How much does it matter where yoga came from?
An key part of the preparations for the Yatra we will be undertaking in December boils down to: getting at the roots.
Specifically, we’re looking for the roots in the broad religious tradition of Hinduism. And we are curious about the underpinning of our Ashtanga practices, and of yoga more generally.
Plus there’s the question of where those roots of Hinduism and Ashtanga meet and intertwine — and what results.
I’ll speak for myself now: I find getting at the roots a bit of a challenge because I’m saddled with a decidedly Western (if open and curious) perspective. I’m left to wonder: Is something lost in translation, so to speak? How does the practice of Bhakti here, for instance, mirror or not the tradition in India? What are the threads of all eight limbs of yoga and how do they intertwine? Can we find some connection between the fairly new postures and asanas of Ashtanga with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras?
And so this article from the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) strikes a chord — not solely because it cites Namarupa, which is running our Yatra. Here’s a few key sections:
With the popularity of Yoga skyrocketing throughout the world, particularly in the West, there arise two main points in need of clarification. First, that which is practiced as “Hatha Yoga” – a form of Raja Yoga – in much of the Western world is but merely a focus on a single limb of Yoga: asana (posture).
Second, there is the concerning trend of disassociating Yoga from its Hindu roots. Both Yoga magazines and studios assiduously present Yoga as an ancient practice independent and disembodied from the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity. With the intense focus on asana, magazines and studios have seemingly “gotten away” with this mischaracterization.
In a 2005 interview published in Namarupa magazine, Prashant Iyengar, son of B.K.S. Iyengar, clearly espouses a similar view when he said, “We cannot expect that millions are practicing real yoga just because millions of people claim to be doing yoga all over the globe. What has spread all over the world is not yoga. It is not even non-yoga; it is un-yoga.” The undue emphasis, particularly in the West, on asana as the crux of Yoga dilutes the essence of the spiritual practice and its ultimate goal of moksha.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) concludes from its research that Yoga, as an integral part of Hindu philosophy, is not simply physical exercise in the form of various asanas and pranayama, but is in fact a Hindu way of life. The ubiquitous use of the word “Yoga” to describe what in fact is simply an asana exercise is not only misleading, but has lead to and is fueling a problematic delinking of Yoga and Hinduism, as described further in the section below.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) reaffirms that Yoga, “an inward journey, where you explore your mind, your awareness, your consciousness, your conscience”, is an essential part of Hindu belief and practice. But the science of yoga and the immense benefits its practice affords are for the benefit of all of humanity regardless of personal faith. Hinduism itself is a family of pluralistic doctrines and ways of life that acknowledge the existence of other spiritual and religious traditions. Hinduism, as a non-proselytizing religion, never compels practitioners of yoga to profess allegiance to the faith or convert. Yoga is a means of spiritual attainment for any and all seekers.
In other words: Yes, something is lost in the translation. While I feel that Ashtanga — and our good fortune in the teachers we study with — is perhaps a better translation than most, I still can’t know for sure. Thus the goal: To try to figure out what we might be missing.
The HAF piece offers some clues, although it demands some additional perspective. HAF serves an important role in safeguarding Hindu and Indian tradition and culture, but I think that role forces it into a position where it has to be very hard-line — even though Hinduism is most often not. (There are clearly political instances when that isn’t true. But that’s true of just about every religion / philosophy / line of thinking, especially when dealing with the mundane world.) HAF has to react strongly to be heard, to make for an even fight, I think. (HAF’s been on my radar for a while, but I’m not claiming I’m 100% accurate here. Still, almost any organization or group that’s in the minority or on the margins has to stand up with extra gumption. So, in this, it isn’t alone.)
How it describes asana practice, for instance, seems an oversimplification or mischaracterization. My understanding of asana practice — I think the generally agreed upon one — is that it had become decidedly not a way of Hindu life. Krishnamacharya and his students, Guruji among them, had to re-popularize, even just re-introduce, a physical part of yoga practice. And that happened just a few generations ago, and the origins of those specific postures clearly aren’t solely Indian. But what they brought to these asanas was.
And it’s that part of yoga and Ashtanga and even Hinduism that we’re seeking. HAF’s goal is one we clearly support: Don’t decouple yoga from Hinduism.
Our goal, I guess, is to find out how best to couple them in America.
Posted by Steve