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Is Yoga a holistic complete system or is it just about exercises? Is it an ancient way of life or a modern physical fitness program? The author tries to answer these questions

By B Davis


Over the years and periods such as the colonization of India, the common perception of yoga has altered significantly. Here I will discuss the origins of yoga, Vivekananda’s philosophy and how he has adjusted the tradition to fit the west. From this we will be able to understand how yoga, as we know it today, is in fact a modern rather than ancient tradition, due to the lack of original core beliefs.

Where did yoga originate?

Yoga, one of the six classic systems of Hindu philosophy, has a long and ancient history; the Brahmanas and the Vedic Samhitas contain evidence of the existence of ascetic practices. The term ‘yoga’ first appeared in the Katha Upanishad where it is described as the control of senses which leads to the supreme state; Yama, the king of the dead, reveals both supreme knowledge and yoga at the same time. The actual word yoga is derived from the word yuj which means ‘to link together’; this ‘link’ or ‘bond’, in yoga, stresses our need to unify our spirit, mind and body through self-discipline and concentration of the mind. For the traditional schools of yoga the unification precedes true union: the union of the human soul with God.

Philosophies behind yoga: detaching oneself

Patanjali composed the Yoga Sutra sometime between 100BCE and 500BCE, but admitted that he was just publishing the ideas of others; the ‘closed circles of the Indian ascetics and mystics, in fact, knew yoga practices long before.’ He repeated what is called the Samkhya philosophy which is considered the most ancient darsana (one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu Philosophy). Samkhya is to dissociate the spirit (purusha) from the matter (prakrti). Similarly in yoga deliverance cannot take place without detaching oneself, so although there are differences between the two, such as yoga being theistic and Samkhya being atheistic, there is still a resonating idea of detaching from the material.
The mental control imperative to what we would call classical yoga occurs through developing eight aspects of the yogic path. Some may be familiar to those who practice it today, but these are consecutive steps you must make before you can be ‘at one with the universe’. The first two are ethical disciplines then when you are in the right state you focus on the body and the breath. With the next five steps you withdraw attention from the external world and lose consciousness of the physical environment in the state on concentration (Samadhi), then achieving your goal in the final step. Another important belief present in the yoga sutra is the existence of chakras. These are wheels or centres in the body, and the system originates in the tantric goddess Kubjika around the eleventh century CE. The energy from the goddess Kundalini is to be raised through the chakras up to reach a union with Shiva.

Bringing the East to the West, and the importance of Vivekananda

Colonialism has had a big impact on the thought of modern Indian philosophers like Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world. This colonialism meant India was all of a sudden faced with an intense amount of imported ideas including ideas from Christianity and values of Enlightenment liberalism. This colonization is significant when discussing how the yoga we practice in the west is a modern, rather than an ancient system; during the British colonial period, influences were absorbed and even some traditional Bengali literature was transformed into modern Hindu intelligentsia. So the West had an impact on India a long time before the East came over with their philosophy, meaning that what we believe to be Eastern thinking is even more condensed. It is a gradual move further away from of ancient tradition, starting with the west imposing their ideas.
It is only in the last century that the yoga we are most likely to be familiar with today called modern yoga spread across both India and across to the West. But Michelis argues ancient yoga is so diluted that the original purpose, which was to be closer to God, has almost gone, and what is left is the modern yoga tradition representing a ‘limited range of (usually occultized) hathayogic practices’ (Michelis, p.95). We can assess this argument by looking at Vivekananda and what he has taken from classical yoga and how much of an impact ancient thought has had on his work and beliefs. He is after all seen as the spiritual ambassador of India to the West. According to him, the method you should use to attain religious truth or realization is through raja yoga.

