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
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