Almost every piece of critical writing on yoga opens with the definition and etymology of the term yoga itself. The word is simply, neatly explained as a derivation of the Sanskrit root yuj, generally translated as “to join” or “to yoke." For the majority of Western readers, myself included, this definition seems mystical and romantic enough. We now understand what “yoga” means, and how to “yoga” well: We read articles about how to align our chakras, we take online dosha quizzes, we close our computers, and we promise to be better: to om three times a day, eat more kale, listen to relaxing vata-calming music, perform vigorous 20-minute self-massages with invigorating herb oil, and—of course—to practice more asana, pranayama (breath work), and meditation. This is what yoga has become to us here in the West, a cure-all—one wrought with all the anxieties and frustrations of being human. We turn to yoga to tone and strengthen, to relieve unresolved and embarrassing emotions, to regain control, and to be here now enough to grab life by the balls!*
We read articles about how to align our chakras, we take online dosha quizzes, we close our computers, and we promise to be better.
Yoga possesses a kind of "dual citizenship." Its original import from India to America, export back to India as Americanized yoga, and re-import to America as Indian-Americanized yoga has lovingly been termed “The Pizza Effect." With each relocation, yoga has provoked much popular interest, as well as much misunderstanding. Yoga, originally solely an Eastern practice, has been fetishized, exoticized, eroticized in the West.
Okay, before we all devolve into a yogi-stential crisis, the Western interpretation is not actually too terribly off—as the original Eastern perspective is also concerned with how to deal with the temporality of life. The Western mind-set pushes us to recognize our own transience, and, essentially, to breathe through it. Inner thighs burning in warrior II? Exhale, softening the shoulders. Shoulders screaming in plank? Press the inner thighs up. Western yoga has become a “stepping-stone.” Once the rewards are reaped in full (or even in part), many of us move on, looking for the next big new thing to help us forget ourselves (and our transience).
The more traditional mind-set, on the other hand, encourages us to confront the anxiety of mortality head-on by transforming our thinking, desires, and priorities—to live, breathe, and die yoga. It encourages one to essentially die to this world and its values in the trust that the next life will be better. So which then is the more “noble” attitude: the rational and realist Western mind-set (that simply sees yoga as an effective tool for dealing with inherently human problems), or that of the yogi who dreams of forsaking this life, this world? Is there only one correct way to practice yoga?
Original Significance, Misunderstandings, and the Fetishization of Yoga
The central concern of yoga, as found in the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutra, is liberation. Yoga allows for the reshaping and transformation of mind, body, and emotions—a transformation from the state of prakrti (which translates to “natural”) to the perfected form of samskrta (“well-made”). Ravindra, in his essay "Is Religion Psychotherapy? An Indian View," describes this liberation as the “recognition of one’s bondage to nature, and the consequent nature,” but also the acts taken to escape bondage—or, the good ol’ human condition (Ravindra 389-90).
This mysticism surrounding the practice of yoga is certainly influenced, if not directly caused, by the Western definition of hatha as “force or violence.” Among the first of Western scholars to study and write on yoga, Monier Williams wrote hatha off as “a kind of yoga…with much self-torture, such as standing on one leg, holding up the arms, inhaling smoke with the head inverted" (Birch 529). Windisch and Eggeling, also Western yoga scholars writing in the early twentieth century, stated that hatha is the “subduing of worldly desires by violent means” (Birch 530). In her paper on the relationship between yoga and modern philosophy, which was published in The Journal of General Education, Mircea Eliade wrote that during this time period, yogis were depicted as oxygen-refusing, freakishly immortal beings who “can allow themselves to be buried alive for a specified time….they experience...certain states of consciousness that are inaccessible in a waking condition” (Eliade 133, 134). These anecdotes shocked Western readers, and yoga was immediately dismissed as weird and exotic.
Modern Western scholars have since come to question the early twentieth-century interpretation of “hatha” (perhaps it was the Houdini-esque anecdote that gave it away), and have now come to embrace the so-called esoteric definition based on the syllables ha and tha. Ha (sun) and tha (moon) are "yoked" (yuj) to form a single word; thus, the practice of hatha yoga is the successful union of the sun and the moon, the union of prana. Another definition of hatha, found in Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a Sanskrit guide to hatha yoga written in the fifteenth century, is “gradually, slowly, or gently” (Swatmarama 2.15). Thus, there is force in hatha yoga, but it is anything but violent; modern yogic philosopher Jason Birch confirms “...the ‘force’ of hatha yoga qualifies the effects of its techniques, rather than the effort required to perform them” (Birch 548).
