The Oprah-fication of Patanjali: Culturally Homogenizing the Yoga Sutra.

Via Carol Horton
on Nov 16, 2010
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If you’re involved with yoga, sooner or later (depending on what method you’re doing) you’ll encounter the Yoga Sutra (YS).

Written by the mysterious Patanjali way back around 250 B.C.E., this cryptic collection of 195 short statements (“sutras” or aphorisms), is by far the closest thing to a common sacred text that we’ve got in the yoga community today.

On one level, I love this. In a culture where knowledge of what happened two months ago regularly gets thrown in the trash bin of forgotten history, it’s exciting to discover that so many people care about a truly ancient text.


More often than not, I find myself irritated by the way that the YS’s treated by American yogis.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert. But I think that it’s safe to assume that the YS was not written as a feel-good text for more-or-less-normal 21st century Americans like me.

Which is why it gets my goat when I keep running across smarmy paeans to “how-the-Yoga-Sutra-can-help-you-be-the-best-healthy-and-happy-you!” (Perhaps accompanied by “five easy poses for everlasting bliss” you can do in 15 minutes or less . . . )

OK, I’m being snarky. But consider how articles such as the tellingly entitled “Paths to Happiness” (published in Yoga Journal) seek to assure us that the YS fits oh-so-comfortably into our contemporary culture:

Centuries ago, the great sage Patanjali laid out a kind of map—one that suggests not just asana and meditation but also attitudes and behaviors—to help you chart your own course to contentment.

At first glance, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra . . . may seem esoteric and impenetrable. But the ancient manual is worth a closer look, because it contains essential advice for daily living. ‘Patanjali has offered us guidelines that will allow us to have enhanced emotional and mental well-being and a more fulfilling and meaningful life . . . The Yoga Sutra is specifically designed to lead to greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment for you and everyone around you.’

Um, really? That’s funny, because I thought that the YS was about realizing Samadhi, or “assimilation with pure Being.”

But wait, you may say – what’s the difference? Isn’t Samadhi just another term for “happiness”? Like that blissful feeling I get seeing an amazing sunset or playing with my cute puppy in the garden?

Not to be a party pooper, but . . . really, I don’t think so.

I say that not to denigrate everyday happiness – hey, I’m using yoga to get more of that myself. Nor do I want to diss the YS. Quite the contrary.

Rather, I want to insist on a difference between “happiness” and “Samadhi” because I think that we’ll get more out of both our contemporary practice and our encounters with ancient texts if we don’t blur them together into one big indistinguishable mush.

YS 1.2: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.

Lost in Translation

According to Mircea Eliade’s classic work, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, the goal of Patanjali’s yoga is “perfectly clear”: “To emancipate man from his human condition, to conquer absolute freedom, to realize the unconditioned.”

This is not the same as our everyday sense of “happiness” and “contentment.” As Eliade explains:

The method comprises a number of different techniques (physiological, mental, mystical), but they all have one characteristic in common – they are antisocial, or, indeed, antihuman . . . The worldly man is ‘possessed’ by this own life; the yogin refuses to ‘let himself live’ . . .

It is here that we become better aware of the initiatory character of Yoga. For in initiation, too, one ‘dies’ to be ‘reborn’; but this new birth is not a repetition of natural birth; the candidate does not return to the profane world to which he has just died during his initiation; he finds a sacred world corresponding to a new mode of being that is inaccessible to the ‘natural’ (profane) level of existence.

And so on.

Yet Yoga Journal assures us that this same method is “designed to lead you, step-by-step, toward everlasting contentment.” Well . . . I suppose one could argue that it all depends on what your definition of “contentment” is. But really, I think that this ancient, radically ascetic discipline had quite different goals.

While articles such as “Paths to Happiness” intend to honor the Yoga Sutra, I believe that they inadvertently serve to render it invisible. By so completely assimilating it into our everyday cultural categories, all signs that it might actually be speaking of something different are washed away.

What’s left is more or less the same sort of uplifting, feel-good spirituality that you might find on Oprah. You can just imagine Patanjali sitting on her couch, chatting nicely about how the eight limbs of yoga can help you “follow your bliss.”

But does that truly constitute “death to profane existence?” It seems pretty clear that the answer is “no.”

Black Magic and Perverse Sexuality

If the YS is not really ready-for-prime-time, why is it usually presented – even by prominent yoga teachers – as if it is?

In part, I think it’s a carry-over from the not-so-distant past, when Hatha yoga had a really, really bad reputation, both among respectable, middle class Indians, and most certainly in the West.

