January 18, 2011

American Yoga 2011: New Possibilities for a New Decade.

I’m not one to make predictions on how American yoga might develop during this newly inaugurated second decade of the 21st century.

But if I had my druthers, ten years from now I’ll be able to look back and say that 2010 marked the birth of a new era of self-reflection and cultural consciousness in the North American yoga community – one that evolved in exciting and empowering ways over the course of this coming decade.

Information Explosion

At the beginning of 2010, no books on the history of American yoga existed. True, there were scads on yoga philosophy and/or asana practice. But if you were interested in learning about how yoga was first exported from India to the U.S. and subsequently developed, there was nothing to read except a few scattered magazine articles.

Then BOOM. Suddenly, last year, three books on the subject appeared: Robert Love’s The Great Oom, Stephanie Syman’s The Subtle Body, and Philip Goldberg’s American Veda. These meticulously researched, highly informative histories cover similar historical terrain, but without too much overlap. Together, they offer an incredible new resource for those interested in tracking the on-the-ground evolution of American yoga.

Also in 2010, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body dropped a bomb into the loosely structured but often deeply held set of assumptions that had come to permeate North American yoga culture, e.g.: Yoga is a 5,000-year-old practice. Well . . . depends what you mean by that. But if you’re talking about the type of yoga that we’re doing in gyms and studios today, we now know that there’s a lot of historical evidence suggesting that the roots of contemporary asana practice trace back most directly to the early 20th century.

Whether you agree with Singleton or not, any fair-minded person will recognize that Yoga Body is a substantial work that can’t be dismissed out of hand. Like Syman, Goldberg, and Love’s books, it presents mountains of never-before-assembled information about the history of modern asana practice. Because it analyzes the development of modern yoga in India, however – rather than its subsequent evolution in the United States – its implications are much more far reaching.

This is even more true when you realize that Yoga Body builds on a small but substantial body of scholarly work that’s relatively unknown in practitioner circles: Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India, Elizabeth DeMichelis’ A History of Modern Yoga, N. E. Sjoman’s The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, and David Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis (just to name my personal favorites). If you’re interested, there’s now a solid body of work detailing the development of modern asana practice that simply wasn’t available several years ago.

Blogosphere Network Map

Blogosphere Buzz

During the same time that this new literature on modern yoga has been developing, the “yoga blogoshere” has been birthed. As a newcomer myself, I can’t give a detailed history. But my sense is that most yoga blogs are only a few years old – or less. Today, there’s more than I can count, discussing everything from cute fashion trends to the possibility of enlightenment.

The blogosphere is amazing in that it allows for as many creative possibilities as people have time to develop. You don’t need to get past an editor. You don’t need an agent. You don’t need a publisher. You don’t need advertisers. You don’t need a fancy job title. You don’t need to go commercial. You don’t even need to check in with anybody else at all before going ahead and just saying what you want to say.

True, you do need access the Internet. And, more problematically, you need that all-too-rare resource today – time. The flip side of the blogosphere being free, open, and noncommercial is that most of us don’t get paid anything to work on it. This of course makes it hard to carve out the time to do it, as we typically have other jobs and commitments. And it means that really substantial work, like the books mentioned above, generally isn’t going to be produced unless supported by some source other than an individual blogger.

Be that as it may, the fact that there is this new space for sharing ideas about yoga is incredible. And there’s new innovations coming down the pike all the time – videos, podcasts, webinars, conferences, courses, etc. All of this allows for the creation of a new online community that’s interested in learning, talking, and yes, even arguing (civilly!) about yoga in a way that simply wasn’t possible only a short time ago.

"East Meets West II" by Liz Jardine

Collective Reflection and Conscious Evolution

Put these two recent developments together, and I believe that we’ve got a potentially powerful equation:

“New Information about Modern Yoga” + “New Ways of Communicating about Contemporary Practice” = ???

What this combination of new resources of information and communication will produce remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that it presents some unprecedented possibilities.

