The commercialization of yoga has, in many instances, led to separation from the yogic philosophy at the root of the practice, and an overemphasis on the physical aspect. For yoga teacher and Yoga Unify Founding Circle Member Ricky Tran, there is no real way to separate asana from philosophy—though he does believe that alternative pathways to the practice are important. Yoga Unify is working to preserve the tradition of yoga, and by doing so, steward its forward evolution. To help us, and to share your ideas, join us in the Founding Circle!
by Lisette Cheresson
Ricky Tran found yoga during recovery from a methamphetamine addiction. He had set a New Year’s resolution to better his physical health, and took a free Power Yoga class in his neighborhood. The physical exertion was exactly what he was looking for, because at that point, Ricky says, he didn’t yet understand that his addiction and depression weren’t solely physical. “My shirt was completely soaked in sweat,” he recalls, “and I was like, yeah! All the drugs are coming out of my body. I was hooked.”
It wasn’t long before the philosophical teachings of yoga seeped into Ricky’s mind as soakingly as sweat did his shirt. His first teacher was Suze Curtis, who mentored Ricky and allowed him to shadow her during classes. In this way, Ricky says, his teaching journey began a bit more traditionally than with a typical 200-hour certification. Suze Curtis encouraged him to seek other teachers—and he did, scouring the web for information from leaders from David Williams to Dharma Mittra. Ricky discovered Srivatsa Ramaswami (who had studied directly with Krishnamacharya, one of the founders of modern yoga, for 33 years) and decided to save up for the training.
“It was my first real certification,” he says. “I got my blessing from Ramaswami, and went back and saw him for seven years. Every summer I’d study the Yoga Sutras word-for-word, seven times with him.” It was the beginning of an even deeper journey with yoga that would become Ricky’s life work.
Is it yoga without philosophy?
Though Ricky didn’t get it at first, each of those years that he was studying directly with Ramaswami revealed something new. It was his second year that Ricky “started experiencing some of the things they were talking about. By the third year with him, it hit me. It was like flashes of enlightenment,” he says, “like, wow! I get it. No other teacher that I knew was teaching at that level. People were teaching posture classes or philosophy classes, but there wasn’t that integration.”
According to Krishnamacharya, “practice without knowledge is blind.” Ricky agrees. Yet he acknowledges that not every teacher needs to teach Sanskrit to have elements of yoga theory in their teaching. He recalls his first teacher, noting that while “she was more of a motivational bodybuilder-type of person who found yoga, she taught the practice of listening and being true to oneself.” It’s similar to what the Sutras teach about knowing who you truly are, recognizing that you’re spirit, mind, body, and breath.
Ricky says that in this way, there can be a wider definition of what makes yoga yoga, beyond ancient texts and theory. “There’s the idea of getting over the ego, and the idea of union with something greater than oneself,” says Ricky, and this can apply to all different types of yoga, in the traditions of karma, bhakti, jnana, or raja. “They’re all about spiritual union and/or total concentration,” says Ricky. “For example, the Bhagavad Gita describes yoga as skill in action. That’s karma yoga. If you do something skillfully without attachment to the reward of your action, that’s yoga. You’re practicing selflessly, getting over your own ego, and calming your mind.”
But philosophy isn’t everything.
That isn’t to say, however, that Ricky believes that something shouldn’t be called yoga, just because it doesn’t ladder up to this idea. “From an academic and a philosophical standpoint, I can argue that no, it’s not yoga unless this and this is happening,” he says, “but I can also argue that practicing yoga postures or even doing an exercise that looks like yoga can also lead to yoga.” He acknowledges that there are styles out there that don’t even look like yoga at this point—with loud club music and lights, for example—but that these styles may bring new practitioners to the practice.
For Ricky, defining something as “yoga” all depends on the intention of the teacher. “Yoga has nothing to do with what you’re doing. It has everything to do with how you’re doing it,” he says. “If you’re concentrating and you’re breathing consciously, then absolutely it can be yoga—or at least the meditative aspect of yoga.” It just may not be the spiritual union of yoga—and that’s up to both the teacher and the student to decide.
There are certainly pitfalls to this idea in the modern yoga industry, but, as Ricky acknowledges, there will be pitfalls in any human activity involving humans. He believes that the fewer distractions that are in a practitioner’s experience, the less pitfalls there will be. He recommends always remembering to show up without expectations, and with true intention in order to circumnavigate them.
Goals for the community’s future
Ricky believes that the issue of commercialization can be improved by offering more yogis pathways to lifelong learning, and one-on-one transmission, like he had to start his yoga journey. “I’m meeting people where they’re at, and giving them what they need,” says Ricky of his overarching mission. “It’s all in the name of keeping the tradition of yoga alive. By the grace of one’s guru or by the grace of God, this is eternal, classical knowledge.”
Ricky Tran is a Yoga Unify Founding Circle Member. To join Ricky—and leaders like him—in the Founding Circle, click here. We can’t wait for you to be a part of what we’re building.