By: Kenneth Liberman
Quite a few Americans who have cultivated a “practice” – usually referred to possessively as “my practice” – find their way to India to secure further instruction at dozens, if not hundreds, of centers for teaching “yoga.” Few of these centers offer much more than asana and a web-site, although some elementary pranayama may be included. At a number of these establishments the commoditisation of yoga has taken hold, and ad hoc yoga-tourism industries, actively promoted by the Government of India, have bloomed wherever American yoga students gather. (I speak of “Americans,” since I know them best, but much of what I describe may be applied to European and Latin American nationalities.)
Yoga is for sale, almost exclusively asana, and there are a great many purchasers who come for periods of a few weeks to a few months and even years, if they can secure the visas. The commoditisation – yoga mats, yoga bags, yoga shirts, yoga leotards, etc., mostly geared to the practice of asana – is an American modification of yoga, and not part of the original ascetic ideal of a yogi practicing aparigraha, perhaps living in the forest sitting on an animal skin in padmasana. But it does ironically fulfill Swami Vivekananda’s dream of American investment in India.
The typical day of a yoga student in Varanasi or Rishikesh, Kovalam or Goa, Mysore or Poona, begins with the student’s “practice” of asana – beginning a little too early for most students’ preferences (5 or 6 am, but some sacrifice seems appropriate). A few enterprising Indian yoga teachers have learned that there is a solid niche in the yoga market for an 8 am starting time, and they are able to secure more students that way.
Following a post-asana shower, there is always a large, healthy vegetarian breakfast to be found. This usually takes place in the dining room or yard of an enterprising Indian housewife, but a number of yoga students themselves have recognized the opening for a more Western-oriented menu, and Westerner owned and operated black market restaurants have appeared spontaneously, which permit the students to fraternize among themselves, uninterrupted by actual people from India.
Enterprising Americans (“Are all Americans so enterprising? I wish we Indians were equally enterprising,” an Indian housewife once told me) have purchased automatic washing machines and will do yoga students’ laundry for a fee, relieving students of the opportunity to attempt to communicate with even a dhobi (an Indian washer-person), or indeed wash their own clothes by hand.
American yoga aspirants remain very much inside their own cultural universe and have minimal contact with Indian society, except for the commoditized yoga they desire and receive. They cannot read any signs in the regional language, learn little about the politics or culture (“We’re only here for a few months”), and keep their focus upon their own practice of asana. The most appalling part of it is that many of them suffer from a smugness that is derived from having completed such a fine, advanced practice of asana early in the morning, entitling them to spend the rest of the day in idleness while bearing a feeling of superiority toward most any other person they meet during the day.
Following the breakfast, many yoga students head off into “town” or “city” for shopping and generally end up at a four or five-star hotel’s swimming pool where they rendezvous with their fellow practitioners and encounter only the few smiling but sycophantic Indians who work on the hotel’s staff. The pool-sides are not all that different from the pool-sides in their own back yards in America, and one wonders what kind of seekers would try to duplicate the identical milieu they already know.
By their own reports, many of them did come on a quest of sorts, but they are misguided by the American yoga tourists who have preceded them and who quickly school them in the routes for deriving amusement from the Indian locality. Insulated by a critical mass of like-minded pleasure-seekers, they are socialized quickly to a mild hedonism, and they unnecessarily limit their opportunities for discovering India; instead, they invest a good deal of their energies shopping, a task at which they are masters.
It can be said without any cynicism that Americans are brilliant at shopping, and India offers quality and bargains that cannot be obtained in the US. The same brand-name clothing Indians ship to the US is available on the Indian market for a fraction of its US cost. The cotton and silk garments are luxurious, and woollen shawls and sweaters are rich, natural, and sold for less than a second-hand store in the US would sell them. Cassettes of the latest world music are available for $2 each, and a fabulous array of Indian classical music is available for $1 each (CDs $2). India is the world’s second largest publisher of books in English, but they sell them for a tenth of what an American publisher charges. Woodcrafts, beauty oils, soaps, jewelry, the list of inexpensive items available keeps the “yoga” students’ heads spinning, and the satisfaction of acquiring so much for little money leaves the students satisfied that they have been living fruitfully.
But is that satisfaction a healthy thing, at least for a yogi who should be practicing abstinence from greed (aparigraha) instead of coveting everything that is spread out before one and is within one’s grasp? What is troubling about this is that the students are building vasana – habitual, automatic mind-energy patterns – for doing even more shopping, and it is not difficult to imagine that this vasana will continue to operate after they return to the US, rendering their trip to India a failure, by any yogic standard. It is not difficult to encounter American yogis who are shopping animals, ravenous for yet another bargain-filled outing.