As Mark Singleton explains in Yoga Body, Europeans colonizers began denouncing yogis as “itinerant renouncers known for their disreputable (and sometimes violent) behavior, mendicancy, and outlandish austerities” back in the 1600s. As recently as the early 20th century, Hatha yogis were associated with “black magic, perverse sexuality, and alimentary impurity” by many Europeans and Indians alike.

While filled with cultural chauvinism and religious intolerance, these denunciations did have some basis in reality. Singleton documents that from the 15th – early 19th centuries, “highly organized bands of militarized yogis controlled trade routes across Northern India . . . It was in fact the hatha yoga-practicing Nath Yogins themselves . . . who were the first major religious group to organize militarily.”

Once Indian elites and British colonialists joined forces and cracked down on these militarized yogis, many turned to lives of “showmanship and mendicancy, becoming objects of scorn for many sections of Hindu society, and of voyeuristic fascination or disgust for European visitors.” Lurid tales of extreme austerities circulated widely, e.g., “overgrown nails that pierce the flesh of the hand, dislocated arms, and excruciating postures held for so long that the limbs in question become ossified and shriveled.” (And, all “showmanship” aside, it’s also true that radical austerities have long held an important place in Indian religious culture.)

"indian Fakirs in Various Positions" (Scientific American, 1885)

As recently as 1983, Geeta Iyengar (daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar) noted that “the word Yoga evokes all sorts of images in the popular mind”:

Some associate it with recluses, saffron robed, body smeared with ashes, with begging bowl in hand, and wandering from town to town; or sitting cross-legged atop a mountain or on the banks of a sacred river. Cartoons depict a Yogi sitting on a bed of nails, performing the rope trick, and walking on water. In others he is a magician drinking acid or swallowing pieces of glass.

Geeta, like her father, is devoted to countering such conceptions, promoting an alternative understanding of yoga that emphasizes its capacities to develop physical, psychological, and spiritual health for all.

As Singleton and others have documented, however, this new understanding was in fact a modernized reinterpretation of the yoga tradition developed by Sivananda, Krishnamarcharya, and other luminaries during the 1910s-30s. The ancient tradition represented by the YS was something quite different.

Sanitizing the Sutras

Following the precedent set by Swami Vivekandanda’s immensely influential Raja Yoga (1896), the newly modernized form of Hatha yoga that emerged in the early 20th century nonetheless came to orient itself around the ancient authority of the Yoga Sutra.

Given all of Hatha’s negative associations, it’s not surprising that the modern invocations of the YS heavily emphasized its presentation of ethical precepts (the Yamas and Niyamas), rather than extraordinary powers (the Siddhis). In the modern context, dedication to non-violence, non-stealing, truthfulness, and so on remain admirable, worthy virtues. Powers such as knowing the past and future, understanding the language of animals, reading minds, becoming invisible, leaving and entering bodies at will, levitating, and walking on water (all enumerated in the YS), however, are – to say the least – much more controversial.

Hindu Ascetics on Tiger Skins (early 19th c.)

A recent interview in the Magazine of Yoga with scholar David Gordon White, however, points out that:

It suffices to cast a glance at the Yoga Sutra to see that the acquisition of Siddhis was at the forefront of yogic theory and practice in the first centuries of the common era: Nearly all of the 55 sutras of Book 3 of this work are devoted to the Siddhis, and the ‘disclaimer’ in Verse 37 of this book – that ‘these powers are impediments to Samadhi, but are acquisitions in a normal fluctuating state of mind’ – seems only to apply, in fact, to the Siddhis enumerated in the two preceding verses.

By suppressing this dimension of the Sutras – as well as the larger history of yoga that it’s a part of – the yoga community is sanitizing them to fit cleanly into our culture.

A serious discussion of the Siddhis definitely wouldn’t cut it on Oprah.

Pushing the Envelope

Until quite recently, however, presenting a sanitized version of the YS was probably a requirement for making it – along with the longer tradition it represents – more popular and accessible.

Even today, Christian conservatives are warning that going to a run-of-the-mill yoga class puts one at risk of demonic possession. Now, such extreme views are seen as silly outside of fundamentalist circles. But such highly negative views of yoga (not to mention Hinduism and India more generally) were common in the West until the mid-20th century.

And yoga really didn’t lose its association with counter-cultural weirdness until the late 1990s. So it’s only been a decade or so that yoga’s been seen as a non-threatening – even wholesome – practice.

Until this time, it was reasonable to assume that discussing the more culturally alien – even discomforting – aspects of yoga’s past would drive people away from it, preventing them from experiencing all of the amazing benefits it has to offer.

