Modernism, Mantras and Mudras


#1

From its ancient beginnings in the temples and ashrams of India to the slick air-conditioned gyms of New York, the evolution of Yoga has been rich and diverse. Hatha yoga has recently taken the world by storm as Hollywood stars, housewives and business people line up to practice asana for exercise, stress release and relaxation. Yoga techniques are now being integrated into schools and workplaces, while employers contract yoga teachers to give classes to investment bankers, teachers and advertising executives to build happier, stress-free workplaces. Meanwhile, Yoga and meditation are being used to improve worker concentration and productivity. But all this begs the question: does the manifestation of yoga in the west conflict with the traditional aims of yoga?

The main difference between traditional approaches to yoga and many of its contemporary manifestations in the west is that traditionally yoga has been a tool for self-transcendence. The eight limbs of the path of self- transcendence are presented by Patanjali as a practical tool for moving towards liberation. Through the practice of discipline (yama), restraint (niyama) posture (asana), breath control (pranayama), sense withdrawl (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), and meditation (dhyana) the practitioner can experience ecstasy (samadhi). It is at the heights of this ecstatic unification with all beings throughout space and time that true Selfhood is experienced. But in this experience there is no longer one who experiences this unification. Any distinction between self and other has dropped away as the yogi/ni moves ‘beyond all formulations, creeds, dogmas, models, theories or points of view’ (Feurstein, 1998:33. Because of the traditional focus of yoga as a path for transcending the small, separate self there seems to be little room for the affirmation of this sense of self.

But, in many of its contemporary manifestations in the west, yoga has become just that – a tool for self-affirmation. Yoga as it is practised in the workplace, gyms and some yoga schools is a tool for self-improvement. Therefore, not unlike many New Age practices, yoga has become a cog in the wheel of modernism. Rooted in Enlightenment ideals, modernism celebrates progress and discovery. As Paul Heelas notes, the New Age movement is “the climactic summation” of modernism (1996: 154), a spirituality of progress emphasising self-discovery, self-improvement and self-empowerment. So with many western yoga practitioners celebrating yoga’s observable benefits - increased productivity, stress release and fitness – it is not hard to see how yoga in the west is a New Age practice that embraces modernism’s mantra of progress. The subtleties of yoga, which are not always immediately evident, do not fit well into a framework that deplores that which doesn’t have rational answers to its questions.

So does the practice of yoga for self-improvement rather than self-transcendence result in a conflict of practice? Can we practise yoga for happiness and health without necessarily seeking any great awakening? Does yoga necessarily need to be a ‘spiritual’ path, or can we simply enjoy the benefits of increased productivity and concentration in the workplace that result from a hatha yoga practice?

These questions are for each individual to ask him/herself. But the answers, albeit personal, are dependent upon how we see yoga. The way in which yoga is being ‘produced’ and transformed in the west has resulted in a reductionist view of what is by its nature a holistic system. Yoga has been reduced to asana, taught in gym like settings, with instructors who have no connection to a specific lineage of yoga. Meanwhile, the other seven other limbs described by Patanjali are overlooked, or even ignored.

Still, it is also possible to recognise that there is great benefit to be gained from a yoga practice solely focused on asana. Even when yoga is practiced with the intention of progress, greater concentration, strength or productivity, after completing a first yoga class many students describe a feeling of lightness and happiness unlike any experience they may have had. And yoga classes in the workplace often serve as a gentle, calming replacement to going to the gym and ‘sweating it out’. An asana practice, even without addressing any of the other limbs of yoga can assist detoxification, stabilising and quietening the mind. Perhaps a pranayama or meditation practice would be too confronting or demanding at certain times in our lives and an asana practice by itself may suffice. Regardless of why we are doing yoga, as many people have realised, once practising yoga regularly for a period of time the reasons for doing yoga change and move past the demands of modernism for progress or that which is better and ‘more’. Somehow, with the right lineage / style and teachers our practice can help us be fit, healthy and strong, but more importantly we feel connected to something greater than our individual self.

Many yogi/nis may believe that yoga reduced to asana (serving the purpose of self-improvement) is a radical departure from yoga as it is traditionally understood, and as such conflicts with the ultimate purpose of yoga as a vehicle for self-transcendence. I believe that yoga, whether practised holistically for self-transcendence or not, does not implicitly result in a conflict of approaches. When practising a foreign and often romanticised Indian tradition it is important to recognise that this tradition needs to suit the day-to-day lives of westerners who are not walking the idealised path of the ascetic. I find that it is important to be wary of falling into what Sri Aurobindo discusses as the trap of the ‘Verticalists’. Verticalist approaches to yoga seek to “transcend the ordinary person’s enmeshment in the external world by means of renunciation, asceticism, meditation, breath control, and a whole battery of other yogic means” (Feurstein, 1998:73). Through this ‘vertical’ path yogi/nis move towards the Self or Godhead, which is seen as separate from the material world.

