2001: An American Yoga Odyssey
by Prem Prakash
Turn your hand so your palm is facing towards you. Now spread your fingers wide. See the distance between the tip of your thumb and the tip of your pinky? Thats about the size of the Philadelphia phone book when I was growing up there some 25 years ago. At that time, in that enormous metropolitan phone book, there was just one listing for yoga instruction.
Times have certainly changed. Now, everwhere you look there are yoga classes, periodicals, conferences, and more yoga clothing and paraphanelia than any Indian sadhu could have ever dreamed . Movie stars like Madonna demonstrate yoga on television for celebrities like Rosie ODonnell. Super models like Christie Turlington appear on the cover of Time magazine sitting in an asana. Rock stars get buff by practicing power yoga, and having a yoga butt has become the latest compliment of physique. My wife and I recently traveled across the U.S. visiting a number of yoga centers and ashrams. I have concluded there is good news and bad news related to this remarkable growth in the popularity of yoga in America. The good news is that there is a lot of yoga being done. The bad news is that there is a lot being done in the name of yoga.
The good news about the popularity of yoga is very heartening. In every state I recently visited there was a yoga class to be found within reach of a determined student. Yoga centers are common on the landscape and virtually every college campus offers yoga classes, many for credit. Yoga practices which were once the domain of ashrams are now being shared in fitness centers and church basements. Practices that were once secretly passed along from teacher to student in a chain of lineage are now shared openly to anyone with interest.
The general public is being given the opportunity to enjoy the strength, flexibility and balance of asana practice, and the power and purity gained through pranayama. In addition, I am personally very pleased to see the involvement of women in the development of yoga in America. I am also happy that householders have the opportunity to practice. I believe Americas gift to the yoga tradition just might be this egalitarian approach and the development of non-monastic traditions which help yogis and yoginis remain in society as a positive social force.
The not so great news about yoga is that America is doing to yoga what it does all too well with any trend: yoga is becoming trivialized and commercialized. I do not criticize the larger society for their misunderstanding of yoga. They really dont know any better. What I find unfortunate, however, is how yoga teachers, who should know better, allow yoga to be presented in such a superficial and trite manner.
In the majority of yoga centers I visited, the spiritual context of asana and pranayama practice is deliberately hidden because it is not considered palatable to the average consumer. I do not argue that everyone who walks through the doors of a yoga center must a prioi demonstrate a degree of spiritual commitment and devotion, but I do think the yoga community must keep the bar raised high enough that the depths of yoga are honored. If what we have to offer is not appealing to everyone, so be it. Yoga centers do not need to be like shopping centers, where the customer is always right. The western Buddhist movement, for example, has done a better job than we have in showing it is possible for a tradition to remain true to its spiritual heritage while adapting itself to the needs of Western students.
The problem with the de-spiritualization of yoga is that we inadvertently shortchange our students. Yoga in contemporary America is too often advertised as a fast-track to health, ease, and comfort. This presentation is not consistent with the millenia old yoga tradition and its emphasis on selflessness, discipline, and ego transcendence. The beginning student is often thrilled to find that yoga does, indeed, live up to its billing as a stress-reliever. But as the student continues to practice he will find that yoga becomes a stress-inducer, revealing just how chaotic and disappointing is his life. This is the natural, intended progression as devised by the great sages.
As a true spiritual discipline, yoga strips away the veneer of pompous self-satisfaction we lay down to prevent ourselves from experiencing the depths of despair and longing hiding in our hearts. But it is only by first becoming aware of the inner turmoil that we gain an opportunity to fully relinquish the root causes of our suffering. If we do not prepare our students for this inner work, they will eventually leave yoga practice because they will believe it cannot help them with the profound questions of life. After the inital flush of physical health and vitality, the student will find that even touching his toes and standing on his head does not bring him the happiness and peace he seeks. If he is a sincere student he will look for deeper answers. If we are sincere teachers we can help him find those answers.
Yoga has only been in this country for little more than a century. It is inevitable that confusion and distortion will take place during the transmission of a subtle art and science like yoga. At the present time, the seeds the great teachers from India planted in this country are still growing. You and I are the soil in which these seeds may eventually bear fruit. The transmission of yogic teachings from the land of Shiva and Ganesha to the home of Uncle Sam and Mickey Mouse is going to continue to be very interesting. It offers us a great opportunity to bring greater health, healing and a more enlightened consciousness to our society. But to accomplish this demands that we treat yoga with the respect it deserves. Otherwise, young aspirants may find phone books filled with yoga centers but they will not find the profound treasures that authentic yoga has to offer.