Does Modern Yoga Perpetuate Samskara?

Do you ever feel trapped by your body, as if it were something separate from you that you just have to live with? If the answer is yes, you aren’t alone. Philosophically, many cultural and religious traditions, including Patanjali’s Classical Yoga, conceptualize the body as bound to base lusts and desires that distract from loftier abstract moral and religious principles. Rene Descartes memorialized this with Cartesian Mind-Body dualism, which posits body and mind as comprised of distinct entities. Our cultural samskara (beliefs and patterns) thus perpetuate the notion that embodiment equals imprisonment. Unsurprisingly, this worldview aligns well with modern forms of yoga.

Patanjali’s metaphysics, influenced by Buddhism, contends that the soul’s liberation (enlightenment) requires renunciation of embodiment, ego, and the manifest world, entities that foster attachment and delusion. Later in yoga’s history, tantric hatha yogis evolved to view the body as integral for the attainment of physical perfection and immortality. While this was a body positive development, it was nonetheless “bound” to striving toward externalities of immortality and perfection. Modern yoga, a hodgepodge catch-all of these lineages along with our cultural samskara, kills several birds with one stone.

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Modern yoga has great PR. It’s the nectar of eternal youth, the practice of the gods, of celebrity idols with perfect bodies and, in the cultural imagination, perfect souls. There are also vague promises of “enlightenment,” hearkening images of beautiful, willowy women striking lotus pose in exotic locales, looking peaceful and blissed out. Enlightenment, we think, is peace; an end to suffering, to the battle of life, la grande résistance. To have a perfect body, is to have a perfect soul (a la Radiohead’s famous lyric).

Grafted seamlessly onto the cult of appearance, “yoga” thus practiced becomes a prison; a means by which we can both grow younger, still bound to the body, and spiritually liberated in transcending embodiment entirely. Hence, modern yoga as bondage and perpetuator of cultural samskara, even as Srikula Shakta yoga philosophy posits that we’re already liberated and need only open our eyes.

At what point does modern yoga become a cultural proxy or vehicle by which cultural stereotypes and samskaras are reinforced and transmitted? Modern yoga often suggests that truth is outside of us. With a multitude of celebrity teachers, brands, and cultural accouterments in yoga culture, it’s easy to lose sight of yoga’s deeper and more introverted teachings. To the extent that yoga is primarily conceived as a tool to sculpt ourselves into physical perfection, attain eternal youth, or transcend/escape our bodies and lives, it may strengthen the blindfold that shrouds from us our true nature.

Fifty Shades of Yoga could easily be on the cover of Playboy. Her images promise to “take the voyeur on a seductive journey” that unifies the seemingly opposite worlds of yoga/bondage, gratification/restraint, and practice/surrender. Perhaps lacking the lived experience of her own divinity and intrinsic freedom, Fifty Shades employs bondage and masochism to relinquish control and surrender, which to her is “the most beautiful thing in the world.” While the rush of bondage and exhibitionism is fleeting, it nonetheless provides a sense of meaning, empowerment, pleasure—and transcendence. Aside from debates as to the “debasement” of yoga, who are we to judge whether bondage brings one closer to God? While sexually titillating yoga images reinforce tired clichés, judgmental overtones do little to evolve the conversation.

What are your thoughts on modern yoga’s relationship to tantric or classical forms of yoga?

This is Part Two of a three-part series. Read Part One here. In Part Three, we’ll discuss how the Srikula Shakta philosophy facilitates the awareness that we are already divine and liberated—temples of God, in body and soul.

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