In a popular online Yoga for Complete Beginners video, the instructor begins by inviting participants into a Sanskrit-named pose. We, the viewers, are going to relax, to ‘watch’ the breath, ‘create space’ in the body, and ‘connect’ with ourselves. We are encouraged to remember that there are no right or wrong poses. The movements are about “self-expression” and “awareness” of the body. When I finished my awkward attempts at the poses and lay on my back listening to the soft exit music of the video, I admit, I felt good. But I am soon distracted with self-criticisms. A lifelong curmudgeon and cynic about all things trendy, I am skeptical about the surge in popularity of yoga in North America. But if yoga feels good, and contributes to a general sense of wellbeing and fitness, then what’s the big deal? Why write a post like this?
Well, in this post I will articulate some generally unpopular opinions that will leave most yoga aficionados annoyed. But this post is really a way for me to figure out my own relationship to yoga, helpful to others or not. Let me start by saying that I have nothing against people who dive fully into their spiritual or religious practices, and, I have no problem with authentic conversions. Religions should earn their adherents, and if they are not filling us spiritually we should look elsewhere. What I am concerned with is a twofold problem with the adoption of Eastern spiritual practices in the West: appropriation for profit, and, a buffet spirituality mentality that only serves to reinforce the primary Western religion of consumerism and self-centered ego worship. Offended yet?
Yoga came to the West in the 19th century, but since the 1990s has taken the Western world by storm. A 2016 survey suggests that over 36 million Americans practice some form of yoga, and the United Nations has even declared an International Day of Yoga. There is a growing yoga industry in North America, especially the Pacific Northwest, and practicing yoga classes are promoted as promising immediate physical and emotional benefits to practitioners. Characteristically, we even have North American-adapted versions of yoga that serve specific demographics: Acro, Power, Flow, Hot, Bikram, Yin, Restorative, Gentle, etc. each with a different emphasis, benefit or purpose. As journalist Hanna Rosin points out in her Atlantic article, ‘Striking a Pose’,“Where older religions promised heaven, the church of yoga promises quicker, more practical, earthly gratification, in the form of better heart rates and well-toned arms.”
In Roots of Yoga James Mallinson and Mark Singleton describe the deep historical and ecumenical roots of yoga as a spiritual path. Yoga has a diverse cast of practitioners from the beginning. It can be broadly defined as a psycho-physical technique that was designed to facilitate the achievement of overall well being and in the case of most serious yogis throughout history, spiritual enlightenment. The Vedas, the oldest religious texts in Hinduism, and arguably the world, make mention of visionary meditation, posture, mantra repetition, and breathe control as part of their central practice of venerating and petitioning various Deities.
Key passages from the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, also Hindu scriptures, mention yoga, but there are also sources going back to ancient Tantric, Buddhist and even Jain traditions. This is because in around 500 BCE, Buddhists, Jains, and Ajivikas, began to split off from the Brahmanic sects to form their own ascetical cohorts and lineages motivated by finding an end to suffering and the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). The goal was liberation (moksha, nirvana), which included the annihilation of the individual ego, not its enhancement, into the Divine Source.
According to Mallinson and Singleton, yoga was initially practiced through meditation techniques. The earliest definition of Yoga comes from the Katha Upanishad, wherein the senses are held still, like a chariot driver controlling his horses. However, these Yogins also developed a suit of austerities to win favors from the gods, or to intensify their meditation practice and bring the body into alignment with the soul. Patanjali’s Yogasutras (2CE) is the most prominent text in the history of contemporary Yoga, wherein the author lays out metaphysical and practice concerns with yoga as a path to enlightenment. However, two centuries before this text, the Yogacara school of Buddhism was also teaching a form of Yoga as well, suggesting that yoga does not have a single lineage or origin, though it did emerge from the Indian constellation of spiritual and religious practices that have today solidified into various religious traditions.
In around 1,000 CE what is now called Hatha Yoga developed out of several lineages in India, which were designed to be more accessible to householders, rather than purely for ascetics, hermits or monks. Yoga soon became a practice that anyone could engage in regardless of caste, class or metaphysical persuasion. Hatha drew broadly from Patanjali and Tantra traditions, but began to focus on a more intensive use of postures called Asanas, to lead the body and mind into greater unity. Proper diet, regulated breathing, and a focus on practice apart from caste and metaphysical school, made Hatha a diverse and widely adaptable lineage. Especially within the Hatha lineage, yoga had no centralized Vatican-like interpreter or missionary order, and it diffused through various Hindu-Buddhist lineages as one of many techniques which led one to enlightenment.
On his tour of Europe and North America, particularly his speech at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions, Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga and Hinduism to the West. Hindu philosophy took root with Transcendentalist nature spirituality of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Theosophical mysticism of Helena Blavatsky. During the 1960s, like other eastern traditions, it became a foil to the establishment religions, especially Christianity, with its rigid dogmas and cerebral worship. Yoga became another badge of hippie counter-culture along with LSD, Transcendental Meditation and flower power. And of course, some were absolutely authentically drawn to yoga’s ecumenical appeal, its emphasis on practice, and its myriad benefits for wellbeing.
