[Insert Latest Yoga Drama Here] – Why the Heart of Yoga Will Never Die

Yoga is a rose that goes by many names.

To some it’s meditation, a practice of quieting the mind. To others it’s fitness, a form of exercise that offers the prospect of doing impressive contortions and acrobatics. To others it’s an act of service, a prayer, a ritual of communion with the soul – both the individual and the Divine.

The possibilities for what yoga can be and the ways it can be practiced are, quite literally, infinite.

But just as a rose by any other name is still a rose, the purpose of every authentic yoga practice is ultimately the same:

To live peacefully, to free one’s Self from suffering, and experience the feeling of joy that arises naturally when we live in harmony and deep connection with ourselves, with other humans, and with the world in general.
THIS is what you might call “the heart of yoga,” though it doesn’t always show up in modern marketing campaigns, or even in a lot of yoga classes these days.
Despite the ever-increasing popularity of yoga around the globe in recent years – or perhaps because of it – there’s been a lot of concern among some yogis that the heart of yoga is becoming lost.
That social media, over-commercialization, and the emergence of certain yoga-branded companies whose business practices don’t always align with yoga’s code of ethics have stolen, or even killed, the heart of yoga.
This is not the first time such concerns have been raised.
Ever since yoga came to the West, and probably long before that, its reputation and popularity have gone through several periods of decline as a result of various scandals at the hands of some of its most eminent teachers.
Most recently, the yoga world has seen trouble come in the form of a very public feud between Kino MacGregor, a popular teacher with a huge social media following, and Alo Yoga, a clothing company that has become the “it” brand among many yogis around the globe.
The feud, which MacGregor herself has called “a battle for the spiritual heart of yoga” has pitted her and her followers against Alo and their supporters, ironically creating a fairly massive amount of antagonism within a community that is ostensibly devoted to the cultivation of inner peace.
Whether the fallout from this trouble will lead to yet another decline in yoga’s reputation and popularity remains to be seen. But whether it does or it doesn’t, as always, the heart of yoga will go on.
And the reason it will go on is because of something else that virtually every modern school of yoga has in common, namely the influence of the Yoga Sutras.
Compiled some 1500 years ago by the great Indian sage Patañjali, the Sutras describe what yoga is and what happens when one practices it properly – freedom from suffering and the experience of natural joy, as described above.
Comprised of 196 aphorisms and separated into four chapters, known as padas, the Sutras also describe how to practice yoga, and while some of the instructions are quite mysterious and difficult to decipher, the 33rd sutra of the first pada is very clear.


Sutra 1.33 lists four virtues, known as the bramavihara, that are considered the basic practice of yoga. They are:

  1. Maitri: Friendliness toward those who are kind.
  2. Karuna: Compassion for those who are suffering.
  3. Mudita: Joy for those who are succeeding at doing good works.
  4. Upeksha: Remaining impartial to the faults and imperfections of others.

It’s interesting to note that nowhere in this “basic practice” does it say anything about Down Dogs, deep breathing, flexibility, strength, balance, nice abs, handstands, tight-fitting leggings, popular Instagram accounts or any of the other things most people think of when they think of yoga.
Instead, this sutra outlines a direct path to understanding and embodying the heart of yoga simply by examining our attitudes toward and interactions with others.
Of course, mastering the bramavihara is no easy task, so if our goal is really to free ourselves from suffering and truly experience the heart of yoga (as opposed to just understanding it intellectually), it’s worth taking a closer look at the virtues themselves.

1. Maitri

The first one is the least difficult to master. When others are kind, it’s easy for most people to be friendly toward them. If you struggle with this, well, that’s ok. That’s what practice is for.

2. Karuna

The second one can be a little more challenging, especially when other people’s suffering causes pain or inconvenience in our own lives. But for the most part we’re wired to feel compassion, so as long as we don’t take things personally and block it off when it comes up, it flows naturally.

3. Mudita

The third virtue can also be challenging, particularly when someone is succeeding at something we wish we were succeeding at. Or when someone else seems to be living the dream while we’re stuck in a rut. But again, as long as we don’t make things personal, it’s not too difficult to feel joy for people who are doing well. We just have to open our hearts a little.

4. Upeksha

The last one is the kicker. The black belt of spiritual practice, according to renowned teacher Donna Farhi. No doubt about it: Remaining impartial to the faults and imperfections of others is a tall order. But it’s not impossible. And more importantly, it’s essential to the heart of yoga.
It’s worth noting that it doesn’t ask us to remain indifferent. Rather it encourages us to remain impartial. In other words, non-judgmental.

Unpacking the Meaning of Bramavihara a Bit Deeper

Ultimately, Sutra 1.33 is asking us to consider – if not understand – that despite our differences in race, age, religion, gender, political beliefs and other ideologies – despite everything that separates us, we are still connected through the mere fact of being human.
It asks us to recognize that regardless of these differences, they are still – at least in the spiritual sense – our brothers and sisters, and they are on a journey the same as us.
But even then we are encouraged not to judge, because even though our judgments may feel “right”, they will ultimately only contribute to our own suffering by focusing on what divides us rather than what connects us.
Only acceptance and forgiveness can free us. And as we all know, many things can be extremely difficult to accept, let alone forgive. That’s why it’s the black belt.

The Takeaway

So, if in your journeys you should happen upon anyone who is concerned about the heart of yoga becoming lost, you can assure them that the heart of yoga is alive and well, that no individual or company can ever steal or kill it.
Caring for the heart of yoga means not only studying these teachings, but also putting them into practice. It requires both – just like making a smoothie requires first putting the ingredients in a blender, then turning it on.
Study without practice is like gathering the ingredients without turning on the blender, and practice without study is like turning on an empty blender. Either way, no smoothie.
And if in your journey you should find yourself caring about the heart of yoga, or wanting to care more for it, perhaps consider starting with the bramavihara, and see if you can’t make yoga a little more alive in your own heart.
Namaste, and good luck!

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Brent Laffoon

Brent Laffoon is the lead teacher trainer for Pure Yoga and Equinox sports clubs in Southern California. When he's not leading trainings or teaching his regular classes in Los Angeles, he can usually be found leading epically fun yoga-infused travel adventures all over the world.

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