From health clubs to corporations, yoga has entered the American mainstream. But is it becoming too popular for its own good?
A few years ago, I was sputtering through New Delhi in a fume-belching 1950s Ambassador taxi, en route to a “yoga hospital” I hoped to include in the guidebook to spiritual India I was researching. Sitting next to me was an official guide assigned to me by the Indian Office of Tourism—an earnest young woman in a lilac sari, whose face lit up when I told her where I was from and what I was working on. As we lurched through bumper-to-bumper traffic—beggars clawing at our windows at gridlocked intersections, an occasional cow peering at us grimly through a cloud of exhaust—my guide told me that she wanted to change her life. She was reading Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus; she had joined a Celestine Prophecy support group. “And I love yoga so much,” she said. “If only I had enough money, I would go to California and study it.”
Bemused, I asked her why someone from India—the birthplace of yoga and its cradle for almost 5,000 years—would want to go to California to practice. She looked back at me, equally confused. “But I was wondering why you would need to come here,” she said. “In California, you have Dr. Dean Ornish!” She spoke the name of the best-selling American M.D.—a student of Swami Satchidananda whose heart disease reversal program centers on yoga and a low-fat vegetarian diet—with reverence, the way freshly baptized yogis in San Francisco refer to the sage Patanjali.
Yoga’s Latest Incarnation
Roughly five millennia after Indian mystics, intoxicated on the sacred drink soma, soared into the ecstatic trances that inspired the earliest yogic teachings, a new incarnation of this ancient spiritual technology has taken up permanent residence in the United States. And you don’t need me to tell you that yoga has made it big. You’ve already heard it from Oprah.
You’ve watched Sun Salutations on Rosie O’Donnell and Good Morning America. You’ve read the statistics everywhere from the New York Times to the Tulsa World: According to a 1994 Roper poll, 6 million Americans do yoga. (One estimate places the current number at 12 million.) It’s the most popular new feature at health and fitness clubs around the country, with close to 40 percent of them now offering classes. The Los Angeles Times estimates that there are more than 70 yoga studios in Southern California alone, with some of the bigger ones pulling in as much as $30,000 a week.
The popular Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan offers at least 108 classes a week, with an average of 60 students packed into every class. The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts—the country’s largest residential yoga retreat center—draws close to 20,000 guests a year, for an annual gross of about $10 million. A search on Amazon.com pulls up more than 1,350 yoga book titles, ranging in erudition from A Reinterpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in the Light of Buddha Dharma to Yoga for Cats. I’ve done my share of mocking the way yoga shows up in our capitalist culture. (My new favorite automobile ad: an image of a man meditating in front of an immense mound of outdoor gear and a brand new pickup truck. “To be one with everything, he says, you’ve gotta have one of everything,” the copy reads. “That’s why he also has the new Ford Ranger. So he can seek wisdom on a mountain top. Take off in hot pursuit of enlightenment….”) But in my more serious moments, I believe that when future scholars write the cultural history of the twentieth century, one of the most momentous social trends they will describe is the transplantation into Western culture of Eastern contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation.
Sure, this phenomenon tends to be trivialized in the mainstream media, which likes to portray yoga as the latest fitness fad, hastening to reassure us that it’s not really mystical. (“I don’t want it to change my life,” actress Julia Roberts told In Style magazine. “Just my butt.”) But that superficial spin on things may be more a reflection of the nature of the media than the nature of American yoga. The fact is, yogic mind-body practices are influencing almost every aspect of Western society, from medicine to Madonna’s choice of outfits at the MTV awards.
Your doctor recommends yoga. Your insurance company pays for it. The Fortune 500 company you work for offers it over lunch hour. Your psychotherapist recommends it to reduce stress. Yoga and meditation are being taught in AIDS hospices, corporate boardrooms, battered women’s shelters, inner city churches. Yoga images permeate everything from your favorite sitcom to your least favorite junkmail catalog. And in the process, Western society is leaving its mark on yoga as well. “Yoga is American now,” says Judith Lasater, a yoga teacher for almost 30 years and the author of Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life. “Back when I first started teaching, it was very tied to Hinduism—to wearing white cotton yoga pants, taking a Hindu name, burning incense, and having a guru. Now it’s taken on an American patina rather than a Hindu patina.” Is yoga American now? And if so, what is American yoga like? Maybe I’ve been stricken by millennial fever, whose symptoms include an irresistible compulsion to cogitate on the Big Picture. Because when Yoga Journal asked me to write an article taking the pulse of yoga in America, I jumped at the chance.
