Many mornings, one of my first acts upon rising is to say a mantra inviting the elephant headed Hindu deity Ganesh into my home and asking for his blessings. This is a habit that I have picked up through my participation in the global yoga community. The ritual personally signifies many powerful experiences that I have had on my travels to India, studying under my Hindu guru, praying in Hindu temples, and maintaining a daily yoga practice that has its roots in ancient India, even though I don’t consider myself a Hindu. The ritual starts my day on a reflective note and ties my practice of yoga to a deeper sense of meaning, and the intent to live my life according to what I have come to believe are yogic ideals.
I began the practice of yoga in the mid-90’s at a time when modern yoga was just beginning to hit the mainstream. It still had a counter cultural and revolutionary feel though it was gaining more and more widespread acceptance. At the time, modern yoga culture was still heavily relying on ties to Indian gurus and the yoga tradition as presented by them. Recent yoga studies have proposed that the early 20th century zeitgeist in India produced traditionally minded Indian yoga masters who revived and propagated Hindu traditions that were irrevocably changed after years of colonial rule. Since deeply held beliefs dictate behavior, it is easy to assume that the beliefs of the Hindu yoga masters have been codified in the practice of modern yoga. One might then wonder, what part religion plays in the practice of modern yoga?
One doesn’t have to dig too deep into the practice of modern yoga to find elements that seem religious in nature, whether it be mantra chanting, images of Buddhist and Hindu deities, yogis wearing mala beads, or the ubiquitous greeting Namaste. These various accouterments of modern yoga are often times heavily interpreted and universalized to fit the ”spiritual, not religious” motto of the contemporary practitioner, and generalized to a cross cultural meta narrative of a perennial philosophy.
When I first encountered yoga at the age of 22, what was so deeply satisfying about the physical practice was that its presentation signified something deeper and more meaningful than the various techniques. I have often times said that it was the spirituality, or sometimes I use the word philosophy, that inspired me to dedicate myself to yoga practice. I was struggling to find meaning in life, often depressed by a secular view of my duties and responsibilities that didn’t reflect how I felt. However, I was resistant to thinking of yoga as religion because of connotations with fundamentalism, exclusion, and narrow mindedness. Yoga was an escape from a social paradigm that wasn’t serving me, and it filled a void in my life. In hindsight, a blend of exuberance, ignorance, and willful blindness allowed me to project religious ideals onto yoga practice under the guise of spirituality, distancing it from the over burdened label “religion”. Due to its foreignness and blending with appealing new age values, I could ignore its religious ties even though Hindu values, practice, and iconography stood front and center in my experience. As my practice became central to my identity, it led me to India where I hoped to find an authentic yoga master and where I further assimilated Hindu ideals into my practice of yoga. At some point, I had to reconcile the acquisition of Hindu religious practice with my non-Hindu cultural background.
Ninian Smart, a pioneer in the field of secular religious studies, created a framework for studying religions without evaluating the truth claims of a particular religion. He proposed seven dimensions of religion that we can use as a guide to reflect on the role of religion in the yoga tradition:
- Ritual Forms and orders of ceremonies (private and/or public) (often regarded as revealed)
- Narrative & mythic Stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human’s place in it.
- Experiential & emotional Dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss (private)
- Social & institutional Belief system is shared and attitudes practiced by a group. Often rules for identifying community membership and participation (public).
- Ethical & legal Rules about human behavior (often regarded as revealed from supernatural realm)
- Doctrinal & philosophical Systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form
- Material Ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural
The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations (1989)
If one decides to move beyond casual yoga practice and commit to a regular routine, it is easy to find aspects of modern yoga that would satisfy each of the above seven categories. Typically the motivation to commit to a consistent practice comes through a private experience that motivates the student. It is often that the practice becomes ritualized in the sense of a consistent scheduling of teacher, time, and place of practice. But even more so, each class tends to follow a ritualized format that includes some sort of opening to the ritual through breathing, chanting, or meditation, followed by the practical techniques, and then ending with a closing and final relaxation. As we become more closely identified with our practice it requires engagement with the institutionalized aspects of practice including the learning of the shared philosophies, stories, and codes of conduct. And of course there is no end to the products that are available to help us further our identity as a member of the yoga community, and which become a focal point for our journey into yoga.
