Piedmont Yoga Studio News June 2010 : In Response to Newsweek Article on Yoga | iHanuman


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Piedmont Yoga Studio News June 2010 : In Response to Newsweek Article on Yoga

This link to an online Newsweek article, dated May 13, 2010, came from a friend through my email the other day. Titled "The Clash of the Yogis: Do the Hindu Roots of Yoga Matter?," author Lisa Miller, the magazine's religion editor, raises several issues that beg responses, though because of space limits I'll only be able to deal with the question asked in the piece's sub-title.
First of all let's ask: Is yoga truly rooted in Hinduism? This is a difficult question to answer, unless of course you're already convinced that it is. There are two stumbling blocks. The first is that there are some scholars who believe "Hinduism" is a 19th century Western invention, and that there's really no such religion, that "Hinduism" is a name given, for various nefarious colonialist motives, to a hodgepodge of "fragmented, disparate, localized, particularistic, and ever-changing mini traditions" (from a review of the book, Was Hinduism Invented? by B Pennington). On the other hand there are plenty of scholars who hold the opposite position on Hinduism, and frankly I don't have the training to make an intelligent decision on who has the more compelling argument. Let's just say if the former position is correct, then our question makes no sense because there's no such thing as "Hinduism."
The second stumbler concerns yoga. The author of this piece, like so many other writers, talks about yoga as if it were a monolithic institution, but "yoga" is an umbrella word for at least 30 different schools (though only six or seven are major), which have significant similarities and just as significant differences. Whether or not ALL these yogas are rooted in Hinduism is another question I can't answer fully. I can say there are aspects of traditional Hatha Yoga that purposely fly in the face of mainstream Hindu culture, so that at best they're "negatively" rooted in Hinduism. And I'd have to look long and hard to find Patanjali's roots in Hinduism, though I can't say for sure it's not there. So to begin to answer our question: IF Hinduism exists, THEN it's possible that many forms of yoga are rooted in it, though it's also possible that a few at least aren't.
Now for the thorny issue. Traditionalists feel that Westerners aren't giving the Hindu roots of yoga the respect it deserves, and that our exploitation of the practice is turning it into an "ugly materialistic vehicle for selling clothes." It's easy enough to understand why Hindu traditionalists are upset about the lack of respect, but I'm not sure what can done about it. Education is the obvious answer, but most Western students go to class for what's essentially a workout, not a history lesson, and getting the average student to read a book on the subject-even something straightforward like G Feuerstein's The Shambhala Guide to Yoga-is probably not in the cards. I won't deny either that there's a rather unpretty materialistic side to modern yoga ... if you've ever been to the "market" at one of Yoga Journal's conventions then you know what I mean. But we have to put this in perspective: this is America, and the business of America, as once famously said, is business. We have to expect this development, in our culture it's inevitable, and to decry it is akin to complaining that the sun is going down AGAIN and leaving us in the dark. What Ms Miller fails to mention, which is typical of many who write about yoga for the mainstream media, is that this isn't ALL there is, that there's a lot of good coming out of what we're doing.
In the end though Ms Miller and the traditionalists miss an important point. While modern yoga may have roots in Hinduism, it has roots just as deep if not deeper in the 19th and 20th century West, in our gymnastics, in our health and New Age movements, and so on; moreover, it wasn't Westerners that initially uprooted yoga-mostly Hatha Yoga-from Hinduism, it was a handful of Indians that did it to revive the practice and make it accessible and interesting to a popular audience. Had yoga-and here I refer to most yogas-stayed rooted solely in traditional Hinduism it would never have spread beyond India to become a world-wide movement. Good or bad? You'll have to decide for yourself.
I actually agree with much of the article. We should all have respect for yoga's roots, in whatever soil they first grew, and we all should think about how we sell and what we buy in the name of yoga. But we should also be given credit for how far we've come in such a short time-the first public yoga school was opened in this country in the late 1940s-and not totally discount our contributions to the development of what is, or at least what's becoming, a new approach to yoga.


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