I am a yoga teacher and a psychology researcher.
As I have researched the long-term effects of a yoga practice, I have been struck by the differences between the way yoga is understood in India and how it is understood here in America.
In India, the term yoga is as likely to refer to meditation, pranayama and devotional chanting as to postures. What we would call a meditation center in the United States is called a yoga center in India. A yoga session in India may include posture practice, or it may not. Postures are one part of the yoga experience, on a par with breathing, meditation, hymns and selfless service.
For many people who grew up in India, Hindu gods, Sanskrit prayers, celibate meditators and devotional chants, came along with mother’s milk. Yoga is one of a person’s roots, even if the s/he has never done a posture.
But we Americans do not share the same set of cultural assumptions and practices as the people of India.
For Americans, yoga has long been part of an alternative lifestyle, hovering at the margins of mainstream healthcare practices and mainstream religion. When we embrace the symbols of yoga, we are not enmeshing ourselves in the ways of our ancestors. On the contrary, we are usually veering away in the other direction, into the strange and the unknown.
As yoga puts down roots here, it is adapting to its new home.
It is changing to fit the needs of American culture. For one thing, Americans are highly sedentary. We sit in chairs, rarely on floors. We eat a lot of meat, junk food, processed food and high-glycemic food. At the end of a workday, our joints feel creaky and we are desperate to discharge toxins and revitalize our stiffened bodies. We want to move; we want the gifts of hatha yoga, of asana.
Many of us enjoy a few minutes of weekly chanting at our yoga classes, or perhaps a beginning and ending OM. But for most American yogis and yoginis, it’s the postures that make the yoga class. Busy mothers with frantic schedules will carve out an hour of yoga per week for their sanity, but without asana, they might not make that commitment.
What are the most popular forms of yoga in America today?
Iyengar, which emphasizes postural precision, and its offshoots, such as Anusara; heated, power, and flow yoga; Ashtanga and Bikram yoga. Yoga in fitness clubs. Yoga done to rap music and R & B. Yoga to move the body and to work out.
Some yoga teachers are uneasy about the change from the way yoga is done in India, with its heavy doses of chanting, pranayama and devotional hymns.
I am not.
Yoga in America is becoming what it needs to be in its new home. Americans are not dragging yoga down; on the contrary, yoga is bringing our exercise practices up. Yoga is teaching us that exercise is not always about pumping the body; that we need to become mindful and tend to the breath when we move; that we need to find the stillness in the middle of our hard work. That we need to turn our exercises into a form of prayer.
For Americans, yoga is not a step backward from a wealth of devotional, meditational and breathing practices.
We cannot step backward from those ways of doing things, because we never had them to begin with.
For us, yoga is a step forward, a step away from the mindless, pounding intensity of mainstream aerobic exercise, the kind that shortens the breath, tightens the spine, builds a competitive ego and “treats the body like a racehorse,” as B. K. S. Iyengar has put it.
The American yogi or yogini has a different starting point: an American starting point. S/he is learning to work the body, to exercise and move, in a different way: with mindfulness, with an open breath, with patience, self-love and nonviolence.
Nina Moliver, Ph.D., RYT, is a certified yoga teacher and a psychology researcher. Her yoga teaching style is safe, supportive, and joyful. Nina uses her profound understanding of the body to help her students align themselves comfortably, prevent and heal from injury, and deepen their self-discovery. Her classes are slow-paced and heart-centered.
Since taking her first yoga classes in 1968, Nina has studied in the Integral, Kripalu, Svaroopa, Bikram, Iyengar and Anusara traditions. Nina was certified in Iyengar-style Hatha Yoga in early 2004 under the guidance of Eileen Muir. After that, she continued to study with some of the world’s greatest yoga masters. Her travels have led her to Anusara Yoga, which is currently the major influence in her teaching. She is also certified to teach yoga to elders.
Nina is a consultant to students writing their doctoral dissertations, and she edits and reviews scientific texts. She also offers private yoga therapy sessions, psychotherapy, life coaching, and whole-foods counseling. Her own doctoral dissertation focused on the long-term effects of a yoga practice.
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Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers
Editor: Thaddeus Haas
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