“Wait…yoga is Indian?”
This is a response from a friend of mine, after I explained to her what I was planning to do for this final project. As someone who practices herself, she was surprised to learn that yoga is derived from ancient Hindu practices. I don’t think she is alone in this – it’s not always common knowledge where the current incarnation of yoga comes from, where the terms and phrases used in yoga studios came from, what they mean, etc.
In this post, I hope to provide readers and avid yoga practicers with the historical context of what yoga is and how to begin to critically decolonize our yoga practice. There are three main components of this project. First, I will outline the history of yoga in relation to Hinduism. Second, this post will feature an interview with my mother, who is a lifelong Hindu, and also a “certified yoga teacher.” I was interested in exploring this issue alongside her because I think she has a unique experience. She had to go through the process of acquiring a certification here in the United States to practice her own ancient religious tradition. And last, I will include some reflection on how to begin the process of decolonizing your yoga practice. It was originally my plan to also include interviews from members of the Western yoga culture, however I didn’t think that was appropriate for two reasons: 1) I felt my line of questioning would have been perceived as an attempt to discredit individuals as practitioners of yoga (and that is not the intent of this exploration) and 2) I thought it was important in this project to center Eastern narratives and voice with respect to yoga.
Let’s jump into the history.
So, what do I mean when I keep saying yoga is religious and ancient?
Well, the origins of yoga are buried deep in Hinduism. Before we delve into the specifics, I’d like to layout the differences between the orthodox schools of Hinduism. Below is a infographic I made that I hope helps to define and outline the six main schools of Hindu thought and practice:
Now, I will say that this is certainly a simplified version, but felt it important to show the distinction between the schools to provide some context on how vast Hinduism exactly is.
A commonly referred to text in the school of Yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This scripture is comprised of 196 sutras (principles), and was put together by Sage Patanjali in 400 CE. In this text, Patanjali highlights eight practices of yoga.
- Yama. Moral and ethical rules. There are five yamas: ahmisa (nonviolence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (either chastity or fidelity), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
- Niyama. Virtuous behavior. There are 32 niyamas, ranging from pure thoughts to persistence, to contemplation.
- Asana. A posture that is held for a lengthy time to promote relaxation, staying still, and being balanced.
- Pranayama. Regulating breathing through inhaling and exhaling.
- Pratyahara. Turning ones thoughts and attentions to the inner self, without focusing on the external world.
- Dharana. Concentration.
- Dhyana. Meditation
- Samadhi. Becoming consumed in the practice of yoga, to the point of oneness.
The Western take on yoga is typically centered around the asana limb, with touches of pranayama and dhyana. However, I think it’s important to note the five other practices that are not often included in the physical activity of yoga. This is what sets the practice apart from other schools of Hinduism. To be a disciple of the school of yoga is not simple – it requires deep interrogation and self-reflection. Historically, those who achieve the state of samadhi are considered to be yogis.
Many experienced yoga practitioners and teachers in the West often refer to themselves as “yogis.” The first time I heard that label in a Western context was shocking to me – it was from a friend in undergrad who considered herself a dedicated student of yoga. I was confused by what she meant. In Hinduism, a “yogi” is someone who embodies a lifestyle of these core values:
Ahiṃsā (nonviolence), satya (truth), asteya (not stealing), dayā (kindness), arjava (sincerity), kṣama (forgiveness), dhṛti (fortitude), mitāhāra: (moderation), sauca (purity), tapas (austerity), santoṣa (contentment), dāna (generosity)
The possession and practice of all of these values leads people to be yogis in the Hindu context. Now, I’m not saying people in the U.S. and west who practice yoga do not embody these concepts. I’m saying that in Hinduism, identifying oneself as a yogi is a reflection of years of work and self-reflection. A way that I commonly like to explain this to non-Hindu people is that the equivalent of calling oneself a yogi for practicing the physical activity of yoga is calling oneself a saint for praying a couple times a week.
It’s almost as if yoga is two entirely different things: one being the school of thought in Hinduism, and the other being an exercise-turned-lifestyle, the origins of which are unknown and irrelevant. In fact, there was even a court case in California that aimed to sue a public school for having a yoga class during gym time (as an unconstitutional promotion of Eastern religions, the parents in the case argued) , and the judge ruled that “yoga is a distinctly American phenomenon.”
