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.

Namarupa’s sacred geography. Via namarupa.org.

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).

[snip]

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.

[snip]

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.

[snip]

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.

[snip]

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

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

6 thoughts on “How much does it matter where yoga came from?”

  1. Ugh. The Hindu American Foundation is decidedly Hindutva, sitting on the side of the more virulent of right-wing Indian politics. It is *not* just taking a hard-line for the sake of being heard.

    In keeping with this its vision of the “historical” roots of yoga is entirely ahistorical, taking Hinduism back to a time when it didn’t yet exist, and excluding the broad historical ties of religious and philosophical systems the HAF gives no recognition to. There would be no Yoga without, for instance, the Buddha and Mahavira, and the theory and praxis which their followers (now Buddhists and Jains, and therefore marginalized by the HAF as non-Hindu and, in their eyes, not-quite-Indian) developed.

    In addition, most of the practice of yoga, even within the “Hindu” world, was historically done outside the very Brahmin-centric vision of the HAF.

    1. That’s putting it more strongly than I was comfortable doing, for sure. Thanks for the added perspective!

      I think all my main points pretty well stand even if you remove HAF from it. It’s just the article kind of “clicked” what I was thinking about — needing to see what this is all about uprooted from the U.S.

      More broadly, do you think their point about decoupling yoga from Hinduism — and I’m just thinking the roots of folks like Guruji, who clearly bound things together — is also suspect?

      I also should say that in many ways I’m trying to use “Hindu” in a broad meaning of: From India. The Namarupa reading list, thus far, seems to be headed in that broader direction.

      S

      1. Well, given the fact that Guruji and Krishnamacharya were comfortable teaching the practice to folks who were not “Hindu” speaks to the preservation of some (in my opinion, imaginary) coupling of Yoga and “Hinduism” (which I put in quotes because it is a point of contention as to what exactly constitutes Hinduism) being the wrong way to frame the issue. For both teachers it was a spiritual practice, and it seems to me that the decoupling at issue is from that side. The connection to the spiritual, however, need not be to anything “Hindu” (we can also see this in the fact that their respective faiths, Smārta Śaivism for Guruji, and Śrīvaiṣṇavism for Krishnamacharya are considerably different, from the deity worshipped right down to their fundamental world view). That Yoga is no longer tied to the attainment asaṃprajñāta samādhi is the problem, not how we might conceive of what that samādhi ultimately entails.

      2. Isaac, you hit on what’s probably central to my point, or at least my own questioning (and what HAF is arguing about): What’s the proper spiritual connection to yoga. I’m going to guess that most of us would agree that there has to be something “deeper” to it, or it’s just gymnastics.

        I will admit to leaning toward a Hinduism base seemingly needing to be there, given the tradition out of which this limb of yoga comes. But then you have someone like Richard Freeman, who has explored a variety of religious / spiritual traditions.

        For me, I guess, I’m uncomfortably not acknowledging or exploring what I’d say clearly is the main spiritual root: Hinduism. (And yes, Hinduism can’t be as easily delineated as Christianity.) But I bring to that exploration a whole host of my own background that informs it… so who knows where I’ll come out (if I come out at all).

        S

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