Here's an example I used in class to illustrate this question: Suppose I decide tomorrow that I don't want to be a philosophy teacher anymore. As interesting as talking with students about philosophy can be, I decide that ultimately, teaching philosophy in a university enables me to have only a very limited impact on the lives of people and on society as a whole. I want to do something else that will enable me to have a much more direct impact on people's lives, that will inspire them in a much more direct way. I decide that the best way to do this is to become an NBA star. Yes, you heard it right; NBA as in National Basketball Association. I decide that nobody could fail to take notice of a severely shortsighted, five-foot-eight Chinese guy who is nevertheless able to dunk. And once people take notice of me, they will get curious about how I got to be in the NBA, and will want to interview me on all kinds of late-night TV shows (Larry King, Jay Leno, etc.). And then I will be able to unleash my inspirational words and teachings on the public. Since way more Americans watch TV than take philosophy classes, I figure that if I can get to this position of great eminence, I will be able to make many friends, gain many fans, and influence and positively inspire the lives of millions. Great idea, no?
But of course, there is a very practical problem: How am I supposed to transform this five-foot-eight Chinese body--a body which, I may add, has no aptitude whatsoever for ball games--into a high-jumping, basketball-dribbling-and-dunking-NBA-star body? But well, this is a philosophy thought experiment, and in philosophy thought experiments, money is never an issue. Which means that, at least in theory, I can hire the best basketball coaches in the country and spend all my waking hours training until I acquire the requisite athletic abilities and the basketball skills. Which means that, at least in theory, only time and a shitload of training stands between me and the athletic prowess and basketball skills of Michael Jordan.
Can you see the resemblance between this
[Image taken from here]
But here's the problem: Even if I succeed in becoming the greatest basketball sensation since Michael Jordan, and go on to inspire millions on Larry King with my philosophical abilities (yes, a philosophical basketball star. Think about that :-)), it will still be questionable whether I will have done anything really significant. After all, it can be argued, my breaking out of my present mode of existence (being a philosophy professor) and becoming a basketball star, as radical as this may seem, is still very much an action that is conditioned by the cultural and social environment of which I am a part. After all, if I did not live in this time and age and in this part of the world, it would never even have occurred to me to want to become an NBA star. Indeed, I probably got the very idea of becoming an NBA star from watching NBA stars on TV. Which means that even my radical act of reinventing myself has its roots ultimately in mass media, which is, of course, the biggest purveyor of social and cultural norms in contemporary society. So here's the question: If even this act of radically reinventing myself is ultimately an act that is conditioned by social and cultural norms, and therefore not genuinely free, is there any action we can take that is truly free? Right now, I don't have a definite answer to this question, although I'm leaning more and more towards "no."
What has any of this to do with yoga? You may be wondering. Well, although we don't usually couch it in these terms, what we ultimately after in yoga practice is also freedom. Whatever form of yoga we practice, the ultimate goal is moksha, or liberation from the chains of samskara, or the karmic grooves that have defined and bound our actions thus far.
But here we are in a somewhat similar predicament as my NBA-star-wannabe alter-ego: None of us would have encountered yoga if we did not live in the time and place that we do now. This is true whether you first encountered yoga by seeing it on TV, through the introduction of a yoga-practicing friend, or by randomly picking up a copy of Yoga Journal on some newsstand somewhere. You may argue that your yoga practice today and your present understanding of it has evolved to the point where it has transcended these humble beginnings. Fair enough. But even if this is true, it still remains the case that you would probably never have encountered yoga if it weren't for the fact that you live in this culture and society with its various norms and values. Even if you are one of the relatively few people who first started doing yoga on some hippie commune somewhere, and you now practice some obscure and highly esoteric form of yoga that is not accessible to mainstream society, it still remains true that you are a member of a subculture, and insofar as all subcultures originally arose as reactions to a perceived establishment or "mainstream culture", you are still, by extension, a product of the norms and values of this time and age. In other words, we are very much limited and conditioned beings. How, then, can we be truly free?