I found myself wondering: What are the unique characteristics of yoga’s newest incarnation? What are the perils and promises that sincere practitioners face as yoga surfs on a tsunami of popularity into twenty-first-century America? In a land where (if the mass media is to be believed) a yoga practice goes hand-in-hand with a face lift, breast implants, and a tummy tuck, and yoga teachers are the darlings of Hollywood stars, can yoga retain the spirit that has kept it alive since the time of the ancient Vedic sages?
Yoginis in Bikinis?
At the 1993 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, an Indian swami stopped by the Yoga Journal booth to leaf through our calendar. He winced and walked away, sniffing, “Yoga in bikinis!” In Bombay, a few years later, I interviewed Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra, director of the nearby Yoga Institute of Santa Cruz. His father, at the turn of the twentieth century, was one of the first yogic crusaders to bring hatha yoga practices out of the ashrams and mountain caves and begin teaching them to a lay audience. “When I see what yoga has become in the West,” Dr. Yogendra told me mournfully, “I wish my father had left it with the hermits in the caves.”
Certainly, the form in which yoga is practiced has altered so radically in the West that it is almost unrecognizable to a traditional Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain practitioner. Traveling in India, I met yogis living in caves in the Himalayas, their foreheads painted with insignias marking them as devotees of one of the dozens of yogic sects. I saw them practicing meditation by the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, their almost-naked bodies covered with ashes from the funeral pyres to remind themselves of the impermanence of the flesh.
I visited ashrams decked with brilliantly painted deities and presided over by robed swamis with names as long as their beards. I saw devotees fainting in ecstatic trance at the feet of a woman believed to be an incarnation of the Divine Mother. Not once (outside of a handful of hatha yoga centers catering almost entirely to Western students) did I see the image that has become almost synonymous with yoga in the Western imagination: a sleek young woman—with buns and abs to die for—flexing in a Lycra unitard.
Yoga’s new body does not necessarily imply a new soul—yogis, of all people, should understand that. After all, yoga has been reincarnated a hundred times already.
“Yoga has a history of at least 5,000 years, and in the course of that long history it has made many adaptations to changing social and cultural traditions,” says yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, the author of The Yoga Tradition. “That’s why we have such a rich heritage.” Over the centuries, the word “yoga” has been used to describe a wide range of diverse—and sometimes contradictory—practices and philosophies, from ascetic self-mutilations to Tantric rituals, from austere silent meditations to ecstasies of devotional song, from selfless service to total withdrawal from the world.
Yogis have traditionally been experimenters, picking up whatever tool was on hand to probe more deeply into their true nature. The earliest yogis were rebels who eschewed the traditional Brahmanic culture of India, pursuing instead the radical belief that truth could be found by looking within oneself.
But now that yoga has crossed the Indian borders, it’s changing more rapidly—and more radically—than ever before. “I see a dialogue happening with the Western mind, the Western culture—whereas in previous periods that dialogue happened primarily within India. Now yoga is confronting a significantly different social system, a different value system, and so on,” Feuerstein continues. “As a result, what we find is that the yoga movement in the Western world is much more of a stew-pot than it has ever been.”
“We have to be open-minded to how our culture is going to integrate this ancient art,” says yoga teacher John Friend, a 27-year practitioner whose workshop schedule takes him to dozens of cities across the country every year. “Yoga is not going to look like it did at any other time in the past. We can’t say, ‘The ancient yogis only wore loincloths, so we have to too’ or, ‘Since we’ve never seen yoga images on coffee mugs before, putting them there must be wrong.’ Americans are so innovative that they’re going to come up with a unique expression of yoga.”
How can we characterize this new and bubbling yogic stew? In my travels and practice in India and the United States over the past 15 years, I’ve observed three main characteristics that distinguish American yoga from its traditional history in India: the prominence of asana (posture) practice; the emphasis on lay, nonsectarian practice; and the incorporation of other Eastern contemplative traditions and Western psychology and mind-body disciplines.
