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 book 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, my guide told me that she wanted to change her life. She was reading "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," and she had joined a "Celestine Prophecy" support group. "I love yoga so much," she said. "If only I had enough money, I would go to California and study it."
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.
You've probably watched Sun Salutations on "Rosie O'Donnell" and "Good Morning America." 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 from "A Reinterpretation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras in the Light of the Buddha Dharma" to "Yoga for Cats." My favorite automobile ad shows 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.
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. Today, your doctor may well recommend yoga; your insurance company may pay for it. The Fortune 500 company you work for might offer it during 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 junk-mail 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 taking on an American patina rather than a Hindu patina." Is
yoga American now? And if so, what is American yoga like?
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 Santacruz. His father, at the turn of the 20th century, was one of the first yogic crusaders to bring hatha yoga out of the ashrams and mountain caves and begin teaching it 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 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 flexing in a Lycra unitard.
But yoga's new body does not necessarily imply a new soul. 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, 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.
But yoga is changing more rapidly--and more radically--than ever before. It is confronting a significantly different social system, a different value system. How can we characterize this new and bubbling yogic stew? Three main characteristics distinguish American yoga from its traditional history in India: the prominence of asana (posture) practice; the emphasis on lay practice; and the incorporation of other Eastern contemplative traditions, 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--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 yoga 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. 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.
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.
For most of yoga history, the attempt to achieve spiritual awakening--the "union" with the Divine and the "yoking" of the mind that is the literal meaning of the word "yoga"--did not involve any particular physical posture other than the cross-legged meditation pose. 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 sadhus, who practiced it in isolation in their temple monasteries and mountain caves.
East Meets West
But in the first decades of the 20th 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 20th-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, 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.
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). Those 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 was brought here by the students of those 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.
"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."
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, scholar in residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and author of "Yoga and the Quest for the True Self."
"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."
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 simply as this: Yoga makes us feel good, and we like to feel good. And if it makes us look good, too, so much the better.
We may have 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 our yoga practice makes us more sensitive to our inner experiences.
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 not become an end in itself but the medium through which he or she begins to explore other yogic teachings. 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 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 orientation comes what some traditionalists view as an even more alarming trend--an abandoning of "enlightenment" 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.
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."
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.
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.
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 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."
Ultimately, 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.
Asked whether yoga can survive American culture, most serious yogis just laugh. "I don't think we have to worry about yoga
. Yoga is a self-sustaining thing," says Sharon Gannon, co-founder of the ultra-fashionable Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan. "Yoga is happiness. It's always been around. And it always finds a way to emerge."