recent op ed in Forbes Magazine gives voice to several differing perspectives
on the topic of the evolving “soul” of western yoga. Centered in an ideologically
diverse culture that shares the primacy of physical appearance, it is more
homogenous (asana-centric) than the multi-faceted, rich tradition of yoga as
practiced in its motherland. Yet practitioners here are more heterogenous, and
yoga means something different to every person (sparking routine protests from
Hindu advocacy groups).
the Hindu America Foundation (HAF), yoga’s soul is Hindu, and both the
excessive focus on postural asana combined with a failed grounding in the other
eight limbs of yoga have little to do with yoga and much more in common with
Cirque du Soleil. Yet yoga instructor Jennifer Schmid counters, “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 rise beyond them.”
Yoga’s “soul,” then, depends on who you ask. This ephemeral
hallmark of yoga’s etiology in the West may explain why it’s so popular here,
where it’s widely perceived to transcend ideology, and bends to match the diverse
beliefs of practitioners, ranging from Muslims
This parallels the rich,
pluralistic array of loosely interrelated spiritual lineages (some Hindu, some
not) honored in India. Yet whereas those in India may disagree on their finer
philosophical beliefs, there are nonetheless many shared cultural values. For
instance, ahimsa, the principle of non-violence, informs the Indian cultural
norm of vegetarianism.
In the US, yoga
practitioners can also be Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Atheist. Here,
underlying beliefs about yoga are likely to be much different. For the
liberal monotheistic believer, yoga
may bring one closer to God or promote fitness; for the conservative
Christian, yoga could be considered demonic. For the Atheist or materialist, yoga’s benefits may be confined
to the physical realm. Thus “yoga” has become
so vast a term as to be almost meaningless, a catch-all phrase upon which
anyone can project their own expectations, hopes, fears, and sense of self.
I theorize yoga is so popular here precisely because it has something for everyone.
If yoga were irreconcilably associated with Hinduism here as suggested by the
HAF, participation likely wouldn’t have acquired mass buy-in. The fuzziness
about what exactly yoga is, how it works, and what it does—coupled with an
overstressed populace and yoga’s equation with youth, beauty, health, and
tranquility—has fostered its exponential popularity increase.
Like it or not, yoga’s “soul” has evolved since landing on
Western shores. Whether yoga’s other seven limbs would resonate with
non-spiritualists, or yoga’s popularity here is attributable to physical
elements of the practice, remains to be tested.
What do you think about the evolution of yoga in the West? Do you think it remains true to its soul?