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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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.

The Ancient Movements of Dance and Yoga

The discovery of dance and yoga

When I first stepped into a dance class, I felt extremely self conscious. Whether it was that I was too old, too tall or too chubby, my own self confidence went on for years feeling like, and pretty much being, the awkward girl at the back on stage at the yearly dance recital. Still though, I’ve always loved to dance and kept picking it up again throughout the years, signing up for classes and generally feeling like I was sucking at it.

As I got into yoga and meditation in my early twenties, I came into an understanding of long-held emotional patterns within my body that kept me from achieving my goals in life. Words and feelings of stress and self-consciousness were slowly worked out through Vinyasa series and Pigeon poses. Deep meditations uncovered unhealthy mental patterns, and yoga workshops helped me to journal new mantras and healthier mindsets. All of this uplifted me into a more graceful, relaxed and pleasantly optimistic individual.

And once again, in time, I went back to my first love; dance.

If yogis are defined as flexible, then try to see them get loose and dance. The two ancient practices of dance and yoga have carried throughout humanity since the beginning of time while differing greatly in perspective and experience.

Both offer a physical release and satisfaction in gains towards enlightenment while differing greatly in practice and appearance. Yoga stands out with written texts in philosophy, seeking inner peace through the discovery of the mind, an internal self-discovery. Dance interacts with the environment artistically in form through a cultural significance in experience of music and expression. I’ve taken to asking some educators on dance and yoga, to figure out exactly what brings us to fully let go into each practice mentally, spiritually and physically.

The Draw of the Physical

“I remember losing my mind and dancing at school dances, in battles, where the smell of sweat and the enveloping bass took over my body and soul before I turned 10. I have been chasing movement and sound ever since.” Rise Ashen, a practiced house dancer, DJ and yoga instructor.

Each practice helps to develop body consciousness. Learning from your left to right, you teach your body how to float, whether it be jumping through to bakasana, (crow pose) or nailing a smooth quick step on the floor. They both enhance your daily experience through aiding the body in evading injury and obtaining balance and grace.

Yoga develops consciousness to bend safely and balance. Dance helps lighten the feet so you can catch yourself quickly if you are to fall. Both help to engage the core, strengthen and engage the body in physical movement.

Intensity of the Mental

“I started dancing at age 3, I call dance my first language. At 19 yoga found me, I took it on like a form of therapy, movement as meditation. I loved the discipline, the structure and challenge of astanga yoga.” says Amber J, owner of Misfits Studio in Toronto.

There are high days and low days in life, while dance and yoga keep the balance throughout. The leg and arm movements mimic one another in each form. Dance and yoga are moving through history with great discovery and development internationally. Whether it be Breaking or Russian folk dance, Anusara yoga or restorative, the body positions transition the same but always uniquely different.

The Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo Davinci, shows a man within his full range of motion. What I believe brings up the life changing movement within the man through any position he could potentially take, is meditation. Meditation is the focus point within the movement of the extremities. The challenge of yoga, is the focus on relaxation and alignment; with dance it is about connection to the music and personal style.

“Repetition, the beginner’s mind, just copying… it is not pleasing to the ego, it is not comfortable. There are no colourful belts or badges, no diplomas, it requires commitment and hard work and it is not easy. Yoga and dance are amazing practices, they require crazy commitment and in so many ways they are deep and wide ranging.” says Rise. He has been teaching dance for around six years and yoga for two. “When we start to develop an art form it is really hard on the ego. We have a vision inside of what we want to create, but our taste is better than our aptitudes. The Nataraj depicts Shiva as a dancer because dance is the ultimate destruction of the ego. You have to rebuild from nothing and to feel like nothing isn't very easy.”

As I took my yoga philosophy into my dance classes, I began to lose my mind. In Osho, it is a form of meditation to dance wildly to allow the body to feel its existence, and then to sit in meditation. The feeling of embodying music completely is exhilarating and yet also very scary. Sitting in meditation afterwards, heavy breathe and sweat dripping, transcends beauty and connection with the divine.

Connecting to the Source

Each are an individual vibration, while yoga has seemed to have tumbled out of the mountains, dance has grown its roots deep from the earth.

“I feel empowered in my body in movement while deeply connected to source. I allow the breath to be the rhythm that I ride… It is a blessing that finds a unique way of moving organically and it just comes to me. I am grateful every day that I get to teach the magic of movement.” says Amber J.

When I turned my attention more closely to the cultural art form of dance, I began to notice some incredible similarities between it and yoga. No movement was created by any specific person, yet throughout the years, yoga and dance have been exchanged between the bodies of teachers for generations.

Each practice has touched many, some seeking to bring a closer connection to God. Whether it be at a Native American Pow Wow or viewing traditional Sufis Whirling, both hold a form and structure in respective lineage.

The Energy of Dance

Amber J describes “The ways in which yoga and dance are similar are many to me. I find being both a dancer and a yogi, its that desperately we all want to dance. I think this is partly why yoga has become so popular. It is freedom, expression, re-connection and riding the journey of grace.”

It is a wonder why humans are so expressive while we dance. We can express anything in this artform... happiness, sadness, anger and the continous struggle in seeking a healthy escape to personal mental, physical and spiritual freedom and peace. The jail cells birthed Brazilian martial art and dance form of Capoeira through coping through the rough times.

“Every ounce of energy we put into dance comes back to us if we stick with it. Just like yoga, it is a great cultural gift that is handed down from the dancers before… I can’t imagine life without it…” Rise reveals.

Both practices are in the expression of present time through the mastering of bodily form while addressing still world culture and history. All I am learning at this point is that you have to ditch trying to find the balance, to find your balance in yoga and dance. I learn and continue to learn to let go and be inspired by the movement and the music to find and deepen my soul. There'll always be someone better than me as well as someone worse and it most often will not always be easy, but I have to keep trying. To me each practice together are about pushing through the difficulties and the mental nuances to enjoy the simple freedom of the body within each movement, leaving the mind to relax and just be with what is.


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