In an essay outlining yoga's influence on the twentieth-century New American Man and Woman, Joseph Laycock explains that yoga was de-clawed, reduced to a form of athleticism by the pioneering couple Pierre Bernard (a.k.a. “The Great Oom”) and Blanche Devries. While Bernard himself certainly embodied the stereotype of yoga at that time—mystical, questionably erotic—Bernard and DeVries ultimately did “transition postural yoga from its association with sexual deviance, primitive religion, and white slavery to a health system among affluent American[s]” (Laycock 101). Bernard argued that yoga could be both “scientific and moral” and “embodied”; he essentially left out the philosophical and spiritual ideas behind yoga and instead presented a “Protestantized version of yoga” (Laycock 103). Additionally, Bernard and Devries, in following with the rising interest in and questioning of gender roles in twentieth-century American society, presented yoga as “a resource that could produce stronger, more vigorous men and graceful, independent women” (Eliade 101).
American yoga dropped the work-into-the-mind part, and instead held on to the body workout.
This way of marketing yoga—completely doing away with its spiritual (and thus, mystical) elements and focusing on its more physical concerns, especially in defining gender binaries—reduced yoga to an easy-to-understand secular exercise, promising security in gender, restoration of youth, the ability to realize one’s full potential. American yoga dropped the work-into-the-mind part, and instead held on to the body workout.
East or West (or East AND West)
Traditionally, yoga was a way of practicing “perfect autonomy,” a paradoxical “deconditioning” of the human condition (Eliade 134). Instead of confronting the anxiety and despair of this short life, the Eastern-minded yogi is encouraged to “forsake the profane world.” He “dreams of dying to this world,” “thirst[s] for a sacred world and a sacred mode of being,” and thus hopes for “rebirth to another mode of being” (Eliade 128, 129). There is no desire to make peace with this hard world or fix the wearying things of it (as the Western mind-set urges). Instead it is believed that suffering is due to man’s alignment with the material world, “in his participation, active and passive, direct or indirect, in nature” (Eliade 129). Thus, the best way to confront the issue is in fact to avoid confrontation. While modern-day Western yoga instructors encourage us to set an intention or a dedication for our practice (something or someone to keep in our thoughts), a more traditional point of view finds that “the point of…meditation is concentration" itself (Eliade 129). For those who remain unattached to something or someone (aparigraha), the route to liberation is one step closer.
The West has seen yoga as a tool for “[re]possession of [the] self,” e.g., a way of relieving work-related stress, getting that pre-baby body back, and meditating in pursuit of truly knowing yourself (Eliade 135). This form of yoga is easy to understand. It promises security, restoration of youth, and the ability to realize one’s full potential. Is this mind-set (one that solely sees yoga as a way to improve mental and physical health) overly simplified, too functional? Today, Western yoga encourages the deeper study of one’s self—spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally. In his biographical mapping of Indian spirituality in the West, Robert A. McDermott confirms the fervor of the West's “present enthusiasm for Indian spirituality,” “the science of meditation,” and the “psychology of consciousness” (McDermott 213). Skeptics attribute the rising interest in Indian spirituality to the Veblen effect (consumption solely for social status). Yet time and time again, results report that yoga “devotees are unified in a selfless, blissful reality” (McDermott 218).
So the dosha quizzes, the kale juices, the high-end yoga mats—are these "yoga things" harmful to the practice and the new, modern image itself?
Perhaps there is no need to subscribe to one form of yoga. Perhaps there are many different paths to samskrta (bodily "perfection," mental focus, a higher spiritual purpose in life). Whether you came to yoga to get a six-pack, a healthier knee, a quieter mind, whether yoga serves as a mere stepping-stone or a lifesaver; its significance and degree of influence is ultimately up to you. There is no one correct, noble answer. It is truly the yogi’s choice.
*A very loose interpretation of one of Patanjali’s sutras.
Birch, Jason. “The Meaning of Hatha in Early Hatha Yoga.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 131.4 (2011): 527-54. JSTOR. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/41440511>.
Eliade, Mircea. “Yoga and Modern Philosophy.” The Journal of General Education15.2 (1963): 124-37. JSTOR. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27795868>.
Laycock, Joseph. “Yoga for the New Woman and the New Man: The Role of Pierre Bernard and Blanche Devries in the Creation of Modern Postural Yoga.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 23.1 (2013): 101-36. JSTOR. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/RAC.2013.23.1.101>.
McDermott, Robert A. “Indian Spirituality in the West: A Biographical Mapping.”Philosophy: East and West 25.2 (1975): 213-239. JSTOR. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1397942>.
Ravindra, R. “Is Religion Psychotherapy? An Indian View.” Religious Studies 14.3 (1978): 389-97. JSTOR. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20005503>.
Swatmarama, Swami. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Van Hollen, Cecilia. “Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy” By Joseph S. Alter. The Journal of Asian Studies 66.2 (2007): 562-64. JSTOR. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20203182>.