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The New Yoga

From health clubs to corporations, yoga has entered the American mainstream. But is it becoming too popular for its own good?

By Anne Cushman

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.

Go Deeper

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 doyou 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 certificiation from a national organization. The lack of such a system, proponenets 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."

Activist 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 communitities 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.

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Reader Comments


I think that the permutations of yoga by the west is a problem, in that the focus is commercial, attracting as many students as possible. Most practitioners like any other endeavor are not hard core consistent and studious. This is what morphs the practice- the groupon cross fitters who are flocking to studios. Experienced traditional teachers leave, yoga mill teachers replace them and there you have it- Mc Yoga

Kumari de Silva

Up until I read this article it had not occurred to me that anyone would think that "yoga" in it's original Hindi had the same meaning it does in English. This helped me understand my American students better


It saddens me to see how commercial Yoga has become, with studios marketing everything from clothing to books on anything but yoga. I would agree with Dr. Yogendra that what we've done for Yoga in America is not a positive beautiful thing. It's typical commercialism. I love the small studios where improving our bodies and our lives naturally using Yoga has always been the true focus, rather than wearing all the newest "Yoga" apparel.

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