To many, the Western approach to yoga is just another manifestation of Western materialistic ideals, albeit in a more spiritual-looking packaging. Yes, the Western take on yoga provides fodder for endless discussion, often stirring offense and even division within the hordes of those who claim yoga as their own worldwide today. Dr. Kenneth Liberman’s article, “Yoga Tourism in India” gives a sobering account of this modern yoga craze, and illustrates not only how far it has physically spread from its Indian roots, but how far its practice has also straying from these roots as well …
(Yoga Life, 35. No. 7, 2004)
By: Kenneth Liberman
It is not a widely known fact, but Swami Vivekananda did not go to the Chicago World Congress of Religions in 1898 for the purpose of proselytizing Yoga or Vedanta. The brahmin masters of these two Hindu traditions generally bear some skepticism about the likelihood of foreigners or non-Hindus achieving substantial spiritual accomplishments. They are open to teaching Westerners, but the more traditional among them have expressed the opinion that perhaps the most that an American should hope for is to be reborn as a brahmin, presumably male. While their skepticism is surely myopic, it may not be very far from being a correct assessment of the results of America’s encounters with Hinduism.
The actual aim of Swami Vivekananda’s journey to America a century ago was to encourage financial investment in economic projects in India, an aspiration that has turned out, a century later, to be more successful than the propagation of ahimsa, aparigraha, pratiyahara, and other fabulous but formidable core practices of Hindu culture. It is for certain that America has bred more capitalists in India than India has been able to foster yogis in America, provided that we hold to a chaste definition of “yogi.” This is no fault of Indians, since the American culture of self-satiation does not lend itself naturally to recognizing the shortcomings of ahamkara.
For most Americans, both in the US and in India, a “yogi” usually refers to a person who “does” yoga. And by “yoga” what is meant is the practice of asana, the physical positions that compose the third of the eight limbs of yoga, according to Patanjali. Alongside this practice of asana, there may be the suggestion of something spiritual affixed to it, but not any hard-core religiosity, since most of the Americans who practice yoga (and especially those who have come to India to study it further) have rejected anything that is too regulated or doctrinaire. One must have some independence of mind to begin to adopt cultural practices that are not one’s own, and typically, American students of yoga are fiercely independent, original (autochthonic would be the precise term), and somewhat self-reliant.
If they are sung at all, bhajans are sung for the sake of “feeling nice” and not for their core spiritual content. “Meditation” (dharana) may be attempted, but the five yama and five niyama are usually not known by their names, much less practiced. Pratiyahara, the cultivation of one’s resources for contentment besides what can be provided by the senses, is missing altogether.
What is it to “do” yoga?
This question has been contemplated by tens of thousands of Americans who now gaze upon yoga magazines on the supermarket counters. For the vast majority of Americans, “yoga” is a not-too-strenuous way to lose fat effectively and to reduce the stress of a busy life, [usually] in that order. For Americans who are not overweight, “doing” yoga involves more strenuous postures that permit one to achieve some slender muscularity, become more flexible, firm up the abdomen, and above all, retain a tight butt.
Others find their way to “yoga” in order to delay or reverse the onset of arthritis in their joints. Those who keep up a practice of asana for as long as six months express satisfaction with the firmness of their calves and abdomens, and sense of well-being. The fact that the buttocks really do become tight motivates additional dedication (i.e., if there was doubt about the spiritual benefits of “yoga,” the cultivation of a tight butt overcomes such hesitation). In sum, “yoga” is viewed as a way to become more beautiful.
What these motives share in common is that they are all directed to a notion of yoga in which the most vital aspects are missing entirely. Swami Vivekananda would not even have recognized it.
About The Author:
Kenneth Liberman is a Professor, Dept. of Sociology, University of Oregon and Fulbright scholar in India, lecturing at Pondicherry University.