If Joseph McCarthy, the late Senator from Wisconsin, could see what is going on in yoga studios from sea to shining sea today, he would roll over in his grave.
Even worse, if he could spy into the hearts of American yogis he might rise from the dead and resurrect the House Un-American Activities Committee. And for good reason: in an America whose modern core values are competition, consumerism, and nationalism, yoga espouses acceptance, moderation, and finally stilling the mind, withdrawing the senses, and dissolving the ego. In the land of the free and home of the brave, in an America that has been at war with someone somewhere ever since ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, yoga fosters kindness and compassion towards all beings, not blowing them up for geo-political reasons.
In a nation where bigger is better, expediency trumps virtue, and might is right, yoga espouses ethical principles and observances for personal and social betterment. In a 21st century in which increasingly problematic ends justify increasingly harebrained means, yoga posits the means not ends as what matter. It is a practice that does not sacrifice life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the altar of eschatology. Which begs the question: how did yoga become the popular pursuit it has become in the West?
Little more than a hundred years ago yoga was largely unknown in the United States.
The first stirrings began a century earlier in 1805 when William Emerson published a Sanskrit work, and again forty years later when his son Ralph Waldo Emerson discovered the Bhagavad Gita, delving into jnana, bhakti, and karma yoga. Henry David Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists studied Indian thought throughout mid-century, and by 1900 the New York Theosophists were devoting a substantial part of their many resources to studying the philosophy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. But, at the same time as literary and cultural elites were drawn to yoga’s theories and practice, America’s mainstream was wary of its oriental heritage.
Even though the charismatic Swami Vivekananda succeeded in being signed to a speaking tour of the heartland after appearing at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, ten years later yoga was being met with suspicion rather than interest. The Los Angeles Times featured an article about yoga with the headline: “The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction”. The Hampton-Columbian, with a readership of more than three million, in an article titled “The Heathen Invasion” claimed insanity “is another disaster that threatens as a coincidence in the practice of yoga.” It was conflated with white slavery and deviltry. “Latest Black Magic Revelations About Nefarious American Love Cults “ blared The New York Journal
“Yoga was no longer just a queer pastime; it was evil, a con, a cult–uncivilized, heathen and anti-American,” Robert Love writes in “Fear of Yoga” in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Fear and loathing of yoga rippled through the yellow press of the teens and Roaring 20’s. Hatha yoga in particular, as popular as it is today in its many forms, was singled out. It “was ridiculed so much that only a few select people were practicing it,” BKS Iyengar notes in Astadala Yogamala. Yoga was defined as the domain of the unprincipled and unscrupulous. Pierre Bernard, arguably the first American yogi, fled ahead of the law from San Francisco in 1906, Seattle in 1909, New York City in 1911, and NYC again in 1918, followed by allegations of extortion and sexual misconduct. “In Bernard’s lifetime, yoga was labeled a criminal fraud and an abomination against the purity of American women,” adds Robert Love in his book The Great OOM: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America.
But, as the baby boom generation came of age the times, as Bob Dylan noted, began a’changin. Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi gained currency, Indra Devi was the darling of Hollywood and published Yoga for Americans, and encouraged by Selvarajan Yesudian’s Sport and Yoga athletes began to incorporate yoga into their workouts. America’s war on yoga was winding down. “By the 1960’s yoga was becoming a part of world culture,” writes Fernando Pages Ruiz in “Krishnamacharya’s Legacy”. As the Summer of Love roiled the decade the practice was no longer reviled, but rather embraced by the counterculture along with all things eastern.
In 1968 the Beatles made a pilgrimage to India, bonding with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the American Yoga Association was formed, and Yogi Bhajan arrived in Los Angeles, preaching an alternative to LSD in the search for higher consciousness. Through the 1970’s yoga sprouted up on TV shows hosted by Lilias Folan and Richard Hittleman, the mass-circulation Yoga Journal hit the newsstands, eventually growing to a readership of over a million, and ashrams like Kripalu began to re-shape themselves as year-round fitness, educational, and spiritual centers.
Today yoga is accepted nationwide to the extent millions of Americans practice it at thousands of studios and gyms and daily at home.
“New agers embraced yoga in the 90’s, and these days yoga has exploded into the mainstream,” broadcast Neal Conan on “The Booming Business of Yoga” heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Magazines like TIME have repeatedly featured it on their front covers, McDonald’s offers up lotus pose in their hamburger ads, and our American idols practice it to balance out their lives of idoldom. Even children jumped into warrior pose on the White House lawn during the first yoga event ever at the 2009 Easter Egg Roll.