Today, however, we no longer have to worry about this. Frankly, most contemporary yoga practitioners simply won’t care about whatever weird facts might turn up studying yogic history. They know that they enjoy their local yoga class – and that, for all intents and purposes, is that.

Which is totally fine. There’s no reason that everyone who practices today needs to care about the past.

But for those of us with a deeper curiosity about the yoga tradition, I think that it’s time to rethink our approach to the Yoga Sutra.

We have endless self-help aids promising quick-fix routes to happiness and contentment. Homogenizing the YS so that it fits into that familiar feel-good niche serves no useful purpose. On the contrary, I believe that we’re missing an opportunity to push the envelope of our understanding of yoga by honestly grappling with the culturally unfamiliar dimensions of this ancient practice.

In all honesty, I love Oprah. But I’m more fascinated by Patanjali – or at least a version of him that’s far too radically esoteric to cut it on her show.


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About Carol Horton

Carol Horton, Ph.D. is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body. With Roseanne Harvey, she is co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice.

Carol blogs at Think Body Electric, and enjoys social media via Facebook and Twitter.


47 Responses to “The Oprah-fication of Patanjali: Culturally Homogenizing the Yoga Sutra.”

  1. Carol Horton says:

    Hi Charlotte: Thanks for your comment. I admire your dedication to studying the Sutras. And I know that there are others out there who are similarly dedicated. I have not even come close to your level of study. Hopefully it's clear that I am writing here as a commentator on pop culture, not claiming any real expertise on the Sutras. My feeling is that this distinction between deep knowledge and pop superficiality is a worthwhile one for everyone to be aware of.

    • Charlotte says:

      I'm really enjoying reading this discussion, and am learning a lot! Thanks, everybody.

      Thanks, Carol. I do agree with David that it's in order for many people to want to study the sutras in the first place, something about YS needs to meet them in a place that resounds with them. Who knows how many people may have read the YJ article and become more interested in looking at the sutras. I see the sutras as a living, breathing entity that can be read and benefited from from many different vantage points. As my study partner and I approached the end of chapter 4 some months ago, we considered starting again with chapter 1, knowing that we would be reading it differently after six years of living. But I also agree that after a certain point, "popification" of something like the yoga sutras dilutes its power.

  2. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, Hilary. Great question about who Patanjali would be in today's context – I really don't know – but I like the question.

    I do think that "respectable and sanitized" yoga can provide an important opening for people to engage and eventually go deeper, which is a good thing – but in order to do that, other alternatives need to be out there, visible and available as well.

  3. I'll second everything David wrote, and will add some additional comments below after I finish reading all the other comments.

    Bob W.

  4. No problem, Ramesh. I don't believe in any paranormal powers. I do believe there are really strange things that we can't explain, and that some things that now seem impossible will someday proven to be real. But, to me, the only way to distinguish between fact and fiction is non-anecdotal evidence. Have you seen someone levitate? If so why can't it be done in a verifiable setting? It's as simple as that.

    In my reading of Feuerstein he determinedly neutral on this point, faithfully reporting the history and the beliefs without revealing his personal opinion about things like, say, levitation, for example.

    I accept and enjoy that many have a different point of view than mine, particularly you!

    Bob W.

  5. integralhack says:

    I agree with you on the Michael Stone point, Carol. Although Michael Stone might get some things wrong according to "doctrine" (and given the patchwork quilt of yoga, who wouldn't!), I think he is doing some bold and interesting things and strives to find commonality in different traditions. Not that one can't miss the boat in such an effort, but I appreciate his earnest effort.

  6. What does walking on hot coals prove about levitation or walking through walls or walking on water or becoming invisible? I don't doubt that people can walk across hot coals.

    If anything this just illustrates my point that when something is actually doable, like walking on hot coals, the practitioners are anxious to show it to the world and even make money with it. How much more so would that be true with something more astonishing like levitation?

    Bob W.

  7. Correct me if I'm wrong, Ramesh, but the majority of things Tantra are not weird in the least, but rather philosophical, uplifting, and even plainly practical. Why focus on the minority of weird things and make it sound like it represents the whole? I've actually never seen Ramesh do this in his writings about Tantra.

    I personally don't see anything in the Yoga Sutra that implies the detailed and sometimes decidedly weird practices in the Hatha Yoga Padipika, which was written at least 1500 years later. And there is not the slightest mention of these kinds of weird practices in any of the six or eight commentaries I've read on the Yoga Sutra. So why taint the Yoga Sutra with the fifteen hundred year later account of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika?

    Again, making a sharp distinction between weird practices and magical powers, which I see as two different things.