While initially this sounds bizarre, there actually probably is some merit to this ruling. Yoga has become its own culture in the West, but entirely detached from its culture of origin. Ironically enough, it’s merged almost seamlessly into consumerism and capitalism. There are entire brands dedicated to expensive yoga attire. Monthly yoga class subscriptions can cost around $200. Words like “namaste” are used to open and close out yoga practices, and they are often translated into a spiritual and divine concept, when in reality “namaste” literally means “hello. Simply because something is in a different language, does not always mean it carries more weight than its simple translation.
Here’s a quick Google search I conducted:
In order to get more insight on this subject, I reached out to a yoga expert in my own life. As I mentioned above, my mother has practiced yoga in the religious capacity for many years, and recently underwent a certification process to be a yoga teacher in Maryland. The interview was insightful. Due to some technical difficulties, I was not able to record it, but please find some text excerpts below. Emphasis is my own.
Me: What is your relationship to yoga?
Mom: Yoga instinctively reveals the sense of cosmic unity. The cosmic unity is the very essence of our creativity and its mystical reverence from nature as a hidden power, is a gift from yoga. The yogic mystics saw the entire scope of creation is rooted in profound mystery. The meditation part of yoga helps us to ponder over the structure and nature of the universe. I am confronted by the colossal, all pervading intelligence whose energy pulsates every atom in the world. I am still curious to find out the secrets of yogic masters from the east left behind. To decode yoga is a massive task. The universe is a canvas where the metaphor for transcendent unity comes into a play as an energy reflected into different forms as an allegory or a maya, meaning illusion in Sanskrit.
Yoga the very word implies union with your inner self. Yoga is equal to breath in my life and a vicarious escape to my inner landscape. It transforms heart and mind. It is more than a passion for me, a private prayer and gives me a meaning to the definition of love and purpose of my life. Yoga helps me to clear the space within myself to become more and more aware of unity in all things in life. Yoga, reverentially teaches me the interconnectedness of all things. It is a joy in celebrating your inner silence.
Once the connection comes into our awareness, we become more giving, patient, loving, kind and peaceful, for the sense of belonging with everything is present. In yoga particularly breathing techniques called “pranayama” Prana = life, Yama =force or energy, life force is breathing and proper breathing calms and quiets our mind. Quite mind equals positive contribution for those around you. In our society should we value positive contributors who protect our resources more than consumers of natural resources.
I need to refer to Einstein, who was a self proclaimed disciple of Spinoza(1622-1677), a seventeenth-century Jewish Philosopher and a mystic. He wrote about Spinoza, ” My views are near those of Spinoza and independence to being in the lime light as a professor of philosophy at Heidelberg University, admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligation as a purely human problem-most important of all human problem”. He further said” I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a god who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind”. God does not play dice with the world.
Me: How is the definition of yoga different in India and in the US?
Mom: I strongly believe a votary of truth that is present in yoga. In Patanjali Yoga Sutra ” Yamas are guidelines for how we interact with each other in the outer world, external qualities that we need to cultivate for a balanced society as follows:
Ahimsa ( non violence), Satya (truth), Asetya (embodies taking only what belongs to you), Bramacharya (Moderation in all aspects of life, Aparigraha (Attachment to possessions and title to let go)
Ahmisa: Non-Violence creates a harmonious life for us. A peaceful, joyful and stable life is a life itself. If you help and empower others you feel powerful.
Violence arises out of fear, anger, restlessness, selfishness destroys us and the world we live in. There is a reason we all welcome positive people with goodness, kindness and compassion. Those with positive actions empower us. We feel alive to be around them. Negative people with violence are weak naturally, hence we avoid them. Do you know anybody who wants to hang out with the serial killer alone? There are some people you may never want to meet again, go figure why?
Satya: Satya is truthfulness in thoughts, actions and service to us and others. To exhibit honesty is to remove the mask that we wear every day. In Venice there is a carnival called “Italian: “Carnevale di Venezia” a Christian celebration during Lent 40 days before Easter. This festival is world famous for wearing masks. One of the tour guides told us in Venice that when we wear a mask, we are free of inhibitions and free to do whatever we want. Without masks we are more pretentious, a very opposite state of satya. In yoga satya values a genuine communication, connection and authenticity. You are strong if you are truthful and are able to give constructive feedback and taking off your mask.
