by Trang Huynh
When I first started practicing yoga, I never really put too much thought into how yoga was introduced to the West or why it was taught the way it was. I was much more focused on my own self and what yoga could do for me. As I transitioned into a yoga teacher, I realized the immense responsibility I had just taken on—to accurately disseminate a tradition that I suddenly felt I knew very little about. Thus launched my passionate dive into investigating what “traditional” yoga was and how I could be a more “authentic yogi”, whatever that means. Now slowly realizing that perhaps there is no such thing as an authentic yoga or yogi, my curiosity has shifted towards understanding the process and underlying factors through which different yoga traditions have spread and have been adopted. Understanding that yoga has a rich and complex history, I appreciated Julian Walker’s weaving of a few key moments in Western history which he argues has influenced the shaping of yoga as we know it today—the historical thread he likened to the story of Ariadne’s thread.
by Megan Mack
“The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of divinity; and still trembling the robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it is I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision.” (Thoreau, 97)
One of the first American authors to incorporate the yogic paths espoused in the Bhagavad Gītā into his everyday practices and life’s work was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau wrote Walden between July 4th, 1845 and September 6th, 1847 while squatting off the grid on a plot of land near Walden Pond. The lifestyle he undertook at this time prioritized the values of the Bhagavad Gītā. Through Thoreau’s writing, another portion of the world was exposed to the Bhagavad Gītā’s teachings without direct contact to the original work. Swami Vivekananda recognized how his reception in the United States was readied because the “soil had already been prepared to receive and foster the seeds of the Vedãnta by Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, the Anglo-Saxon forerunners of the spirit of Asia” (Sarma 76). Since that time, yogis have felt a kinship to Thoreau and claimed him as one of their own. Furthermore, there has begun a discourse about which type of yoga Thoreau practiced.
By Ashley McKeachie
Although the first four chapters in “The Story of Yoga in America,” authored by Stefanie Syman, reveal three men who were primarily thought to be responsible for yoga’s assimilation into America, it was impossible not to recognize the influence of women as the main proponent of yoga’s introduction to the West. Chapter 1 is titled, “Brahma?” and while Syman doesn’t go into much detail about the aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Moody Emerson, without her, Emerson would not have been encouraged or inspired to read Indian texts. I couldn’t help but think that Syman provided information about her to begin a thread of feminism in her book, so I did a little bit of research on this fascinating woman who lived to be almost 90 years old.
Mary Moody’s influence on Emerson seems to hold her responsible for his success as a writer, and also to his interests in the Orient. She began her young life as a caretaker, and although she was poor and given great responsibility to tend for her ailing grandmother and mentally insane aunt at two years old, she had a passion for learning and education, which she passed down to her nephew. She went to live with Emerson and his brothers to help raise them when their father died, and encouraged them to write daily journal entries, read poetry, interact in nature, and pursue risk-taking endeavors. Mary Moody was the one who emboldened Emerson to read Hindu scriptures and “directed him to Rammohun Roy’s translation of the Ishopanishad and indulged his early dismissals of Roy and his religions” (Syman 16). By this account, she was the catalyst that created his career, and inspired him to write his famous poem, “Brahma,” published in 1857. Continue reading
History of Modern Yoga
Sept. 26, 2016
Reflections on How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice (by Susanna Barkataki)
A vital aspect of ‘orientalism’ when applied to the study of yoga is the vast effect of colonization on how the West sees the East. The colonial attitude towards ‘othering’ and cultural appropriation was one of dominator and subjugated, strong and meak, saviors and the one’s needing saving. Most importantly, the colonial approach also involved taking parts of other cultures and assimilating them as their own. The attitude and orientation of West and East that we see today are still greatly affected by the post-colonial legacy, and at least to some extent, this is seen in a casual analysis of modern yoga. Is modern yoga in the West a classic example of cultural appropriation? Is yoga in its modern form still affected by these Colonial attitudes? What can be changed as yoga moves forward? These are some of the questions that Susanna Barkataki deals with in her article, How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice (www.decolonizingyoga.com/decolonize-yoga-practice).
Susanna Barkataki writes from an interesting perspective in that she is Indian and “a descendent of a lineage of Ayurvedic healers and teachers”, but she grew up and lives in Los Angeles. Her perspective is that yoga is a victim of post-colonial attitudes and that her “culture is being stripped of its meaning and sold back to [her] in forms that feel humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst”. She feels that she should be naturally comfortable in a yoga studio, a piece of Indian culture, however she states that, “As an Indian woman living in the U.S. I’ve often felt uncomfortable in many yoga spaces” (due to OM symbols being hung backwards and other pedantic attempts to convey Indian culture). She see modern Colonisation of yoga in this way- “To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land … this is the feeling I get in most Westernized yoga spaces today.” Continue reading
Sept. 20, 2016
Reflections on Modern Yoga versus Traditional Yoga by Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
Article link- http://www.swamij.com/traditional-yoga.htm
When I was younger I was very sensitive to people haphazardly throwing around the title yogi or yogini. I thought that even though many, many people may practice yoga, the title yogi/ yogini should be reserved for someone who is actually a yoga practitioner that is on the spiritual path. This idea that there is a division between yoga practitioners on the spiritual path and practitioners seeking mainly physical benefits serves as the basis for Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati’s critique of modern yoga in the online article entitled, Modern Yoga versus Traditional Yoga. Swami Jnaneshvara is part of Swami Rama’s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swami_Rama) lineage and currently teaches at Swami Rama’s former ashram, Sadhana Mandir in Rishikesh, India, as well as the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust in India. He also lectures and teaches in the United States.
