There is a lot of worry about how detrimental the West has been to and for the ancient practice of yoga.
There’s no question that sometimes Western yoga classes seemed unmoored from the values of yoga in its birthplace. I’ve been in a yoga class with disco music so loud it was more like a club scene. I’ve seen classes which have drained yoga of any spirit, killing it softly with down dogs. I’ve heard in person and seen on the Web numerous wannabe novice teachers adopting the wise guru role with not much foundation for it. (That said, there are wise young ones and immature elders as well!). And don’t get me started on Bikram Choudhury and his mercenary ilk. And yeah, I’ve even seen people working their cell phones in class. So yes, I’m aware that there are reasons to be worried when West meets East.
I grew up in a place that could arguably be called the fertile crescent of that meeting of East/West, the San Francisco Bay Area, and I felt those vibrations throughout my teen years in Berkeley. The Way of Zen by Alan Watts exhilarated me at fifteen and in some ways changed my life. I was on a pilgrimage to India before I was twenty.
But it was never without complications, from scandals to more mundane stylistic blunders. I’ve seen hippies from the Midwest becoming Hare Krishna sannyasin complete with Indian accent, chanting and proselytizing in Sproul Plaza. This is foolishness. But I was foolish myself. I handed out cards that said “Don’t worry, be happy – Avatar Meher Baba” in that same plaza. I never talked like someone from India, but I wore my guru shirt and white pants on the street for a few weeks after my trip to India, before leaving that discipleship.
Eventually yoga established itself in the U.S. and the West in general in a huge way. Yoga is no longer exotic; in fact we’ve begun to see innovations such as naked yoga, and beer and yoga that appear to be acting on the notion that yoga has become too mundane. I recently read that yoga in the U.S. is a 27 billion dollar a year industry (however, since the monumental NFL claims only 13 billion, I’m not so sure I trust that figure, but in any case, yoga is certainly pretty damned popular!).
But we also read that some people are pissed off that Western yoga has de-spiritualized, de-fanged and de-natured the yoga of India. In fact there is even a group called Take Back Yoga, which seeks to reorient modern yoga toward its Hindu roots. (For my interview with one Hindu leader who has aligned herself with that movement but in a very non-confrontational and actually sweet manner, see: http://www.yogateachermagazine.com/content/dr-uma-mysorekar). One can be sympathetic; it’s reminiscent of when Paulie on the Sopranos goes off in a Starbucks type place: “F*ckin’ Italian people. How did we miss out on this?... F*ckin’ espresso, cappuccino. We invented this shit and all these c*cks*ckers are getting rich on it… It’s not just the money. It’s a pride thing. All our food, pizza, calzone…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUKJWsnAAXs
But there are a number of problems with this Take Back approach. First, many equate yoga with a physical practice. That is controversial in itself, and we’ll return to it shortly, but if we allow that yoga, as it is perceived now in both the East and West, involves some asana, we have some conundrums and misconceptions to engage. Truly the first real indications of postures used for health benefits are traceable to China (one can cite the Nei-yeh poem/treatise, and the proto-Qi Gong Mawandui Tomb 3 chart as evidence). The Mohenjo-Daro seal from the Indus Valley has sometimes been trundled out to date yoga past three millennia, but the seal is a tightlipped enigma. And if sitting in poses was common, there is the mystery that, despite a huge plethora of sculpted Indic figures all the way down through the end of what we would call medieval times, very few reflect yogic postures.
There is talk of some creative work with forms, or sitting, in Vyasa’s early commentary on the Yoga Sutras, probably around the end of the first millennium C.E. Then the Tantric involvement with physical movement and positioning may have been influential, and we have the Nath sects of ascetics as well, opening “the seat” or asana to more interesting shapes, and the Tapas practitioners (for love and money), and so you have a confluence of waves leading toward what we think of as yoga. Even with the 18th century Shritattvanidhi, a book of illustrated poses, it’s difficult to know what purpose these postures were designed to fulfill. It isn’t really until late 19th century that several veins of physical yoga experimentation began to take recognizable form. And it is well-documented that there were enormous influences, by this time, from “physical culture” in lands as far removed as Sweden and Norway, and so who can own this sort of yoga?
If it’s the deeper yoga we’re meant to consider, than this ancient connection is even more elusive and can hardly be considered property. Mystics all over the world have called for the aspirant to find the kingdom within. Yoga took shape in reference to ascetic practices to achieve states identical to ‒ or in the case of Patanjali’s Samkhya philosophy, adjacent to ‒ divinity. Some of the earliest Vedas refer to yoga and yogis. In the Gita the incarnation of God Krishna speaks of several kinds of yoga: jnana, bhakti, karma. And some of this is taught in the West, although usually without much nuance or real understanding; however these are ideas that anyone can implement in any corner of the globe. The Hindu, Buddhist, Samkhya, and other Eastern traditions deserve not only acknowledgement for their deep contributions, but they deserve our study. Read the Yoga Sutras, read the Upanishads, steep yourself in these traditions, while understanding that this doesn't need to be your only source of wisdom, and some of the teachings may not apply to you. Patanjali's Sutras are a manual for ascetics; not everyone is an ascetic. Yoga is now universal. It can't be copyrighted. That ship has sailed, the barn door is shut, the hounds have been released. Yoga studios, just like Starbuck coffee shops, are nearly everywhere, for better and for worse.
