‘There’s nothing very Indian’ about yoga in the West

I’m not very hopeful that this will be the last word on the New York Times’ article on yoga wrecking your body. I do still think all the discussion is a plus, not a negative — the more light on a topic, the better.

Still, it may be getting a tad old already. But Indian-based Firstpost provides a gently mocking take on all the ruckus. And the Times’ India Ink blog, to its credit, gives Firstpost some notice. Together they raise some interesting points that go far beyond the “yoga can hurt you” argument.

Here’s Firstpost’s key position: ” Yoga might be India’s biggest export to the West but this is now an American story about something that has become a Western form of exercise. There’s nothing very Indian about it.”

It goes on to cite another story we highlighted, via the Guardian, that seemed much more troublesome than the Times’ original piece. And at that point it begins to make some really key statements:

No Indians were harmed in the course of researching this story. No desis were interviewed for the New York Times article. No Indians show up in TheGuardian’s follow up story about the “ferocious backlash” either. The few desi names in there are of the yoga brand masters — BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois or Bikram Choudhury. They only show up as brands.

Anyone can sell yoga and it seems everyone does. About 20 million Americans are doing yoga according to the Times. It’s a 5 plus billion dollar industry. Once you might have needed the Indian seal of authenticity to sell yoga to the West. Now you don’t even need that.

The “branding” of yoga is a direction of this story that, I think, dives far deeper than the Times’ original story ever did. (The full book, of which the article was an excerpt, might hit on this topic.) It is pretty easy to argue that what the Times focused on was just asana, just exercise. The India Ink blog does just that:

“Yoga is not just about asanas, it is a union of the body, mind and soul,” Delhi yoga teacher Nivedita Joshi told Times Crest, a Times of India publication, in an article also refuting the idea yoga can be dangerous. “It’s not an exercise, it’s a way of life,” she said.

(While an easy argument, I still think it is one that needs to be argued more openly. When people manage to make the clear divided between asana/exercise and yoga, at least some of the questions and concerns surrounding yoga — is it Satanic, who owns it? — will fall away.)

But yoga as a brand — as a purely economic endeavor — strikes a more challenging chord. Branding and business built around a purely health-related activity is nothing new and might now be among the most American of American pursuits. (Somewhere ahead of baseball, but behind mom and and apple pie.) Every gym business in the country is proof of that. As are every kooky exercise invention, new fad diet, latest weight-loss DVD and any fat-busting reality show.

But what about branding a “way of life.” Seems a bit different, no? As aggravated as some people are at the Equinox video that’s floating around, how much more aggravated might people be if it was a video promoting a new business called “Ashrams R Us”? (Motto: “Come spend a week with us and save your life!”)

This “branding” is, of course, what has had the Hindu American Foundation fighting mad for a while now. And it makes a key appearance in the Firstpost article:

It has launched its own broadside against the Times accusing its writer William Broad of  using “prime journalistic real estate to grind his axe with yoga”. It is a “silly, one-sided piece that highlights a handful of people who have suffered injuries due to their yoga practice,” writes Sheetal Shah, the foundation’s senior director on Belief.net.

In fact, argues the HAF, Broad inadvertently proves HAF’s main point. The West has reduced yoga to asanasAsanas are really just one of the eight limbs of yoga. Delinking yoga from its spiritual framework, its Hindu roots, is the crux of the problem.

“Analyzing yoga as only exercise and then labeling it as hazardous to one’s health is a false equation because yoga doesn’t equal asana,” writes the HAF.

Firstpost has a wonderfully succinct take on this: “It’s time to accept that there is the eight-limbed yoga the HAF talks about and then there are the asanas on a mat that millions practice.”

Yes, and yes.

I’d urge everyone to give the Firstpost piece a read. (It also notes Eddie Stern’s response to the Times piece.) It captures the specific debate about the Times article nicely but also shows a pretty keen awareness of how yoga is positioned in the West (America, in particular).

And then maybe we all can reflect on this question: Am I doing asana only or am I trying, at least, to do yoga?

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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