Personally, I’d love to see this equation producing a new sense of collective self-reflection and self-imagining in the American yoga community. Until recently, we necessarily had a more limited sense of how our contemporary practice might fit into the larger story of yoga’s evolution over time. Therefore, we tended to be stuck in an unconvincing conceptual paradigm: Either we were continuing an ancient Indian practice (which meant ignoring obvious questions, such as how what we’re doing really maps onto ancient practices of ash-smeared ascetics living in caves) or we were corrupting the yoga tradition by allowing Western influences to intrude.

This either-it’s-traditional-or-it’s-corrupted mentality is no longer convincing. If you’ve read the yoga history books that have come out over the past several years, then it seems pretty evident that what we’re doing today is neither a continuation of ancient Indian yoga nor a Westernized corruption of it. Rather, it’s the next iteration of the modern re-creation of yoga that emerged out of early 20th century India.

This is not to say that yoga has no ancient roots – that would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rather, the point is that yoga was modernized – and in that process, partially Westernized – even before it was exported from India to America.

Modern yoga was, in other words, syncretic from the beginning, synthesizing ancient and modern, traditional and revolutionary, East and West. This was and is a powerful synthesis, designed to inject the spirit of the yoga tradition into the radically changed conditions of the modern world. Hatha yoga changed from being a secret, radically ascetic discipline for adepts dedicated to achieving Samadhi into an accessible, pragmatic technology of physical, psychological, and spiritual healing and transformation available to all.

As the generation of Indian masters who brought modern yoga to the West is aging and passing, the center of gravity for its continued development is shifting from India to North America. This makes it an important time for serious practitioners to reflect on our collective influence on continued evolution of modern yoga – both where we are now and in what directions we may be going.

Ammonite Fossils

But So What?

This is all pretty abstract, so if you’re still reading this far, you may be wondering: What is there that’s so important to reflect on, anyway?

This of course is a question with no “right answer.” But asking it is an invitation to a conversation that might produce some compelling responses.

Just for now, however, I can provide some of my own ideas. A few issues that I’d love to see a collective conversation about include:

  • What’s distinctive about modern yoga?
  • What’s its connection to the larger yoga tradition?
  • Has yoga shifted into a post-modern phase?
  • Has the explosion in the number of female teachers changed the practice?
  • How does today’s use of yoga for self-improvement compare to more traditional yogic commitments?
  • What’s the status of Samadhi, or enlightenment, in yoga culture today?
  • How much commercialization of yoga is too much, and why?
  • What’s the real and ideal relationship between representations of the body in the mainstream media versus the yoga community?
  • How could yoga be better integrated with mainstream health systems?
  • How could yoga and psychotherapy best inform one another?
  • Can yoga be a resource for political activism? Should it be?
  • Does the yoga “industry” need new forms of regulation?
  • Is it OK to label anything you want “yoga”?
  • Is yoga best understood a means of coping with or changing the world?
  • No matter how much yoga may evolve over time, does it have some essence that’s eternal?

The most fruitful questions can’t be anticipated or dictated. They’ll grow organically out of the soil of collective engagement if and when the time becomes ripe.

The Sacred Tree of Life

Re-imagining Theory as Practice

Patthabi Jois famously insisted that yoga is “99% practice, 1% theory.” And as a practitioner, there’s a part of me that totally gets this – you don’t progress in your practice by thinking about it, only by doing it.

But there’s another part of me that feels like the time is ripe for the North American yoga community to start considering theory as a part of practice – or, to borrow a phrase from Shiva Rea, as part of our engagement with yoga as a project of “conscious evolution.”

Consciousness, as I’m imagining it, involves curiosity, questioning, learning, communication, and thought. That’s why all of the new information that we have on recent yoga history is so valuable, and our new opportunities to discuss whatever we want in cyberspace even more so.

Yoga, it’s often said, involves the integration of body, mind, and spirit. I’m hoping that this second decade of the 21st century will be a time when this integration increasingly occurs on a collective, as opposed to simply individual level. The treasures of modern asana practice can, I believe, be synthesized with our emerging self-consciousness as a community of North American practitioners.

Our charge, I think, is not preserving an unchanging practice, but rather keeping our craft alive by continually re-creating it so that its spirit becomes ever more vibrant in our world.

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