Yes, I am about to defend Western yoga.
I know this is risky business, but what does yoga teach us if not to take risks?
In my many years as a student of yoga, writer on yoga, and, in more recent years, a yoga instructor, it is not unusual for me to hear someone (perhaps even myself) waxing emphatically about how commercialism and fancy yoga clothes have sullied the meaning of the practice here in the US. The thing is:
I do not entirely agree. I think yoga is different in the West, and sometimes has its downsides. But I do not think it is inferior overall, and I certainly do not think we have ruined the practice or stripped it of meaning.
What got me thinking about this was a recent article on Elephant Journal in which a teacher talks about her trip to India. While in India, she says, she practiced asanas in the back of the classroom (with the rest of the women), amid ravenous mosquitoes, while breathing in toxic diesel fumes. She says that practicing in this way brought her closer to the true meaning of yoga and showed her what was wrong with yoga in America, citing our materialistic, sanity-obsessed practitioners.
I have heard this story many times from yogis returning from the East. I understand how practicing among adversity challenges us and brings us closer to what feels real. And there is no doubt that India is an incredible place, and that the people and temples and culture inspire something divine in those who visit from without. But I think it is a mistake for us Westerners to drop in on India for a short while, return home to our regular comforts, and then romanticize the hardships of those in the East while criticizing the way we practice and live in the West. I think it simplifies a very complex equation.
I have spent time in India, and the malaria, dysentery and pollution that offer the adversity that Westerners often refer to as being part of their overall spiritual experience in India are not spiritual elements or ideals—they are facts of life in India that have more to do with intense climate and poverty than God blowing bugs, disease and methane into the country. I’d just as soon see my Indian brothers and sisters spared from these things rather than view them as necessities for spiritual transformation.
So many Indians leave, or want to leave, India in search of better living conditions, and they scoff at our romanticism of their country because they know what it is like to watch such unnecessary suffering on a daily basis. Yes, we are extremely fortunate to be able to practice in climate-controlled studios with hard wooden floors—but who is to say those in India would not be practicing that way if they had the means?
And then there are the gender equality issues that Westerners also dismiss when they romanticize India. The author of the article I mentioned did not seem bothered by the fact that she was made to practice in the back of the classroom, for the sake of modesty. But I am.
I respect tradition in India, of course, but I also believe that gender equality is in line with the yogic ideals of ahimsa (non-harming). In the West, men have had to learn to control sexual urges if they want to practice in the same room as women, and vice versa, regardless of what we all decide to wear. I think this is a true practice in ekagrata (single-pointed focus) and speaks to an essential aspect of human evolution and spiritual advancement.
And if we did segregate classes based on gender for ‘modesty’ purposes, as was done in the class mentioned earlier, what would happen with gay and lesbian practitioners?
Do gay men have to practice in the back with straight women? And would women still be allowed to teach, up in the front of the class, where we could see them? Many yoga schools in India are gender integrated at this stage—but there is still a certain amount of gender inequality in the society. So, all I am saying is let us give a nod here to the ways that the West has actually improved upon yoga, by opening the doors to women students and teachers, and helping to release a lot of the suppressive beliefs about gender that were held by the earlier yogis.
I also hear, again and again, complaints about modern day yoga clothing. I hear them from myself, too. People say the clothing is too fashion-oriented for yoga. And yes, it feels Insane, with a capital I, to pay $100 for a pair of yoga pants at any of the many overpriced yoga retailers.
But I think we are unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yoga clothing designers came upon the scene because there was a real need for good, sturdy apparel for female asana practitioners in the West.
More and more women were seriously studying asanas, but their boobs and butts were flying all over the place. The development of smart yoga clothing has allowed women the ability to practice the more active forms of Hatha yoga that were once restricted to men, and has been a real service to me and millions of other women (even if corporate America and advertising took the whole thing a little too far).
The author of the article I referred to earlier asks, “What would Patanjali think of Lululemon?” It is a catchy line, but Patanjali likely never intended for women to be studying yoga at all, so he is not necessarily the one I’d be asking. I study his teachings with great respect, but like all ancient and sacred teachings, they must be understood and interpreted in context of the times in which they were penned. (For instance, I may respect the Bible, but I am not going to look to it to teach me about civil rights because it was recorded during a time when slavery was acceptable.)
I love India and it is where yoga originated and I bow to that origin every time I practice. And I do not want to lose the point that many people are making these days about capitalism’s various incompatibilities with Eastern spiritual practice—I have felt it, myself. But I also think we need to be wary of making broad comparisons, and judging ourselves (and our students, for those teachers out there) to be less conscious or spiritual because we are from the US.
I have traveled far and wide, and I think all of us—Indians, North Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans, Asians—have our own individual cultural pitfalls when it comes to being awake, present and compassionate. Rather than compare one culture to another as being spiritually superior or inferior, I think it is important to remember that we all have something to contribute to the evolution of humanity.
Also, and maybe most importantly, we need to remember that divinity is within us. Traveling, especially to the motherland of our practice, can offer us irrefutable insights and peak experiences. But if we really want to find the light, we need look no farther than what is inside. No spiritual passport is necessary.
Karen Macklin is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco. Her work has been published in Yoga Journal, Yoga International, Tricycle, Fit Yoga, The New York Times, SF Weekly, and numerous other magazines, as well as literary journals and anthologies. For more about Karen’s yoga and writing life, check out her website.
Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul
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