Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Yoga: Not as Old as You Think …nor very Hindu

Meera Nanda - ... The purist Hindu position, articulated by the HAF, is that all yoga, including its physical or hatha yoga component, is rooted in the Hindu religion/way of life that goes all the way back to the Vedic sages and yogis. ... There is only one problem with this purist history of yoga: it is false. Yogic asanas were never ‘Vedic’ to begin with. Far from being considered the crown jewel of Hinduism, yogic asanas were in fact looked down upon by Hindu intellectuals and reformers—including the great Swami Vivekananda—as fit only for sorcerers, fakirs and jogis. Moreover, what HAF calls the “rape of yoga”, referring to the separation of asanas from their spiritual underpinning, did not start in the supposedly decadent West; it began, in fact, in the akharas and gymnasiums of 19th and 20th century India run by Indian nationalists seeking to counter Western images of effete Indians. It is in this nationalistic phase that hatha yoga took on many elements of Western gymnastics and body-building, which show up in the world-renowned Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa schools of yoga. Far from honestly acknowledging the Western contributions to modern yoga, we Indians simply brand all yoga as ‘Vedic,’ a smug claim that has no intellectual integrity.

It is the hidden history of modern postural yoga that is the main theme of this essay. But first, some background on the great ‘take back yoga’ movement.


Yoga is to North America what McDonald’s is to India: both are foreign implants gone native. Not unlike the golden arches that are mushrooming in Indian cities, the urban and suburban landscape of the United States is dotted with neighbourhood health clubs, spas and even churches and synagogues offering yoga classes.

Some 16 million Americans do some form of yoga, primarily as a part of their exercise and fitness routine. When everyday Americans talk about yoga, they mostly mean hatha yoga, involving stretches, breathing and bodily postures.

Many styles of postural yoga, pioneered by India-origin teachers—the Iyengar and Sivananda schools, the Ashtanga Vinyasa or ‘power yoga’ of Pattabhi Jois, and ‘hot yoga,’ recently copyrighted by Bikram Chaudhary—thrive in the United States. The more meditational forms of yoga, popularised by the disciples of Vivekananda, Sivananda and other swamis, are less popular. Americans’ preference for postural yoga over meditational yoga is not all that unique: in India, too, hundreds of millions follow Baba Ramdev, India’s most popular tele-yogi, who teaches a medicalised, asana-oriented yoga with little spiritual or meditational content.

By and large, the US yoga industry does not hide the origins of what it teaches. On the contrary, in a country that is so young and so constantly in flux, yoga’s presumed antiquity (‘the 5,000-year-old exercise system’, etcetera.) and its connections with Eastern spirituality have become part of the sales pitch. Thus, doing namastes, intoning ‘om’ and chanting Sanskrit mantras have become a part of the experience of doing yoga in America. Many yoga studios use Indian classical or kirtan music, incense, signs of ‘om’ and other paraphernalia of the Subcontinent to create a suitably spiritual ambience. ....

via Not as Old as You Think | OPEN Magazine.

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