Become flexible. Reduce stress. Lose weight. Better health. Get exercise. Meditate. Center yourself. It’s trendy.
My Introduction to World Religion class’s response to why Americans practice yoga. Sorry to say, I expected as much and before writing this post, scanned various yoga studio websites in the city of my current residence. I paraphrase what a few of them said in regards to the benefits of yoga:
You can better your life and make a difference.
Build your strength and flexibility.
Be more open, and vital.
Physical and emotional benefits.
Increase your focus and stamina.
Increase energy, find balance, be free from stress.
Pretty standard stuff and, I am sure, fairly representative of other yoga studios across America.
Classes start at only 10 dollars. What a deal.
But wait! Don’t forget your mats, your yoga clothes, and your yoga accessories such as yoga socks, hoodies, and headbands. Mats only rage from 8-125 dollars on one website. And clothes–women’s clothes in particular start at only 45 dollars. Men’s clothes starting at 28 dollars. What a deal.
And if you are really gung-ho about your practice, make sure to stop by the Business of Yoga Conference August 7-10, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. After all, members only have to pay 489 dollars. So register now, because if you don’t you’ll have to pay 689 dollars for late registration. But it will all be worth it in the end because you’ll network and learn how to make even better business out of yoga. And hey, you might even see some celebrities too!
You might even find a niche and patent your trademark classes and your practice as did Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram yoga. Make sure you get your patents. That way, if someone tries to copy you, you can slap cease and desist orders on them (as did Bikram). Yoga is, after all, big business.
A 6 billion dollar business in 2013 alone according to Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/01/04/branding-yoga-good-business-or-blasphemy).
Before proceeding, I would like to make note that this is not a criticism of those who practice yoga in the west. Nor is it so much a criticism of those who decide to capitalize on yoga in America. It is America, after all, and you gotta make your money.
For those unfamiliar with the second term of this post’s title, the Upanishads are mystical treatises composed and passed down orally between the 700-300 BCE in India. The term itself means “to sit next to” or “come sit down near to me” (Powell 83) as in a guru, or teacher, inviting his student to sit down beside him for instruction.
The 8th century BCE marked a major transition period in India as many individuals renounced society for life in the forest in effort to seek Truth. The Upanishads are the results of these efforts and attempt to describe that which is indescribable: the immediate realization of Brahman, “the Supreme,” the infinite, all-pervading Reality and origin of everything: what in monotheistic terms might be called “God.”
The Upanishads, then, were the source of knowledge in regards to uniting with Brahman.
So how did these gurus achieve such an endeavor?
I turn to the Shvetashvatara Upanishad for a clear answer:
“Holding his body steady with the three upper parts erect and causing the senses with the mind to enter the heart, a wise man with the Brahma-boat will cross all the frightening streams. Compressing his breathings here in the body, and having his movements checked, one should breathe through the nostrils with diminished breath” (Van Voorst 52).
In other words, they practiced yoga.
The Upanishad continues: “Like the chariot yoked with vicious horses, the wise man should restrain his mind until it is undistracted” (ibid).
And naturally, yoga studios in which you take your classes you paid your hard earned money for did not exist. Rather, they practiced “in a clean, level spot, free from pebbles, fire, and gravel, by the sound of water and similar things favorable to thought but not offensive to the eye, in a hidden retreat protected from the wind” (ibid).
Returning for a moment to the above “like the chariot…” I ask my class to describe the workings of their mind. Responses include “chaos,” “a monkey bouncing around in a cage,” “always moving,” “a train wreck.”
The mind is the starting point–namely stilling the mind to prevent mental fluctuations such as thoughts, dreams, and memories. The mind retrained and undistracted is a mind able to distinguish between the true and the false (about which more will be said further below). For now, let us return to the text itself:
“Lightness, healthiness, steadiness, a clear complexion and pleasantness of voice, sweetness of odor, and scanty excretions—these, they say, are the first stage in the progress of yoga” (ibid).
Hey, now we’re getting somewhere American yoga! These ancient sages did report on yoga’s health benefits. (Whew! I wipe my sweaty brow.)
But wait, I skipped over something between practicing in a hidden retreat and the first stage’s health benefits: “Fog, smoke, sun, fire, wind, fire-flies, lightning, a crystal, a moon—these are the preliminary natural things indicating that Brahman is found in yoga. When the fivefold quality of yoga is produced, arising from earth, water, fire, air, and space, no sickness, old age, no death has he who has obtained a body made from the fire of yoga” (ibid, emphasis mine).
Uh-oh. The text says Brahman, the divine, is found in yoga and oh wait! One no longer suffers.
“Even as a mirror stained by dust brilliantly when it has been cleansed,” says the text, “so the embodied one, on seeing the nature of the Soul, becomes unitary, his end attained, from sorrow freed. With the nature of the self like a lamp, one who practices yoga beholds here the nature of Brahma. He becomes unborn, steadfast, and freed from his human nature. By knowing God one is released from all bonds” (ibid.)