When we practice yoga for self-improvement, productivity or stress release, while gaining benefits we can miss out on the depths of experience that a holistic yoga practice can offer us. Yet when practicing yoga for self-transcendence we can forget that liberation is right here, now in this moment of experiencing interconnectedness, whether that be while we practice pranayama, hug our partner or experience pain or tension in the body. We do not need to deny the material in order to know the spiritual. Liberation is not separate from the world, instead liberation begins in the world. As BKS Iyengar writes “Until the finite is known, how can we touch the infinite?” (Iyengar, 1988:134). I would add that the finite is the infinite, nirvana and samsara are one. A yoga practice not driven by modernism or moksha allows us the freedom to open to all which is bound and boundless, seeing non-separation, realising the true nature of yoga - union.

When the absolute is absolute, it is incomplete; within completeness there is also the relative. When the relative is relative, it is not material; even within matter completeness remains. Deep in the night, there’s the energy that brings on dawn; when the sun is at its peak, it lights up the skies
(I-ch’ing 1032-1083)

References
Feurstein, G. The Yoga Tradition, Hohm Press: Arizona
Heelas, P. (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacrilization of Modernity, Blackwell: Oxford.
Iyengar, B.K.S. The Tree of Yoga, Thorsons: London
I-ch’ing, quoted in Cleary, T. (199. The Teachings of Zen, Shambhala: Boston.

Jean Byrne PhD, is an Authorised Ashtanga Yoga teacher and writer. She teaches Ashtanga Yoga in Perth, Australia at The Yoga Space


#2

[QUOTE=theyogaspaceperth;80788]question: does the manifestation of yoga in the west conflict with the traditional aims of yoga?[/QUOTE]

How can one possibly compare Karma, Bhakti, Jnana and Raja Yoga with the commercialization of so called new age yoga, btw it is very short sited to think this ailment is exclusive to the west.


#3

The aim of yoga is in the name; to yoke or bring oneself in union from that which they’ve never been separate, true inner nature.


#4

I think that essentially what she is saying is that modern ‘commercialized’ asana practice is necessarily different from what Patanjali or the other venerable teachers understood and practiced. Time marches on and we do not think or relate to objects of mind in the same way that traditional yoga did.
Our values have altered.

I admire the practice for leading so handily to a grip on the authors definition of modernism. The west, in revering sicience and true or false answers to questions has found in asana practice a way to enter what we beleive to be the ultimate quantum universe in the present moment.

Plus it,s way more fun than breathing meditation!:stuck_out_tongue:


#5

Everything is changing in this world , not only yoga exclusively.


#6

Good read. Thank you.


#7

[QUOTE=ray_killeen;81880]The aim of yoga is in the name; to yoke or bring oneself in union from that which they?ve never been separate, true inner nature.[/QUOTE]

Maybe you could say that the connecting of oneself to the universal One is more like removing the [I]perceived[/I] separation. Our culture is so far removed from the spiritual - I beleive because of the hard facts of science- that respect for wisdom traditions like schools of Vedanta or Yoga is very rare and hard for us to wrap our minds around - much less recognize our soul or spirit.


#8

[QUOTE=Yogini Grace;81986]Maybe you could say that the connecting of oneself to the universal One is more like removing the [I]perceived[/I] separation. Our culture is so far removed from the spiritual - I beleive because of the hard facts of science- that respect for wisdom traditions like schools of Vedanta or Yoga is very rare and hard for us to wrap our minds around - much less recognize our soul or spirit.[/QUOTE]

As a westerner trained/experienced in science, equating spirituality with truth, the yogic sciences appears pure, Vedanta (Jnana yoga) is a well thought out pointer however the mind is of limited use when perceiving the misconception of separation since mind?s consciousness is creating the illusion; is there a belief, culture, philosophy, religion, etc. not filled with dogma, trying to wrap your mind around any of them may very well cause additional entanglement in misidentification, every step taken connecting oneself to unity may very well be a step further from. I AM born, I AM living, I AM dying where the born, living and dying all changing states, the I AM is not, it?s the threshold of self-inquiring who I AM, only you will take yourself beyond the threshold everything and everybody else simply points.


#9

[QUOTE=ray_killeen;82034] I AM born, I AM living, I AM dying where the born, living and dying all changing states, the I AM is not, it?s the threshold of self-inquiring who I AM, only you will take yourself beyond the threshold everything and everybody else simply points.[/QUOTE]

Why do you say the I AM is not changing? Self inquiry and responsibility for taking that step over that threshold and this current experience of life, I agree with. I don’t always feel thankful for that feeling. Nevertheless I accept that I am a product of my culture whose attitude is the ‘Yes, you can do anything you set your mind to’.