However, one aspect of this list could decide the religiosity or lack thereof, in modern yoga. Yoga has traditionally relied on revelation as a valid form of knowledge. It is common in yogic texts to trace a lineage of teachings back to a sage or master who received teachings in an altered state of divine insight, or through myth, to draw a direct line back to a divine form. The divinization of yoga teachings then requires faith in states of being that are beyond comprehension and by extension currently separate from us. They are often believed to be available at some future point if we work hard enough and in the right manner. If this is an accepted doctrine of modern yoga it is important then to safeguard against invalidation of experience in the present moment in favor of a future goal. The abandonment of reason can and often does lead to denial, repression and self-violence. This question of an eternal truth valid for all times and in all circumstances but just out of reach seems contrary to many of the proposed aims of yoga such as health and wellbeing. In order to remedy this, we should do well to focus our efforts in yoga on the mental as well as the physical.
”But if yoga is secularized, then what is left? And do we have the right to call it yoga?”
In India, yoga tradition has relied on a pedagogic method of transmission of knowledge from teacher to student in direct relationship (parampara). The teacher would give techniques to the degree that the student was prepared, both mentally and physically, to receive them. Such a subjective process benefits from a reliance on tradition to guard against doing what is merely pleasant rather than what is effective, though its nice when the two coincide. The systematization of yoga into specific methods has created a contrast of the organizational aspects of tradition, which change relative to historical and cultural context, with the personal, often thought of as eternal because of the commonality of subjective awareness across time and culture. It is useful to discover which aspects belong to these two poles of tradition. But I think we often mistake the relative for the eternal. The narrative that posits an eternal and unified tradition of yogic belief and practice is overly simplistic.
Yoga, like Hinduism, is a complex tradition of interrelated doctrines and practices with a rich history of innovation and syncretism often said to be eternal. It has neither a specific moment of origin nor a specific founder. Yoga grew up organically over a long period time. It has been shaped by individuals, spread over large geographic areas that have embodied a range of beliefs throughout history. Its entrance into human consciousness is therefore a fair amount of educated guesswork patched together from clues in the archaeological record and from those texts crafted from within educated elite circles of ancient Indian society that haven’t been lost. However, while yoga and Hinduism are both Indian heritage an argument can be made that they come from the same cradle and their beliefs are intertwined but yoga is a tradition in its own right. While this living tradition has survived shifting cultural needs, it can sometimes be quite confusing, containing internal paradoxes stemming from this weaving together of discreet Indian cultural movements throughout history. The categorization of ideas and practices under the names ”Yoga” and ”Hinduism” arose relatively late. The very word Hinduism is a matter of much debate. It was a colonial word coined by foreigners to describe people indigenous to India. It didn’t exist before foreign intervention and just sort of grouped up a lot of people who were quite different in belief and custom. The most common thing that early Hindus shared was geography. It’s been a modern project to try to shape a national identity around Hinduism. Therefore, in talking about Hinduism it can be helpful to consider what is religion and what is nationalism. The two are often conflated and it leads to all sorts of ideological tensions in modern India. The truth is that yoga pre-dates Hinduism. Yoga is an ancient tradition that got grouped in with Hindu practice, but you don’t have to practice yoga to be a Hindu. Therefore, an argument can also be made that yoga is not 23 Hinduism though they are related. We can see Buddhist and Jaina yoga traditions that were birthed in India and which have long ago broken from Hinduism. If the two were the same, then modern Indian yoga masters could never have made the claim that yoga is universal, nor could they have taught it to foreigners without converting them to Hindus, and certainly most people who practice modern yoga are not Hindu. However, the current yoga renaissance may be the first attempt to secularize yoga.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has started a campaign called Take Yoga Back which aims to have a wider acknowledgement of yoga’s philosophical roots in Hinduism while stressing the fact that yoga is a universal practice that can benefit everyone. If we look into the textual sources of yoga philosophy, we will find that yoga praxis has often been coupled with universal questions about God, creation, ethics, life after death, good and evil, purity, and liberation amongst others. However, if we map out these ideas historically, we can also see how the tradition has responded to cultural and geographic pressures within India. Yoga may be an attempt to satisfy universal human questions, but the form of the inquiry is specifically Indian.
For non-Hindus, it can be tempting to sanitize yoga practice of any religious context and divorce it from its Indian roots to prevent identity conflict. Under this paradigm, learning becomes a process of cultural appropriation that stands on shaky moral ground. It is also a missed opportunity whereby we diminish the yoga tradition that sought to speak to the universal human experience. Whereas yoga rose to popularity in the west through its appendage to countercultural movements, we can see how it has gradually lost its revolutionary potential. We don’t need to blindly accept or reject any aspect of the Indian tradition, but rather place it in the context from which it developed. We can take a page from the book of the Hindu yoga masters who revitalized yoga in the contemporary world and appeal to ancient and contemporary tradition in our quest for an effective and authentic modern yoga. We should respect what it may signify to Indians and also see what does or does not apply outside of the context of Hinduism.
