I received a lot of feedback on my article, "Considering Yoga in the West: Is it Really Yoga?" It was a challenging one to write, and as I stated in the end - it left me with more questions that answers. This article is meant to be a follow up, of sorts.
I spoke on this topic with a friend and mentor, Anthony Bogart. He inspired me to write go a little deeper and take a different perspective.
A common theme amongst all the different people who gave me feedback was how I should focus more on intention.
While I believe that we need to be mindful of the opportunities where we can be misunderstood, or unintentionally harmful, when it comes to potential cultural appropriation and abuse of privilege -- I also believe that heart-centered and noble intentions are meaningful.
This is where my intersection as a social worker and yoga teacher can bring up seemingly conflicting points of view. Ultimately, it comes down most simply to doing no harm through ahimsa.
In this article, I will explore traditional versus modern yoga, the relationship between ahimsa and intention, and a little reflection on yoga's journey towards capitalism.
Traditional Versus Modern Yoga
Nearly twenty years ago, Swami Janakananda titled their editorial "Call it something else!" when referring to modern "gymnastics yoga." This is a similar sentiment to what I expressed in my other article: "Considering Yoga in the West: Is it Really Yoga?"
Traditional yoga did include asana, but they were not typically intended to target muscle groups or treat physical ailments like modern yoga often is presented. Instead, they may have focussed on the flow of energy, or preparing the body for higher limbs of yoga (meditation) or sitting for long periods of time.
Traditional ashtanga yoga focuses on the ladder up the limbs to samadhi or enlightenment. In samadhi, we transcend the ego. At that point of egolessness, things that are emphasized in modern yoga - like alignment, daily practice, progress, advanced variations - are completely irrelevant.
But are any of us typical modern humans ever going to reach samadhi? Not likely.
Modern yoga has been innovated to meet the needs of modern mankind - who finds themselves living in a seemingly ego-driven and capitalistic world... but more on that later.
How Does Intention Relate to Ahimsa?
Ahimsa is "universal love and compassion," and being "non-violent in thought and action, in body and soul." According to Jainism, ahimsa also extends to consider intentional and unintentional violence again any life form as resulting in negative karma.
So, to go back to my points in the other article - if someone who has class and racial privilege teaches yoga with the intention of sharing a beautiful practice in hopes to bring peace and unity unknowingly and unintentionally brings up suffering in the form of negative feelings of oppression or cultural appropriation - is that unintentional violence?
Is that breaking ahimsa? Does that mean they should stop?
I invite the idea that this should be something that is taught in every single yoga teacher trainings for teachers to be aware of and sensitive to - the same way we have learned to teach about getting consent for hands-on adjustments. You may do harm, with absolutely no intention of doing so.
If we talk more about racial and class privilege in the yoga world, and are more open about yoga's recent history in the last 100 years - we may be able to avoid doing more harm.
Yoga and It's Path Toward Capitalism
When I spoke to my friend and mentor that I mentioned earlier, Tony, I sure wish I recorded it because he is full of knowledge and history! As someone who began practicing yoga in the early '70s and opened his own studio in the '80s, he watched an evolution of yoga in America unfold.
When we spoke, he provided a unique perspective when I presented to him the ideas of my previous article (that I'll admit - felt a little accusatory and was hard for me to even bring to the conversation). He told me there was a time when yoga was in the counterculture, and those in the counterculture were persecuted in varying ways.
Around the world, yogis were not allowed to practice yoga because the principles of self-liberation deviated from the idea of political control over the individual. The only way to keep yoga alive, and safe to practice, was to bring it into the mainstream capitalist culture.
Another thing that my mentor said to me is that amongst the yogic community there is a deep need to understand that "yoga schools are not separate but really cousins." These schools evolved from the same roots, and they also often get lost in the illusion of separateness.
Again, that sneaky ego of our oh-so-human experience rears its influence.
Of course, creating separateness through distinct yoga schools supported capitalistic goals. Different schools, lineages - and ultimately different types of studios and teacher trainings - provided different niche markets.
This is what happened during the 1960s and 1970s. To this day, there remains a stark division between lineages of yoga and their practitioners.
Some of the most influential yogis and gurus in the 1960s and 1970s that helped with yoga's path towards mainstream culture include:
- Swami Vishnudevananda, who came to San Francisco in 1958 and soon thereafter founded Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers
- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who spread Transcendental Meditation across the Americas in the 60s
- B.K.S. Iyengar, who began to emphasize alignment and anatomy in the '60s and '70s, creating yet another school of yoga.
The Fantasy of Happiness
An interview with the author of “The Happiness Fantasy,” Carl Cederström, speaks directly to the counterculture movement and how it was usurped by the mainstream culture and capitalism at large.
Yoga was seen not only as a tool for physical fitness, but also as a tool for individual happiness. However, in doing that, it actually fuels the self-interested ego. The idea of union, practiced in yoga, was bought and sold to us as something to be achieved for the individual.
Yet, in actuality, union of body-mind-spirit must include spirit - which extends our union to a greater place in the whole interconnected Universe.
So, capitalism and yoga arguably contradict each other because it actually brings us further from our spiritual development.
But, unless we are retreating into the mountains for a life as a monk, we live in such a world where capitalism must be incorporated into our lifestyle.
We are householders. We pay our bills with money earned from a capitalistic culture.
Making The Best
We do the best with what we've got.
Traditional yoga was simply not meant to be practiced in the world that we find ourselves in today. The only way is to adapt our yoga practice to fit our current political, economic, and spiritual landscape.
That does not mean we can't challenge ourselves to keep as true to the core values as we can. But, as my mentor implored me to do, we also have to cut ourselves some slack.
Yoga and capitalism can contradict each other and still be worthwhile to blend together.
What is the intention? Are we doing harm?
The more we focus on what brings us into union, rather than what makes us separate, the more we we can be aligned with what yoga truly is.