The short answer is that it seems like no one knows anymore.
I went into this week intending to talk about this article, in which Lawson discusses various movements against the “Americanization” of Yoga, including the efforts of the “Take Back Yoga” movement of the Hindu American Foundation, which sparked as a reaction to the perception of yoga in America as something purely secular, not to mention a lucrative market to exploit, turning it into a multi-million dollar industry in a truly American fashion. Lawson is insistent that the whole situation “is about blanching the culture out of something to make it fit our needs.” But is this the whole story? An article I found shortly thereafter states that issue may not be so wonderfully clear cut anymore. The article details the many differing viewpoints on the issue within India itself- meaning its not the clear cut co-opting of a tradition that Lawson makes it out to be. No, it appears to go much deeper than that. Would would assume that, within India yoga would be more wholly understood, with a cohesive public opinion. This would be incorrect, however. Many push for it as an important part of spirituality and want it to be installed as part of school curriculum. Others argue that its inherent use of religiously significant chanting and terminology (such as the use of the ‘Om’, an important symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism alike) means that due to India’s nature as a secular democracy, yoga cannot be implemented in public schools. Still others find it to be purely physical, and others deem it a tool for cultural nationalism in India, thanks to the actions of prominent guru Baba Ramev.
And maybe that’s the basic, extremely simplified answer. Maybe yoga has become a tool, be it for spiritual enlightenment, for peace, for money, for cultural nationalism, or for physical fitness. Maybe no one knows what yoga really is anymore because it is in such a constant state of flux, meaning different things to different people, but useful to all of them. Whether or not that cheapens yoga’s rich spiritual history or ensures that it will continue to persist in a constantly changing world remains yet to be decided.
Our class is finishing our discussion of “Transcendent in America” by Lola Williamson. The author gives a detailed look into HIMMs or Hindu-Inspired Mediation Movements. In part two of her book she discusses three specific movements that include Transcendental Mediation, Self-Realization Fellowship, and Siddha Yoga. I enjoyed reading and learning about these movements. Williamson is unbiased in explaining these HIMMs. Usually I find informational books such as this to be boring and unbearable. I found this book less painful than expected. I feel that the author tried her best to convey her experiences as well as others’ experiences. I believe some things were lost in translation, based on the fact that I have not had a personal HIMM experience.
This article from all the way back in 2012 discusses the changing landscape around the Ashtanga branch of yoga within America. It discusses how the practice evolved from a small number of guruji from India to, gradually, bigger and bigger venues, more and more students, and with that, an undeniable change. This change trended towards the accessorizing of yoga, taken on by – according to the article- a number of trophy wives and other typical “yuppie” advocates looking for a quick and easy spiritual fix to go with their daily exercise. It discusses the tensions and changes within the community as students of the original guruji slowly begin to branch off- some borrowing select poses to write books detailing ‘fitness’ types of yoga, and others even launching smart phone apps that promise to teach yoga as well. I thought it raised quite a few interesting points that have been addressed here before in one form or another- how religious is yoga? Can middle aged women who are only after strengthening their core and limbering up really be understanding the full ideas behind what they’re practicing ? As the title asks- who is yoga for anyway? In the final paragraphs of the article it states that some of the current teachers and practitioners believe that the changes in this branch of yoga should occur to accommodate the students and what is best for them- but will that leave them with a form of yoga that exists mostly to show other people how spiritual and flexible one is, whilst showing off formfitting exercise wear and monogrammed yoga mats?
This is a hotly debated topic recently, and Zach Price has already covered it some here, but I stumbled upon an article on the Huffington Post that was just so interesting I felt I had to write about it. This article written by Mark Morford is pro-Yoga and very anti-Christianity. He argues that Yoga is not a violation of church and state while also claiming that it is religious. Now this may seem problematic, but he claims that Yoga practitioners connect with their inner divinity, not an external entity. I believe that he was trying to interpret the idea of separation of church and state as applying it only to organized religion. If you look at it from his perspective, then you realize that if he concedes that Yoga is religious then this is a problem for Yoga practitioners because they will be banned from schools and other government owned places, but if he doesn’t attribute some religiousness to it then Yoga is just another exercise, which is not what he wants either.
