Why Yoga Isn’t Really Yoga: The Trendy Path to Divine Hotness
It’s a trend that can’t be ignored. Yoga’s popularity is undeniable across America. It’s more than just a new, hip form of exercise, with fans that claim its practice grants ‘new, heightened awareness,’ and spiritual progress. Yoga even boasts lending aid in the fight against cancer, helpfulness in alleviating addictions, and healing the mental exhaustion and emotional dilemmas of our stressful American lifestyle. But how much of this is true and how much of it is wishful thinking? When we take on the lotus pose and sit cross-legged, the palms of our hands opened gently on either knee, do we actually engage in heartfelt meditation or are we taking a couple of seconds to snap the new, perfect profile picture? As Americans, our understanding of yoga and what it’s meant for and where it comes from differs according to what we want from it. But what do we actually know of this supposedly “ancient” practice and what can we learn from it, if we take the time to know the original teachings from before its trendy American form?
Easy to consume, yoga has become another marketable commodity. Buy a yoga studio membership, go to class and purchase the proper yoga ‘attire,’ and you’re on your way to becoming a yogi complete with the hot bod and Instagram-able poses to prove to friends that you’re reaching a new level of spirituality. All across the country, attaining yoga “hotness” or a thin contortionist body and cleaner, updated version of hippy happiness is being sold under the pretext of learning the ancient art and meditative form. However, the amount of actual “yoga” in the yoga classes sold across America is pretty miniscule. The ancient texts and the literary background of yoga according to Indian tradition is nearly forgotten as yoga has been refitted and perfected for the American agenda, despite the original practice being around for more than a thousand years before introduction to the West.
There’s no denying that yoga is a great way to slim down, stay stress-free, and through practice, gain the moves necessary to demonstrate the flexibility and strength worthy of gym-rat jealousy. Yoga is known to significantly lower stress levels, and the breathing exercises yoga employs are similar to methods used to combat anxiety. When taught correctly, yoga helps to strengthen core muscles in a way most forms of exercise don’t and core strength prevents back problems. Yoga competitions are springing up, with Nike and other sport companies investing in “yogi” athletes. Some even propose yoga be considered for the Olympics, and each year, the “yoga” poses at competitions get more and more complicated, aiming to impress with displays not unlike that of cirque du soleil contortionists.
Yoga has also been introduced to some public schools as an alternative exercise and fitness program. Debate about what does or doesn’t count as unconstitutional religious indoctrination has occurred as a result, but for the most part, its been accepted as an alternative fitness for kids who otherwise dread P.E. classes. Hospitals offer cancer patients the chance to participate in yoga groups and patients who do often report needing less pain medication for treatment. Certainly, its arrival in America has been a great, new chance for Americans to branch out in how they discuss the relation between physical fitness and mental and emotional well-being. It’s an exercise, a fashion statement, and even a spiritual experimentation, complete with a word bank, or yogi lingo, special only to its American form.
When anyone takes the time to learn the actual practice of yoga from India, practiced for hundreds of years before its arrival in the West, it becomes quite clear that the yoga of America is a new and modern invention. While it does consist of a few elements vaguely connected to the more ancient practice, the larger portion of what it has become is something special to the United States though it might wear a mask of Eastern origin. How we came to take something originally Indian and make it into something else entirely and then still see it as not American is a thing that happens often in our culture. Take for example what we call Chinese food–it’s not a secret that the food served in Chinese restaurants isn’t found in China and is instead a new form of food recreated for American preference. To serve Americans, often other cultural traditions must be changed and re-fitted, and the same goes for yoga.
America’s fast-paced, keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ attitude makes yoga exceptionally attractive. It offers a kind of spirituality that is easy to put down and pick back up again in that it doesn’t require proof of practice outside of the classroom and it doesn’t have a community that holds practitioners accountable. Its feel-goody lingo (“I bow to the divine spark in you”) leaves the yoga student feeling accomplished as if he or she has gained some kind of spiritual truth while simultaneously making headway on conquering those last few, sticky pounds. On top of this, the myth of yoga as being foreign in origin makes it appear exotic and sexy to those that dabble in post-flower child trends, despite the opposite being true.
The yoga practiced by Americans today would hardly be recognizable to the yogis who practiced it in its authentic forms and even took the time to write down how to practice yoga correctly. The tradition of yoga has an exceptionally large history and fortunately, a fair portion of texts exist on the practice throughout its history so we still have access to understanding what yoga was and its development before it reached America. Upon its arrival here the practice was processed and underwent dramatic change so that even the spiritual aspect of the foreign concept becomes more marketable, familiar and applicable to the general American public.
