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Or Merely Adjusting to Accommodate Western Culture?
New designer yoga apparel lines being introduced all the time. Yoga class fees—once negligible—steadily rising. Advertisements for yoga classes and clothing featuring the young and the beautiful, sporting the latest, most expensive apparel available. Whether you see these trends as negatives or positives seems to be largely a matter of individual perspective and opinion. Some people see the trend as proof that yoga has “sold out;” others view it as the inevitable result of the practice finding a large and growing following in new parts of the world.
When yoga first appeared on the scene in India (roughly between 4500 BCE and 3000 BCE), participation in the practice was largely limited to a few spiritual seekers devoted to finding enlightenment through austerities, meditation and breath control. The move toward the practice of yoga by huge swaths of the world’s populations is a distinctly modern (some might say postmodern) phenomenon.
According to religious scholars, the Samkhya-Yoga school was one of the earliest schools of the Hindu religion, predating even the Upanishads (the religious texts thought to have provided much of the foundation for Hinduism). Like all spiritual practices, religions and philosophies, yoga has changed and adapted each time it has found a wider body of practitioners and/or spread to another part of the world.
The philosophical question currently in play between yoga “purists” and “accommodationists” is whether its latest adaptation—to a largely European and North American public—is compromising the core of yogic beliefs and practices. Can a practice based on cooperation and spiritual enlightenment make a successful transition to cultures dominated by free market capitalism without losing its soul?
While many contemporary yoga practitioners consider yoga central to their spiritual practices, it’s entirely possible that large numbers of its new devotees approach it as just another form of exercise. I find nothing alarming about that. While the United States remains the most religious of the developed nations, both Canada and Europe have been becoming increasingly secular societies over the past half-century. Even in the uniquely pious U.S., the trend toward secularity is increasing; it should come as no surprise that practitioners of yoga in these societies should be more interested in yoga as a form of exercise than as a component of a religion or spiritual practice.
A practice that promotes flexibility of body, mind and spirit, yoga is itself highly flexible and adaptive. The number of people worldwide interested in the practice continues to grow and shows no sign of dropping off anytime soon. Debates among practitioners will no doubt continue and become even more interesting as interest in yoga increases throughout the world. Fortunately for us all, yoga practitioners tend to value openness and shun dogmatism. Given that generalization, it seems unlikely that these debates will turn acrimonious; they’re more likely to be collegial and mutually respectful exchanges.