Forgive my lack of sophistication in this medium, I am learning;)


#10

[QUOTE=Yogini Grace;82040]Why do you say the I AM is not changing? Self inquiry and responsibility for taking that step over that threshold and this current experience of life, I agree with. I don’t always feel thankful for that feeling. Nevertheless I accept that I am a product of my culture whose attitude is the ‘Yes, you can do anything you set your mind to’.[/QUOTE]

Referring to the ?I AM? as the sense of being-ness, I-AM-NESS, the perception of existence, is this not the source of consciousness that which creates the ever-changing world, without it your world does not exist. Follow your sense of now and now and now, present moment?there is a freshness to the now different from the dull recording of each now in minds memory. Perhaps one can be blinded by beliefs, acceptance and other stories created by memory, the mind is finite therefore limited, that which came before the mind is infinite, beginning-less, endless, without change, absolute, the original state, pure awareness…finger to the moon.


#11

Wow. Thank you for this article. The more I learn about yoga, the more I struggle with these questions. I don’t know whether or not to define simply the asanas as truly a yogic practice… but it creates so many benefits for people (benefits that I’ve witnessed in myself and friends that practice).

One thing I can definitely say I think is ridiculous is the practice of “yoga competitions” in the West. That, to me, seems like the complete antithesis of yoga…


#12

These are important questions for myself that I frame with every post I write. I think I am in the camp of the progressive Modernists and acknowledging that the NOW is all I can know as truth. To the latter part of that sentence I owe a great debt to a very materialistic Vipassana Bhuddist meditation retreat by S. N. Goenka.

To me asana practice is a secular meditation on the body, my experience, my I-amness being the only truth I can know. Where does that leave those who participate in Yoga ‘competions’? That I don’t know - but non-judgement day draws nigh!

YG

Where


#13

supmjay, there exist yoga competition in india and rest of asia as well. Its not limited to the west.


#14

Where there is mind, there is competition.


#15

fakeyogis,

thank you for letting me know-- I had no idea. I was informed by my yoga teacher that it was something that originated in the West (perhaps that is not true) and I assumed it was limited to there.


#16

In the 70’s in rishikesh the ashram had loudspeakers and they were shouting to get the students, this is a kind of competition. Where there is money there is always competition no matter what part of the world.


#17

The self is the vehicle by which we achieve transcendence, so I see nothing wrong with self-improvement per se, especially when we consider how few people actually achieve transcendence. Self-improvement can be good or bad, depending on our intentions, but I don’t see a path to transcendence that doesn’t build on self-improvement.


#18

[QUOTE=theyogaspaceperth;80788]
So does the practice of yoga for self-improvement rather than self-transcendence result in a conflict of practice? Can we practise yoga for happiness and health without necessarily seeking any great awakening? Does yoga necessarily need to be a ?spiritual? path, or can we simply enjoy the benefits of increased productivity and concentration in the workplace that result from a hatha yoga practice? [/QUOTE]

Wow, a big thanks to Dr. Jean Byrne for this stimulating article. This has been an issue that has prevented me from using my 200-hour certification to teach as much as I could have been doing in the past year since I received it. As an Indian by heritage I have learned yoga in connection with religion and for the purpose of transcendence, and after leaving the ashram I felt somewhat disgusted upon my research of the yoga industry by the way this ancient practice has been diluted and commercialized.

But lately my viewpoint has changed because I’ve realized that America has become a culture rooted in consumption and over-stimulation, and if Yoga is speaking to people then every person should be able to come to it from the way they feel comfortable approaching this vast practice. This is a different world than the Yogis of India hundreds of years ago knew.

I believe that if gyms, workplaces, and even schools are willing to accept this practice in any way shape or form, it will be a vehicle for creating a change of consciousness, whether that is the intent or not. Even performing the most basic asanas can give a moment of detachment, or stimulate a different sense of awareness. A simple exercise of focusing on the breath or deep relaxation runs completely contrary to our 21st century mindset of constant plugging in. Just the feeling of “lightness and happiness” that can be experienced by the physical aspect of yoga are enough to make it valuable in any setting.

Personally as a teacher I feel that I am depriving my students of value if I don’t incorporate chanting or pranayam because to me these are the gems of yoga practice, and since I’ve taught mostly in the Indian community it has been well received. However I’ve also taught American high school students with anxiety issues and stress, and some of them couldn’t handle the asana practice but loved chanting, and felt great doing kapalabhati. Luckily there are many yoga teachers out there who still incorporate the other aspects of yoga besides the physical into their teaching. Ultimately no brand of yoga will ever destroy the eternal truth of this spiritual science, so may we all teach in the way that best suits our students.