Last year in a marvellous post titled why-i-stopped-teaching-yoga-my-journey-into-spiritual-political-accountability, Andrea MacDonald laid out her reasons for leaving the “industrial complex of yoga”. She writes, “I know in my heart, my mind and my gut that what we are doing in western yoga is an entitled, willfully ignorant act of theft”.
This post created a small ruckus on my facebook yoga feed, with people vehemently agreeing and disagreeing. For some people, there was no denying that contemporary yoga (as appropriated by the fitness, health and beauty industry) is a far cry from what the ancient yoga sages had intended. Others felt that chalking it up to “theft by the west” didn’t take into account that yoga was a gift – evangelised to us by Eastern teachers who arrived on our shores at the turn of the century. And so obviously, the issue is complex, resisting black and white categorizations.
Since then I’ve given it all some thought, and on the whole, I have to say I’m with Andrea MacDonald. The way I see it, the great teachers like Vivekanada came with a mission, to spread the gospel of yoga far and wide. But it seems we’ve overlooked one thing.
These yogis did not come just to offer fitness routines or methods of self-development, but to awaken us to the great wisdom of their spiritual traditions. They came as Carol Horton writes to transform an “esoteric discipline that could only be learned through a guru-disciple relationship into a spiritual technology available to all.”
But it seems to me that we’ve embraced only the physical and psychological aspects of this discipline and minimised the spiritual – repackaging it into a sanitised “yoga speak” of mindfulness and self-actualization. And we’ve come to regard many of the mystical fundamentals of yoga – such as the omniscient nature of pure consciousness – as magical thinking.
Our modern view of yoga as a health care modality is based not on woo-woo ideas but on the neurological correlates of meditation and nervous system function. But whether our materialist mindset likes it or not, yoga for hundreds if not thousands of years has been a deeply esoteric tradition filled with ideas and practices we’ve come to regard as outlandish and fantastic.
Cultural appropriation can be defined as the taking of another cultural form to define yourself or your group – then discarding the rest. And today the process of secularising yoga has led it to become something that even the most hard-headed atheist can practice. So by stripping away the metaphysical ideas that offend our materialist assumptions are we violating the original ideas and intentions of yoga?
Of course, there is no single sanctified “yoga”. But as it evolved over the centuries and in differing schools, there has been one constant – yoga is a spiritual practice. Some claim it is part of the world’s oldest “eternal religion’ the Sanatana Dharma, which in Sanskrit denotes that which is Anadi (beginningless), Anantha (endless) and does not cease to be. It is the binding of the body and breath (spirit) with the divine.
So bypassing what does not agree with our secular mindset, are we not only appropriating yoga – but entirely missing the point?
I leave the final words to Andrea MacDonald.
“Yoga was brought here as a gift. People from the east wanted to share this practice with us. It is a good thing, I think, for us to practice yoga. It can even be argued that yoga’s popularity is a demonstration of our society’s longing for connection, stillness and spiritual fulfilment. That being said, I think it is our responsibility to offer a practice that holds reverence for the lineage, history and culture it arose from. Let us teach in a way that honours the complexity of yoga, in all its expressions and various paths…Critically, let us resist the commodification and cultural appropriation of the spiritual tradition to which we owe so much so that we might pass it on to others, in the integrity with which it was brought to us.”