October 5, 2013

Is Yoga New Agey?

Not all yoga is created equal.

Yoga has become so popular and mainstream that it is often diluted to the point of tastelessness.

We all know why yoga is popular: it’s amazing. When practiced regularly, it helps us with every aspect of life. Even just practicing asana (yoga poses), pranayama (breathing exercises) and/or meditation results in a slew of overt benefits for the dedicated practitioner.

So, why are the powerful teachings of yoga so often diluted? Is yoga is New Age?

Technically speaking, yes—if “New Age” refers to spiritual teachings of the East fed to us here in the West.

This New Agey influence, in addition to the Americanized yoga industrial complex, is why so much of modern yoga is basically advanced calisthenics with some deep breathing and positive thinking thrown in.

New Age” is a form of Western eclecticism that rejects religious dogma in favor of Eastern spiritual teachings.

It’s an amorphous cultural movement with no hierarchy, dogma, doctrine or official membership.

Its influences may include (but are not limited to) Oprah, astrology, “manifesting” via visualization and affirmations, Goddess worship, occult practices like Tarot reading and casting magic spells, vegetarianism and veganism, “positive psychology,” Taoism and/or self-help. New Age originates from a 19th century philosophical system called New Thought, whose founders were most influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today, Oprah is their unofficial reigning queen.

Emerson, one of the foremost minds of 19th century America, was himself heavily influenced by Vedanta, the spiritual teachings of Hinduism, which originated in India. With regard to the concept of karma, for example, he wrote, “You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong.”

Ralph Waldo was a transcendentalist who read the Bhagavad Gita and considered himself a yogi. (Albeit his lineage was more jnana than hatha; more about knowledge and wisdom than breath and movement.)

The “new” doesn’t refer to time but rather new as opposed to established Western societal beliefs. The “age” refers to the Aquarian Age (as in, ‘this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.’)

As far as I can tell, these are the four basic tenets of New Age-ism:

  1. All is one. Everything is interconnected. Our separateness is an illusion. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.
  2. There is a Divine and We are It. God is all and all is God. In other words, the Universe is everything and humans are actually divine or spiritual beings encased in physical bodies.
  3. We are co-creators. Individual free will, character and choice mingle with universal energetic flow, or Life, or God in the act of co-creation. As Henry Ford famously stated, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right.”
  4. The meaning of life is to live. Life is a journey toward awareness of our true source.

What’s Wrong with New Age?

Many religious people criticize New Age thinking, because its tenets are in opposition to the belief that there is One True God, namely theirs, rather than, God forbid, a Goddess.

For New Agers, Jesus is a supreme spiritual teacher, an exemplar of compassion and wisdom and a master healer–but not necessarily the divine Son of God. Which is, of course, blasphemous to devout Christian believers.

The Roman Catholic Church published A Christian Reflection on the New Age in 2003, following a six year study; the document criticizes New Age practices such as yoga, meditation, feng shui and crystal healing.

Others criticize New Agey-ness as simply lite versions of older insights that ignore the context of the statement. This tendency is abundantly evident on the internet, especially Facebook and Twitter, where New Age memes go viral, when lots of people share catchy spiritual saying that are either misquoted or out of context.

Finally, the idea that we alone are responsible for creating our own reality is a New Age fallacy. The best-selling, so-called Secret represents the kind of pseudoscientific baloney that gives New Age a bad name. So does the 2004 docudrama, What the Bleep Do We Know?, which links quantum physics to human consciousness.

The reality is, we don’t control the universe. There is no secret.

How New Age Are You?

New Agey-ness, like most things, is a spectrum. Yoga, astrology, and meditation fall on the more mainstream, widely-accepted end of the spectrum. On the more, eccentric end, there’s stuff like crystal healing, Reiki, astrology, Wicca, magic and Tarot.

Where you fall along the New Age spectrum depends on your personality, religion and spiritual practice.

The truth is, whether you identify as New Age or not, and whether you buy the idea of ‘self-improvement’ or not, we all need and (usually) want to continually evolve into more balanced and well-rounded beings.

Maybe we were all born into this world for this reason.

Ultimately, it doesn’t so much matter what labels we create and use to categorize ourselves and others. What matters is that we drop the labels and live life as if we are all one, as if all beings on Earth, and Earth itself, are inextricably interconnected.

New Age or not—may we remember that without mindfulness, meditation, compassion and ethics, yoga is not yoga.

Do you consider yourself “New Age”? What do you think of self-help? Feel free to continue the conversation by leaving a comment.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

Sculpture:  Oberon Zell

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Bob Weisenberg Oct 5, 2013 4:58pm

Hi, Michelle. I like this article because it is one of the few articles about "New Age" that doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. I just had an imaginary conversation with the author of the Bhagavad Gita in which he laments the fact that "one with the universe" has become such a cliche. But you can see all the original roots of New Age clearly on display here: My Dinner with Vyasa: The Legendary Author of the Bhagavad Gita Comes Out of Hiding to Answer All Our Questions (After 2300 Years)

paul Oct 5, 2013 8:43am

Thank you for the four tenants, I've been thinking on New Ageism lately but without any good definition.

In addition to the positive traits mentioned, New Age is associated with shades of being stupid, flaky, irresponsible, excessively dreamy, and generally anti-learning/anti-intellectual, which I hear more of than the positive, though usually I hear it used as a pejorative. I have met people who are complete flakes, etc., and being in the New Age spectrum was often a factor, but never a deciding one. I think it has become a pejorative in part because the unity and art New Age favors is in natural opposition to those who push industry as a revolution, rote work as the only useful ethic: the ant over the the grasshopper, though in this case the ant is either a brute or a supporter of brutality, literally tearing down mountains and turning rivers into poison for its queen. The other part is the manufacture of New Age by arguers as an Other to contrast a Better against, even when the arguer may agree with the New Age perspective generally.

My favorite aspect of New Age is that we are co-creators and needn't be a single something (carpenter, fiddler), tottering towards balance though it may be; one needn't wear the dress, talk the talk, nor be on the scene to be in it.

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Michelle Margaret Fajkus

Michelle Margaret is a heart-centered writer, teacher and creator of Yoga Freedom.

She has been a columnist on Elephant Journal since 2010 and has self-published inspiring books. She incorporates dharma, hatha, yin, mindfulness, chakras, chanting and pranayama into her teachings and practice. A former advertising copywriter and elementary school teacher, she is now a freelance writer and translator. Michelle learned yoga from a book at age 12 and started teaching at 22. She met the Buddha in California at 23 and has been a student of the dharma ever since. Michelle is now approaching her forties with grace and gratitude.

Join Michelle for a writing and yoga retreat this summer at magical Lake Atitlan in the western highlands of Guatemala!