Let us pause for a moment and repeat: “one who practices yoga beholds here the nature of Brahma.” One has united with the divine and like a lamp is a source of light for a world otherwise living in darkness, ignorance.
Ignorant of what? Brahman, true reality.
Now to return to my earlier point of departure–distinguishing the true from the false. This involved, in part, distinguishing between what I think I am from what I truly am. These sages spoke of the difference between the “jiva” and the “atman,” the former meaning “living being” the sense of the individual, the individual soul–the person I think I am and have come to identify with–the limited self attached to and consuming the sensory external world oblivious of its true nature.
“Opposite” the jiva is the “atman,” the supreme soul, the “immanent aspect of Brahman” (Powell 401), the “innermost nature…of all the forms of the manifest universe, of all living beings” (Danielou 17). In other words, it is the true self/soul.
If the atman is the true self/soul, then the jiva, the sense of the individual self, is a false self. As such, Upanishadic philosophy is a critique of the identification with oneself as being a separate individual, when in reality, according to the gurus, all is Brahman, all is unitary. So separateness, individuality, and basing our definitions of ourselves on such individuality, is ignorant and serves to perpetuate our suffering.
Now we can get back to our primary topic and this post’s central critique–the fad that is American yoga.
The timeless wisdom of Upanishadic philosophy as embodied in the practice of yoga is incongruous with an American lifestyle and worldview, where we the Declaration of Independence guarantees a certain pursuit of Happiness, which, in this author’s mind, seems today wrapped up with wealth. We pride ourselves on our individuality in America–we are not ones to conform. We seek to assert our individuality–each and every one of us. The irony, of course, is that when everyone is asserting his/her individuality–they are conforming to the norm.
And yet we love our yoga, which, as discussed, is aimed at destroying that false sense of being individual.
But is this not typical of America since before its founding? To take from another? It is how our country got here after all. The logic differs little than what we have done with yoga. We take what we want from it and I would not even say we discard what we don’t want from it, because as far as I can tell, from the beginnings of yoga in the west, the essential teachings regarding Brahman and divine reality did not make the journey from India. If they did, they didn’t last long.
In the end, the practice of yoga in America is a mirror to our lifestyle and worldview. It is a superficial practice designed to fulfill superficial needs/desires–for health, flexibility, strength, freedom from stress, etc–desires in Upanishadic thought being the primary means through which we perpetuate our ignorance and separation from truth. Our society is ravenous about its desires and we are driven by desire to possess the new–how many new cell phones do you really need? And yet that is what our society is driven by–the need to possess, the desire to have. If our desires perpetuate our separation from truth, from Brahman, creating such desires functions to perpetuate a great lie.
Maybe American yoga is a new “opiate for the masses” dressed in exoticism, otherness, spirituality.
Our guaranteed pursuit of happiness is in bed with consumerism, consumerism based in just that–to consume–to fill ourselves with junk we don’t need, and our society propels us to make the money to buy the stuff we so desperately hope will fill some void, some emptiness. We think buying stuff will help us suffer less.
Remember, the philosophy that developed alongside yoga was founded upon the teachings of men who rejected society–they gave society with all its norms, rules and regulations, and all of its fetters the BIG MIDDLE FINGER. America promises freedom. Are we really free? Sure, in one sense we are free, for the most part, to do what we want to do. No qualms there. I am thankful for that freedom. But we are free to do what we want to within certain, often unseen, confines–limits. As much as our society promotes freedom, such sense of freedom is externalized–internally our society perpetuates boundedness to our desires and our rapacious consumption–and yoga has been turned into just one more commodity–one more iota for consumption.
The gurus said yoga will lead to the cessation of suffering. Does the guarantee of the pursuit of happiness include the cessation of suffering? No it does not. Happiness is just one more thing to pursue–one more thing to gain, to possess. It is just one more desire. Hell, some even think they can buy it. Aren’t our products designed and advertised in such a way as to try to satisfy us in one way or another? Not happy with your dish wash detergent? Buy this one–then you’ll be happy with how clean your dishes are. But damn it! I don’t have enough money to buy that new state-of-the-art dish soap. So I guess I go on being unhappy with the one I currently use.
If the gurus responsible for the Upanishadic wisdom were to see our society today what would they think? They might say we are selfish, for rather than being changed through our confrontation with the Other, we take from it and mold it to our own purposes–purposes driven by desire, and capitalism. They might say we are ignorant and will continue on in our ignorance.
And with that, maybe–just maybe–they would feel a little compassion for us. Maybe they would lower and shake their heads, offer a little smile, and think:
“They know not what they do.”
But this is America. I am an American, so Amer-I-can! And when I can I will.
So don’t get in my way.
Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1991.
Powell. Barbara. Windows into the Infinite: A Guide to the Hindu Scriptures. Fremont, CA: Jain Publishing Company, 1996.
Van Voorst, Robert. Anthology of World Scriptures. 6th ed. Boston: Wadsworth. 2013.