A book you should read: ‘American Veda’

Last fall, in my continuing quest to figure out what this yoga is all about, I read two books in particular. “The Hindus” was one, which we’ve mentioned in passing before.

The second was “American Veda,” by Philip Goldberg.

I had been meaning to dive a little deeper into Goldberg’s book here as a way to say, more or less, “if you’re enough into Ashtanga and yoga to be reading a blog on them, you ought to take a look at this book.”

Goldberg traces the influence of Indian and Hindu thought on American culture, dating back to the “first American yogis.” You may have heard of them: Thoreau, Ermerson and Whitman. (We’ve run poems by the latter two, in fact.)

What I found compelling about the book was how neatly Goldberg was able to showcase all the different threads and provide an authoritative and comprehensive timeline of when different people and different lines of thinking made their mark on American culture.

That he does so in a readable and engaging style is just the topper.

Well, it’s the topper of the reason to read the book. But the real topper of this post is that I waited long enough that Bobbie and I had the chance to meet Goldberg and his wife on New Year’s Eve.

We lucked into an invite to the party of the director of Yoga Gives Back. A great party it was, too. Good food and good conversation.

We tried, I promise, not to monopolize Goldberg’s time, and he was tremendously gracious in putting up with us and our questions. Given it was a New Year’s Eve party, you’ll forgive my inability to remember everything we talked about verbatim, but I do recall what he said was the most surprising thing he discovered in working on the book:

That so many Indian thinkers/yogis/religious leaders came to America, put down small roots and then returned to India. This happened a lot; it wasn’t just Vivekanda and Yogananda and then the Beatles.

While Goldberg didn’t then tie that idea directly to the larger theme of the book — that Indian thought has taken its own deep roots in American culture — I think it is indicative of how that has happened. It wasn’t just a few bright, bright stars, although they helped. There have been many threads, many sutras, if you will, that has melded Indian thought with American ones.

In the book, Goldberg also doesn’t shy away from the many controversies that, real or not, have attached themselves to various gurus.

And in the end, I think he produces a history of Vedic thought in America that ought to be on any yogi’s shelf.

And a bonus. The website for the book provides more than just is between the covers. So your exploration can continue.

Posted by Steve

Yoga as a system of ‘health management’

You might be shocked to hear this, but yoga is a big fitness craze in Kenya.

Well, it is according to a column by a fitness consultant at allAfrica.com.

I highlight it because it seems to capture some of the best and worst preconceptions of yoga.

First, here are some of the best (all direct quotes):

  • Several scientific research papers have been published by some of the world’s leading universities, affirming the positive effects of regular yoga in the alleviation of the symptoms and severity of a wide range of medical conditions including asthma, arthritis, high blood pressure, gastro-intestinal issues, varicose veins and depression.
  • These two [asana and pranayama] are combined in sequence to create a flowing series of physical postures, each of which individually targets, stretches, opens and improves muscle tone in specific parts or organs of the body.
  • The heat you build doing sun salutations, for instance, is what allows your muscles and joints to open up and stretch safely without too much resistance.
  • At the same time, it is one of the most demanding physical tasks you will ever accomplish in your life. No wonder pop stars like Madonna and Sting swear by yoga as the key to a great physique!
  • There are vigorous and dynamic styles of yoga such as Power Yoga, Ashtanga and Vinyansa, where there is a strong emphasis on strength and fluidity of movement, and which can prove very challenging for the uninitiated.
  • But there are also calm restorative forms of yoga, such as Iyengar Yoga and Hatha Yoga, in which poses are held for a considerable length of time and emphasis is on breathing and relaxation in order to promote healing of old injuries and imbalances and to strengthen the mind body connection.
  • For as long as you live in your body, you have to maintain it, and nothing does that more simply and comprehensively than the regular practice of yoga.
And now, a few of the worst:
  • Of course, there is no truth in that myth, because far from being a religious practice, yoga is actually a system of health management that seeks to guarantee good health on several different levels, including mental health and physical health.
  • You will burn calories, become flexible and simultaneously tone every single muscle in your body in half the time it takes to squeeze a regular gym session into your busy schedule. The only thing left to do is to find a class that suits you.

Now, that’s not too bad a ratio. The fitness consultant, not surprisingly, seems to get the physical aspects and benefits of yoga — and I think explains them pretty well. Of course, if you’re like me, your alarm bells are going off at the idea that yoga is merely — that’s my takeaway — a “system of health management.”

But, if you think about it, that’s one way — back in the 1970s and ’80s as yoga began to spread with abandon here in America — that yoga gets its foot in the door, so to speak. All that scary Indian and Hindu stuff has to be pushed aside; the practice has to be made safe.

What I then anticipate happening, to some people, is all that scary stuff wells up and becomes part of the practice. At least, that’s my experience.

But what of those people for whom yoga just remains a “system of health management?” Is that enough? Is it better than nothing? Is it preparation for their next time around, when maybe yoga will be something more?

Posted by Steve