Hariḥ Om. I was recently involved in a controversial group discussion over e-mail on the topic of Yoga. The contention was whether Yoga- that is widely practiced today in the Americas is really Yoga, or is it “Voga”- a term coined by a close friend to describe the practices abroad that no longer carry the essence of it.
As we (or at least most of us) know, the resultant harm is an irreparable mutilation of a practice that only remains alive in namesake.This is a good reading to illustrate how distancing oneself from an understanding of our tradition can lead to stray opinions, which then manifest in the most unwanted of ways, and worse, be wrongly understood as correct.
The pitfalls of moral relativism- especially in commonly accepted cases- require foresightedness and sensitivity toward long-term consequences. Since name-dropping is not a dignified thing, I will post my exchanges verbatim, though leaving out the names of participants to maintain their anonymity. Since this debate was with two other people, I refer to them simply as ‘X’ and ‘Y’. Also, in interest of keeping it short, I am only posting my replies as a response to the points they raised. Person X only raises a few doubts, whereas person Y raises objections to my points, which I then proceed to address. Both exchanges can be found below.
It is my wish to see all Hindus take a firm stand if they come across opinions that compromise on the integrity of our practices by propitiating erroneous notions. Sometimes, it is better to be strong and stick your neck out a little than to play it safe all the time, and be indifferent to the steady decline of our ancient practices. For the worthy cause of protecting dharma, every Hindu should invoke a little kshatriya valor, guided by vedāntic wisdom.
X says: “Is it really possible to keep anything authentic once it leaves it’s motherland?”
Reply: Yes, most certainly. The essence must and can very well remain authentic. Here, by authenticity I am referring to the fact that the same knowledge can bring about the same mental transformation. This can only be achieved if the core and methodologies remained unchanged, even if the examples and modern relevance changes. Take language, for instance. Every language in the world has certain “un-translatables” which carry the expression of their culture, and it cannot be found elsewhere. Like the word ‘AtmA’. It has absolutely no substitute in any part of the world for it. AtmA is AtmA- it is not soul, it is not spirit, it is not anything that something else can describe. Yet, I am able to use that word in an English sentence without altering the essence. This is the same manner in which practices such as Yoga etc can remain relevant to different cultures, provided the core remains unchanged.
Some of the ways Yoga becomes Voga is:
1) If you do not make the purpose clear at the outset. Yoga comes from ‘yuj’, which is the saṁskr̥ta root word indicating ‘union’… union of what of the mind, body and senses (NOT spirit, since the word ‘spirit’ does not hold meaning in the Indic traditions)… If the purpose of yoga is forgotten, it is no longer yoga
2) If yoga is seen as a mere form of “exercise”
3) If the invocation mantras associated with each Āsanas are left out before performing them. Lord Shiva is considered the progenitor of yoga according to our tradition. Yoga minus the devotional attitude toward Īśvara is certainly Voga
4) Any ungainly variation of yoga such as hot yoga, pilates yoga, doga (doing Āsanas along with your dog- it’s real, check it out: Dog Yoga
5) Thinking that the practice of yoga will enlighten one, which many over here in US believe. Going back to point 1, patanjali yoga is to be practiced for chitta-ekāgratā; resolving the mind as one unified entity, and is a part of upāsanā (preparatory steps to bring about integrity of the mind)
Yoga can be taught to anyone who is prepared for it, as long as the practitioner respects its purport
X says: “I think it is just a part of life and how things work. It is hard to understand the depth, when it is not part of your culture.”
Reply: Perhaps hard, but not as elusive as one might think. I know many foreigners who understand our Indian/Vedic culture better than many of those born and brought up in India. If there is strong desire to learn things in the appropriate way, one’s geographical limitations will not get in the way. It is not a matter of where you are born, as much as of how deeply you understand what is taught.
X says: “In my opinion yoga is seen more as an exercise than spiritual experience”
Reply: Yes, that is definitely a problem.
