Yoga’s Lost Hindu Roots and Me

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This caught my eye on Facebook the other day:

Yoga’s Lost Hindu Roots.

Well, since I was all angst about my fancy yoga pants and yoga mat the other day, and every so often think, “Is this what yoga is all about?”, I thought I should point out that there are many people who are seriously not happy that we’ve taken yoga postures and separated them from the original, largely spiritual, yogic path.

In fact, they are taking it personally.

Not Letting My Roots Show?

I don’t teach a particularly spiritual yoga class. I teach at the gym, and I assume people don’t come for flowery, “open your mind to the divine essence,” talk there. Most come for the workout, as well as the physical and mental benefits of relaxing and releasing stress.

The top two reasons I hear people say they go to yoga, in fact, are for the stretching and to let go of stress.

Frankly, that’s what Americans – and most Western cultures – most need from yoga. We are a multi-tasking culture with never-ending work obligations. Technology is tying people to their work 24 hours a day – and on vacations! If yoga is the time they get to take a break from that, all apologies to purists, let them take a friggin’ break.

I also (not-so) secretly believe the very act of bringing oneself into the body and being fully present is a spiritual process. I may not be worshiping Krishna when I practice yoga, but I am mindful in my practice, and bring sincere intention to this moment. That translates to a more holistic life, in general, and I would say that is the very definition of a spiritual process.

I don’t make many nods to Indian yoga, in general. I don’t use Sanskrit words in my classes. Very rarely, I may drop in a tadasana, savasana or dandasana, but usually I use an English variation on the terms. It just makes sense to me, to teach class to American students using words they’ll understand. I’m not Indian, and it seems a little silly to put on Indian airs.

I do close class with a namaste sometimes, because it is such a lovely concept, and my classes always sound so lovely when they say it back.

Yogi – Now and Then

I’m reading Autobiography of a Yogi (free on Kindle!), and while I absolutely see what the “Take Back Yoga” campaign is saying, I don’t really want to give it back. I like my yoga practice. I love it. I value the work that fellow yoga instructors do every day, and the increased quality of life they add to their communities.

This isn’t how it used to work in India. There weren’t weekend or 200-hr yoga programs that enabled practitioners to share their knowledge – especially women!-  in a practical way. They might have used terms like “practical” and “scientific” to pass on meditation techniques and some hatha postures, but the system was very, very different. If you wanted to be a yogi, you were initiated by a guru, and vowed to renounce the material world. If you wanted to become a master, you had to personally give up the material world, and go live at an ashram. Your daily life would revolve around the guru. Forget thinking for yourself.

Very little of Autobiography of a Yogi is practical. Most of the book is filled with mystical tales of yogis who have mastered matter, can appear in two places at one time, read minds, live eternally or leave their bodies at will to pay off karmic debts. That’s all well and good, but I honestly believe the yoga we practice today – in all its physical variations – is much more practical and scientifically based.

Every certified yoga teacher has at least a measure of understanding of basic human anatomy; most have undertaken weeks, months or even years of anatomy education. We understand so much more about the root causes of disease due to stress, and the benefits of relaxation on human physiology. The ancient yogis were able to intuit an awful lot about the human body, and I don’t doubt their wisdom, but our modern yoga practice is much stronger and safer for the scientific and medical knowledge even the layman yogi applies.

This is the real gift of combining Eastern and Western knowledge, which was one of Swami Yogananda’s goals in coming to America. I don’t know, he might be disappointed at the path it has taken. He might not.

I’ll close with one of my favorite passages from his book. As a young man, even after he’d found his guru, he tried to run away to join the Himalayan yogis several times, but was always brought back. On his last trip, one of the Himalayan yogis finally said to him:

“Are you able to have a little room where you can close the door and be alone?”

“Yes.” …

“That is your cave.” The yogi bestowed on me a gaze of illumination which I have never forgotten. “That is your sacred mountain. That is where you will find the kingdom of God.”

His simple words instantaneously banished my lifelong obsession for the Himalayas.

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