Some say yoga has lost touch with its roots, its history, even its soul. A couple of years ago, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) launched their “Take Back Yoga” movement. Their comments include:
“The popularity of yoga continues to skyrocket in the Western world as yoga studios become as prevalent as Starbucks and the likes of Lululemon find continued success in the mass marketing of $108 form enhancing yoga pants.”
Ouch! Let’s be honest, in the U.S. yoga has become diluted and shallow and in keeping with all other aspects of consumerism in America, not unlike religion with its devout practicing at least 12 major ideologies (or 22 if you want count a few others like Zoroastrianism and Scientology). The problem is that, “Hinduism carries too much baggage,” claimed a major yoga magazine.
“I resent that! Yoga is an ancient form of healing and health”.
Actually, no. The word yoga was first mentioned in the oldest sacred texts, the Rig Vedas a collection of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals to be used by the Vedic priests. However, the asana was rarely, if ever, the primary feature of the significant yoga traditions in India. Postures such as those we know today were typically among the auxiliary practices of yoga systems (particularly in hatha yoga), but they were not the dominant component. They were subordinate to other practices like Pranayama (expansion of the vital energy by means of breath), dharana (focus, or placement of the mental faculty), and nada (sound), and did not have health and fitness as their chief aim. Eastern philosophies began flowing west in 1920 when Paramahansa Yogananda came to address a conference of religious liberals in Boston. But the key driver was Richard Hittleman, who in 1950 returned from studies in India to teach yoga in New York. He not only sold millions of copies of his books and pioneered yoga on television in 1961, but he influenced how yoga has been taught ever since. Although he was a student of the sage Ramana Maharshi and very much a “spiritual” yogi, he presented a nonreligious yoga for the American mainstream, with an emphasis on its physical benefits. He hoped students would then be motivated to learn yoga philosophy and meditation.
Okay, so postural yoga – the asanas – are not ancient. Does it matter? No, but what does matter is why you are doing certain types of yoga. If yoga is just about the body’s flexibility, then what makes it different from Cirque du Soleil? Why call it yoga? If it’s just physical, it’s not yoga. If yogis are so focused on out-performing others in the room, then it’s not really yoga.
To welcome the greatest number of people, yoga had to dilute itself. In so doing, it fueled the consumerism that surrounds it today. The hope is that people may come for the asana but stay for the pratyahara – the ethereal psychological stuff. But if your goal is to practice yoga with a desire to achieve transcendence and bliss, like the ancients, you don’t need the gymnastic asanas. In fact, the intersection of western asana practice with the fashion world and the ideal of the perfect thin body, might reinforce unhealthy choices that have nothing to do with personal evolution. Hopefully, most people will find the areas of yoga that “support the quieting of the mind,” rather than the ones that focus on development of the perfect yoga butt.
“Yoga is the cessation of the thinking mind and you don’t need $100 pants for that”.