Adjusting Hinduism to suit the West

Vivekananda was the first Indian to build a bridge between and bring together Eastern and Western esoteric teachings. His was not brought up in a particularly traditional Hindu household which has a big part in his later religious philosophy. He was also greatly influenced by Western philosophers such as Hume and Kant, which, asides from shaping his way of thought, also provided him with the vocabulary to communicate English speaking countries. Vivekananda came at an age of technological growth and increasing secularization, yet people still wanted spiritual techniques and practices to achieve rational and personal goals. These practices were therefore deemed to be in the religious sphere. This is how modern yoga, asides from the actual word having come from the Hindu tradition, has come to be thought of as religious and therefore making the mistake of thinking it an ancient Hindu practice.
Vivekananda did not have a problem adjusting Hindu teachings to fit the Western need for these spiritual practices, and he was aware that the West might not be so keen if he were to talk about sacred text, caste, or women. But his self-realization philosophy seemed to take well to this culture. It is Raja Yoga that allows him to take the final step from Neo-Vedantic esotericism to Neo-Vedantic occultism. Instead of the orthodox Neo-Vedanic concept of realization, the Raja Yoga as defined by Vivekananda emphasizes realization as personal an experimental.

Do we misunderstand the true meaning of yoga?

To the ancients, Yoga is a complete system of which the postures (Asanas) are a small but useful part, but Modern yoga mainly uses these in practice rarely focusing on the first two ethical disciplines of the eight aspects. It is called Hatha Yoga and is the physical branch of Raja Yoga. The position of posture has been elevated, so as to lead people to believe that the word yoga refers to physical postures or Asanas, and that the goal therefore is physical fitness. Michelis agrees saying this ‘modern postural yoga’ has come to be worlds apart from all forms of classical yoga.
Typical practice sessions include three stages: the introductory quietening time, practice of posture and breathing and the final relaxation where pupils get into a corpse pose called savasana. Savasana concludes the session and represents the phase of the healing ritual. After this practitioners are ready to return to the normal world. The use of Hindu terms here does not help the misinterpretation of the act as traditional, the meaning. As well as this, the meaning of savasana means that the person should surrender his all ‘his breath, life and soul – to his creator’ (Michelis p.251). So the core meaning of this practice has altered to adapt to the people practicing it. This does not mean it is a bad thing, modern yoga practice or Hatha Yoga has found a place in our society and has evidently become a practice to help people gain spiritual solace whilst benefiting them physically.
In his article Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati is angered by this misunderstanding calling referring to it as the ‘Big Lie’ that yoga is an exercise or fitness programme. He also says that ‘the mere fact that one might do a few stretches with the physical body does not in itself mean that one is headed towards that high union referred to as Yoga.’ Instead, it should be about a union with God. Practices now tend to be for health reasons rather than having anything to do with a deity. As Michelis states, correspondingly with the opinion of Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati, modern postural yoga has become a healing ritual of secular religion.
This is a problem for Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati as he believes that without an understanding of Vedanta, it is difficult to understand great teachers or their words to us. The main Hatha Yoga teachers follow the Vedantic teaching using the language and its emphasis on the Self for a higher aspect of yoga. But he believes there that these teaching have no meaning to the majority of people practicing; he argues that you would not walk into a restaurant and order a Christian communion, yet you can walk into a spa and ‘order up a ‘yoga’’ completely disregarding the meaning. Although some may debate, as Michelis who at the same time acknowledges that it is not an ancient practice does, that it is still an important beneficial practice but it has had to adapt.
When is yoga no longer yoga? The question we need to ask when discussing if it is an ancient or modern technique is after how much adaption to a culture does it cease to be the original system? If after the highest goals of a practice have been removed to suit the culture practicing it, surely that mean it is not ancient system at all but a modern practice that has just been influenced by it.
List of references:
Block, E. & Keppens, M. & Hedge, Ra (eds), 2010, Rethinking Religion in India: The colonial construction of Hinduism, Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Coney, J., 1999, Sahaja Yoga, Surrey: Curzon Press.
Eliade, M., 1975, Paranjali and Yoga, New York: Schocken Books.
Flood, G., 1992, An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Funk & Wagnalls, 2006, Yoga Defined, New Encyclopaedia, last accessed: 28/10/12, available at: www.swamij.com/yoga-define-waec.htm.
King, R., 1999, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
Michelis, E., 2004, A History of Modern Yoga, London: Continuum.
Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati, ‘Modern Yoga versus Traditional Yoga’, Traditional Yoga and Meditation of the Himalayan Master, Last accessed: 27/10/12, available at: www.swamij.com/traditional-yoga.htm.
Swami Vivekananda, 1982, Raja-Yoga, New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda.

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