As an American of Indian descent, I have always been fascinated by the arcane depths of the Hindu culture to which I belong.
I have been practicing Yoga and writing about Indian metaphysics, Buddhism and South Asian Art and Culture for a long time, and am fairly sensitive to how my native traditions are represented in the West, especially those in the mainstream like Yoga. Needless to say, the ancient science is now a multi-billion dollar industry with tens of millions of faithful acolytes, and has spawned wildly popular franchise chains like Yoga Works, Bikram Yoga and Anusara Yoga, among others.
All of them focus almost exclusively on the physical aspects of the practice, shunning or sidelining the esoteric and Hindu aspects, presumably for fear of driving away paying customers. As a US minority who was deeply connected with my roots, I could not help but feel that Yoga was being appropriated and deracinated to make it more palatable and therefore more marketable to western consumers.
I recently had the dubious pleasure of interacting with certain members of the Yoga community, which only served to drive home the point that the ancient wisdom tradition had been appropriated, annexed and colonized, much like the cultural appropriation of Native American, Asian, African and other indigenous traditions by vendors of low-brow pop culture. Moreover, it had been totally stripped of any connection with the culture which gave it birth, Hinduism, and now only had the most tenuous links with the esoteric science it claimed to represent.
As if to illustrate the point, I recently I came across a mangled version of Ashtanga Yoga called Rocket Yoga on a blog proclaiming the virtues of the same, written by a gent who refers to himself as The Lord Veda. Rocket Yoga was given the name by its founder Larry Schultz because it could you there faster, much like an advertising slogan for a new type of engine oil.
A Yoga teacher who unironically calls himself the Mula Bandha King and teaches a version of acrobatics with Eastern trappings resorted to personal attacks when I called him out on using the term Yoga to peddle a gymnastic routine that was not remotely connected with the Sanskrit epistemology from which it was derived.
To put things in context, Mula Bandha is the Sanskrit term for a yogicenergy lock or seal, applied to the lower pelvis by contracting the muscles of the perineum. It is one of three Bandhas which prevents Prana or vital life force from leaking out during intense yogic Sadhana (practice), facilitating its movement up the spinal column to the crown of the head. So to call oneselfMula Bandha King is either hubris gone amok or the sign of an extremely low IQ.
In another example of rampant cultural misrepresentation, I came upon a blog written by popular Core Yoga teacher Sadie Nardini, who has raked in the moolah by exhorting her students to Unleash Your Inner Rock Star by signing up for her Badass Yoga Flow. Based on cursory readings of Norman Sjoman who claimed Mysore Yoga was largely influenced by western gymnastics, Nardini brazenly appropriates a 5000-year-old oral tradition and attempts to invalidate all Indian claims over its origins, implying that her Mickey Mouse version is as relevant as that of the Indian masters.
Sjoman, in turn, based his flawed hypothesis on the absence of detailed diagrams and instructions delineating all the Asanas taught by nineteenth and twentieth century Indian Gurus like Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, thereby arriving at the conclusion that since the texts were not in existence, Yoga must have been developed in the early twentieth century, and not thousands of years ago as the Indians claimed.
Clearly, both Sjoman and Nardini are not aware that Yoga, Kriyas, Bandhas,Pranayama and the various Tantras are largely an oral tradition that have been passed down from Guru to Shishya (disciple) since time immemorial. The absence of detailed accompanying texts, as is the custom in western academia, is not unusual since Indian wisdom traditions and esoteric sciences were not meant for mass consumption and only shared with the inner circle.
The ancient masters were only too aware of the pitfalls of misinterpretation and misrepresentation by semi-literate neophytes. Therefore, the quest for ancient documentary evidence, diagrams and flowcharts to verify the origins of Yogic techniques will always be a futile one. In fact, one would have to unlearn much of western academic indoctrination and develop an entirely new epistemic template to comprehend the ancient wisdom traditions of India or any other indigenous culture, for that matter.
On another blog, Nardini derides her fellow Yoga teacher Tara Stiles for being too commercial and selling out to the agencies who “see the incredible financial potential wrapped within our kula, now a multi-billion dollar industry. With only 9 percent of the country currently doing Yoga, this agency and others like them see a market to be expanded. This is what they exist for — to sell celebrity products, tours, speaking engagements and TV shows to people who will buy them. That’s what they all do.”
As a commentator on that particular thread aptly noted, “Yogis now throwing each other under the bus with their fans cheering them on. Who needs to watch the Super Bowl?!”
