Tag Archives: history

Even the Indians can’t agree if yoga is religious or not

…and they’re going to their Supreme Court to settle the matter.

The Washington PostIs yoga religious? An Indian court mulls mandatory school exercises
India’s school policy considers yoga an integral component of physical education. But the court has expressed caution, and is considering arguments that yoga has a religious component. The issue is complicated because India is a secular democracy but has pockets of Hindu nationals who would like to force their way of life on others.

India’s court system may not be the best place to get a quick and clear decision because it is famously slow and inept, but that’s India’s problem. The Indian political system is just as intertwined with religious and secular currents and the American one is. And that affects yoga is both countries.

The point is that there is no black-and-white, cut-and-dry answer as to whether yoga owes its impact to its religious roots or can be adopted without fear of being contaminated by pagan rites. As yoga practitioners and advocates, we’d be well-advised to tread carefully.  

First week of the yoga art exhibit at the Smithsonian

I can’t stop blogging today because the news just keeps coming across my computer monitor. The first report on the Freer Sackler Gallery’s “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” on the Mail until January.

Washington Post Smithsonian’s 1st exhibition on the art of yoga explores 2,000-plus years of visual history
First the exhibit examines the concepts and practices of yoga traditions, including meditation and postures found in Indian art dating back hundreds of years. The first piece is an 11th century sculpture representing a yoga teacher, seated in the lotus posture with legs crossed to signify enlightenment.

In stead of writing about other people’s impressions, I should go to the exhibit.

Just in time! Yoga art exhibit to open tomorrow

Photo: image of a seated Buddha or yogi
From the exhibit

The Smithsonian’s exhibit of yoga-inspired art  is now going to open as scheduled because Washington’s political class decided that it had done enough harm and found a way to end the government shutdown. My yoga teacher training classmates at Thrive Yoga are planning to visit as a group next weekend.

Washington Post Alec Baldwin and his wife, Hilaria, bring glitz to D.C. yoga gala
“And really, what could be a better way to end this stressful week in Washington than an evening celebrating the art of staying calm? The black-tie, $1,000-a ticket evening (relocated from the gallery to the Mellon because of the shutdown) celebrated the debut of the Sackler Gallery’s “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit, which opens Saturday. Because there was no time to move the gala back to the museum after the government reopened, photos of sculptures and paintings from the exhibit were shown on video screens on the wall of the dimly lighted room, which piped in soothing, dreamy music throughout the night.”

Of course, the social events revolving around the exhibit give rise to a lot of frivolous reporting about the high-profile sponsors, like Alex Baldwin and his yoga teacher wife, and the usual cliches about yoga. But that’s the price to be paid for making it to the big time.  At least, Baldwin makes a show of not taking himself too seriously. The exhibit website lists dozens of events so multiple visits may be necessary to take in all the facets of the exhibit.

Major exhibit of yoga-related art to come to the Mall

Get ready, Washington, we are about to dive deep into yoga’s history over the ages.

YOGA: THE ART OF TRANSFORMATION | Freer and Sackler Galleries
Through masterpieces of Indian sculpture and painting, Yoga: The Art of Transformation explores yoga’s goals; its Hindu as well as Buddhist, Jain, and Sufi manifestations; its means of transforming body and consciousness; and its profound philosophical foundations. The first exhibition to present this leitmotif of Indian visual culture, it also examines the roles that yogis and yoginis played in Indian society over two thousand years.

The DCist also has more details on the exhibit, including crowdfunding, which will start on May 29. Under the auspicies of the Smithsonian Institute, Yoga: The Art of Transformation will be opened from October 19 to January 2014.

On becoming a yoga agnostic

Photo: Michael moves into full wheel pose, with aid from friend and Desirée
Urdhva Dhanurasana or wheel pose

I have changed the tag line to this blog. It used to be “breath, energy, life, spirit = self-discovery through yoga,” dating from my innocent introduction  to pranayama and other yogic arts. Now it is “A yoga agnostic explores life, breath, spirit and beyond, one asana at a time.”

In the midst of my personal traumas and upheaval over the past eight months, I have undergone a quiet shift in my yoga practice and my beliefs: I have become a yoga agnostic. How do I define that status? I no longer pledge allegiance to a lineage, yoga system, teacher, guru, historical narrative or ideology. I simply believe in the empirical evidence that manifests itself every time I roll out the mat or shift into meditation. It can be really

A lot of freedom comes once I cut the emotional binds that lock me to a “5000-year-old tradition”  or a business model based on the American obsession with bodily perfection. I don’t have to cling to yoga as a cure for migraines,  back pain or leprosy (or whatever condition you wan to slot in there). I don’t have to doubt myself when I am not able to cure myself. I just know that it’s part of my daily hygiene. I don’t have to make a pilgrimage to Pune or Mysore in India to acquire true knowledge. I don’t have to read sacred texts or learn Sanskrit.

This change has been brewing for a long time, perhaps, when I injured my knee and realized that yoga does not protect me magically from injury or disease. Or when I read Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body, in which he challenged misconceptions about the origins and evolution of modern yoga, and realized that a lot of myth-making occurred when yoga was reincarnated in modern India and then was transported to the United States. Or when I hear old-school yogis complaining about the commercialization of yoga in the States.