  8. Like I told Carol about coal walking, I don't doubt the ability of Yogis to control their body temperature and blood pressure and other functions. I believe these things because they have been proven.

    Why demonstrate these powers but not the other ones? It's hard to escape the conclusion that advanced Yogis readily submit to observation for things that are true and don't for those that aren't.

    Bob W.

  9. Ramesh, that Feuerstein quote is hardly a ringing endorsement of paranormal powers ("at least some…" sounds mostly skeptical to me). It reflects exactly my impression of Feuerstein–an open minded, but scientifically minded historian. That's a lot different from actually believing in levitation.

    Bob W.

    • Ramesh says:

      Bob, I understand, and I agree, but you missed my pointing out his endorsement of the book about the 18 Siddhas by Govindan, these yogis who supposedly have lived for hundreds of years…. I'm even skeptical of that stuff, but Feuerstein endorsed that book. So my point is, he goes both ways depending on the book and the audience, scientist here, devotee over here…

      • Ramesh. It would be nice to ask him directly, but I don't think he would answer anyway. I think he likes the ambiguity of his position.

        However, endorsing that book means nothing. Feuerstein loves all Yoga mythology and lore, ancient or modern. His endorsement of a book about Siddhas means no more than endorsing a book about Ganesh [Elephant-headed God], in terms of the literal truth of the book.

        • Ramesh says:

          Bob, I would disagree… Yoga mythology and lore and especially the various Gods, Ganesh, perhaps the most popular, included, are also understood by yogis like Feuerstein to be symbolic gateways to the infinite; psychological representatives or archetypes of the Divine. I also endorse that stuff, cause I sing to these guys during kirtan knowing full well they are the many names of the same Infinite Grace available to all! That's different than endorsing a book about yogis said to live way beyond the norms of science, i.e yoga dudes with paranormal powers.
          But anyway, this is getting repetitive and George is not here to defend himself.

  10. integralhack says:

    "I want to believe." – Fox Mulder

  11. Loved the article.

    it could have been shortened to the title phrase… The Oprah-fication of Yoga. That says it all.

    Okay, maybe with a subtitle: How Contemporary Society Magically Converts the Profound Into the Banal.

    And maybe a tag line: Is Your Yoga Instructor Following Oprah or Patanjali?

  12. Thanks for your wise observations, Matt. I agree, the quote here doesn't do justice to Hartranft's point of view, but I would stand by my description of it. Hartranft believes that the Yoga Sutra has been essentially hijacked by the Vedantists and the Hatha-ists and every other Yoga school that wanted to claim the Yoga Sutra for its own. His is an effort to do as you say, go back to the times and the text itself, to what Hartranft concludes to be the essentially Buddhist nature of the Yoga Sutra. Critics say that Hartranft has done the same thing himself, since he's steeped in Buddhism himself. Like you say, it's all great fun. But the thing I see the least justification for is linking the Yoga Sutra directly to the specific practices of the

  13. David Lincecum says:

    I disagree. Average 21st century Americans are very unlikely to achieve your noted results in this lifetime. They may likely experience the side-effects of happiness and contentment as they begin their journey. It has happened to millions. I am one and I believe. Now watching Oprah on Tivo.

  14. […] Parts of India that She Doesn’t Pretend to Understand, and another great article on the Oprah-fication of Yoga. Now the latter really got me asking myself what, if any, aspects of yoga do I block out of my […]

  15. […] Yoga Sutras describes five kleshas or obstacles that can block our spiritual enlightenment or growth. Dvesha, […]

  16. Cherie says:

    What a great item and debate.

  17. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, Bob. But I have to say that I think you have part of the history wrong. As I write in the post, the British colonial view was chauvinistic and exaggerated, but also had some basis in truth. Part of that truth is that fact that a significant chunk of the YS is devoted to the Siddhis and, as Ramesh explained, this was not some sort of marketing gimmick nor intended to be simply ignored.

    My point (which seems to have been lost in this focus on the yoga tradition itself) was that perhaps the suppression of this aspect of the YS was a reaction to the negative views of Hatha yoga generated by British colonialism. And that now that yoga has become so mainstream, accepted, and culturally safe, we no longer need to suppress these facts.

    And, they might even be mind-opening to consider. I certainly have found them to be so.

  18. Carol Horton says:

    Bob – The focal point in that section was that Hatha yoga had a negative reputation in the West and among middle class Indians in the late 19th century. Singleton explains how many formerly militant yogis were pushed into being street performers. Because of this situation, there was (I speculate) incentive to suppress aspects of the yoga tradition that would seem similarly strange and threatening to Westerns.