But if yoga is secularized, then what is left? And do we have the right to call it yoga? In his 2008 book, Yoga Beyond Fitness, Tom Pilarzyk mentions a study that shows modern yoga practitioners in the U.S. self reported aims in practicing. Primarily they practice for fitness, secondarily for health, and a distant third for spiritual reasons. In a Pew research poll released in the fall of 2012 on religiously unaffiliated Americans, only 28% of participants consider yoga a spiritual practice, contrasted with 23% for the American public at large. As yoga has become a global phenomenon we are deep in the process of debate, invention, and synthesis that has been a hallmark of the authentic yoga tradition. I hope the traditional practice of working with a clear mind in the practical realm of experience takes center stage in this developmental period of modern yoga. It is questionable whether the uncoupling of yoga from its roots will change it in all but name. It is often ignorance or simple intellectual laziness that leads to unskilled propagation of yoga and leaves yoga subsumed under other paradigms such as commercialism, body politics, fitness, and celebrity culture which may be offensive to those who consider yoga part of their religion. Anything beyond a casual engagement with yoga requires us to take the time to sift through the philosophy, practices, and history of yoga to understand the traditions and values that have been associated with it.
”One doesn’t have to dig too deep into the practice of modern yoga to find elements that seem religious in nature, whether it be mantra chanting, images of Buddhist and Hindu deities, yogis wearing mala beads, or the ubiquitous greeting Namaste.”
In David Gordon White’s recent book The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali – A Biography, he says: ”Over the past forty years or so, a theory has been forged in university departments of history and cultural studies that much of what is thought to be ancient in India was actually invented – or at best reinvented or recovered from oblivion-during the time of the British Raj. This of course runs counter to the view most Indians, Indophiles, and renaissance hipsters share that India’s ancient traditions are ageless verities unchanged since their emergence from the ancient mists of time”.
Much in the recent field of yoga studies is deconstructing the stories that allowed for yoga to rise in the modern world. They point to a modern yoga that is the product of Indian, American, and European input. Some find this assessment refreshing, while others find it threatening. We shouldn’t be alarmed, nor should we overly glorify these efforts. They are part of a larger process that keeps traditions alive. All histories will only ever tell a part of the truth, and yoga is bigger than its definitions and history. It is alive right now in the present, and it is shaped by our collective efforts. It is the tradition that is relative truth. What it points to would be eternal. It cannot be learned, only discovered in the moment.
No single practitioner or teacher can possibly define yoga for all, and I think that any attempt to do so devalues the entire yoga venture. If we engage with yoga and its heritage of ideas and practices with an open mind, not to corroborate or challenge our personal beliefs, then we are freed to determine not only what is authentic in yoga practice, but also what is effective. We can maintain a clear mind space that helps us entertain multiple truths as equally valid. Yoga is both old and new. It is a part of the Hindu religion, and a non-Hindu path to wellness. A habit of containing paradoxical truths side by side as equally valid produces a creative tension of checks and balances that at its best can enrich and enliven traditions. Because it requires a certain nimbleness of the mind, it can safeguard against the calcification of thought into rigid dogma. It can be a great tool to inspire the modern yoga community. Even the physical practice of asana will shift from something that we do mechanically, and become an inquiry into the optimal functioning of the human form. The technology of mind and body that has us reconsider human potential can be preserved.
While the discussion defining yogic practices and ideals will inevitably continue, I only hope that as a community we will be kind and inclusive in our inquiry. Institutions require stories, rituals, codes of conduct, etc… that safeguard tradition, encapsulate wisdom, and help us gather as a community. But while narratives generate beliefs and practices, they also have a tendency to create dualities such as right and wrong, good and bad, insider or outsider, those who know and those who don’t. They will represent some and leave out others. The individual ends up serving the institution rather than the other way around.
One aspect of yoga culture that I most cherish is that it is simultaneously communal and deeply personal. It can have an effect on how we show up and interact in other arenas of our life. Yoga can be revolutionary in the sense that it empowers individuals who then go on to shape other public spaces. If we create more inclusive spaces then the communities affected will also expand and we can find empowered and engaged individuals taking part in our global community.
Words by Greg Nardi who is the founder of Ashtanga Yoga Worldwide. He studies and practices yoga, eastern philosophy and sanskrit mantra chanting. Greg has also spent many years of dedicated practice under the guidance of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India.
Photography by Jan Welters