Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Great Debate: Who Owns Yoga?

The yoga world has been all abuzz recently by the Take Back Yoga campaign initiated by the Hindu American Foundation. This foundation has launched a complaint about western-style yoga practices with a campaign of letter-writing to various national journals, drawing attention to its cause and sparking debate. Their belief is simply that yoga needs to be reunited with its Hindu origins. Well, this has gotten the yoga world into a tizzy of American-style defensive posturing, more or less claiming the right of Americans to take yoga and make it their own.
On November 27, the New York Times ran an article titled, "Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga's Soul" documenting the efforts of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). Diving head-first into the comment section, there was everything you can imagine in there, from incredibly ignorant people who clearly have never seen the inside of a yoga studio to those claiming both physical and spiritual benefits from a practice devoid of Hinduism. In a pool of about 50 comments (that is where I drew the line, though there were hundreds), only two really stood out for me:
"The purpose of Hatha yoga is to generate health that will enable individuals to attain spiritual and intellectual insights from practicing the higher forms of yoga as taught in the Upanishads"; and "Yoga uncoupled with a moral construct leads no where, except towards being more physically fit. Hinduism provides that moral construct".
Both sentiments ring true. The main focus of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is to generate health for more advanced spiritual practice, the underlying reason being that a sick or unfit body does not get far on the spiritual path. Those of us who practice ashtanga yoga are well aware that asana without the other limbs is merely "kindergarten", or a foundational practice to teach the mind to pay attention while strengthening and realigning the body. In reality, yoga asana as practiced in the west is not so much a spiritual practice as it is physical therapy. It is kindergarten in that we are not yet concerned with algebraic equations; we simply would like everyone to sit quietly in a circle on the floor without back spasms. The Hindu American Foundation would like Americans to get out of kindergarten and at least enter first grade with a mere acknowledgement of yoga's spiritual link to Hinduism. This is a fair request. Too many yoga studios and teachers have embraced Hindu words and symbols and have marketed them to great economic benefit without any proper education as to what these symbols represent. Take the Om symbol. It is a sacred symbol to the Hindu people and yet it has been marketed to exhaustion in America as a symbol of kindergarten yoga, when in fact it is really part of a greater algebraic equation that very few yoga studios are teaching! It does not represent a yoga studio. Or yoga mats. Or yoga t-shirts. I will never forget B.K.S. Iyengar voicing his concern several years ago about this sacred symbol turning up everywhere among people who barely grasped its significance. This is akin to the calculus professor showing up in the remedial algebra class. If Americans are going to claim relentlessly, as HAF claims they do, that Hinduism is not an important part of American yoga, then Americans must cease and desist with the Hindu symbols and the Sanskrit.
On the other hand, you can probably guess that this is most likely going to be a fruitless exercise on the part of a group that has failed to embrace the American principal of individuality, not to mention the American religion of Capitalism. Americans have always and will always borrow what they like from other cultures and make it their own, especially if there is a profit to be made.
There are indeed many American yoga instructors out there who do embrace Hindu principals and incorporate them into their lessons. But the majority of American yogis hit the studio for a good work-out followed by the feeling of calm centeredness they experience from spending ninety minutes moving, holding poses and paying attention to their breath.
America has always been the Land of Many Churches, and acknowledging and teaching Hindu principals in yoga class will most likely spark some interest in Hinduism. But it will evolve quickly into an American interpretation of Hinduism. Many Americans are practicing Christians, Jews or Muslims and will most likely walk out of a yoga class that spends too much time focusing on Ganesh, unless done skillfully within the frame of their "work-out". What Americans have discovered in yoga is how to pay attention, focus their energy, and by consequence, expand their awareness. This becomes a skill that people then bring with them to church or temple, a means for deepening their own spiritual practice. Those who are atheist develop a spiritual identity unique to themselves and begin to embrace life at a deeper level. It is not the Hinduism that causes this effect, it is the yoga. In fact it is Patanjali's yoga of the Yoga Sutras, an appealing handbook of spiritual enlightenment rejected by most Hindus as unorthodox and embraced by most Americans, atheists in particular, who have simply had it with the wrath of a vengeful God.
We can admit that the yoga practice we have taken and Americanized originates from the Hindu canon, just as we can say that the English language we speak originates in England. The bottom line, though, is this: once it crosses the pond, it takes on a life of its own in a uniquely American fashion.