The Globalization of Yoga

When I first began practicing yoga in the mid-1970s, it was considered an exotic practice from India, associated with Eastern religions and the ’60s counter-culture. It was just starting to find its way into mainstream Western cultures, with not a lot of places to learn it. There were a few popular yoga books and television shows: Richard Hittleman published Yoga for Health in 1961, and Lilias Folan’s Yoga and You was a hit television show in the 1970s.

Now, in 2018, yoga is part of popular culture and big business! What yoga has become has a lot to do with how it was promoted and integrated into Western cultures. More than a one-way transmission from East to West, the export of these ancient psycho-physical and spiritual practices also revived and changed yoga in India. Yoga has become a transcultural phenomenon.

The current popular view of yoga does not reflect what it was historically. The search for the “pure and authentic” yoga is can be misleading. Yoga is one of six branches of philosophy and practice originating from the Vedas, a group of ancient scriptures and traditions, the oldest of which is the Rigveda, dating back to 3000–1900 BC. The most developed scriptures are found in the Upanishads—which form the foundation the philosophy of Vedanta and higher spiritual teachings. Vedas means “knowledge of wisdom,” and Vedic wisdom was considered a kind of science. These scriptures form the foundations of Indian Hindu culture, more accurately called Sanatana Dharma (“the eternal way”).

Classical yoga, the basis of modern yoga, originated from what is known as the “eight-fold path (steps)” called Ashtanga. Yogi-scholar Patanjali synthesized and codified various sources into a system set forth in the Yoga Sutras (200 BC–200 AD). Yoga was not only a body practice, but a way of living. But you will find very little about the cultural context if you only read these Sutras and most book popular book on yoga.

For much of its history, yoga was not a uniform system throughout India. Since yoga was traditionally passed down orally from teacher to student, various styles and teachings developed over time into multiple lineages and systems. This is an important point to remember. There was no standard centralized authority. In the modern era we tend to look at yoga as codified and abstracted from lived socio-cultural reality. Even scholars ignore what anthropologist know well—that how practices are used by people and groups does not coincide with what is found in textual sources.

The word yoga itself means “union,” “to bind” or “to yoke” and is etymologically similar to religion, which also means “to bind.” Hatha Yoga, the most popularized system, literally means a “violent union”—it uses force to bring together what is separated: the body, mind, and spirit or Self. The separate self, which experiences bondage and mental suffering, will remain out of touch with Reality and Truth, until it is liberated from its illusions—maya. Liberation from mental suffering and bondage is called moksha and is considered the ultimate goal of life and yoga. Moksha is absolute freedom. Yoga is a technology of transformation for “Self-Realization”—realizing the Transcendental Self. Yoga includes ethical, physical and mental practices which form the foundation for realizing a unique liberated state of consciousness called Samadhi, which means “putting together,” or binding, the self and Reality. These foundation practices exist within a cultural context. Transcending the separate self and body-mind reveals the already Present Self. Buddhism calls this “enlightenment”—realizing your original natural state. Yoga was not meant to perfect the body but to master and control it, and the senses, in order to focus and know the Real Self as opposed to what is “not self”—what is transient and not real. The benefits popularly associated with yoga today—flexibility, strength, health and stress reduction—were not originally the goal but only a secondary byproduct of some styles of yoga!

The first, most prominent emissary of yoga, Vedanta and the wisdom of India to the West was Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of the Indian saint Ramakrishna. Vivekananda spoke at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 and received a lot of press and notoriety. One of Vivekananda’s greatest achievements was to bring order to the diverse array of yoga systems and philosophies. He framed yoga in terms of science, which spoke to the Western mentality and ideals. He distilled yoga into five categories: Raja (moral, physical and mental disciplines and meditation), Hatha (physical and energetic practices which are also related to Kundalini yoga), Jnana (the path of knowledge), Karma (the path of service) and Bhakti (the path of devotion and love). Raja, called the “royal path,” encompasses the full spectrum of practices, including those of Hatha, postures (asanas) and breathing (pranayama). Today, modern hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced form of yoga and is easily accessible, requiring no belief system or religious orientation. It fits well with the ethos of Western cultures and the emphasis on the body. The popularization of hatha yoga included ignoring and separating it from it’s ancient tantric roots and traditions and for many, it does not include meditation (dhyãna)—an essential most yogic traditions .

Vivekananda was followed by Paramashansa Yogananda, author of the 1920 bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi, and by Swami Sivananda. Sivananda founded the Divine Light Society, which created a worldwide network of yoga schools.

