on asana practice — such a small, small part of what yoga is.

    Colleen, I consider Joseph Campbell to be my first real teacher, and still one of the most important.

  11. jamie May 19, 2011 at 5:07 am #

    @Mariellen, Love your article! I’ve been doing yoga since 1976 when I was 13 and can relate to what you are saying. I recently discovered Mark Whitwell and I find his teaching so refreshing and affirming, exactly what I needed to hear. Re: Yoga Journal, to which I subscribe and enjoy, I have to chuckle because I can definitely see where one could call the cover “soft core porn” from a tantric perspective (and I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing). My problem with the Journal is that it’s full of yoga vacations, retreats, clothing and gear that I cannot afford, and some poses that despite 35 years of practice I still cannot do and cause me to momentarily feel insecure as a yogini and a teacher, until I remember what yoga really is, which is my intimacy with the Divine.

  12. Mariellen May 19, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    Oh, nicely said, Jamie: “my intimacy with the divine.” That’s what yoga is for me too.

  13. jamie May 21, 2011 at 2:32 am #

    Mariellen, awesome! I am thinking about creating an online “sangha,” maybe on Facebook, where people who are into this yogic approach (along the lines of what Mark is saying and as you have discussed above) can hang out, share their stories and inspire each other. Would you be interested in something like this? Namaste.


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