Yoga’s evolution in the West grew from a host of resources too numerous to enumerate. There were yogis who wanted little to do with asana, such as Vivekananda; there were mysterious figures such as Sylvais Hamati, the Syrian/India yogi who taught Pierre Bernard; there was the Swami Sivananda lineage; the meditation proponent Maharishi; and from mid-20th-century there were emissaries from the Krishnamacharya school, such as Indra Devi, Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar. By the Fifties yoga was common on U.S. television (Hittleman and Folan).
It’s a bit miraculous, and even inspirational, the way seeds fly far on the wind and plant in different climes, and while progeny retain the basic shape, they become something different.
Let me slide onto a more personal track here for a moment. I was aware of yoga as a concept for many years. I read a biography of Vivekananda when I was 18. I did some asana yoga in 2001 and then found a great studio in Astoria, The Yoga Room, in 2004, and became enthralled.
What I found in these classes intrigued me, the fusing of movement, stillness, contentment, wisdom. It felt like me. When I was doing this yoga, I was so much myself. I’m athletic; I love to move my body. I like to journey within. I’ve always loved the trance: yoga provides the trance. There can be music, at least that’s one option, and sometimes it adds to the occasion. There’s exploration in every movement, and it all involves the breath, always the great key, the great mystery!
One thing I appreciated was that there wasn’t a dogmatic point of view, at least not in those early classes I attended. I’m so weary of dogma, which is porous and contentious and just plain useless. So yoga seemed to exist on the very perimeters of religion, which was just fine by me.
Moreover, there was structure in these classes, there was ritual. I had spent my early thirties immersing myself in Amerindian culture. Through that study I began to see the value of communal ritual. I led various ritual performances in the east village during these years. But that was art, and I wanted to go deeper to connect with people.
Old school yogis
The first yoga classes that inspired me, many of them with Tzahi Moskovitz, seemed to offer a way to unleash the energy in the body, and provide a forum for ideas, for humor, for camaraderie.
Now one thing that simultaneously appalls and delights me today is the variety of yogas available in the West, and the East; appalling because some of this yoga is ridiculous. I get particularly bothered by the sloppy New Age vernacular yogaspeak which has evolved in studios. But we must have failure, we must have experimentation, we’re all making our way forward, and all of this provides variety. Just because there’s some godawful music out there doesn’t mean you should hate music; same with yoga teaching. And the good news is that you can find the yoga that fits you in this great mélange and probably have some pretty interesting adventures in the process! Yoga is not a panacea for every ill, and some people will get hurt by it because it’s instructed and assisted by flawed humans, but there is much good that can be done, on so many planes.
Sometimes I think I’m a bit of an imposter as a yoga teacher ‒ or maybe I should say that in my work I am only partly a yoga teacher, in that what I really want to do is just care for these people in my classes, to assist them in healing and growth. Yoga provides the tools. Yoga gives me a brilliant platform upon which to care for the people in front of me. It can even feel shamanic, in a friendly, everyday manner. I like how Ana Forrest, for one example, does work using what she learned from Native American culture and I respect that sort of creative cross-pollination (although what she does is different from what I do). The techniques of modern yoga enhance our experience, there is no question. How ancient they are doesn’t really matter, if they work. Most of the time people come out of class feeling better physically and more alive in general, and that’s always a good thing.
The West takes a lot of shit for its spiritual disorientation but there are also lots of wise people in this section of the globe, as there must be everywhere. There are truly wise elders and young people wise beyond their years, wiseguys of all shapes and genders and viewpoints. It is an irony that yoga had nearly died in the East until revived by the interest of Westerners. But the yoga project is always collaborative, and name-calling across seas does not help, any more than being overly reverential toward any one tradition.
In fact I would argue that the modern yoga class is a unique, innovative, creative laboratory. I love being in a yoga class when I’m teaching and the atmosphere is good and serious and fun, or when I’m in a class being led by someone who knows their stuff. Nowadays yoga teachers have worlds of knowledge, from science, from spirituality, from experience, at their fingertips, and the potential for helping others to find health and calmness, not to mention fulfilling the quest for the self, for meaning, is immense. Look at the work of people like Jason Crandell and Cyndi Lee, not to mention all the quiet heroes who do their caring work with little or no fanfare. So despite all the impieties and the manipulations, in the main the East/West dynamic has been uplifting for all parties involved, and doubtless it will continue to evolve ‒ in sometimes painful, but indisputably beneficial, directions.