Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Yoga Not As Old Or Hindu As Many Think


Meera Nanda
February 12, 2011
Open Magazine

No one denies that Hinduism’s most sacred and ancient texts, including the Bhagvad Gita, describe different kinds of yogic practices. But what does this ancient and sacred tradition of yoga have to do with what people all around the world do in yoga classes in gyms and fitness centres today?

To most Indians, such questions are nothing less than sacrilegious. Yoga is for them what apple pie and motherhood are for Americans: a living symbol of their way of life.

Indians tend to affirm their claims on yoga by trotting out the familiar icons of the ‘5,000-year-old Vedic tradition,’ which supposedly stretches from the Pashupati seal of the (actually very unVedic) Indus Valley civilisation to the Bhagvad Gita and the venerable Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yoga, Indians like to solemnly declare, is ‘eternal’ and ‘timeless’ and all the great yoga masters, from Swami Vivekananda to BKS Iyengar to Baba Ramdev of our own time, have only restored or reinstituted an ancient practice. It is also commonplace to hear Indians—even those who are not particularly spiritual themselves—blame Americans and other ‘decadent’ Westerners for reducing their spiritually rich tradition to mere calisthenics.

Lately, Hindus in America have started flying the saffron flag over American-style yoga, which consists largely of yogic asanas and stretches. The leading Indo-American lobby, Hindu American Foundation (HAF), has recently started a vocal campaign to remind Americans that yoga was made in India by Hindus. Not just any ordinary Hindus, but Sanskrit-speaking, forest-dwelling Brahmin sages who learned to discipline their bodies in order to purify their atman. The purist Hindu position, articulated by the HAF, is that all yoga, including its physical or hatha yoga component, is rooted in the Hindu religion/way of life that goes all the way back to the Vedic sages and yogis.

There is only one problem with this purist history of yoga: it is false. Yogic asanas were never ‘Vedic’ to begin with. Far from being considered the crown jewel of Hinduism, yogic asanas were in fact looked down upon by Hindu intellectuals and reformers—including the great Swami Vivekananda—as fit only for sorcerers, fakirs and jogis. Moreover, what HAF calls the “rape of yoga”, referring to the separation of asanas from their spiritual underpinning, did not start in the supposedly decadent West; it began, in fact, in the akharas and gymnasiums of 19th and 20th century India run by Indian nationalists seeking to counter Western images of effete Indians. It is in this nationalistic phase that hatha yoga took on many elements of Western gymnastics and body-building, which show up in the world-renowned Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa schools of yoga. Far from honestly acknowledging the Western contributions to modern yoga, we Indians simply brand all yoga as ‘Vedic,’ a smug claim that has no intellectual integrity.

It is the hidden history of modern postural yoga that is the main theme of this essay. But first, some background on the great ‘take back yoga’ movement.

Read the rest of the article here.
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