Bramacharya: Healthy body starts with healthy mind. So internal health is very important to external health. In Bramacharya you are not over indulging in your speech, body, and tempering use of sex, food, drugs and environment. Here in this internal state you get into clarity of your thought, communicate your goals and visions clearly to others, feeling and listening to your body and honoring not repressing but mastering your sensual cravings. When you are truly connected to your self, you are rarely over indulging.
Aparigraha: This is a letting go state. This is a state of cleaning up your internal clutter. This is a state, where most of us clean our closet,donate and minimize, shop at thrift stores and give life to environment, find your peace and happiness. To practice Aparigraha means to simplify, refraining from excessiveness, addictions and distractions.
Niyamas are guidelines for how we interact in our internal world and its effects to outer world. It includes self regulated energy that harness compassion, love, acceptance, and a desire to honor sustainable living creatures.
Shaucha (Clearing your mind and body to remove toxins of negative energy)Internal purity. You start this practicing ayurvedic( science of eating, recycling and growing organic) Ayu=life, Vedic=Wisdom. In yoga practice we use yogic breathing. All yoga classes foundation begins with pranayama or meditation and breathing. You start your practice with good healthy habits, eating clean, home grown, organic, cruelty free products, refrain from excessive amount of stimulants for mind and body.
In India, ancient vedic texts gently guide you to look within, to find out the true meaning of life. The ancient yogic masters always kindly guide us to look within for answers. The true happiness is find within. You are healthy and content which is a very positive contribution to ourself and the world around us.
Santhosa: This is a state of joy! This states is a natural state for many yogis, who sees the world as a one energy without its division. A contentment, enough is enough in a gentle manner state. Accepting, and making the best out of every situation with a positive mind frame. In this state, there is a natural joyfulness, remain calm during the storm, peaceful even when it is stressful, leg of attachment to external status, choose love over fear. In Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, he explains that when faced with a challenging situation you choose removal, change or acceptance. You get to decide how to find contentment.
The total present in that moment, enjoying that and connecting to the Hatha a state of flow is the right definition of this state.
Tapas: This is a state of heat or fire. In order to gain internal happiness, you need to work for it. Happiness internally is not an entitlement, it is a discipline. In ancient Indian Epic/ purana of Ramayana and Mahabharatha the tapas is a key element. This means everyday commitment and willingness to do what is necessary to keep your practice mental and physical fit for spiritual path with a clear cut focus. This focus is a determination to your commitment to daily meditation and yoga, other forms of discipline in moderation while remain joyful to such endeavors. Internal fire purifies and bring a positive transformation in ourselves.
Swadhaya: Our Bhagavad Gita a great epic starts with a poem that begins with ” Om Swadhya”.. for yoga practitioners starts with self observation, taking a pause between your inhale and exhale. Allowing you to be in an organic manner where as your inner intuition, reveals your potential and connects with yourself. I call this state “Dating Yourself”. It means taking the time to find out who you are and what you are? Whether your goals and ambitions takes you to inner joy? Be open and cultivate your inner curiosity and a spiritual exploration within you. It might take time for the truth to emerge.
This state is not to be confused with self absorption, which is a distraction to your true practice.
Ishwara-Pranidhana: This is a total surrender to the universe. You transcend from your limited ego self into unlimited potential of the universal force where divine manifests into many ways such as chanting, painting, walking labyrinth, creating a sacred space for reflection, listening to calming music, poem etc. You are not resisting to the restrained self. You are whole and alive state.
Yoga in the East is internal. Yoga in the West is external.
But, in the Western society, most part, there is so much focus on external. To find meaning for life, no matter what our focus on the external, in the end there is a throbbing feeling of an unease to wanting more and quest of wanting more creates extraordinary stress and negative emotions results. The external looks, such as wealth and possession, where there is unhealthy obsession with body, mind and which is very much a draining energy pattern.
Inner joy is priceless, you see the world with more clarity, love,peace and wisdom. I surrender to the vastness of the inner spirit or innate inner wisdom.
Me: How did you feel about having to get certified to teach yoga?
Mom: At first, I was very grateful to get the certification of yoga.
But, I am also in a moral dilemma for some programs that certified with focus on external things. The study book starts with a big bold letter with a model-like woman objectified, and I quote “a powerful program, flexible, and a defined physique”. In one of the classes, where when I had mentioned that this class is not about just your body, and it is not about weight loss, half the students dropped out.
After the class, one student came up to me and said, ” the students here are to come for fitness instructions, they do not want to hear about mindfulness and body connection. They want to do the poses and go home”. That is not fair to the students. You come to learn about mind and body calmness. Your central nerves systems calms through your proper breathing and your focus ought to be internal. so that we can get rid of the toxins that is accumulated over the years internally. Your external state is a reflection of your internal self.