Say “yoga” to most Americans, and they think “yoga poses.” With its emphasis on using the physical body as a vehicle for spiritual awakening, hatha yoga—formerly a small and obscure corner of the vast yoga firmament—has captured the imagination and spirit of America, and is the branch of yoga that has flourished here most successfully. Never before in the history of yoga has the practice of physical postures assumed the importance that it has in the West.
Not that other branches of the path aren’t flourishing as well. Bhakti yogis (followers of the path of devotion) are flocking to teachers such as Ammachi, the South Indian “hugging saint” believed by devotees to be an incarnation of the Divine Mother, who draws tens of thousands during her annual Western tour. Buddhist meditation (the Buddha was one of the greatest yogis of all time) has made the cover of Time magazine, and 1 million native-born Americans now identify themselves as Buddhist. The charismatic Gurumayi Chidvilasananda—the spiritual head of Siddha Yoga meditation, which teaches a shakti-based path of awakening energy—has tens of thousands of disciples, many of them Manhattan and Los Angeles glitterati. See also 5 Spiritual Teachers on the Search for Enlightenment
But these numbers are dwarfed by the millions of Americans for whom “yoga” means “asana”—and for whom the physical postures are both the gateway into the practice and the vehicle for the spiritual teachings.
It may come as a surprise to these practitioners, but when scholars say that yoga is 5,000 years old, they’re not referring to Downward-Facing Dog Pose. For most of yoga history, the attempt to achieve spiritual awakening—the “union” with the Divine and “yoking” of the mind that is the literal meaning of the word yoga—did not involve any particular physical postures other than the classic cross-legged meditation pose. (Which, by the way, is not the exclusive property of yogis—I’ve seen 10-year-old boys driving buffalo carts down the streets of India, perched in full Lotus on top of their loads of hay.) The elaborate physical postures and breathing techniques of hatha yoga probably weren’t invented until at least the end of the first millennium A.D., as part of the Tantric movement, which celebrated the physical body as a vehicle for enlightenment.
Even then, hatha yoga remained a relatively obscure, esoteric, and even controversial practice. It drew harsh criticism from conservatives who viewed it as subverting the lofty goals of classical yoga. For the most part, it remained the province of a few subsects of sadhus, who practiced it in isolation in their temple monasteries and mountain caves—most notably the Natha yogis, the sect founded by Goraksha, the legendary father of hatha yoga, in the tenth century A.D. (The Natha’s other distinguishing rites included slitting and stretching the lobes of their ears until they hung down to their shoulders, a practice that thus far has not caught on in the West.)
East Meets West
But in the first decades of the twentieth century, several pioneering Indians—working independently in different parts of their country—began delving into the practices of hatha yoga and introducing them to a lay audience. Sri Krishnamacharya in Mysore, Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh, Sri Yogendra in Bombay, and Swami Kuvalyananda in Lonavala were twentieth-century visionaries who shared an openness to Western science and medicine in addition to their profound knowledge of traditional Indian philosophy, medicine, and spirituality—and, most of all, an interest in hatha yoga as a tool for health of body and mind, and as a vehicle for transmitting the teachings of yoga philosophy to a broad audience.
These pioneers resurrected obscure texts, sought out adepts in remote ashrams (Krishnamacharya, it’s said, had to go to Tibet to find a living master), and modified and modernized traditional practices to suit a broad audience. To the horror of their more conservative peers, they began teaching hatha yoga to the general public, including groups that had long been excluded from yogic practices, such as women and foreigners. See also A Good Read: The Best in Yoga Literature
These first popularizers of yoga made only tiny inroads into Indian society.
But their students included such luminaries as B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois (founder of the popular Ashtanga Yoga system), Swami Satchidananda (of Woodstock fame), and Swami Vishnu-devananda (whose Sivananda Yoga ashrams now dot the globe). These teachers caught the attention of the blossoming Western counterculture and went on to found yoga empires in the West.
Most of the hatha yoga that is practiced in the West today, in fact, was brought here by the students of this handful of Indian pioneers.
It’s not surprising that hatha yoga has become so popular in the West. We’re a culture that’s obsessed with the body—and paradoxically, sadly out of touch with it. Hatha yoga taps into our lust for physical perfection, but at the same time, it gives us a feeling of connection and peace with our bodies that we’ve yearned for, even if only unconsciously.