The yoga aspirant can buy advice from contemporary books, take classes, and learn the jargon without sacrificing any part of their acculturated identity. No rigorous initiation rites that might threaten or challenge already set beliefs are required either. It’s so easy to ignore or toss aside the truth of yoga–that it is a set of practices and rituals surrounding a pre-modern Indian cosmology, or an understanding of the universe and our role in it, that is very different from our own. It’s concerns and goals are distinctly different from what most Americans pay money to take yoga classes for. Proof lies in the ancient texts that detail the way these beliefs work. The history of yoga and the extensive literary works that come with it are often poorly represented or forgotten in preference for easy marketability.
What then was the yoga that existed before America’s trendy version of it and does it relate in any recognizable way to our version of it now? The earliest texts about yoga appear way back, from before our year zero. Patanjali is the name associated with one of the most important and monumental works on yoga, called the Yoga Sutras, but disputation as to whether or not Patanjali was one man or many writing under the same name is ever on-going. From around 400 CE, Patanjali’s work is also considered the first of its kind because of the ideas on mental analysis it presents. In fact, the Yoga Sutras‘s concern with human cognitive function and the effect various thought patterns have on our well-being is relevant to modern-day psychology.
The texts associated with Patanjali offer more than just aid in meditation and control over disruptive, unhealthy thought patterns. The texts also allude to the awesome possibilities that come with power over one’s own mind through the heightened yoga practice Patanjali prescribes. Descriptions of the powers include invisibility, levitation, hearing over impossible distances and more. Not unsurprising then are the many myths that surround Patanjali’s name, with some claiming the yogi not to have been a man but in fact an ancient serpent, possessing great wisdom and knowledge. Some folkloric traditions associated with yoga suggest that the “super yogis,” with Patanjali being one of them, have surpassed the limitations of the body, including death. Because of yoga they are said to be able to pass beyond bodies by leaving an occupied body when it tires and choosing a new one to possess, animal or human. In Tantric texts, harnessing the control of ghosts and demons is written as being possible and open-roof temples allow for the comings and goings of Yoginis, the semi-divine consorts of Yogis, who fly “on vehicles of various sorts…through the air under their own power” (White, 204).
Certainly, such myths are fascinating and the ancient, bygone forms of yoga associated with them stimulate the imagination. However, these esoteric and far-fetched examples were by no means ever considered the mainstream of yoga practice in India. Instead, the practice was more applicable to everyday life. Understanding what the word yoga means can help us grasp a deeper sense of what yoga was for the people who practiced it before it reached America. The goals of practicing yoga according to its representation in texts also make a lot more sense with knowledge of the word. The root of the yoga means to “yoke,” which refers to the discipline of “yoking” the body to the mind and the mind to the spirit. This discipline is considered required in everyday life for success in achieving spiritual liberation.
The Bhagavad Gita is the text attributed to mainstream and contemporary Indian understanding of yoga which lists four types of yoga, detailing how to use each type and who should use which type. It has become one of the most important texts associated with a uniform, classical understanding of Hinduism. The four yogas in the Bhagavad Gita are certainly different from the yoga found in America, such as hot yoga, Bikram, or even laughing yoga. Instead, the Gita gives us Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jñana Yoga and lastly, Raja Yoga.
To practice Karma Yoga, the yogi must learn to always, no matter what, do the right thing and take right action. On top of this, the yogi has to remember to never expect any sort of reward for doing the right thing and even if there’s no benefit or return in the end. Those who Karma Yoga is described as good for are people who are always constantly active. Bhakti Yoga is described in the Bhagavad Gita as being a little easier. It’s known as the path of devotion, and the yogi’s job is to commit himself or herself to acts of worship and love for the divine, such as singing to the divine in choir or doing chores at a place of worship. The goal of Bhakti Yoga is to become so enraptured and obsessed with the divine that spiritual liberation is gained through realizing oneness with the divine. Then there is Jñana Yoga, the path of knowledge, which is considered the most difficult path a yogi can choose to pursue. To follow this path, the yogi must excel at knowing any and all sacred texts and other forms of divine knowledge.
Lastly, there is Raja Yoga. Raja Yoga, or royal yoga, is closest to what we recognize as yoga. It combines intense meditative discipline with breathing exercises, renunciation and postures, all aimed at creating the best connection between mind, body and spiritual concentration. The practice of postures used to gain mental and physical control for proper meditation has a name–hatha yoga–which has become recognized and popular with Americans. For some reason, it is this practice of postures that has caught on in the West, despite it being only a small part of the entirety of Raja Yoga’s practice.