So, if a certification of yoga empowers and creates internal harmony, then it’s not bad at all. Playful question, would a Christian faith person let a Buddhist certify you as a true Christian? Don’t answer me, this is just a point to ponder, refer to Satya.
Me: In your opinion, are there inconsistencies in Western yoga practice?
Mom: I am in touch with lots of yoga teachers in the west who are very sincere seekers in their practice. They are willing to learn and practice humility in that process. None of us are perfect and we are all work in progress. Having said that, yes there are some inconsistencies in the western practice.
I had to turn down some yoga classes where there was yoga with wine, naked yoga, objectifying yoga, which very much goes against the true meaning of yoga — a union within yourself. It has nothing to do with external self.
Me: Do you feel welcome in Western yoga spaces?
Mom: Yes, I very much do! I have come across very sincere students, teachers, friends, family and communities that wants to live a cruelty-free and non-violent, peaceful world. So there is a space that is created and a venue that goes beyond cultural barriers and the wall that we all built against each other. Western yoga spaces breaks those barriers and unites more human beings and their potentials rings a vibrational unity and magic.
I believe that our yoga teachers in the West are cognizant of the fact that the yoga itself is a practice that empowers our students to find out their inner meaning and should not turn this into a multi-billion dollar industry. You decide for yourself, what is yoga? How did it become such a big business in USA? Who profits from it? Is there any true meaning to its name? You be the judge. Question everything.
Me: Any other thoughts you may have?
Mom: Tracing mystical currents, via Sanskrit vedas and poems, enlarges our perspective on man kind. I simply disagree with colonization of yoga and Sanskrit, since it only divide us further. Remember, yoga is unity. Yoga showed us unity, energy, time and space. I try to understand the fundamental unity of all things, I do not know it all. But, I learn through my struggles, a passion for peace, a fight for tolerance and understanding against hatred and injustice. I am a student in the earth school, who is guided by a power greater than myself. I hope those who want to understand yoga and its wonders, life’s mysteries , to raise above vanities, work through unselfish motives and service to others and a sense of supreme intelligence that pervades everything, we enlarge the perspective of our spirit.
Breath is connected to air that is one of the five elements. Air purifies everything that comes in contact with it, so does other elements. We, living and nonliving thing are made up of five elements. Human body is made up of water, air, fire, matter and earth. In that, air connects everyone and everything. No matter what one is, rich or poor, tall or short etc.. We need to breathe to be alive, so we are all connected by breath to air. If one wishes to separate from the very breath that every one is breathing, because they are so superior and refuse to breathe the same air and then what happens? Our wisdom is connection internally and externally. We all breathe the same air. Air purifies even nonliving things. Remember if we open up our window and let the air flow through, we feel cleaner, as do non living things, around us.
This project is a such a treat for it helps me to expand my consciousness beyond myself and connect with young minds. I thank you for consulting me in this project.
I’ve given a lot of thought to what my point exactly is here. There are things I learned by doing research for this project and speaking to my mother that I, as a Hindu, did not know before. There are also things I learned that I, as an occasional practicer of yoga in the West, did not know. I don’t think those of us who rely on yoga as a key tool in our self-care regime should give it up entirely. I don’t intend this on an attack to those of us who practice without the context.
Poka Laenui outlines the five phases of decolonization:
- Rediscovery and Recovery
I think these phases are critically relevant to attempt to unpack the transformation of yoga in the West. I want to hone in on those last two stages, specifically. In order to attempt to decolonize yoga in the West, I think it’s first important to commit to self-reflect on the role of yoga in our lives. (Which beautifully enough, is a key component of the religious school of Yoga). The next step then, is to consider how to actively use these reflections in our practice and what they mean for us, in the context of practicing yoga and beyond. I don’t have answers, but I do have a series of questions that I had to reflect on throughout the development and execution of this project.
- What is yoga?
- Do we know the origins and roots of our practice?
- What do the words and phrases we are saying mean?
- How are we participating in the commodification of yoga practice?
- How do we reconcile the two distinct yoga movements in the West and the East?
- Do we need to reconcile them?
- Are we aware of the different meanings practices and traditions hold to different populations?
- How can we intentionally begin to decolonize our yoga practice without giving up a practice that we love?