Even for Americans with modest incomes, it is as if they have become rich at last. The serious problem here is not that they acquired a good book at a low cost, but that they have developed not more, but less, ability to be satisfied with few possessions (the practice of santosha, during which one learns to be responsible for one’s own contentment, without any props) – an accomplishment that will endlessly enrich their lives and that can serve as the basis for a real practice of yoga. That is why santosha and aparigraha belong to the niyama and yama (respectively) and are placed at the beginning of a yogi’s quest. Ask most students what is the meaning of aparigraha, and they will not be able to offer a response.
This is rendered more pathetic by considering that a majority of these yoga tourists are yoga teachers in the US. After the shopping comes the poolside activities – swimming, sun-tanning, and reading (which mostly consists of gossiping with friends while holding a book in one’s hand). A few yoga centers offer some afternoon classes or “satsangh,” but only a minority of American yoga students choose to attend them, preferring to attend the “anti-satsangh” of their poolside banter, or perhaps preferring the suntan itself. Asked about the wisdom of their selection, they typically mutter something about being “so tired” from waking up at such an early hour.
While some impromptu classes are offered by an ad hoc yoga tourism industry (including Indian cooking, Ayurvedic massage, Sanskrit, etc.), the Indian teachers of these classes, mostly ordinary householders, nearly always report surprise and dismay over the lack of responsibility many yoga students display by not showing up at classes for which they have registered, skipping classes (for the pool or party), or leaving town inadvertently forgetting to pay balances (insignificant to them but significant to most Indians) owed on services rendered. “One expects more from yoga students!” is the exasperated lament I have heard most frequently from Indians.
Study of any yoga that Swami Vivekananda would have recognized is rarely undertaken. Even book-reading is kept to a minimum, and most serious texts that elucidate the thought of Vedanta, Buddhism or Jainism are considered “too heady.” That is because many of the people who are attracted to yoga are vehemently anti-intellectual. The strategy of using the body and one’s 72,000 nerves in skillful ways to produce harmony – which is surely the genius of yoga – attracts Americans who have mostly rejected analytic strategies. Yes, we have bodies, but the point is to use them to gain more control over the mind, for the object of a practice of yoga is to control the mind.
In Vivekachudamani (which some attribute to Shankara) the sage himself cautions against “bookknowledge,” and yet Shankara is tendering this advice in a book. While the Chandogya Upanishad asserts, “If speech were not there, there would be no knowledge of virtue, truth and falsehood, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. Surely speech makes all this known.” Yet Swami Sivananda argues correctly that since samadhi is “beyond the reach of speech and mind, you will have to realize this yourself.” Hence, the study of texts is a necessary but not sufficient part of swadhaya (self-study), yet most yoga tourists skip the text study part, while offering glib anti-intellectual cants about the shallowness of words and the need for “actual practice.” One expects more from people who will teach yoga. Phrased differently, Hatha Yoga attracts participants in the tens (now possibly hundreds) of thousands, whereas Raja Yoga attracts hardly dozens.
One time during a visit to a Sanskrit university in Tamil Nadu, a curious stranger asked me “what kind of yoga” Swami Gitananda taught his students. I replied, “Hatha Yoga.” Unfortunately for me, Swamiji overheard me, and it was the only time that Swamiji ever became furious with me. He would not speak to me for the remainder of that day, commenting only that he “never” teaches Hatha yoga. (Actually, he only rarely taught it – and those were days when the earth would sing.) The next day I asked Swamiji what my answer should have been, and he replied “Ashtanga Yoga.”
By “Ashtanga” Swamiji meant all eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga. How emblematic it is of the problem facing American yoga that in America “Ashtanga Yoga,” is known widely as a highly athletic form of asana practice involving vinyasa and regulated breathing. It is a brilliant method of asana, but most Americans are unaware of the correct meaning of “ashtanga.” America has reinvented yoga in ways that are more compatible with its commoditized, pleasure-seeking culture.
While at the five-star hotel in the afternoon, American yoga students find beer and wine, and other alcoholic drinks – one sign at a yoga center advertised “Alcoholics Anonymous for Yogis.” It was not a joke. And non-vegetarian meals are the rule rather than the exception. The sterility of the social ambience of a hotel is compensated somewhat by the relief of its air conditioning. The real India may be waiting for the students a block a way, but for the afternoon it can remain out-of-mind.
