Thursday, August 18, 2011

What is our Yoga?

The other day I was walking down Johnson street in Victoria where I live and saw some young women doing a "yoga" demonstration outside of a Lululemon shop. They had put stripper poles on top of yoga mats and were acrobatically pirouetting around them, demonstrating some kind of brilliant new fusion of India's most ancient spiritual discipline and pole dancing. This got me thinking.What is Yoga?

I regularly give an introductory lecture on Ayurveda at a local Oriental Medicine College. Many of the students there, if not all, have attended a Yoga class and I often explore the meaning of the word Yoga with them as a way of exploring the relationship between Yoga and Ayurveda, as well as doing my very small bit to strike back at the commodification and dis-empowerment of Yoga happening here in North America with great speed.

What I point out in these lectures is that the word "Yoga" refers to any spiritual discipline. One particular type of yoga- hathayoga (lit. "the yoga of force, ie. the physical yoga") uses asanas (postures) and pranayamas (breathing exercises) as well as other practices meant to cleanse or transform the body in the quest for spiritual realization. Ayurveda, one of the orthodox medical traditions of India, also uses asanas and pranayamas, but not for spiritual realization. Ayurveda uses them for health. I then ask the students, "When you have attended a yoga class, how many did you feel were there looking for health benefits? And how many union with God or complete freedom from the delusions of the ego?" Almost everyone agrees that 95% or more are there looking for health benefits, including psychological ones. "In that case", I say, "What you attended was an Ayurvedic session, not a Yoga session."

There is nothing wrong with that of course- Ayurveda is great, and the use of asanas and pranayama for mental and physical health is great. It is misleading, though, and I think breeds dishonesty, when people tell themselves that they are practicing hathayoga when they just want to lose some weight or heal an old injury. The loss involved with this confusion is the loss of hathayoga itself. What, then, is Hathayoga?

Many of us are told that the meaning of the word Yoga is to unite, and that it refers to uniting the mind and the body in order to bring harmony to them. That is a fine poetic riff on the word, but that was not it's original meaning. The sanskrit word yoga is the same as the english word yoke, from the same route. It's earliest appearance in Indian religious texts uses it in a negative sense. The Buddha actually called his path "yogakhemam", which means "security from the yoke". Yoga meant "bondage, yoke" in the sense that a yoke was put on a farm animal. The Buddha said that his path lead to security from the yoke of delusion, greed, and hatred.

In later Indian tradition "yoga" came to mean spiritual discipline, in the sense that one could say "I have taken on the yoke of this training." People would talk about different yokes/disciplines that they were practicing for the sake of spiritual freedom. Patanjali, writing a few centuries after the Buddha, wrote his "yogasutras", or "teachings on spiritual discipline", where he set out what he had learned about the nature of supreme spiritual discipline and its goals. Patanjali combined Samkhya, Jain and Buddhist ideas with his own and wrote a masterpiece.

In the Yogasutras Patanjali says that the proper goal of Yoga is "the cessation of all conditioned/compulsive mental states" (yogascitavrttinirodha). Patanjali laid out an eight-limbed Yoga (modelled on the Buddha's Noble Eight-limbed Path) which included basic facility with comfortable postures (asana) for long meditation and simple breathing exercises (pranayama) to still the mind. This was part of a path of ethics, austerity, renunciation and meditation leading to the cessation of egoic, or limited states of mind, unveiling the liberated, boundless consciousness known in Buddhism as "Nirvana" and in Upanisadic culture as the atman (Self), which Patanjali also calls "the Seer" (drsta). Thus for Patanjali Yoga was a holistic, renunciant discpline aimed at total spiritual liberation.

In the centuries following Patanjali the word Yoga became a popular term in Hindusim to refer to spiritual discipline, and different practices were identified as "yogas". Patanjali's yoga came to be known as the Rajayoga ("royal discipline") and others were postulated: the yoga of wisdom, based in the Upanisads came to be known as Jnanayoga ("the disipline of gnosis/knowledge"). Dispassionate service came to be known as Karmayoga ("the discipline of action") and devotional practice came to be known as Bhaktiyoga ("the discipline of devotion"). Finally beginning perhaps in the fifth or sixth centuries, and apparently continuing to develop until reaching a complex and well articulated form in the 12th or 13th centuries, came Tantrayoga.

Tantra involved complex and daring use of ritual, imagination, and the body, and was based on scriptures from outside the orthodox Vedic corpus. At an unknown point the Tantrayogis developed the tradition known as Hathayoga (said legendarily to be first taught on earth in the 11th century by Matsyendranath).The earliest Hathayoga text we have is the Hathayogapradipika (Light on Hatha Yoga) written in the 15th century by Svatmarama.

Hathayoga consists of cleansing techniques, renunciation and ethics, dietary practices, rituals, meditations, breath control and holding special postures. The point is to cleanse the body as a spiritual vessel and use it to gain spiritual liberation (and often also to gain occult powers and longevity). The ultimate point of Hathayoga is "moksha", spiritual liberation, equivalent to "Nirvana".

In the texts of these later Yogas the word Yoga undergoes a metamorphosis from "bondage" to "discipline", and then changes again more poetically. In the Bhagavadgita it is said to mean "skill in action" or "evenness of mind", thus implying that these two things are the supreme spiritual disciplines. In the bhakti texts it is said to mean "yoking to God". The spiritual goal is considered to be "sayujya", or eternal union with the deity. In the Hatha yoga texts it is said to mean "yoking the internal masculine and feminine energies to attain transcendence", or retains its exoteric meaning of "discipline".

In all of these cases the word Yoga retains in some sense its core menaing of "to yoke". Which brings me to what I was thinking the other day walking down Johnson street. What are we yoking to in our western Yoga?

It seems to me that we have regained the original meaning of the word- bondage. Some of our western Yoga classes, where the young and beautiful do postures in their underwear or designer yogawear in front of wall length mirrors, would indeed be considered dens of bondage to a traditional Indian yogi- bondage to lust, competition, ego, and gross materiality.

Yoga has also become a profession here in the West for the first time. Instead of the one on one teaching between guru and disciple we have "yoga teachers" who run crowds through a vigorous set of postures in return for a paycheque. Having taught this kind of "yoga" myself, I know that it can feel like bondage indeed- for the teachers.

The standard defense is that the commercialization, the despiritualization, makes Yoga more accessible and maybe here and there someone will be drawn to the real Yoga. True. I am sure that that happens. But that doesn't stop that explanation from being a justification of selling something less than authentic, of a radical practice which was meant to transform- to turn upside down- people's lives, as something safe and diluted which serves to reinforce, not to challenge, the bondages of our culture.

At least if these classes were known as Ayurveda classes people would know that they were just going to do something for their health. In terming what's done in these studios "Yoga", though, the real Yoga- the radical subculture of 3,000 years- is obscured and replaced with, well, "Yogabutt". I can't say I would be happy to see the appearance of Ayurvedabutt dvds, but that would be less of a self-serving capitalist reconstruction than Yogabutt is.

It is said that Confucius taught that philosophy began with the "rectification of names". Perhaps if we  reserved the title Yoga for things that deserve it (like synagogue services or Christian soup kitchens- or  even that rare bird, the real Hathayoga class) we would be clearer about what we are doing (and what we are not doing).


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