    I only had a one sentence parenthetical reference saying that radical austerities have in fact long been a part of Hindu religious practice.

    Now that it's clear that this section of the article was not characterizing yoga in general, do you still object to these two points? Because I think that you're arguing against a claim that I never made.

    • No, no problem at all as stated here. I said from the beginning that my concern was about the strong association of the Yoga Sutra with the specific radical physical austerities (and also "black magic and perverse sexuality", which is one of your headings). If you're telling me you didn't mean it that way, discussion over! As Emily Litella (Gilda Radner SNL Violins on TV) would say, "Never mind."

      Bob W.

      • Carol Horton says:

        Right – of course that was a deliberately eye-catching header. But if you go back and read that section, it's about negative perceptions and (in a very shorthand way) where they came from, not about the core teachings of yoga at all.

        The point of quoting Geeta Iyengar in 1983 was to show how long-lasting those perceptions were – she is clearly not endorsing them – as I pointed out.

  19. Thanks for this wonderful clarification, Ramesh. This is all consistent with my understanding of the Yoga Sutra, but you have given me so many interesting new details!

    Bob W.

  20. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks Ramesh. Very good to have that more detailed level of knowledge and information, and also clarifying. I think that we may actually have arrived at a place of mutual accord???

  21. GURUPRASAD C says:

    It is an interesting development, particularly in the west-US,many fascinating experiment of understanding are going on with various forums & media ! Hope the vested interest of other religious practices / their controlling masters do not come in the way of universal truth & applicability of YOGA Lore !! Almighty / Divine Interventions at appropriate times, shall take care of things and situations every where, including the present transition !!! Let us sincerely pray to shaver best possible understanding of Reality to every human being on earth continuously at all times to come !!!! 'Sarve jana sukino bhavanthu… Samastha Sanmangalaani bhavanthu' has been the normal prayer of all traditional /devote Indian !!!!!

  22. Couldn't have said it better myself, David. Thanks for handling this side of argument. I'm with you all the way. There is no reason to denigrate one person's level of Yoga in favor of another. People will find the level that's right for them.

    Plus it's very clear to me that many serious Yoga practitioners went through an Oprah/YJ level of experience to get there. I certainly did. So I still respect that experience, both for its own intrinsic value, and because it was for me a good stepping stone. After all, without it I mostly likely never would have gone on to master levitation.

    Like you, I also love Carol's writing and thank her for this article and for generating this great discussion.

    Bob W.

  23. Ramesh says:

    Linda_Sama–well said in all respects. I also agree with you 150%. Sounds like an auspicious meeting you had with the Swami!

    Bob, I would not characterize the bending of the tongue backwards as self-mutilation. I practice this during meditation and it's a very gentle holding of the tongue so that it is still and also gently stimulating to the upper palate and thus induces concentration.

    • Hi, Ramesh. I was referring to the practice of severing with a knife the connector under the tongue so the tongue can be inserted more fully into the nasal cavity. Apparently many Yogis' tongues didn't extend far enough into the nasal cavity to be satisfactory, so they resorted to this cutting of the underside of the tongue.

      Also, the gentle holding of the tongue on the roof of the mouth is one practice, which sounds like what you do. I'm talking about the forced insertion of the whole tongue back into the nasal cavity itself. Is that what you meant, too?

      Bob W.

  24. […] for someone with such prestige. Author of fifty-one books, with as much name recognition as any Oprah or Bono, the man’s a bit of a spiritual […]

  25. […] To go from yoga as a means to be liberated from illusion to yoga as a means to perpetuate and even revel in that same illusion requires a 180-degree turn. And Ms Nardini’s insistence that omnivorous yogis are every bit as spiritual as vegetarian yogis is not only 180-degrees from traditional yoga, it’s symptomatic of a larger issue for the yoga community; something Carol Horton has appropriately dubbed “the Oprah-fication of Patanjali”. […]

  26. […] Sutra 1.1 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, atha yoga anushasanam (“Now begins yoga”) suggests that we should be ready to let go of what does not serve us and what holds us back concealing what is real, so that our truest self can be revealed. […]

  27. […] a few calories or let off steam after a tough day. However, the core texts of the yogic tradition only rarely (if at all) mention asana practice– yoga is seen through a more expansive perspective, one […]

  28. […] to do, however, instead of bowing to the current popularity of chefs and culinary arts, is present Patanjali’s 195 sutras over a year period, hopefully interweaving them into the fabric of my everyday […]

  29. […] However, it took me at least 10 years of teaching before I found my true voice. As a teacher, you need to find your message and trust your truth. You have to believe you have a valid place in the yoga community. You are just as important as Patanjali. […]

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