It may be said objectively that the preoccupation of American “yogis” in India is courtship. Romantic love has its place, and loneliness is not to be praised; and even sexuality is to be celebrated. However, the average American residence in India of three months’ duration is marked most prominently by the high of a new love affair and the pain of its demise, often as the fallout of the entry of a third party and yet an additional affair. That would be alright if such experience would teach a lesson in false expectations and the projection of fantasies, but the disappointment more commonly is solved by cultivating a subsequent affair, until the day for leaving India finally arrives. Romantic partnership is legitimate, but so is yoga, which comes to play a bit part during the Indian sojourn, even though it may have motivated the journey. Whatever may be the value of such courtship, it is not what the rishis has in mind when they placed bramhacharya ion the list of yama.
Any day prior to a person’s departure is genuine grounds for a “yoga party” (I’m not making this up – but just which yogi is it who is searching for a party?). Since tourists are always arriving and departing, parties can be found a good deal of the time. Just what yogi is it who is searching for a party? If no one happens to be leaving, it may be someone’s birthday. If there are fifty yoga students in town, then there can be one birthday party per week. And the relative visibility of one’s birthday party becomes a sort of de facto measurement of one’s standing on the local social scale: the American yogis have successfully reproduced in India the social structure of their high school experience. What is difficult is to find a period of time that is without a party. One needs only interview the staff of the local Indian police station to collect the details, which include noise complaints and some drug usage.
So that is the yogi’s typical day in India. But it is the morning “practice” that ennobles it, and it is that practice by which a yoga sadakh may be judged. Of what precisely does the practice – to which yoga tourists are focused – consist? Young people seeking fitness, older people wanting to regain youth, most of them self-absorbed with a focused effort to become or remain attractive, focus their energies intently upon what each of them term “my practice.” For one or two hours they direct their energies (and in many cases this energy is abundant and highly directed) upon themselves. Only themselves. Each breath is a celebration of one’s body electric. It may be beautiful, but the danger is that it easily reinforces egotism and self-centeredness at the very time that one’s practice of yoga should be eradicating the self, egoistically conceived.
In all fairness, it may be said that a yoga practitioner will inevitably meet other practitioners who are more adept at asana or run up against the limits of his or her body. But a sense of inadequacy is not actually the opposite of egoism, since it is just another form of self-absorption. If Patanjali is to be believed, spiritual lessons are indeed to be gained from a correct practice of asana, but when the practice is distorted by what is already most abundant in the culture – vanity, pleasure-seeking, and self-absorption – is there a fair chance for its cultivation? The metaphor of the camel that is able to pass through the eye of the needle seems appropriate here.
One longtime friend of mine was undertaking a three-year meditative retreat, and he decided that he and his fellow retreatants could benefit from some physical mind-body activity, and he invited a senior instructor of Ashtanga Yoga to the retreat to teach the meditators the basic sequence of asana. After practicing this method for some time, my friend began to be disturbed by his observation that with each breath, more “self” cultivation was being practiced. Instead of developing a mind that tended towards thinking about the needs of others – the purpose of the retreat – the practice drew him and his party to think more about themselves. He devised a technique to remedy the problem: with each slow inhalation he visualized taking upon himself the suffering and pain of others, and with each slow exhalation he imagined offering to these suffering fellow beings a healing, consoling energy. In this way, with each breath he was able to redirect his mental focus away from “my practice” to a practice that would sustain the cultivation of a concern for others. This method is more consistent with a genuine practice of yoga.
And what is yoga, properly conceived, one may ask? Yoga is learning to direct one’s heart and mind to identifying the vasana (habitual, characterological energy patterns) that pollute one’s experience and that continue to taint oneself and others with gross, selfish, short-sighted thoughts, and then reducing or removing those vasana so identified. Yoga is evolution. Or, as Swami Gitananda once said, “The meaning of life is to evolve. But most of us are preoccupied with devolving.”
That seems an apt way to sum up the sojourn of most American yoga seekers in India. It is not really India’s fault – they could never have estimated how powerful and resilient could be the commoditisation of everything by American culture, nor how effortlessly it could reduce the spiritual resources of yoga to more of the same. Swami Vivekananda could not have known. But if he could, it would be my guess that he would not have gone to Chicago, and would have stayed in India, remaining with a culture that may yet have more opportunities to put the practices of yoga to meaningful use.
Kenneth Liberman is a Professor, Dept. of Sociology, University of Oregon and Fulbright scholar in India, lecturing at Pondicherry University.