Giving American yoga a bad name

USAToday Western influence turns yoga on its head in Mumbai: The veteran writer Gail Sheehy writes about how American yoga is feeding back into Indian culture and subverting the traditional discipline, but she gets something wrong:

Power yoga, an aerobic deviation, was launched in 1995 by an American woman, Beryl Bender Birch. It ignores the original concept of yoga, which was to be done in silence so the mind can develop awareness of the body.

Photo: Beryl Bender Birch signs a book after class
Beryl Bender Birch never did any such thing. She merely changed the name of Ashtangba Yoga to power yoga because back in the 1990s, most Americans could not grasp Sanskrit words leaching into their English buzz words. She wanted to coin a term that described the essence of a vinyasa practice, as opposed to the prevailing stereotypes of static postures, navel gazing and chanting OM. Anyone who has taken a workshop or class with Beryl or read one of her books would know that she venerates the legacy of yoga’s history. Power yoga (or any of its more recent derivatives) does not ignore the need for “silence so the mind can develop awareness of the body.”

There are two aspects to this article that are worth noting:

  1. Some people in India are looking at what has become a stereotype of American yoga practice and then aping it as a simplified version of classic yoga, better suited for tightening butts and stripping away excess pounds. The whole issue of modern India’s conflicted relationship with hatha yoga is a fascinating tale that deserves more than a cursory newspaper article. Another example might been the acceptance of pranayama as distilled into the Art of Living Foundation‘s Sudar­shan Kriya as a stripped-down way to relieve stress from modern life and become more productive.
  2. Even a veteran writer, such as Sheehy who says “I love yoga”, can contribute to the misinformation about yoga. She does not understand yoga in America and I am doubtful that she understands yoga in India either even though she’s had a full week in Mumbai to sample the experience.

PS: National Public Radio brought out an interesting personal point of view of Bishan Samadda, an Indian taking to yoga for the first time in his life.