History through the covers of Yoga Journal

Cover art for Yoga Journal
May 1975

Because this year is Yoga Journal‘s 35th anniversary, the magazine has been celebrating the milestone. Among them, they brought together all the cover art of Yoga Journal. Then they wanted visitors to pick the best all time, the most intriguing, the most inspiring and the favorite vintage. I did not vote because it seemed to be pointless exercise. But I did go through all 220 issues and began a reflection that came to some interesting conclusions. I’ve been a subscriber since 2004 (I have them all) and usually read it within a week of arrival. Stephanie Syman used the progress of Yoga Journal as a barometer of the discipline in the United States in her book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America.

The California Yoga Teachers Association started and owned Yoga Journal for the next 23 years. At its humble start in 1975, Yoga Journal looked completely amateurish (those were the days of photocopying the print run) and then gradually shifted to modestly acceptable for a niche magazine.

In late 1979, the magazine covers took a quantum leap in quality, becoming a professionally produced identifiable brand (or it may have reflected publishing tastes of the time). I don’t know anything about its content. I’m just speaking of its covers. [MLS: You can see the contents of all issues up to 2009 at Googlebook. The marvels of the Internet.] Continue reading History through the covers of Yoga Journal

Yoga in America – a personal story

One of the interesting aspects of Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010) is that each yoga practitioner has a chapter or episode in the book because we are characters in this story. We share the cultural experience and turn to yoga to resolve a personal issue, whether it be physical fitness, mental gymnastics or spiritual discovery.

Photo: yoga class
A wide-legged forward fold or Prasarita Padottanasana

Reading the first chapters, I was reminded of my own encounter with Thoreau, Emerson and their escape from the confines of conventional religious faith in America. In high school, I read Walden and selections of Emerson’s writing, but it was a hard read because as a teenager I was not able to understand all the true historical, social and cultural significance of the Transcendentalists. I was much more attune to local vibs of incense, prayer beads and peasant blouses and my own disconformity with US society than I was to Hindu philosophy.

I also had a real interest in Aldous Huxley and read a lot of his novels and philosophic works. I did not go into his interest in LSD and other hallucinogenics, but his sensitivity to alternative ways of  seeing appealed to me.  My reading of Huxley’s Ends and Means was central to my intellectual growth. Huxley and other British intellectual refugees, like Christopher Isherwoord and Gerald Heard, played a key role in giving yoga a foothold on the West Coast (Chapter 8: Uncovering Reality in Hollywood). Their presence also led into the next chapter, “Psychedelic Sages” — Timothy Leary, Ram Das and the other crazy men of the 196os.

I eventually had a glancing encounter with yoga after I graduated from college, in 1973. I told that story here: How yoga did NOT change my life. I think I actually went to my first yoga class in blue jeans. In any case, I did not get to explore yoga much more because I moved off to Peru a few months after that summer.

The next time that my life intersects with yoga is 30 years later  — in 2004 when I start looking for a way to deal with a series of physical and mental conditions. By then, the Syman story has practically ended, and I was just one of the 11 million (or whatever the figure was) Americans practicing yoga. I think what drew me to yoga was the increasing flow of scientific information about yoga’s health benefits.

Yoga in America

Graphic: Cover art of the book
Stefanie Syman wrote an ambitious book about 200 years of yoga in America

Writer Stefanie Syman has really bitten off a big chunk of history when she outlined her book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010). Moreover, it deals with the cross-cultural meldings and misapprehensions of India and America along the fault lines that distinguish each country’s soulscape and other terrains.

That storyline arches from the Transcendentalists getting their cues about meditation third hand from English overlords of India (circa 1845), to the recent decades after the Woodstock generation lost faith in the its post-modern gurus like Muktananda (Siddha Yoga) and Prabhupada (Hare Krishnas).  Syman has succeeded in making it a fascinating, thought-provoking read.

There is too much material to limit my commentary to a single blog entry so I am going to stretch this out over several days. I bought the electronic version of the book from Amazon and am reading it on my netbook while riding the Metro to and from work. It saves me bulk in my shoulder bag. As an added bonus, I am linking to several sites that can expand perspective on Syman’s book.

Extra Credit

Publisher’s write-up
Interview in Elephant Journal
Interview in YogaDork with Stefanie’s list of recommended references on yoga
Feminist Review
Well and Good NYC review
Slate’s review: Why Americans Love Yoga

More to come soon. Enjoy.

East-West Convergence

At the workshop this past weekend, Beryl Bender Birch drew a picture that caught my imagination. Back in the days of the Palace of Mysore when the trio of future gurus of classical yoga (T.K.V. Desikachar, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois) were studying under Krisnamacharya, the father of hatha yoga (it’s his 1938 video to the right), the Maharaja of Mysore was also patron to Western gymnastics that was brought to India by the British colonial regime. The two groups of students stood at opposite sites of the courtyard that served as classroom, copying techniques from each other. She said that a lot of the sequencing of vinyasa come from that cultural cross-pollination. It struck me as ironic that the East-West convergence influenced the formation of classic yoga. And today you’re getting another round of convergence as yoga meshes with American (and other Western) culture.

You can see a historic video of Iyengar from the same period.