Sri Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) is consider the “father of modern Ashtanga-Hatha yoga.” He was the principal teacher of many well-known figures in yoga history: B.K.S. Iyengar (author of the 1966 book Light on Yoga, master of precision asana and anatomy), K. Pattabhi Jois (developer of Vinyasa-Ashtanga yoga) and his son T.K.V. Desikachar (founder of Viniyoga style). Indra Devi, a well-known woman yogi and student of Krishnamacharya, opened the first yoga studio in Hollywood in 1948 and wrote numerous popular books. Vishnudevananda, a famous student of Sivananda, established the first yoga school in Paris in 1977. Yoga spread via these popular teachers; now Iyengar, Power and Vinyasa yoga have become well-known styles and form the basis of many contemporary variations and Western trends.

Part 2 – Integration 

After India gained independence from the British in 1947, there was a rise in nationalism and interest in Indian traditions, which led to a revival of yoga. It was the right moment in history for introducing yoga and meditation to the West. How it was spread and gained popularity abroad also significantly changed yoga itself. Although yoga was always considered a science, the spiritual dimension had traditionally been given higher value. Health and spiritual tourism retreats played a big part in transforming yoga from a religious practice to a health practice. Because science dominated the Western worldview, presenters emphasized the science of yoga and its practical benefits. One key player in that realignment was Jagannath Gune, who created a center for yoga in 1924 and invited scientific researchers to study it. They framed yoga in ways that could more easily find acceptance in the modern world and the West.

Western societies invest a lot time and energy into personal and economic freedom, with the aim of perfecting and extending bodily life. Self-effort appeals to the Western independent spirit. Classes, books, DVDs, and the internet make yoga easily accessible. Yoga provides a practical, inexpensive method to control and mold the body, relax the mind, and prevent disease. It helps people control the undesirable facts of life-entropy.

One central tenant of traditional yoga is that true happiness is found not in the outer world or body, but by turning inward, to discover your natural state, which is normally covered up and transcends the body-mind. In its transmission to the West, however, yoga was gradually reframed from a method of transcending the physical world to a way of perfecting the body. A deeper and non-culturally acceptable understanding of yoga got lost in the popular mix. The message became: There’s no need to renounce life, to deny the pleasures of the body or go beyond the mind. You can keep liberation as a goal, but liberation now means perfect the body, balance, fitness, and personal freedom.

The main Vedic concept that links easily to Western culture is Jivanmukta—the state of being liberated while still living. It’s conceived as a “middle path” between dedicating your life to pursuing the ideal “afterlife” on one hand, and indulgence and consumerism on the other. The reframed concept of Jivanmukta connects the Western ideal of individual freedom to yoga’s goal of transcendence and evolution. The focus has shifted from the limitations of the body and realizing “absolute or super-consciousness” to improving bodily fitness and overall health. This dovetails nicely with the holistic health movement. Jivanmukta lends support to this way of framing yoga, with the message: You don’t have to renounce desires and worldly pleasures to be free! That’s one reason why Tantra yoga, commonly but erroneously associated only with sex, is gaining popularity. With some staples of yoga, pleasures can be channeled and justified spiritually.

Popular literature circulating in the 1900s about yoga increasingly emphasized its health and fitness benefits. This appealed to a Western mindset and was compatible with the idea of “progress” as the guiding tenet of modernity. Advertising images of thin or large-bellied older men, dressed in white or orange dhoti, don’t appeal to most Westerners. These images reflect a life of renunciation, non-materialism, poverty, and lack of ambition. But fit, strong, virile bodies represent progress and wealth! Now, you can buy latex tights and yoga accessories—it’s a whole new business. The original spiritual goal of yoga—freedom from the material world, rather than fulfillment and attachment to it—had to be rebranded, even inverted, to gain acceptance.

Some believe the Western emphases on material life and progress are incompatible with traditional yoga and spiritual ideals. But people have easily adapted yoga to other cultures and worldviews by emphasizing the bodily practices of postural (asana) and hatha yoga and leaving out the foundational ethical codes and spiritual parts. It has been inserted into a completely different cultural context, which is what causes many traditionalist great concern. What could be more attractive than a set of exercises that create a strong, healthy body and relaxed mind? Yoga is inexpensive, can be done anywhere, and manages STRESS! The religious beliefs and language are presented as optional—and in man ways they are—depending on your ideals and goals.

Yoga has gone global and is now part of the new “cosmopolitanism.”Cosmopolitanism is an ethos of shared humanity and transnational community. It’s based on the concept of interdependence, where geographical distance is no obstacle to community. This “new” ethos fits well with the eco-sustainability movement and is creating a worldwide culture that find roots in the ancient ideals of yoga.

In Part 3, I will further discuss the world of yoga.

© 2018 Keyvan Golestaneh