X says: “Or if they call it spiritual”
Reply: This is an even bigger problem ;)… yoga is categorically a Vedic practice, by calling it spiritual abroad, what most teachers are doing is divorcing it from its cultural roots and finding a way to secularize it. This is called a digestion process which Rajiv Malhotra ji (you may see his videos on U-turn theory etc. on youtube) talks about. First, yoga will go from being Vedic to being spiritual- which is digestible by the masses who are not necessarily Hindus, and then it will go from being spiritual to being called ‘exercise’, and then once it becomes popularized abroad- especially in the West, the same Voga (now it’s no longer yoga, right?) will find a marketplace in India, because now it’s suddenly a “cool thing” that Westerners are following. Thus the U-turn is complete, but what returns back is no longer of the same nature as it was.
X says: “I do understand what you are saying, but I think you are looking for deeper connection maybe in the wrong place?”
Reply: The connection is there, we just need to remove the circuit breaker and be more alert about the essence of our practices being modified.
In our tradition, even the upaniśads were called a guhya-rahasyam… a cavernous secret that could only be handed down to the most prepared students. It also lent the comfort that the ones who were prepared would not only gain the most from it, but would also be mature enough to preserve the teachings, so that the future generations may gain from them. Unfortunately, yoga has become a loose cannon and it appears that rather than the teacher focusing on how to teach it correctly, we are more intent on taking into consideration the student’s whims and fancies before teaching it. This is a clear case of quality suffering at the cost of quantity… unfortunately, what remains is no longer what it once was, and so even if a million people follow it, it will no longer provide the same benefit it ought to.
Y says: “How do we know that the yoga we or our gurus follow, the yoga we call ancient, is the actual ancient yoga that our ancestors defined. What we understand today is entirely our interpretation. We have built this interpretation from the books we read and the gurus we follow. Lets not forget that the authors or these books and our gurus have also learned it from someone else, in essence interpreted it in their own way”
Reply: Rest assured, we know... And to understand “how” we know, one requires an appreciation of and exposure to a Guru-śiśya paramparā to see first-hand how things are preserved and passed down. Perhaps you may not have the detailed exposure required to understand the mechanism in full measure. For your consideration, take the Vedic mantras. The same ones are chanted independently in all parts of India- from the Southern coastline of kanyākumāri, to the northern peaks of kailāsa.
A child from a traditional Vedic family is taught by his father as a young boy. At some point he is sent off to live with his Guru- who is symbolically and rightfully called his second father, and the Vedas he studies from- his mother. The biological parents gave birth to his body and prepared him with the right values. The “chosen” parents here turn him from a prakr̥t (crude) being to a saṁskr̥t (refined) person. They shape his intellect and mold his character to imbibe the teaching of the Self. Along the way, he is taught other preparatory practices such as patanjali yoga (what you know as simply ‘yoga’), Ayurveda (science of life and well being), and the 6 veda-angas- auxiliary limbs to support the ultimate wisdom of the vedas such as shikshā (phonetics), sandhi (morphology), kalpa (rituals), vyākaraṇa (grammar), nirukta (etymology), Chandas (meter/prosody), jyotiśa (astrology)… these are mentioned in the muṇḍaka upaniśad as well.
For twelve years, that child learns with utmost perfection what he is taught. He is able to recite the same mantra he has studied backward and forward, skipping alternate syllables, and in any combination you can think of- this all he is put through ONLY so what he passes on remains authentic. That is the reason why the Vedic chants are uniform across the board, regardless of geography or time. This is exactly how it is filtered down from Guru to śiśya. You are absolutely right when you say the progenitors of our tradition have learnt it from someone else (their teachers), and you are absolutely wrong when you assume whatever they learn is their mere interpretation. If such were the case, kr̥ṣṇa bhagavān would not have stated in the gītā that the same wisdom he is handing down to arjuṇa, was also given to vivasvan, and the king manu, who lived many eons before the mahābhārata took place. The vedas I study from my teachers, today, still maintain the precise essence of the upaniśads that go beyond a time of historical estimation.
While every other scripture has been attested with a “start date”. The Vedic chants have not been traced, because evolution of language can only be studied through the study of CHANGE. Thought experiment: If the ‘X’ axis indicates time, and the ‘Y’ axis indicates change, then the changes in sound will be a line parallel to the ‘X’ axis however far you stretch. This, I hope, answers your doubt
Y Says: “Almost all yoga classes in American have a prefix… “Ashtanga Yoga, “Hatha Yoga,” “Hot Yoga,” “Flow based Yoga,” etc. etc. Typically the prefix is dropped for ease of advertisement, but if you ask these American teachers they will tell you the prefix and hence define what branch of yoga they are trying to teach.”