“It is a measure of how thoroughly this ancient spiritual discipline–once regarded as exotic, bohemian, even threatening – has been assimilated by the American mainstream and transformed,” writes Michiko Kakutani in “Where the Ascetic Meets the Athletic” in The New York Times.
Yoga has woven itself into the fabric of American life in myriad ways. ”Yoga, with all its props, accessories, glamour, fastidiousness, and money making potential is very American,” says Cosmo Wayne of Bikram Yoga in Austin. Yoga businesses are expanding exponentially, and some like Anusara and Lululemon Athletica, for example, have defied the Great Recession with their strong growth potentials. Anusara expects to double its gross revenues in the short term.
Many teachers believe yoga is as American as apple pie, not simply a commodity in the marketplace, but a discipline expanding the parameters of individual freedom.
“I think yoga is the ultimate American experience in so far as it teaches personal empowerment and the pursuit of well-being,” says Robin Gueth, a yoga therapy teacher and owner of the Stress Management Center of Marin, California. “The whole concept that you are in charge of how you think, move, express, and even feel is quintessentially American.”
But, what is yoga in America today about? Yoga in the USA is largely about two of the arms or aspects of yoga: asana, or exercise, which is by far the more popular of the two; and pranayama, or breath control, a necessary adjunct of exercise. “Yoga has taken on a distinctly American cast,” writes Mimi Swartz in “The Yoga Mogul” in The New York Times. “It has become much more about doing than being.” The yoga that is accepted and practiced by most Americans is postural yoga.
“Today yoga is virtually synonymous in the West with the practice of asana,” writes Mark Singleton in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. It has been cleaved from its spiritual side. “For many of us, we just use it as exercise during the day, just a quick pick-me-up,” says Hanna Rosin in her article ”Striking a Pose” in the Atlantic Monthly. On the heels of jogging, aerobics, and spinning, yoga is the new, hip exercise of our times.
Even though only 16% of Americans participate in an exercise activity on any average day, according to a recent Labor Department report, yoga asana fits into the American model because the proverb health is wealth has always been proverbial in the USA. It was with good reason that Richard Hittleman’s pioneering TV show introducing yoga to the masses was titled “Yoga for Health”.
The practice of yoga is to craft a union of the body, mind, and spirit. But, it has been re-invented in America as a health-enabling and stress-reducing homonym.
It’s “health benefits” are touted in Slim Calm Sexy Yoga by Tara Stiles, featuring “210 proven yoga moves for mind and body bliss.” Along with laughter and art therapy the Mayo Clinic serves up yoga as a tension reducing technique. Even the Westin Hotels and Resorts feature pop-up videos of yoga teachers in their web advertisements, on their mats beachside beneath sunny skies demonstrating how yoga can help us relax on our vacations. The problem is not that modern yoga doesn’t measure up to classical yoga; the problem is that modern yoga elides the wheel for the spoke.
Apart from asana, however, yoga is a problematic practice in a land besotted by competition, consumerism, and nationalism. “When this country was founded we were one nation under God. Today we are one nation under money, the land of the addicted, and the home of the terrorized,” says Kenneth Toy of the Kriya Yoga Ashram in Hampton, New Hampshire. At the core of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra are discipline, self-awareness, and self-dedication within a structure of moral action, personal observances, exercise and breath, sense withdrawal and concentration, meditation, and union with the divine, or liberation. The core achievements of the American enlightenment, on the other hand, are “wealth, health, comfort, and life expectancy” writes Edwin Locke in Capitalism Magazine.
Modern times are fraught with results, and so are uneasy venues for yoga.
Our lives are measured by what we accumulate and accomplish. We are either surging forwards, making progress, or slipping backwards; on the other side of the racetrack yoga offers an alternative to the scoreboard and stock market. “Many Americans get caught up in consumerism and competition,” says Tarra Madore of Inner Light Yoga Center in N. Brunswick, New Jersey. “As a society we have lost touch with the American and human core values that are more related to peace and freedom.” The Rig-Veda first cites yoga approximately 5000 years ago, and the classical yoga of the Yoga Sutra antedates the USA by 1500 years.
The thread of the Sutras is that yoga is a practice to calm one’s mind and unite with the infinite. “We need introspection,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, one of the founders of Yoga Journal. “We have a whole country full of restive people who are not contemplative.” It may be that yoga is un-American; it is more likely that America is un-yogic.