Our Western fascination with the physical dimension of practice makes some yogis uneasy. In a system centered on physical mastery, it’s all too easy to use our practice to fuel, rather than abate, our ambition and egotism. In the quest for the perfect backbend, we can easily become distracted from yoga’s primary purpose: to calm our minds and open our hearts. “I am concerned that we are getting very focused on sweat and perfection and muscle,” says Lilias Folan, who helped spread the gospel of hatha yoga to a wide audience back in the ’60s through her pioneering PBS show. “I respect that approach, but my concern is that we’re getting away from the wonder and spirit of this great tradition.” But at the same time, most senior yoga teachers feel that America’s love affair with yoga goes deeper than just the poses.
“People who come here don’t only want to get into their bodies—they want to get into their bodies so they can get connected with the meaning and purpose of their lives,” says Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. “They want their whole lives to be transformed in some way. On opening nights of programs, you have people saying things like ‘I want to find my true voice. I want to find the self I’ve lost touch with.’
“We attract two major categories of people,” Cope continues. “One is the middle-aged 40 to 60-somethings, dealing with disillusionment about what our culture holds up as the goals of life—money, status, achievement. The other is the younger 20-somethings, looking for something solid to base their lives on.”
“There’s more and more thirst for the more esoteric teachings,” says Sharon Gannon, cofounder of the ultrafashionable Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan, where weekly meditation classes routinely draw 50 or more students, and every asana class also includes chanting, Pranayama, and meditation. “When I first started teaching, there was an attitude among teachers that you couldn’t be too sophisticated in what you talk to the students about because the student body didn’t have the desire to know esoteric things. I was told by other teachers that most people are just interested in getting in shape and wearing their leotard. But I never believed that, because I knew that I wasn’t like that—that wasn’t what I went to yoga for. And that lack of respect for the intelligence and sophistication of the average person turned out to be very wrong.”
That’s not to say that most Americans come to yoga—or stick with it—out of a yearning for spiritual awakening. For most people, it starts as simply as this: Yoga makes us feel good, and we like to feel good. And if it makes us look good, too, we’re all for that. See also Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Ultimate Yogi Guide
But such relatively superficial motivations aren’t unique to yoga—the longing for material-world happiness is often why people initially come to spiritual practice in general. Our spiritual cravings, to begin with, are often simplistic and even infantile. We’re looking for a Santa Claus-like God to stuff our stockings. We pray for things that we want; we pray that good things will happen to us and the people we love, and that bad things won’t.
But gradually, if we’re lucky, we notice that the Santa Claus approach to spiritual practice has limitations. We may become more fit, healthy, and calm, but we discover that mastering Lotus doesn’t necessarily save our marriage. We notice that doing yoga doesn’t mean that we won’t ever get sick and die. We may even find that as our yoga practice makes us more sensitive to our inner experiences, we feel more rather than less emotional pain: We become aware of grief and longing that we didn’t even know were there. And so we start looking to our yoga to give us something other than perfect bodies and charmed lives: an ability to meet whatever is true in our bodies—and our lives—with grace and awareness and compassion. If you look closely at the serious yoga practitioner—the person who does it on a regular basis for more than a year or so—you’ll often find that asana has become not just an end in itself, but the medium through which he or she begins to explore other yogic teachings. For us in the West, the body has become the meditation hall in which we first learn to practice the basic contemplative arts of concentration, insight, and mindfulness. Asanas have become the tools for opening the heart to compassion and devotion; for studying the flows of breath and energy; for gently releasing the classic spiritual obstacles of greed, hatred, delusion, egoism, and attachment. The poses, used appropriately, can be paths that lead us deeper into the true Self—and that, after all, is what yoga has always been about.
The second characteristic that sets American yoga apart from its Indian roots is the emphasis on lay practice. In Indian culture, life was traditionally divided into four stages, each with its own unique duties and opportunities: student, householder, forest-dweller, and renunciate. The practices of meditation and hatha yoga were, until relatively recently, reserved for renunciates—men (women were for the most part excluded from classical yogic practice) who had given up their possessions and families and taken up the lives of monks and wandering sadhus. The spiritual paths for householders were the paths of bhakti yoga (devotion to a god or guru) and karma yoga (selfless service to one’s family or community).
But in the West—and, increasingly, in India as well—hatha yoga and meditation are householder paths. Most Western yogis are not renunciates—they practice yoga as an adjunct to their family and professional lives, not as a substitute for them. They take their classes and go on their retreats—and then return to the world of relationships, career, achievement, and money.