Reply: “Branch” of yoga? This is a cardinal error in judgment. There is a concept called “reclamation of words”. Historically, any community/culture has certain words within their tradition that is unique only to them- words which tell a story, words which describe their social ethos, words which they have a claim over in the context in which it is used. Examples: ‘nigger’, ‘retarded’, and ‘gay’. Colloquially, they have been used outside of their intended meaning, and hence the respective people associated with these words had a right to reclaim these words and remove their usage from altered meanings.
Clearly, any sensible person- including you- will not support me if I use the word retarded or gay in order to point out something unpleasant, and yet, somehow, you seem to not share the sensitivity for the very same principle when it comes to the altered usage of the word ‘yoga’, where it has been stripped from its meaning, its implication and all that it is married to. American law also (correctly) prohibits me from suing someone else for insulting a third party. The sole right over whether to take objection with the improper usage of the word ‘yoga’ rightfully belongs to the individuals entrenched in that culture that is compromised. Same goes for the hi-jacking of the swastika symbol, by the Nazis. It is our right to reclaim- and to a measurable extent, we have.
Y Says: “You say that (it) “could only be handed down to the most prepared students.” Who are you and I to judge?”
Reply: I have noted this thinking very prevalent among intellectual circles. This, to me, is comparable to the sweet nectar of the pitcher plant. Smells good and looks good, but once you fall in you can’t get out. And somehow, this reasoning is only applicable to the religious- especially Hindus, never for any secular transaction. Imagine that your child grows up and is ready to apply for college, and applies to one of the Ivy Leagues- say, Stanford, and the school rejects your child’s application, you may apply this same reasoning there… “Who are you to judge if my child is eligible to study here or not?” I am sorry to say, but they are well within their means to judge. Moreover, you may not send an application to a county college because you are judging the quality of education there, and only want to enroll your child in the best.
Under the very same token, the “best” (which you have judged it to be) has the same privilege to judge your child before giving an offer letter. Anytime you experience something in life- pleasant or unpleasant, a judgment is made, and that judgment serves to guide your future decisions. If it does not, then one is prone to make it a habitual error. It is only the ilk of the moral relativist who cringes at the mention of judging, and yet in other activities of his/her life the judging happens- consciously or otherwise. One has to judge, and the one who is teaching is definitely in the right position to judge, and the student has the right to judge the teacher and the teaching. So, again, it is very sweet sounding to say one must not judge, but any person in a responsible position not only has the right, but also the duty to judge according to objective standards set forth regarding the practice that is being judged. This is one of the transactional realm implications of cultivating viveka. This same viveka also translates into understanding a dhārmika action from an adhārmic one- which btw, is again a moral judgment.
Y says: “When you say “it will no longer provide the same benefit it ought to,” what do you mean by “same?” How do you define “same?” How do you measure “same?” “.
Reply: If one is not an accomplished student of sangeet, can you expect that person to be able to compare and measure with accuracy, the notes of two different people and provide constructive feedback? The answer is a resounding “No!” Similarly, unless you have been through, or at least closely understood the benefits that Yoga has to provide, as opposed to Voga, there is no way you can compare the two systems and form an informed opinion- in which case everything will appear to be the “same”.
The goal of patanjali yoga is a state of mind referred to as nirvikalpa samādhi. Breaking some sweat, revving up your heart-rate, clear lungs and an endorphin pumping workout is Not. Even. Close. The yamas, niyamas, āsanas, pranayamas, the intrinsic bhakti etc all work hand in hand to accomplish the vision of Yoga. The very term ‘yoga’- as I already stated earlier- comes from the root ‘yuj’, which denotes a perfectly congruent mind where you are able to cease the appearance of the manifested duality at will. Anything that achieves this end is yoga. Anything that does not, is not yoga.
By Prashant Parikh, a student of traditional Advaita Vedānta from Arsha Vidya Gurukulam.
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