“America is the Canaan of capitalism, its promised land,” wrote German economist Werner Sombart nearly a hundred years ago. Self-interest and competition are embedded in capitalism. They are the values and behaviors we all take for granted in our society and ourselves. “Uncritical faith in intense competition assumes the status of an unquestioned paradigm in America today,” writes the political scientist Pauline Rosenau in The Competition Paradigm: America’s Romance with Conflict, Contest, and Commerce. Americans enter their children in beauty pageants, their pets in breed shows, and themselves in pie eating contests.
Team standings, both real and fantasy, are parsed daily. The ups and downs of the stock market are a staple of the news. Militarism overseas is either being won or lost. American society is focused on desire and achievement. Dancing used to be a social activity; now it is competitive dance that is growing by leaps and bounds.
Athletics were once a footprint of the ‘American Way’. Its lessons were sportsmanship, teamwork, and discipline. Today, splashed across an alphabet soup of TV networks, as billionaire owners in skyboxes watch over their multi-millionaire performers, sport has been reduced to a win-or-else amusement, competition for the sake of riches and fame. Businesses have always competed for the same pool of customers, but in contemporary America in the name of profit the results include the nearly universal model of concentrated animal feeding, schemes like credit default swaps, and out-sourcing whose one and only goal is to satisfy shareholders.
Diabetes and obesity have reached epidemic levels in the USA, weighing down the health care system, but sugary drink manufacturers continue to bottle their product and pay handsome dividends.
Our leaders have jumped on the competition bandwagon. The 1996 election for the White House and Congress cost 2.7 billion dollars. In 2008 the same federal campaigns cost 5.3 billion dollars, making them the most expensive ever. The Adam Smith model of the invisible hand or co-operative competition has been superseded by a winner takes all hyper competitiveness, as though winning were the only measure of worth. Instead of statesmen the halls of power are filled with people primarily concerned with the next election and their own aggrandizement. The toll this has taken is reflected in a 2009 Gallup Poll that found members of Congress are among the least trusted professionals in America.
“Soften and breathe into the resistance,” Nina DeChant often reminds her Core Yoga class at West Side Yoga in Lakewood, Ohio. She does not say muscle up and kick some butt in chair pose. It is advice that reverberates throughout much of yogic thought, from exercise to ethics. Yoga in its entirety, not simply asana, is a practice whose goal is to unite the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, not score touchdowns.
“Yoga is un-American in that it is inherently non-capitalistic and non-competitive,” says Timothy Thompson of Monkey Yoga Shala in Oakland, California. Competition posits an enemy, or “Other”, against whom one is measured. It is always in some respects a fearful enterprise, Hobbesian in its underpinnings, as zero-sum sports rivalries, political campaigns, and bankruptcies attest. Even eating in America is freighted by the ruthless. Ray Kroc, the re-inventor of McDonalds, once said if he ever saw his competition drowning he would go get his hose to make sure they did drown.
Yoga, on the other hand, does not conjure real or imagined adversaries. It is a practice whose edge is the strength and discipline to be actively non-competitive. It prepares the yogi for real-life challenges off the mat, but there are no trophies, no finish line, and no mishandled garden hoses.
Winning may be rewarding on many levels, but it is always one-sided because there must be losers. Winning is not its own reward. If it were, losing would be unnecessary, which has never been the case. Yoga, on the other hand, eschews competition. “Yoga is a technology to elevate the human spirit above the animal nature reflected in competition,” says Larry Beck of Kundalini Yoga in the Loop in Chicago. “Simply put, the meaning of life is to rise above instincts into spiritual consciousness, which is inclusive, nurturing, and flowing.”
Competition is said to bring out the best in people, but the winners usually say it. Yoga practice does bring out the best in people, all people who practice it.
It is transformative exactly because it is non-competitive, reflected in the ethical concept santosha, the root of happiness, meaning contentment. “Competition is a part of culture and society,” says Charles Secallus of Asana House in Montclair, New Jersey. “It is a human trait and it is up to the individual to decide whether it works for them or not. Yoga is about growth and developing our own spiritual understanding of one’s self and relationship to others.” Competition is a result of desire and discontent. Santosha is a result of doing one’s best honestly and fully. While it is true all biological beings compete, yoga posits an alternate reality of a consciousness complementary to and beyond biology.
Next: Part 2 of The Ugly Yogi—Consumerism, realpolitik, and the Founding Fathers.
Edward Staskus is from Sudbury, Ontario and lives in Lakewood, Ohio, with his wife Vanessa. He practices yoga (Bikram at a studio and yin at home), and subscribes to Buddhism.
Editor Tanya L. Markul
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