Along with this lay orientation comes what some traditionalists view as an even more alarming trend—an abandoning of “enlightenment,” or full realization of the true Self, as a goal of practice. Most Westerners come with more earthly aspirations—relief from physical pain and tension; a taste of inner quiet and relaxation; the ability to be more present in their relationships and more focused in their work.
“Even a tradition like hatha yoga, which had the body as its focus, always had the goal of reaching liberation and enlightenment. This has dropped away from many of the Western schools of yoga,” observes Feuerstein.
But others see this shift as a healthy development, even a kind of maturation of practice. “Here at Kripalu, we used to think we were going for enlightenment, going for the ‘diamond body.’ This led to a certain amount of spiritual perfectionism,” reflects Cope. “Now there’s no longer the sense that we’re going to come to the end of the path. Our yoga is more about learning to live in a way that softens some of the kleshas, the classic obstacles to practice—greed, hatred, and delusion. It’s a growing up—we’re deconstructing the childhood dreams about dissolving the body into white light.
“It’s not that such things don’t happen. It’s that our clinging to them, our craving for them, our chasing after them creates more suffering, more attachment.”
For most contemporary Western practitioners, our spiritual aspirations don’t involve renunciation. They involve living in the world in a way that’s alive and free—opening our hearts to our families, caring for our aging parents, being truthful with our friends, doing our work with integrity and devotion.
In fact, this householder yoga may be just the kind of enlightenment our world needs from us. This is the enlightenment of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most beloved yoga texts of all time, which tells us to live in the world without clinging to it—to play our roles in our work and family lives with full commitment, but without attachment to the outcome of our actions.
The vast majority of Western students are not exclusive devotees of a particular guru or lineage—they’re interested in practices, not sectarian loyalties. Western yoga is an increasingly eclectic, democratic path, in which hierarchical structures are being dismantled and gurus dethroned.
Once-separate yogic paths fertilize each other on a regular basis: Hatha yogis do Headstand at the lunch break on Buddhist meditation retreats, seek out Advaita Vedanta masters, and get shaktipat (transmission of psychospiritual energy, “shakti”) from siddha gurus. The typical yoga class owes its emphasis as much to Buddhist vipassana (insight) practices as it does to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
And Western yogis have also inevitably begun to cross-pollinate yoga with Western approaches to spirituality, psychology, bodywork, and mind-body healing. Until you’ve taken a few hatha yoga classes in India, you won’t fully realize how thoroughly most American classes have been permeated with a unique marinade that includes everything from somatic psychology to Reichian bodywork, from modern dance techniques to 12 Step Programs. As yoga gains more and more acceptance in the medical world, it’s inevitably flavored with the language and concerns of Western science. (Look through the classical yogic texts: Words like “stress,” “lumbar,” “lymph,” and “femur” are nowhere to be found.)
Schools of yoga that emphasize physical precision often draw on techniques from Western physical therapy and movement disciplines such as Alexander and Feldenkrais work. Styles that use the asanas to consciously unwind and release stored emotional traumas draw on the tools and language of body-centered psychotherapy.
The danger in this eclecticism, of course, is that we may dilute the power of the traditional teachings. We run the risk of patching together a yoga quilt from only the most superficial elements of a variety of paths, rather than delving deep into a single tradition.
But as Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman told a class of students at the Jivamukti Center in Manhattan, we also have a unique opportunity in the West to practice the Dharma—the path of awakening—without getting trapped in “isms.” Jivamukti cofounder David Life agrees, saying, “We can step out of compartmentalization and perceive the inner aspect of all of these different paths.” In doing so, we may find ourselves naturally creating new forms of practice to meet the specific spiritual and psychological needs of Western culture.
Given the unique characteristics of American yoga and its sudden wave of popularity, what are the challenges and goals that we as yogis—and especially yoga teachers—must embrace as we move forward into the twenty-first century? In my own musings and my conversations with senior yoga teachers around the country, four themes reappear again and again. First, we must seek out—and share with others—the deepest teachings and practices of yoga. Second, we must honor tradition, maintaining our connection to the roots of yoga even as we open to innovative forms. Third, we must continue to hold high standards for yoga teachers, and educate teachers to meet those standards. And, finally, we must begin to develop a vision of yoga that includes social as well as personal transformation.
