Does Modern Yoga’s Innovation Disrespect Traditional Yoga?
This article originally appeared in the October/November, 2001 issue of Yoga International.
In a recent issue of Bindu—a yoga magazine published in Sweden—Swami Janakananda commented on the current fashion of calling gymnastics yoga only because it sells better. The title of his editorial reads “Call it something else! The yogis are turning over in their graves.” He goes on to comment on how students have the habit of modifying received teachings until they become something of a mutation. Then, he states, it becomes necessary to start weeding.
In America especially, it would seem there is a penchant for innovation among yoga teachers, as if the old teachings were outmoded and no longer useful. Often, however, the very teachings that are being dismissed have not been mastered at all, and so one can make no claim about their efficiency or inefficiency. As Swami Janakananda remarks, “You may pretend to know everything, but all you do is change yoga according to your limited knowledge. Well, then you end up going round in the circles of your own illusions and expectations.”
I happen to share his point of view. Yoga has developed over the considerable span of at least five thousand years. During this period, we may assume that yoga practitioners have learned a great deal about the human body and mind. In the West we have experimented with yoga—and by no means rigorously and deeply in many cases—for a little over one hundred years. There is no overwhelming evidence that we have produced any real yoga masters as yet, and thus there is room for great modesty and realism.
Much of the inventiveness of Western yoga teachers revolves around creating ever new variations of yogic asanas. Perhaps Westerners are less flexible than Indians, who are at least used to sitting on the ground with folded legs, but is all this virtuosity merely an attempt to cover up boredom? Or to assert one’s expertise and ego? In the past, postures were invented by true masters of hatha yoga, quite possibly from within a higher state of consciousness, or at the very least from an incredible sensitivity to the flow of energy in the body. New postures were invented to influence that flow of energy favorably, thereby assisting meditation and bodily balance (and therefore health).
I am not, of course, opposed to creativeness or innovation. My concern is about prematurely chucking out traditional practices and substituting newfangled ones, only because it is possible to do so. In India, no student would have dared to invent new methods or exercises. That was understood to be the prerogative of advanced adepts. There still was respect for authority. Allowing myself the luxury of a generalization, I would say that today everyone seeks to democratize everything, including yoga. While authoritarianism is undesirable, respect for authority (deriving from someone’s mastery of a field) is entirely appropriate. To the modern mind, this distinction has become blurred.
I think it would do us good to give yoga more time to work its wonders in us—not just in providing a flexible and fit body but also a mind capable of self-transcendence and deeper levels of spiritual realization. Let’s not be too hasty in dismissing the age-old traditional forms evolved by thousands of masters.
I think it would do us good to give yoga more time to work its wonders in us.
Traditional yoga is spiritual practice, as developed in India. That is, it seeks to guide us to our true nature, which lies beyond the limited concerns of religion or philosophy. It seeks to give us the key to mind- and ego-transcending enlightenment, or the awakening from the dream of conventional existence. Yoga, as is true for any authentic spiritual tradition, is about freedom rather than rigid doctrines or mere belief. It is experiential and experimental. Because of this, it gives us the possibility of real self-mastery, which when attained also empowers us to become constructively innovative.
When we look to India (Bharata), yoga’s original homeland, we find that even a master has respect for the tradition that has birthed him or her. A useful lesson for us all to learn.
Yoga’s principles are universal, because human nature is pretty much the same everywhere. Once we look beyond simple physical differences and focus on the human mind, we quickly discover that yoga’s profound insights are as valid for us today as they were for the Indic yoga practitioners thousands of years ago.
Humility, which is a mark of ego-transcendence, is a value prized highly in traditional yoga. Is this the case with contemporary yoga as well?
Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. (1947-2012), authored over forty-five books, including The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition, and created distance-learning courses on Yoga philosophy and history through Traditional Yoga Studies.