What’s in a name?

About 10 years ago I legally changed my name to Chetana, a spiritual name I had been given by a Tantrik nun, meaning consciousness. I found it harder being called one thing by some of the people in my life (co-workers, family members and in other bureaucratic matters), and another among yoga teachers and yoga friends. I had just moved to Ottawa when I legally took the name Chetana, so it was easy enough to assume it in all areas of my life. I have found since that a name is powerful. It can change how people relate to us, if it is foreign or hard to pronounce for example. I have seen that it is easier for people to take on positions of authority if they have certain titles or designations. Labels are to a certain degree how we initially get acquainted with something or someone. A spiritual name is like a mantra – as people call us by that name, especially when it is freshly given, it is a little wake up call, a reminder of our deeper essence, what our teacher saw in us. It can help to give us a glimpse beyond the personality, who-we-think-we-are, in those moments of heightened noticing.

Through Yoga, many of us have had the experience in meditation of going into a pre-verbal state in which we experience the nature of objects without describing or naming. Adopting a spiritual name can for a time be akin to this cutting through the limitations of who we think we are. But this is not permanent; perhaps this is why sannyasis often get new spiritual names as they receive different initiations. As a tool for seeing everything from a different perspective.

The trap is perhaps thinking that those layers of identity we develop over the years are unhelpful, or are the not-us. My feeling at this point is that they are part of the multiplicity of who we are. People tend to say things like, “I’m this way, or I’m that way”. One of the most helpful things for me has been accepting the multiplicity of who I am: seeker, writer, traveller, linguist, mother. Acceptance of ourselves seems to come not from reducing who we are to a single thing, but rather by expanding our view to accommodate and embrace all that we are. The true identity is not the reduced, single-minded, focussed spiritualist, but rather, all the layers of personality and that which is beyond. Our identity as a spiritual seeker, or mystic is not the ‘true’ identity, but simply one more aspect of our personality, albeit perhaps one that is attractive to us. Multiplicity is contained in wholeness. The expansive, all-we-are is what I feel I get in touch with when I drop back into a state of meditation, whether seated, or after savasana, or on a long nature walk. It is all the names I call myself and more – so, I can sense it in that pre-verbal state, but there is no name large enough for it.

In my tangential way, I have been trying to write about what we call yoga. There are many names, and many ways to describe yoga and the various aspects of the tradition. It is not that one is the true yoga, or the true name, but that they are all part of a description. To describe the whole of it in one name seems impossible. The names that have endured or come close to this all seem to describe this almost un-namable vastness. Plain ‘Yoga’, union. Sanatana Dharma, the eternal way. Om.

That said, for us as teachers, or schools, or lineages which practice a certain aspect of the tradition more than others, names can be useful — in particular if they clearly represent what they are intended to label. This is why a teacher’s name can be a very effective label for a particular way of practicing yoga. Then all that behoves the student or reader/listener is to know and understand which particular practices or approach to yoga that teacher emphasized in his/her teaching. The limitation of these appellations seems to be the understanding that yoga schools are invariably a part of a larger tradition, which has been diverse almost since its inception. No one school has a claim to THE yoga. Where names become extremely problematic is when the name of a school of yoga is identical to name of a major branch of the tradition, such as Kundalini Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga. People with limited exposure to yoga history and philosophy often misunderstand that this school is the only one teaching that branch of yoga, or that they are one and the same, or the only one with the authority or direct transmission of that branch of yoga. Using such a name can appear to be an inappropriate claim on knowledge.

We didn’t used to have any particular name for our approach to teaching yoga or teacher training. But as I mentioned above, names can be helpful. They help us to identify our pedagogy (approach to teaching). Having reflected on our approach to teaching and continuing to do so, is in my view absolutely essential for every teacher/facilitator. Not having one word to encapsulate what we were doing, meant that others either had trouble describing it, or described it as something much reduced. In the same way that the word Hatha Yoga has come to mean only asana, when we use the word yoga, it has come to mean only asana. I have heard it aptly said that nowadays when people hear the word Buddism they think of meditation, and when they hear Yoga they think of asana. One of the unique things about Yoga is that it can be used as a wellness modality that includes movement. But, it was and is very important to us that people know that one of our main aims is to give people access to diverse practices in the yoga tradition: mantra, pranayama, visualization, philosophical aphorisms, yantra, ritual, meditation, and Ayurvedic understanding of the elements and balanced living, as well as asana. So, we chose to name and describe our approach for people as Akhanda Yoga, or Akhanda (holistic) Yoga. What we like about this is that while it helps people to understand a bit about the type of class environment, process and practices, it also refers to that indescribably vast essence of what yoga helps us to experience: wholeness.

Filed under: Yoga, Yoga teaching methodology