Settling into my new spot in Brooklyn’s taken up an insane amount of time. In fact, “time” in NYC takes on a whole new meaning, as I’m quickly finding out. A month’s worth of *stuff* can happen in a day … and yet somehow it feels like no more than a fleeting moment. I finally get that phrase, “a New York minute,” so short and yet so much gets packed in!
But this isn’t a blog about time. Why not? Well, frankly, I don’t have time right now to wax lyrical about anything! Between writing lesson plans, interviewing for jobs, and figuring out how to fill out time sheets, philosophical meanderings have taken a temporary backburner! But it’s all good, I have a sweet blog coming up – Ten New York Thangs I’m Grateful For – and progress is being made.
In the meantime, here’s a great article written by an author who I just discovered and quite admire (and may even try to seek out at some point here in NYC!), Alice G Walton for Forbes:
(And by the way, yes, I think many people/studios in the States have forgotten about Yoga’s true meaning. Many leave the spiritual aspects of existing in bliss behind, and simply take the bucks that come with the seekers. If you’re a yogi reading this, what do you think?)
The Great Yoga Debate: Has Yoga Sold Its Soul?
If yoga is in the market for backwards publicity, it’s doing pretty well. From William Broad’s New York Times piece on yoga’s body-wrecking potential to the dramatic abdication of Anusara’s John Friend, it’s had a rough few months. But more intriguing perhaps is the ongoing discussion of the meandering, or at least evolving, heart of yoga. Some say it’s lost touch with its roots, its history, even its soul – and it needs to some reclaiming of these things. Others say that getting ruffled up over these issues is itself profoundly un-yogic, and we should move on.
A couple of years ago, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) launched their “Take Back Yoga” movement. It was sparked by the realization that the word “Hindu” was habitually absent in a premiere yoga magazine. “A few of us at the Hindu American Foundation were avid readers of [the magazine],” says HAF’s senior director, Sheetal Shah. “We noticed that our sacred texts, philosophical ideas, and deities were consistently being referred to as ‘yogic,’ ‘tantric,’ ‘Indian,’ etc. We wondered, ‘How many different ways can a magazine avoid using the word Hindu?’” When the magazine responded to the concern by saying that “Hinduism carries too much baggage,” the movement was launched.
At the center of “Take Back Yoga” is the concern that the practice today is too obsessed with the physical (asana), and has largely lost its more cerebral or philosophical side, which, one could argue, is what it’s all about in the first place. Asana and pranayama (breathing) are integral, says Shah, but there are six other “limbs” of yoga, which are largely forgotten in the West.
As Shah says, “Just because someone can rock the forearm stand does not mean she is practicing yoga – it just means she has mastered the ability to balance on her forearms. 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.”
The HAF website is even more blunt: “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.”
Yikes. On the other hand, this idea that at least in the U.S. yoga has become diluted into a shallow but widespread phenomenon is not particularly new. Many have lamented this trend – some have even applauded it.
Yoga has changed for sure. But how much does this matter?
Not so much, say some critics, or at least not in the ways we think. One reason is that, as Jennifer Schmid, who lives and works at Ananda Ashram in New York State, says, “to say that Yoga has gotten away from its roots, especially its Hindu ones, presumes that Yoga belongs to any religion… Yoga, which is classically defined as “union,” both encompasses and enlivens ALL religions, countries, cultures and people, while ultimately teaching us to go beyond them.” In this way, arguing over origins and derivations doesn’t matter a heck of a lot to yoga, which encourages people to step outside of themselves, and ultimately, outside of itself as well. To argue about its definitions is almost an oxymoron.
The other, more straightforward argument is that to welcome the greatest number of people, yoga has to dilute itself a little. Schmid argues that “perhaps the adaptation of asana and pranayama practice is what enables yoga to be accessible to the masses. But most practitioners and especially teachers connect to a deeper, more subtle experience, even if they can’t or choose not to explain it in words.” In other words, people may come for the asana but stay for the pratyahara – the loftier, psychological stuff, and part of the key to transcendence and bliss. Not every teacher touches on the psychological/philosophical parts of yoga, but many do, and if students are interested in exploring yoga in its fuller, original sense, they can seek it out.
Ultimately, if yoga is to be conceptualized as a single entity, we have to take into account all parts of it, good, bad, and ugly, according to Traci Childress, who works with Omega Institute. She suggests that yoga should ultimately be thought of as a matrix spanning physical to mental, lofty to ordinary, and everything in between. Thinking of it as having a linear evolution, she says, is less beneficial, and less accurate.
“Each thread is part of what yoga is, though not every thread is equal, or equally supportive to the evolution of the field or of any individual practitioner. As a matter of fact, some of the “threads” may even get in the way of individual’s personal evolution. For example, the intersection of western asana practice with the fashion world and the ideal of the perfect thin body, might reinforce unhealthy choices that have little to do with personal evolution.” Other areas of the matrix are more internally valuable.
In the end, yoga exists in the present, and this is the place from which we should work. Our concept of yoga, says Childress, “must be made up of all of the many intersecting practices, institutions, individuals, texts, and traditions with which it comes in contact. It must include the cultures and histories of all of these pieces…It is a practice, an evolving technology, and thereby made up of the relations, the interactions, and the intersecting components that continuously produce it.”
Hopefully many will gravitate to the areas of yoga that “support the quieting of the mind,” rather than the ones that focus solely on the development of the yoga butt. But that’s up to the individual. Schmid agrees that at its heart, “Yoga is the cessation of the thinking mind.” Perhaps, therefore, we should get away from obsessing about it too much.