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.
There is an argument by some Hindu liberals thinking “what the problem in it”? They think our knowledge is globalized by West in the same way we consume inventions of the West. But it’s a very naïve argument.
Colonial or a white supremacy mind set may be clever enough to adopt Hindu practices but denies giving credit where it is due. Stealing Hindu Intellectual Property, they do not hesitate to rename and repackage so that they can sell it back to India for immense profits. Off course, they will leave no chance to tell Indians to stop their superstitious ways and to adopt the new scientific knowledge which “they” have “invented”.
Following has been already digested or appropriated by West. Some of the Western academics don’t believe that they belong to India.
Yoga Nidra AS Lucid Dreaming
Nadi Shodhana AS Alternate Nostrils Breathing
Vipassana AS Mindfulness.
The latest addition to this list is
Pranamyam AS Cardiac Coherence Breathing
Several researchers have reported that pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress-related disorders. But the latest attempt has taken the appropriation too far. An American magazine “Scientific American” in its article titled “Proper Breathing Brings Better health” termed “Pranayama” as cardiac coherence breathing. (15 January 2019). The article gives us an idea about how West is so sophisticated in stealing knowledge from ancient cultures particularly Hinduism.
Prāṇāyāma is mentioned in verse 4.29 of the Bhagavad Gītā. According to Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is, prāṇāyāma is translated to “trance induced by stopping all breathing”, also being made from the two separate Sanskrit words, prāṇa and āyām. Pranayama is the fourth “limb” of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga mentioned in verse 2.29 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali, a Hindu Rishi, discusses his specific approach to pranayama in verses 2.49 through 2.51, and devotes verses 2.52 and 2.53 to explaining the benefits of the practice. Many yoga teachers advise that pranayama should be part of an overall practice that includes the other limbs of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga teachings, especially Yama, Niyama, and Asana.
“Pranayama” a department of Yogic science practiced and documented 5000 years back ( even 15,000 years back) by Rishis is not even acknowledged by the author of the article. If one read the article they vaguely suggest that breathing exercises also existed in China, Hindu and in Greek culture. This is how appropriation of ancient techniques takes place by West. As Sankrat Sanu an entrepreneur, researcher and writer put it in his tweet “after erasing the origin they claim it as their own invention, attack original traditions as Superstition”.
As famous Indian American Author Rajiv Malhotra summarizes: “The article standardizes cardiac coherence breathing as Chinese, Hindu, Greek and various traditions as equal origins, and then modern West turns it into science”. Its time Indians in general and Hindus in particular should be vigilant and should have an academic mind set to respond to such misadventures to protect our own heritage and Dharma.
There is an argument by some Hindu liberals thinking “what the problem in it”? They think our knowledge is globalized by West in the same way we consume inventions of the West. But it’s a very naïve argument. West has created an eco system and mechanism in which their knowledge system is Well protected and patented by international norms. Unless West does not give a new name and fits into their framework native wisdom is not recognized in academia and media. Whereas Hindus were generous in sharing their health techniques freely from millennium never thought they will struggle in proving things which belong to them. In fact in a westernized framework of Yoga and other techniques Indian scholars, insiders and practitioners are blatantly ignored. So our own knowledge will be repackaged and exported back to us at an extra price and conditions.
Many of our practices are being called to be Biofeedback systems. According to WikipediaBiofeedback systems have been known in India and some other countries for millennia. Ancient Hindu practices like yoga and Pranayama (breathing techniques) are essentially biofeedback methods. Many yogis and sadhus have been known to exercise control over their physiological processes. In addition to recent research on Yoga, Paul Brunton, the British writer who travelled extensively in India, has written about many cases he has witnessed. (Hindu Council Of Australia)