Yoga in the Western World: The Fruitless Search for Yogic Authenticity

Photos courtesy of Ellen Atkinson
Photos courtesy of Ellen Atkinson

The yoga pandemic has spread over the nation, and it is here to stay.  Since the 1970’s, yoga in America has blossomed from an esoteric practice to a phenomenon encompassing athletes, soccer moms, teens, and grandparents.  Hot yoga, cold yoga, bible study yoga, yoga for skiers, outdoors yoga, yoga for babies. Yes, babies. There are studios, such as Baby Bliss in Denver, which offer mom and tot classes.  The Yoga Prison Project conducts yoga with incarcerated persons, Yoga Hope in Boston serves abused women and addicts.  Many of these activities completely ignore the spiritual realm for which yoga was created, and most are more akin to stretching, or in the case of Yoga Sculpt, a workout. In fact, most “yoga” in America is not yoga at all.

The Western world is not practicing yoga as it was created or intended to be practiced.  Even internationally, yoga has been appropriated for countless utilities, including anxiety alleviation, physical therapy, stretching, and as a hobby or pastime.  The modern usage of the word yoga threatens the understanding of the history of yoga, the remembrance of the development of this ancient yogic practice, and the role yoga played in developing eastern cultures and later the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism.  Although deeply ingrained in modern vocabulary, the word yoga as we know it has very little to do with yoga at all.

The growth of yoga has been accompanied by practices from the East; meditation, Ayurveda healing, pranayama breathing techniques, and mantra.  Often, people seeking these activities primarily focus on the immediate or perceived long term benefits physically, mentally and emotionally.  Some, but few, pursue the spiritual element of yoga, but even those who do pursue the ancient art of yoga continue to miss its essence.

thumbnail_IMG_0992I spent the month of October living in Shoshoni ashram in Colorado, home to Shambhava yoga, which traces its lineage to saints in India, seeking a yoga less Westernized. Shoshoni embodied more than the physical aspect of yoga, something deeper, more spiritual, than the assembly line yoga taught in hot studios and power yoga venues.

A large poster in a main yoga room reads, “Shambhava yoga stands as a living example of timeless teachings in a present-day practice.”  Shoshoni seeks to embody the life rhythm and original intent of yoga, which was developed 5000 years ago in order to help people sit more comfortably in meditation.  The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means union or joining, and the practice of yoga and meditation are for the sole purpose of rejoining with your True Nature, or the Self.  Any other practice is, in fact, not yoga, but a crude imitation of external movement, which is exactly what yoga is meant to guard against.

On the surface, Shoshoni permanent residents, which number about a dozen, appear to live an an authentic yogic lifestyle.  They spend their lives eating, cleaning, performing seva (selfless service), cooking, meditating, and practicing asanas, or physical poses, together on the isolated property.  They adopt the shell, structure, and rhythm of ashram life as seen in comparable ashrams in India.  They wake up at 4:30 each morning to chant in Sanskrit, and the walls are covered with mandalas.  Yet, the ashram represents a hollow shadow of yoga imported from its native land into an enclave of western culture.

Shoshoni’s claim of representing “timeless teachings” calls into question appropriation of this ancient practice for a western lifestyle. Shoshoni yogis would watch YouTube videos on their phones, talk about their lives before the ashram, and drink beers on their days off when they would go into town.  This is not timeless teaching, nor timeless living, but rather an absorption of yoga into a life that encompasses other modern, western conveniences.

Compare this to the practice of the Medicine Buddha, an age-old Tibetan meditation practiced at the ashram.  Original practitioners were so poor and transient that offerings were made with hand symbols in leiu of real oil, flowers, or cymbals.  Imitating this practice for blind and even faux personal spiritual development rather than learning of and respecting this meditation for its history is a mockery of the development of and utilization of yoga as it was intended to be.

thumbnail_IMG_1011The main Shoshoni temple was filled with Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, a conglomeration of Eastern tokens to fill a space ultimately inhabited by white American citizens maintaining their ritualistic lifestyle with through the capitalist offering of trainings and retreats.  Scarves bearing Hindu gods and goddesses were sold in the bookstore next to little booklets of Sanskrit mantras uplifting the deities, yet permanent residents at the ashram could not answer my questions about the deities and the nature of their relationship to yoga and meditation.

If even Shoshoni, which seeks to honor, embody and protect the ancient yogic teachings, fails to do so, then the commercialization of power and hot yoga has done even more damage to an accurate and honoring understanding and practice of yoga and its role in formulating Indian, Tibetan, Buddhist, and Hindu cultures.  Yoga predates Hinduism and Buddhism, but thanks to Western reinterpretation, much of this ancient tradition is lost to the Western world forever.

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