Asana is a powerful practice—and, as we’ve seen, it can be a doorway into the most profound teachings of yoga. But asana alone is not enough. Asana practice can reveal some fundamental yogic teachings: for example, the ancient Upanishadic insight that our true nature is not defined by our bodies, our thoughts, or our personalities. But such initial insights are just a beginning. The process of integrating these realizations into the core of our being—of slowly dismantling our attachment to our illusions—is often a long one. At a certain point in this process, most serious students are naturally going to want to deepen their practice to include some of the other instruments in the yogic toolkit.
“Hatha yoga teachers need to communicate to their students that ‘What I am teaching you here is a fragment of the yogic heritage,’” says Feuerstein. “For 5,000 years, yoga has been a doorway to a different sense of the world, a different perspective on life—and that perspective included a direct awareness of our essential nature as spiritual and free. I think teachers will have enough students that will listen up and go out and look for the materials to go deeper, even if that particular teacher can’t take them deeper.”
It’s important to remember, however, that “going deeper” will look very different for different people. One of the beauties of yoga is that it encompasses so many different philosophies and practices. For some practitioners, “going deeper” will mean exploring the eight-fold path of Patanjali. For others, it will mean sitting Buddhist meditation retreats. Some will be drawn to bhakti, the path of devotion; others will gravitate toward karma yoga, the path of service. Some will resonate with the nondual teachings of Advaita Vedanta. And still others will choose to explore new forms of practice emerging from the Western spiritual melting pot.
As American yoga ripens, it is likely to become more diverse, not less. It’s vital for us as yogis to remember—and draw on—the rich and variegated tradition of yoga, and respect the choices of those who choose other paths.
In the spirit of going deeper, it’s also important to create venues where those who are interested can at least taste the contemplative life that has historically been at the core of yoga practice. As we’ve seen, American yoga is primarily a lay, householder practice. But to nourish the depths of our practice, it’s important to have retreat centers where we can go to set aside the concerns of our daily lives for a while and just focus on going inward, to experience, for a brief time, the inner freedom that is made possible by the external vows and restrictions of the traditional monastic or ashram life.
As we move into the future, it’s vital to stay connected to our past, if only so that we’re not constantly reinventing the wheel of spiritual practice. “It’s so important to continually remember and go back to our roots. Lately I’ve been reading Patanjali again, reading the Gita with new eyes,” says Folan. “It would be so easy to forget that our practice comes from this great tradition from India. It’s a tradition that I want to continue to share and talk about and honor.”
In that spirit, it’s useful to seek out and engage with the living masters of the paths that most intrigue us—people whom we find inspiring, provocative, and sincere. In an era where many of us are, with good reason, extremely wary of gurus—many of whom have exhibited their human imperfections with glaring clarity, leaving a swath of emotional wreckage behind them—it’s important to stay open to the wisdom that can be found in teachers who have traveled the path before us.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t question tradition. In fact, doing so is a vital part of any authentic spiritual journey. The fact that a practice is “traditional” does not mean it is appropriate for us. Every spiritual practice, no matter how ancient, must be born anew in the heart and life of each individual practitioner. The true source of yoga is within each of us, not an external text, teacher, or foreign culture.
But questioning a tradition is itself a way of staying in living relationship with it—and that spirit of investigation can propel us on our own individual inner quests. Especially if our emphasis in practice has shifted away from enlightenment, it’s important to hold in our hearts at least the possibility that we, too, can directly experience profound spiritual awakening, in whatever unique and unexpected form that might take for us.
“The Dalai Lama said to us, ‘Yoga has been here for over 100 years—why do you keep importing your realized beings from the East?” reflects Gannon. “The reason is that we haven’t been doing this practice with yoga—union with God—as our intention. We’ve been doing it for physical, therapeutic work—to get more supple, more strong, to address health issues. But the big pot at the end of the rainbow—we haven’t considered that that could be ours.”
High Teacher Standards
Senior yoga teachers differ about the best way to ensure high quality of American yoga teaching. As the interest in yoga grows among “third party payers” such as health insurance companies who are interested in yoga’s impact on their bottom line, some teachers are arguing for a rigorous set of consistent national standards, enforced by certification from a national organization. The lack of such a system, proponents of certification say, means that dangerously unqualified teachers—churned out by yogic “diploma mills” and lured by the enticing prospects of a yoga career at Kaiser Permanente or Gold’s Gym—may be putting students at risk both physically and emotionally.
