What Have We Done to Yoga?

I love different aspects of many of the world’s cultures. The foods, music, religions, art, etc. My life is richer as a result of my exposure to these things, so when I first heard of cultural appropriation, my reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

Then I realized that there is a cultural import that has been stripped of its essence and it really bugs me: yoga.

Hinduism has six orthodox (astika) schools. One of these is Yoga. That’s right Yoga is a major philosophical school of Hinduism. Yoga means union and refers to the union of ataman (individual soul) with the paramatman (universal soul or Brahman).

It is divided into four types. Bhakti (devotion) Yoga, Karma (selfless action) Yoga and Jnana (self-inquiry) Yoga are elucidated in the Bhagavad Gita. The fourth, Raja Yoga is the Yoga expounded in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Raja yoga contains moral, physical, meditative and philosophical elements. Its goal is achieving samadhi.

As preparation for the rigors of Raja Yoga, the physical elements of asanas and pranayama were split off and taught separately as Hatha Yoga. The important distinction here is that Hatha Yoga is a preparation for Raja Yoga. It gets you ready for meditation and the goal of reaching samadhi.

American yogis subdivided Yoga once again. They removed pranayama, the goals of practicing Raja Yoga and of realizing samadhi from Hatha Yoga and just teach the asanas. Stripped of its foundations, I call this Lifestyle Yoga.

Some Yoga instructors are better than others. The better ones will end a session of asanas with a meditation.

I watched a documentary called Enlighten Up. Although the primary focus of the movie was Yoga’s power to transform, a secondary theme was, “What is Yoga?” The prominent American yoga instructor, Rodney Yee could not answer the question.

What really floored me was that Indian born Yoga importer to the world, B. K. S. Iyengar (a man I admire greatly by the way), didn’t adequately answer it either. However, I believe he could have. It may have been an editing problem in the movie. I will get back to this later.

What I was looking for is that yoga is one of the six schools of orthodox Hinduism. If someone had mentioned the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the foundational text of Hatha Yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the foundational text of Raja Yoga, or the four Yogas,  I would have been satisfied.

Statue of Patanjali in Patanjali Yogpeeth, Haridwar. Photo from Patanjali

Since seeing the movie, I have discovered that Iyengar wrote a book about the Yoga Sutras, so clearly he knew. I just don’t know how he failed to mention Hinduism or Patanjali in the movie. From what I remember, in his answer he only focused on the physical aspects of Hatha Yoga.

So, unfortunately what we call yoga in the US is what I call lifestyle yoga. It is hatha yoga with only occasional lip service paid to meditation and pranayama. It is about flexibility, relaxation, keeping trim and buying special clothes and equipment (sorry if I pissed someone off with the clothes and equipment comment, but we all know Yoga types like this–it’s importing materialism into Yoga).

I am sure some people do get curious and explore the philosophy and the spiritual practices. However this middle-aged, suburban Yogi gets frustrated when speaking to a lifestyle yogi/yogini who looks confused when I bring up something as basic as the eight limbs (ashtanga).

Anyway, I know it’s my issue, my attachment, my ego invested in wanting the US to become a bunch of soccer yoginis running around practicing nauli.

Photo of nauli from File:Nauli1.JPG – Wikimedia Commons

I wonder if that picture has anything to do with why no one has commented on or liked this post.

©2016 Stephen L. Martin

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