Today Yoga is big business with millions of Americans and Canadians practicing it at least once or twice a month. In Vancouver, there are just about as many yoga studios as sushi joints and coffee shops, not to mention traditional churches or temples. Yoga as a form of exercise really took off in the 1990s with Entrepreneurial gurus such as Bikram Choudhury and a thousand others. President Barack Obama endorsed yoga as a “universal language of spiritual exercise,” and even the American College of Sports Medicine recommends integrating yoga into one’s exercise regime.
If yoga is such an adaptable and beneficial practice, what’s the problem? Well, despite its flexibility, in its Western setting, I fear that it has been completely bent out of shape, to use an appropriate analogy, and has taken on a very different set of values and objectives. To be clear I do not deny the transferability and diffusion of religious and spiritual traditions. All religion is hybrid, mixture, conversation. But I can’t help but worry that the yoga boom has gotten out of hand, that it has appropriated the mystique of yoga from its original purpose in the service of the religion of self, promoted by capitalism.
So, can non-Yogis practice Yoga? The answer I am afraid is simply no. Yogis should practice yoga, wherever they come from, but to appropriate yoga into the Western cult of the Self, is wrong. In addition, practicing yoga casually, or from within another tradition fosters a spiritual buffet mentality which is not only appropriative but religiously lazy. So where should non-Yogis go for practices that promote spiritual and physical wellbeing? Does the west not have a comparable tradition? Yes, in fact we do. As journalist Linda Johnsen points out ancient Greeks and Romans practiced something like Yoga which in Greek was called Henosis or, which cultivated a single-pointed awareness of the unitary consciousness that pervades existence. The 3rd century BCE Greek philosopher Plotinus’s last words were “Try to unite the divinity in yourself, with the divinity in all things.” In the Gymnasium, where Greeks competed naked, fitness and enlightenment were stops along the same path. Only in the modern West has bodily wellness and spiritual wellness been so divided. But not without an effort to keep the two together. For example, in the 1850s there was a movement called the ‘New Gymnastics’ (with a more modest dress code) for the purpose of renewing the body and the soul in the service of ensuring healthy and balanced communities.
We in the West seem to always be looking for a remedy for the busy, sedentary modern life, even while we refuse to abandon it for something more wholesome and spirituality satisfying. So, of course one obvious response is that we need to change the structures of society so that our lives are more balanced, whole and fulfilling in the first place! But that is a whole other article. But my question remains, why didn’t we just revive the gymnastics movements, or create something similar? What is it about eastern spiritualities and practices that is so irresistible to some in the secular West?
There is of course no single answer to this question, which is admittedly reductive from the start, but at least for my own purposes a helpful starting point. By and large, I see a connection between the rise of the spiritual but not religious and the failure of western spiritual traditions to fully engage with practices that unify body and the soul, before engaging with metaphysical or theological questions. It seems that many Christian denominations lead with belief, creed or scriptural interpretation, rather than teaching first and foremost ways of sinking into the deep and sustaining relationship with the Divine. For example, Christian and yoga instructor Karen Hefford in her article “Why are People Going to Yoga Instead of Church?” sheds light on the attraction of yoga for some Christians. She writes:
“I find more comfort in the silence of my yoga practice than I do when I am in church. I feel a deeper connection while practicing yoga because it is about surrendering and finding peace… Prayer is often about asking for something or thanking God. Yoga is more about clearing the mind… and surrendering it all.”
If Christian churches are not teaching the deep tradition of silence, surrender, and peace that is at the heart of Christianity, then they have done the Christian tradition a great disservice. Yoga should not be a spiritual supplement, a revenue generator, or a youth magnet for churches, it is its own path to God and people who practice it should be on that path. Christians should begin with their own tradition, before we dialogue and learn from others.
For example, Centering Prayer, a tradition derived from the anonymous 14th century writer of the Cloud of the Unknowing, but promoted by many contemporary denominations, teaches a kind of meditation that strives to go beyond words and petitions for the mysterious silence of God. It is prayer, but prayer that does not treat God as our own personal vending machine. In addition, as Karen Hefford points out in her article, the 13th century Saint Dominic taught nine different symbolic postures for prayer, each of which engaged the body in a unique way; from a profound bow, to a full prostration, to genuflecting, and standing in the shape of the cross. In another case, for Eastern Orthodox, who typically do not have pews in their churches, and where services are mostly done standing, when a worshiper enters a church, they often cross themselves several times, touch the ground, kneel or even prostrate on the ground. Or as another example, why not simply reciting the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me) while stretching, running or walking? These forms of somatic prayer could be a seed of the return of Christian prostration sessions which are oriented toward an icon, altar, or an easterly aspect, which has deep roots and history in Christian architecture, symbolizing the return of the Sun and the Son. Of course Dominic also practiced a more intense asceticism, including self-flagellation, but this will seem tame compared to the austerities of the early Yogis.
To summarize: I am all for a full-bodied embrace of a spiritual tradition that puts one on the path to self-realization in God through harmonizing body, soul and spirit. What I am opposed to is a capitalistic cult of the spiritual identity that promises to make a few enterprising entrepreneurs millions of dollars all while reinforcing rather than eliminating the ego, the cult of sexy bodies, and the buffet style self-indulgence of some spiritual but not religious seekers. In addition, I believe that Christianity has the resources to fulfill the intuition of yoga’s appeal if it were to more creatively engage its own history, theology and spirituality.