This morning I listened to a short piece on NPR this morning about the “Take Back Yoga” campaigned launched by the Hindu American Foundation (see here). According to this report, some American Hindus are saying yoga is about far more than exercise and breathing techniques, and they want recognition that it comes from a deeper philosophy, one, in their view, with Hindu roots. Sheetal Shah, senior director of the foundation, said, "What we’re trying to say is that the holistic practice of yoga goes beyond just a couple of asanas [postures] on a mat. It is a lifestyle, and it’s a philosophy. How do you lead your life in terms of truthfulness? And nonviolence? And purity? The lifestyle aspect of yoga has been lost."
If you’ve read this blog before, you already realize that none of us are in the “yoga is just a couple of asanas on a mat” camp. I’m even willing to bet that the four of us would agree the philosophy and lifestyle aspects of yoga will be more helpful than the asanas for allowing us to age gracefully. So I definitely agree with the Hindu American Foundation that many Americans have serious misconceptions about yoga. However, while we may agree that yoga is not just asanas, agreeing on exactly what it is, is more difficult than you might think.
In recent years I’ve done a lot of reading about yoga history and philosophy. And I’ve been particularly influenced by Georg Feuerstein’s masterful (and somewhat dry, I admit) The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. One major insight this book brought me was what a minor part hatha yoga played during the history of yoga. Although yoga may be thousands of years old, for most of that time it had nothing at all to do physical postures. But another major insight for me was how little agreement there was during those thousands of years about what yoga was and how to practice it.
|Shadows of Leaves by Brad Gibson|
So where does that leave us? There just is no simple answer. While some of you may find a teacher whose particular take on yoga you can adopt, others, like me, are left to piece something together for themselves. If you’re interested, you can start by reading some of the classic yoga texts, such as The Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras. Maybe you’ll even be willing to take on Georg Feuerstein’s book. Just be skeptical of anyone who claims there is only one right way to think about yoga.