The Evolution of Yoga: From East to West

As a graduate student of Intercultural Relations who has traveled the world extensively, I wanted to look deeper into the emergence, evolution, and diffusion of yoga from a cultural standpoint. The following is a result of research from a variety of sources that touches on the sheer divergence of opinion, experience, and beliefs about yoga.

“Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste — the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you” at the end of their yoga practice. These words linked to the popularity of yoga in America and it’s disconnect with its Hindu origins sparked a debate with the Indian-American guru and holistic health practitioner, Deepak Chopra. But why?

Yoga in the western world is a far cry from the yogic roots established thousands of years ago in India. Matter of fact, an agreed upon definition of the practice of yoga is not likely something you will find based on yoga’s diffusion across and within cultures. The shift in meanings over the last several thousand years has only aided in complicating matters and stirring up debate. The popularization of yoga in the United States is actually a very recent thing, and has turned what some call a traditional meditative practice into a commercialized business--the yoga industry generates more than $27 billion a year! However, from Buddhism to Christianity, Hinduism to Islam, and Jainism, cultures have practiced elements of yoga (breathwork, meditation, or guided movement) for centuries.

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Misconceptions

According to social issues commentator S.E. Smith:

“For a lot of people in the US, ‘yoga’ is a series of pretzel-like physical exertions done to get fit, usually with some token Sanskrit thrown in here and there to keep things exotic and spicy...The problem is, that’s not yoga. What people in the US are referring to as ‘yoga’ is actually one aspect of a larger spiritual practice...The romanticization of both ‘yoga’--by which people generally mean asanas sprinkled with a bit of breathwork and meditation--and India has created a heady mixture of appropriation and imperialism.”

However, the popularity of yoga in the West has also been credited to the physiological, psychological and biochemical healing qualities of the practice. Yoga isn’t just stretching, but rather a forging together of mind and body to work towards spiritual enlightenment. Practicing yoga consistently can lead to increased strength and flexibility, improved posture, coordination, and balance, as well as a reduction in stress. While not all western yogis take their practice beyond the physical stretching and fitness trend, there are many who do.

The Debate

The debate about yoga as an inherently religious practice has been put on trial, literally. In fact, San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer recently ruled that yoga does have religious roots, but that they are as far diluted in American culture much like Christmas. This type of cultural appropriation has generated heated debates and discussions about the emergence of yoga as a purely physical practice.

In fact, about 4 years ago the Hindu American Foundation started a campaign called “Take Yoga Back,” which aimed to address these issues of cultural appropriation. They focused on helping people understand and consider the roots of the practice. This video about taking back yoga will give you a look further inside some of their concerns.

The Evolution of Yoga

Yoga in the United States and yoga in India are very different things. The reasons for practicing, along with the actual practice, can many times stand at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Based on everything I’ve read (which is a ton!), here’s one very basic and abbreviated history of modern yoga:

While yoga is very old, it almost died (so sad!). Luckily, in the early 1900’s an Indian man named Krishnamacharya came along and saved it. He is known by many as the father of modern yoga. He started his yoga practice as a child with his father and eventually traveled all over India studying yoga philosophy. He went on to teach others, including some of the most well known practitioners: B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, Pattabi Jois, and Indra Devi. He revived many of the lost teachings of yoga and also set a precedent by accepting women as his students. He lived to be a 100…(I’m attributing his long life to yoga, naturally!)

Around the time India gained its independence from Great Britain (1947), Indians weren’t taking classes at institutes. Instead they preferred small classes and private tutorials geared to meet their individual needs. Practicing yoga in studios was a western fad, and many Indians didn’t appreciate the way Americans popularized group yoga classes. In fact, “The concept of yoga as a large social trend is foreign to most Indians, as is the American fixation on a particular school or lineage.”

Yoga continued to gain even greater momentum in the U.S. in the 60’s, along with the flower children and The Beatles, who made a trip to an ashram in India for meditation. This contributed to the surge of foreigners traveling to India to practice at ashrams and bring teachings back to the United States. Today, millions of people all over the world practice yoga.

So, what IS yoga?

Yoga isn’t religion. Yoga isn’t flexibility. Yoga isn’t poses.

Yoga is body, mind, and spirit.

Depending on who you ask, the word yoga itself stems from the Sanskrit word, yuj, meaning “union,” “to join,” “bind” or “yoke” (as in oxen). Yoga is said to embody a combination (or yoking together) of the physical, mental, and spiritual practices directed at attaining peace, with the ultimate goal being moksha, or liberation from suffering and ignorance.

A part of this union of practices is outlined in the 8 limbs of yoga (ashtanga) organized in India by Pantanjali over 2,000 years ago: the yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyani, and samadhi. Each of these limbs contains a unique part of yoga--from ethical standards to self discipline, postures to breath control, sensory transcendance to concentration, and meditation to ecstasy. When one is able to reach the 8th limb of samadhi, they are in a state of liberation and have reached the end of their yogic path, peace. In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (an ancient yoga guidebook), yoga is defined as "the stilling of the changing states of the mind"

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What do we think?

Yoga is for everyone.

We agree with the folks over at MindBodyGreen, you don’t have to be flexible, slim, or decked out in full lululemon to practice yoga! Even respected gurus and long time yogis understand that yoga is a path (whether it’s an eightfold path or four paths). There are different stages on that path, and incorporating the physical asana practice may be a start on that path for some.

 Yoga is whatever is right for you.

While the origins of its practice in India might be interwoven with Hindu and Buddhist tradition, a yogi doesn’t need to study or practice those religions to make yoga a part of their life.

Yoga can be used with a variety of goals in mind: fitness, increased flexibility, greater spiritual connection, cultivation of peace & calm, meditation/focus, or whatever you find it providing you.

Here’s our thing: we know the history, but we also like to travel and experience different aspects of the yoga practice as they are made ready to us. We understand the drive of yogis to travel overseas to find their yoga in its birthplace, or at least a beautiful location that offers no distractions. We hope practitioners are mindful and seek to educate themselves about the history of yoga, whatever they believe.

Yoga will continue to evolve. It is, and will always be, a different practice for everyone. And that goes for each time you practice.

When you practice yoga regularly you start to see the world differently. You start to see yourself differently...and more clearly. And sometimes that is the greatest version of peace there is. Namaste.