Raja Yoga’s introduction to America came during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 where it was held in Chicago (Miller). A year later, Vivekananda “initiated classes in New York on the Yoga school and on Vedanta” and Raja Yoga grew in popularity (Miller, xi). Most interesting of all is that Vivekananda gave hatha yoga very little attention, and stressed that it was not the most important part of yoga, but only a tool, and perhaps even “the least important component of yogic practice” (Miller, xi).
So why is it that hatha yoga became so popular to Americans, when other yogic forms were forgotten or discarded along the way? Because it suited American interest. The health benefits are obviously attractive so it makes sense that an exercise accessible to all sorts of body shapes and fitness levels catches on. Americans that traveled to India in the 1960s brought back parts of yoga and what seemed useful was kept while other aspects, such as complete renunciation and monastic lifestyles, were tossed aside. Original teachings on the goals of yoga according to Indian tradition and text weren’t included, because to become mainstream in American society yoga first had to become irreligious. If yoga seemed like it identified too much with any particular religion or was threateningly foreign, then it wouldn’t have succeeded in being accepted as it has by America today. Just one example of its success, due to its presentation as a practice that is fundamentally irreligious, is the fact that its been allowed in public schools.
Each person that practices yoga can decide how much he or she wants to learn about it and if they want it to be an exercise or a spiritual journey. To become a certified yoga instructor the required course work often includes some aspects of the philosophies behind yoga, but there is little to no reading of texts and philosophies that pertain to anything apart from the physical aspect of yoga. Perhaps the five koshas or three gunas are touched on and the basics of pranayama acknowledged, but these tools deemed essential by the texts in the “yoking” of mind, body and spirit aren’t mentioned in the typical yoga classroom. The reason for this is an obvious one–most people who spend their time and money on yoga wish to develop stronger and more flexible bodies and healthier, calmer minds. They aren’t looking to devote time to learning something that deviates from their modern and fast-paced lifestyle, and instead, are only looking for something that will add to it.
According to the Ishvara Gita, a medieval text that addressed is to the followers of Shiva, Lord of Yoga, a complete devotion to the yogi life includes living alone with no people or other animals, because such isolation is necessary for complete focus of the mind and total renunciation. Not many people choose such a lifestyle, so it makes sense that few people in Western society have any interest in learning about that kind of yoga practice. However, we’ve still missed out by skipping over some of the less-than American practices of yoga. What yoga was versus what it has become are two very different things. The manner in which America adopts aspects of other cultures and reconstructs the cultural significance of practices and traits of other traditions is important to recognize. Acculturation is something America is especially prone to.
Taking from other cultures what we deem appropriate or worthwhile and ignoring or disowning the rest means risking completely missing some of the best, most mind-expanding experiences offered. Correctly understanding traditions opens up more possibilities. After all, why not have four types of yoga such as taught in the Bhagavad Gita rather than only one? Why not learn about how to employ Patanjali’s therapeutic discipline of yoga, meant to restructure thought patterns and probe into releasing painful memories, much like the aim of modern-day psychology? Sadly, instead of these parts of yoga being adopted, what is sellable and superficial is what is most used. It’s not hard to find ‘chakra’ underwear sold in a package of six colors with a chakra symbol on the front of each but finding a yoga class that actually teaches the philosophies behind yoga is more difficult. Such is only one of the bitter examples of the effects of consumerism on yoga as cited in the documentary, Yoga, Inc.
In the American rush to get fit fast, gain the grace of flexibility over night, and present the world with a version of ourselves most evolved in enlightenment and hotness, we often forget true appreciation for the culture that gave us what we now enjoy and benefit from. Trends and marketing strategies often cause ‘forgetfulness’ as they sweep us up into being a part of popular culture and the mainstream. But that doesn’t mean that what’s offered by the ‘trendy’ part of whatever it is that’s being dangled before us is the only good or even the best part of something available. Often, with a little curiosity and research, we find that there’s much more to something than we think there is. Yoga is only one example of many. Our American understanding of yoga becomes small in comparison to the hundreds of traditions and practices surrounding yoga that have been circulating the Indian subcontinent for more than a thousand years now.
Miller, Barbara Stoler. Yoga: Discipline of Freedom: The Yoga Sutra According to Patanjali. New York: Bantam Books, 1995. Print.
White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yogini. Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.
Yoga, Inc. Dir. John Philip. Perf. John Abbott, Baron Baptiste. Bad Dog Tales, 2007. Film.
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