What do the public see 'yoga' as? Whilst I've not surveyed this, I have a pretty damn good idea judging by the number of times I've heard 'I can't touch my toes so I can't do yoga'. What does this say? Firstly it implies it's about flexibility/mobility and secondly that it's the body. Wrong(ish) and wrong!
I wrote a while back a piece how yoga is more than āsana. Well I wasn't wrong, but perhaps I got the extent of things wrong. If we think about the great teachers of yoga and spirituality, they hardly ever mention any form of 'physical exercise'. In fact, many of the ones who put the body to the forefront, have since been disgraced and cannot be regarded as spiritual teachers.
This is not to say that people don't need a physical practice. I would suggest that an awful lot of society are disembodied- that is they cannot feel much of what goes on in there. There are so many reasons for this- from trainers to trauma and a myriad in between. So for the majority of people there needs to be a return to the body first and foremost.
This graphic by Ian Alexander (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75404659) shows a timeline of the number of 'positions' or āsanas described in yoga texts.
As we can see, what started out as no mention became 900. I would suggest that it is now an infinite number, with many on social media saying anything can be yogāsana. These poses may (or may not) offer numerous benefits to the body and mind, but I am going to offer a differing thought. The more disembodied society has become/is the greater the number of poses have been offered. Consciously or unconsciously, we know we need to return to the body first of all. If you look at the rise of poses from LoY (Light on Yoga) to DM (Dharma Mittra), this is where yoga become popular in the west.
When most of these shapes require you to be a circus performer then there is no wonder people worry about whether they can touch their toes. Then this is nearly all that is photographed and depicted across marketing and social media, so is it surprising people think it's all about the body, and maybe relaxation too.
Seemingly, the 'pop yoga' (popular forms of yoga, e.g. vinyasa, ashtanga etc) is actually helping people become embodied beings; the same as beings would've been by default all those years ago when no postures were mentioned. So really it is just the 'start' of the journey [reality is there is no beginning or end on the path of yoga, but for communications sake we won't go there right now].
If this is what we teach or practice, then that's wonderful- it really is necessary. It is serving great purpose in getting people to be able to feel. It's also very likely that there will be things felt which you don't want to be aware of. I can remember first feeling deeply and thinking my body was broken. This all needs to be felt to be healed though!
The thing is, you can't see yoga. To clarify that point, you can see it in the way that someone is, in their actions and inactions, but not something that can be photographed glamourously. It is an inner practice which can give outer results. Part of the reason I believe it's become what we see today is that it has to be sold to you. I can't make my insides look sexy. Even a MRI brain scan isn't really going to sell it. Plus, you wouldn't have any accessories to buy. Unfortunately, this need to sell is limiting us on the path of yoga! It limits the teachers on the path and it limits the students as they become 'stuck', reinforcing all the aspects of ourselves that yoga is trying to remove- attainment, identity, desires etc.
Does this need fixing? No. I am just trying to raise awareness that yoga's a whole lot more. I firmly believe that those that are destined to find their way along the path will find that way. It's unfortunate in a way that many who I have noticed are 'meant' for that path don't actually begin the path due to seeing this weird westernised concept of what yoga is- there is an inner knowing that it isn't quite right and so never started. But those too will find their way to the yoga for them!
Yes yoga is about the body, but not in a way that is often taught here. Once we feel safe in our body, and can fully feel, the body becomes a sensory device. The mind rests in awareness, of all, including what we call the body. But this body is not us in any way. So eventually, how can you even touch your toes? They are not 'yours'. The nature of non-dual reality is there is no separation between subject (I) and object (everything seemingly 'outside' of I). You are actually always 'touching your toes'. The 'body' merges with all, simply being sensations in our awareness. It has no edges. The 'body' needs to feel spaciousness in order to realise and experience this, which might be where the confusion with flexibility/mobility came about. There's a huge difference though.
At present, the majority of yoga classes are often reinforcing the notion of 'the body' being ours and a separate entity. In time, this can become an obstacle on the path, and possibly limiting us. You are a limitless being!!!
Let me repeat that for you...YOU ARE A LIMITLESS BEING!
If you fancy trying something a little bit different, and maybe experiencing your limitless nature, here is a 'yoga class' for you to try:
(Please let me reiterate that these words are not saying 'right yoga'/'wrong yoga'; 'good yoga'/'bad yoga'; 'better yoga'/'worse yoga'; 'more yoga'/'less yoga'. It is to point towards a suggestion that there is a whole lot we are missing out on)