The general overtone of Swami Jnaneshvara’s article is that there is a definite division between traditional and modern yoga which is marked by modern yoga’s focus and reliance on physical aspects rather than spiritual union (which is a hallmark of ‘traditional yoga’). He sees modern yoga as being very problematic due to modern yoga’s particular reliance on asana. This focus on just asana has skewed the proper goal of yoga into one based around physical fitness instead of spiritual attainment. Modern yoga has mistaken a tool (asana) for the ultimate goal (samadhi). This poem by Jnaneshvara elucidates up this point- Continue reading
By Ashley McKeachie
I recently attended a yoga retreat in Malibu at the end of August this year with my yoga-bestie, Andrea. It was advertised for full-time yoga teachers who were interested in an intensive weekend that focused on intelligent sequencing, a deeper understanding of anatomy, clearing up antiquated cues, and working on incorporating yoga philosophical themes into group classes. I was really excited to be surrounded by my peers, and booked my spot before I left for my five-week adventure in India. However, instead of the typical positive engagement that I was used to experiencing in a yoga workshop, including those “a-ha moments,” and feeling inspired and full of energy to begin a new and successful year, I felt confused, disengaged, and suspicious of the information presented before me. I was missing the connections between all the subtleties I had learned over this past year in my graduate studies of yoga, with this modern, unrefined exercise that drives thousands of students to yoga studios. I felt that I had paid good money to have an authentic experience, ($595 for 2 nights and 2 days), but it felt watered down, twisted, and molded into something else that only resembled the genuine essence of yoga.
by Ellie Grace
Yoga Woman is a documentary-style film about the rise and phenomenon of women yoga teachers and practitioners in the world. Though its focus is largely on the Californian yoga scene it also pays homage to a number of female teachers in India, Africa and Europe. Its narrator is female, as are each of the ‘talking heads’ who provide commentary.
The film opens by laying yoga’s roots in the supposedly masculine discipline which was taught by oral and practical transmission from guru to disciple, making mention of the fact that post-Vedic (as well as Brahmanical and early Hatha texts) cited women as an impediment to abhyasa, practice.
The film debunks these original treatises by charting the ascent of women in postmodern yoga schools, authorship and studios by suggesting that modern lifestyles have called for greater female particpiation in all spheres of life, not least in the multi-tasking of women’s lives in the post-war period, and in the increased demands that such a lifestyle plays in women’s health. Pregnancy yoga, yoga for cancer survivors and yoga for menopausal women feature prominently in the film’s portrayal, and explicitly refer to the need in women’s life cycles for specificity when working with the body in transition and illness.
Given that our study of original scriptures has shown repeated and insistent emphasis on yoga as a purificatory practice, the development of yoga in contemporary terms into the realm of helath and wellness comes as little surprise. After all, we live in a globalised world where the borrowing of artefacts, practices and traditions from other native cultures is commonplace. We’re also highly individuated in such a way as to give us an excuse to take what we want from the annals of history and re-shape it to suit our consumerist way of life. This is particularly true in the US and the European colonial nations that migrated to America, wherein cultural appropriation has been prevalent for the last 500 years. What’s interesting to me is Continue reading
by Amy Osborne
I walked into my Bikram yoga class with high anticipation; it was my first trip in several months after stopping my annual membership two years ago. I had just entered my M.A. in Yoga Studies program and found little time for yoga in between papers and day jobs (and night jobs) throughout the two-year program. Also, admittedly, the controversy over the fallen guru/businessman, Bikram Choudhury, persisted for several years and was a lot to digest. But today, finally, I would go back; and not just once. I was recommitting myself to a regular practice with a fully enrolled one-year membership to Bikram yoga. To me, it was like renewing my commitment to living in yoga just by stepping foot inside the studio, even and especially in spite of its controversy. It feels as natural as breathing to return back to where it all began for my journey in yoga. And, in many ways, throughout college, several visits abroad and a cross-country move, this particular place, setting and sequence even feels like coming “home.”
by Kija Manharé
The awakening of the kuṇḍalinī energy is something that spiritual seekers, and practitioners of Yoga and various types of meditation have sought for centuries. Found mostly in esoteric writings, the knowledge of kuṇḍalinī, the subtle body, cakras, nāḍīs and kuṇḍalinī awakening has been around for centuries. The knowledge of the energetic system and science of the subtle body has been very thoroughly studied, mapped out and documented in ancient Indian texts, particularly those of the Haṭha Yoga and Tantra traditions. Techniques on how to raise the kuṇḍalinī can be found in the Gheranda Samhita, the Śiva Samhita and the Haṭhapradīpikā as well as in Upaniṣads such as the Yoga-Kuṇḍalini Upaniṣad. In Tantric Buddhist texts the knowledge of kuṇḍalinī awakening is seen in the writings on Tummo or the “Vital Warmth.” And within this knowledge from the Haṭha Yoga and Tantric traditions is the even more esoteric form of kuṇḍalinī awakening known as śaktipāt.
Śaktipāt, also known as śaktipāt dīkṣā (śaktipāt initiation), is a unique means of kuṇḍalinī awakening that is brought about through the transmission of energy from a guru to his/her disciple. Traditionally this initiation is built on the close relationship of guru and disciple that unfolded in a lifelong association of surrender and service. But in modern times this method of kuṇḍalinī awakening has had to adapt as the needs of seekers have changed. As Andrea Jain has documented in Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture, postural yoga became a part of pop culture during the second half of the twentieth century due to cultural changes and the spread of consumer culture,. During this time, as part of that movement of postural yoga into popular culture, knowledge of the subtle body system and kuṇḍalinī also moved out into a much wider public arena, and along with it the technique of śaktipāt initiation. It did not come into the mainstream popular culture the way postural yoga did, but compared to its esoteric roots, the knowledge and dissemination of śaktipāt grew exponentially. What fostered this change, and how did it take place? Continue reading