The products that stock the shelves of the spiritual supermarket are being marketed for their exotic value, even though the essence has been totally removed from the final product. Indeed, why call it Yoga at all if one believes that western gymnastics has more to do with the practice than Indian mysticism?
Hot Core Yoga, Dog Yoga, Nude Yoga, Rocket Yoga, Yoga Trance Dance, Acro Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, John Friend Yoga, Bikram Yoga, pricey designer clothing, flashy accessories and Club-Med style Yoga Holidays are all products of this dumbed down, hyper-commercialized approach to the esoteric sciences. In this spiritual Disney World, discredited 19th century Orientalist bromides cannot help but thrive.
Attendees of ubiquitous, corporate style 200-Hour Teacher Trainingcourses, are made to believe they are qualified to teach a complex psychophysical epistemology that has been imparted by oral transmission to an inner circle of initiates for untold millennia. This cavalier disregard for substance results in numerous distortions and half-baked notions floating around the new age blogosphere, lapped up as fact by spiritual tourists and neophytes.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, progenitor of western Yoga, was an accomplished Sanskrit scholar, deeply knowledgeable about the Darshan Shastras. He had devoted his entire life to the study of Nyaya-Vaisheshika,Uttara Mimamsa, Purva Mimamsa, Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta, the bedrock of Sanatan Dharma. His constantly evolving style and propensity for spiritual instruction emerged out of the vast scholarship and experiential wisdom that he had acquired over an entire lifetime, a stark contrast with today’s anodyne products of corporatized assembly line teacher training programs.
The truth is that there is only ONE Yoga, which cannot be branded and sold on supermarket shelves like laundry detergent, baked beans or tinned salmon. Its regular practice generates a feeling of detachment from the trappings of Samsara or the world of illusory and transient pleasures — quite the opposite of how Yoga is marketed today.
The renowned Palestinian public intellectual and post-colonial critical theorist Edward Said referred to the insidious process of intellectual colonization as Orientalism — the imposition of a Judeo-Christian, post-colonial or Western academic Weltanschauung onto an entirely different worldview that had no moorings in western epistemology.
Said’s work focused on inaccurate cultural representations that are the foundation of Western thought towards the Orient, of how The West perceives and represents The East. In his landmark thesis he postulated that “most Western writing about the Orient depicts it as an irrational, weak, and feminised Other, an existential condition contrasted with the rational, strong, and masculine West. This binary relation derives from the European psychological need to create a difference of cultural inequality between West and East; that cultural difference is attributed to immutable culturalessences inherent to Oriental peoples and things.”
The essence of Yoga can be found in Samkhya. They are regarded as twins, the two aspects of a single discipline. Samkhya, attributed to Rishi Kapila, is one of the six Darshan Shastras or schools of thought that constitute the foundation of Hindu philosophy. Samkhya provides a basic theoretical exposition of human nature, enumerating and defining its elements (Tattwas), analyzing their manner of co-operation in a state of bondage , and describing their state of disentanglement or separation in release (Moksha), while Yoga treats specifically the dynamics of the process for the disentanglement, and outlines practical techniques for the gaining of release, or Kaivalya. Yoga and Samkhya must both be studied in conjunction with other Shastras for genuine learning to emerge.
Jaideva Singh, Robert Svoboda, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, David Frawley, Paul Muller-Ortega, John Woodroffe, David Peter Lawrence, Mark Dyczkowski, Mikel Burley and Baba Rampuri — among others — have written extensively on the esoteric meaning of Hindu mythical/tantric cosmology, and their work should be made required reading for all attempting to dip their toes into the vast ocean of Hinduism (especially those with the temerity to market themselves as Yoga teachers).
Demagoguery and authoritarianism are antithetical to the central precepts ofVedic cosmology. Moreover, free speech and vigorous debate have always been integral to Sanatan Dharma. However, it is imperative to make corrections to the discourse when a skewed and incomplete narrative is accepted as the norm.
In response to the lumpenization of the subtle sciences by carnival barkers, I will conclude by quoting these immortal lines by Alexander Pope:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Vikram Zutshi is a writer-producer-director and photojournalist based in Los Angeles. After a stint as Creative Executive at 20th Century Fox and in Sales/Acquisitions at Rogue Entertainment, he went solo and produced two feature films before transitioning into Directing ‘Max Kennedy and the American Dream’. The feature documentary was filmed at various points along the 2000 mile US-Mexico border and has been broadcast in several countries till date. Apart from writing frequently on the metaphysics, art and culture of South Asia, he travels extensively on photo assignments and is currently prepping his next film, a fiction feature, ‘The Byron Project’. Twitter: @Getafix2012.
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