“It’s happening already—insurance companies and fitness groups are already leveraging themselves into positions of authority to determine what makes a qualified yoga teacher,” contends Gary Kraftsow, author of Yoga for Wellness and a founding member of Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit association seeking to establish a national registry of certified yoga teachers. “The yoga community has to stand up and define itself before they do.”
Others hold that such a unified certification system is impractical, given the tremendous diversity of the American yoga community. Not only that, they maintain, centralization and bureaucratization are antithetical to the very spirit of yoga; they threaten to suck the prana from a living tradition which has flourished for centuries in mountain caves and hermitages far from the jurisdiction of any insurance or governmental agency.
“I may think a particular approach to asana practice is ludicrous, even unsafe; another person may think that it’s exactly the way to go. That’s part of the beauty of yoga, that there’s something for everyone,” says John Schumacher, director of Unity Woods Yoga Center in Washington, D.C. “When we start playing with insurance companies, we’re making a deal with the devil,” Schumacher continues. “Certification is becoming an issue just because there’s suddenly so much money involved. Where there’s money, there’s power. The whole thing is rife with the possibility for corruption, power plays, and co-opting.”
But whatever the outcome of the ongoing certification debate, the ultimate responsibility rests with each individual teacher to commit him- or herself to a life of ongoing study and practice, and with the yoga community to continue to encourage that dedication in our teachers. No certificate can guarantee a teacher’s knowledge and continued commitment to practice. There are no diplomas for spiritual awakening. All we can do is trust that, given the opportunity, the powerful inner impulse that draws someone to the life of yoga will continue to draw that person deeper, and that they will share the fruits of that journey.
“The whole dimension of spirituality and healing is not measurable, and thus the health insurance industry is never going to be able to deal with that,” says Schumacher. “Health isn’t just taking pills; it isn’t just doing three Bow Poses, a twist, and a Shoulderstand twice a day. Yoga inevitably takes you deeper than that. We may be trying to cut a deal with the devil, but the devil on the other hand, has a tiger by the tail.” See also 3 Extraordinary Stories of Healing Through Yoga
Just as Western Buddhists are embracing “engaged Buddhism,” which applies basic Buddhist principles to social activism, Western yogis need to investigate the ways we can practice “engaged yoga.” Our spiritual practice is inextricably linked to the world we live in. (It’s hard to do good pranayama with polluted air, to give one mundane example.)
Given it’s current popularity—and the inroads it’s making into medicine, mental health care, corporate American, and the entertainment community—yoga is poised to be a potent force for social transformation. “One thing the American yoga movement hasn’t realized is that it is a social movement,” says Feuerstein. “And as a social movement it can effect profound changes in our society.”
Yogis, frankly, have never been that big on changing the world through political activism. But we cannot separate our bodies from the body of the world, our lives from the lives of other living beings. It’s worth remembering that Gandhi’s satyagraha movement—the peaceful revolution that tumbled British colonization of India—was based on yogic principles. The power of the practice can naturally manifest through all our actions, just as our core energy streams out through our limbs in asana. If we let it, our yoga practice can affect the foods we choose to eat, the products we buy, the communities we form, and the politicians we vote for. With 12 million yogis on the loose, that’s a lot of transformational power.
Ultimately, perhaps, there’s not all that much difference between yoga as it was and yoga as it is. For thousands of years, yoga has asked us to get quiet enough to look deeply at exactly what is, within us and around us—and while cultures and kingdoms have changed almost beyond recognition, the human heart has not. Whether we’re covered in ashes and sitting by the Ganges, or dressed in a leotard and sitting in the back room at a fitness center, the ultimate challenge is the same; to come into direct, unflinching contact with our own unruly and ever-changing minds, our fragile and impermanent bodies.
Asked whether yoga can survive American culture, most serious yogis just laugh at the question. “I don’t think we have to worry about yoga. Yoga is a self-sustaining thing,” says Gannon. “Yoga is happiness. It’s always been around. And it always finds a way to emerge.”
Contributing author Anne Cushman is coauthor of From Here to Nirvana: The Yoga Journal Guide to Spiritual India.