The above image is from a little site called The Onion– maybe you’ve heard of it? Quite obviously famed for its humorous, mocking take on the world around us, this particular graphic tackled a topic that has become quite familiar to us. How often in class have we come to discuss different types of yoga and the ways in which they’ve been appropriated to mean something entirely different? Just today I saw an ad for ‘hot yoga’ which flaunted its abilities to work your core and your spirituality and to strengthen each in turn. The graphic is a succinct, amusing way to bring to light the fact that for many people ‘Asian religions’ mean yoga, tai chi, meditation, and other ways in which it has been boiled down into an accessible morning class at your local gym.
Controversy. It doesn’t matter which side of a controversy you are on, if the controversy is big enough it will catch public attention. Grand Theft Auto V (or GTAV) is the fastest game to reach 1 billion dollar in sales revenue ever. GTAV is a violent video game (it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it THE violent video game) that thrives on bad news reviews claiming it is a proponent to school shootings and good gaming reviews that say it is merely an outlet for stress. Regardless of your opinions on this game it does have some clever satirical moments and themes, some of which even apply to our class.
The game has its own radio stations in-game, and no radio station is complete without its own commercials. One of these commercials was for a Yoga studio that claimed to finally have “authentic” American Yoga. Unfortunately, this brand of American Yoga apparently has blood and violence and is about as peaceful as a monster truck rally (if the announcer’s tone of voice was any indication). The history of Yoga in the West is quite interesting and, needless to say, what most Americans now know as Yoga is only a small facet of what Yoga actually has been historically. The Theosophists of the late 19th century had a huge impact on contemporary Yoga. Originally the craze was all meditation Yoga, only later did it become into the physical exercise it is today. If you take the opinions of GTA developers seriously, then a qualification of being an authentic American activity involves violence, which is pretty interesting in and of itself. I think that the creators of GTA were spoofing the development of Yoga in their portrayal of it being violent. Yoga developed from an “Eastern” activity that primarily focused on meditation and breathing into a more “Western” activity that centers primarily on physical activity. The next step, according to GTA, is for it to become progressively more violent. The idea is that a Westernized Eastern tradition such as Yoga becomes American only when it becomes violent is something to think about.
Seth Cox is double majoring in Religious Studies and Philosophy. He is interested in the interactions between practitioners of historically Asian religions and the rest of the world.
I have been doing martial arts since I was five years old. I currently am a student in Shen Lung Kung Fu. As a student of Shen Lung Kung Fu you read such texts as the Dao de Ching, Confucius, and the Art of War. Many people would consider at least some of these a religious texts; however, you do not have to be Confucian or a Daoist. In fact most are not, though some have adapted principles or ideas they found and have adapted them to their own particular belief system (whether religious or not).
This is one reason I found the court case over whether or not schools could have yoga rather interesting. I have no stake in whether or not yoga is particularly religious or not. When I think “lotus position” I think “eh that sounds painful”, but I suppose someone might just as easily think “religion”.
I once had a nice conversation over a cigarette with William Arnal, head of the department of Religious Studies at the University of Regina. He told me “anything someone claims to be religion is up for grabs”. If I take that seriously than anything could or could not be religious depending on who you ask.
The question then becomes, “What is at stake in calling something religious?” In court cases like the one involving yoga, what is at stake is people’s religious or cultural identities and very real legal ramifications. Beyond legalities people’s identity is at stake. I bet I could find someone who is a practitioner of yoga and considers it religious just as much as I could find the opposite. Is it not part of the opponents religious views as Christians that yoga is religious? Maybe I can see Jesus in yoga. Maybe the fact that the opponents see it as religious says more about their identity than the identity of the kids in the yoga classes.
So if anything could be religious or non-religious depending on who you ask, then do concepts such as separation of church and state become meaningless? Perhaps, but how that concept is applied at least reinforces my own particular politics.