Thanks to NPR, the debate about white people doing yoga is back in the news:
About 20 million people in the United States practice some form of yoga, from the formal Iyengar and Ashtanga schools to the more irreverent “Yoga Butt.”
But some Hindus say yoga is about far more than exercise and breathing techniques. They want recognition that it comes from a deeper philosophy — one, in their view, with Hindu roots.
Many forms of yoga go back centuries. Even in the U.S., the transcendentalists were doing yoga in the 1800s.
William Broad, a reporter for The New York Times and author of The Science of Yoga, has been practicing since 1970. He says people pursue yoga for all kinds of reasons, from achieving health and fitness to seeking spirituality, energy and creativity.
Yoga, Broad says, is an antidote for a chaotic world.
The story goes on to quote Sheetal Shah of the American Hindu Foundation, the force behind the “Taking Back Yoga” campaign, who argues that yoga has its roots in the Vedas and therefore in Hinduism and so it is a problem to divorce the practice from the “lifestyle” and “philosophy” of nonviolence, truthfulness, and purity–all admirable qualities.
The NPR piece prompted my colleague at Emory, Deeksha Sivakumar, to ask over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion “do religious practices become irreligious when they travel across national borders?” I think Deeksha is on the right track, and her post over at the Bulletin makes some important points, but we need to ask another question first. Is modern transnational yoga religious? How and why? Or to put it another way, where do we need to take yoga back to?
Missing from all of the debates about yoga in the past year and half or so (see here and here) is a thoughtful look at the history of yoga in India and in the West. Last January, Roman Palitsky, writing at Religion Dispatches, wrote the only essay I’ve seen taking a historical approach to modern yoga. In his piece he referenced a group of books that had recently been published and how they challenged the HAF and the “yoga is essentially Hindu” argument:
A corpus of literature has emerged over the past ten years, including David Gordon White’s “Siddha” trilogy, several volumes by Joseph Alter, Elizabeth DeMichelis’ A History of Modern Yoga and just last year Stefanie Syman’s Subtle Body and Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body, all of which oppose the straightforward message of the Take Yoga Back movement.
These works reveal the formative influence of (wait for it) Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, television, military calisthenics, Swedish gymnastics and the YMCA, as well as of radical Hindu nationalism, upon today’s postural yoga practice. There is no doubt that the Vedas, Upanishads, and folk traditions of India have been formative toward yoga: yoga is almost inseparable from them. Nevertheless to assert that yoga is essentially and primarily a Hindu practice means to ignore millennia of generative influence from other quarters. Worse still, it means to step blindly into a political fight for the heart of India that has simmered for over two hundred years.
Of the books Palitsky names, Mark Singleton’s stands out as wonderful history of transnational yoga that traces the connection between Hindu thought and practice, European physical culture, and Indian nationalism. Singleton writes in his final chapter:
This chapter and those which precede it have outlined some of the ways in which the early modern practice of asana was influenced by various expression of physical culture. This does not mean that the kind of posture-based yogas that predominate globally today are “mere gymnastics” nor that they are necessarily less “real” or “spiritual” than other forms of yoga. The history of modern physical culture overlaps and intersects with the histories of para-religious, “unchurched” spirituality; Western esotericism; medicine, health, and hygiene; chiropractic, osteopathy, and bodywork; body-centered psychotherapy; the modern revival of Hinduism; and the sociopolitical demands of the emergent modern Indian nation (to name but a few). In turn, each of these histories is intimately linked to the development of modern transnational, anglophone yoga. Historically speaking, then, physical culture encompasses a far broader range of concerns and influences than “mere gymnastics,” and in many instances the modes of practice, belief frameworks, and aspirations of its practitioners are coterminous with those of modern, posture-based yoga. They may indeed by at variance with “Classical Yoga,” but it does not follow from this that these practices, beliefs, and aspirations (whether conceived as yoga or no) are thereby lacking in seriousness, dignity, or spiritual profundity.
That’s a tangled web of influence for what we call “yoga” today and it is not a simple story of Vedic texts through Patanjali to Vivekananda and the West. Following Singleton’s analysis, the “Take Back Yoga” campaign is yet another chapter in the unfolding of transnational yoga. The HAF’s reimagining of yoga as an essentially Vedic and essentially Hindu practice and their entire campaign to proclaim this to America is part of their program for political self-representation and power. It is necessitated by the demands of American diversity and by the resurgence of a public conservative Protestant establishment. As religion has taken a greater role in the public sphere post-1965 (and here I’m thinking of the conclusion of Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America) the need for minority communities to make public claims to religious relevance and authenticity has increased. “Take Back Yoga” is more than a claim for a religious practice, it is the claim for power within the de-secularizing public sphere and an increasingly empowered Protestant establishment.
So, there is no where to take yoga back. There is only a pressing forward as Hindus and other minority religious communities assert themselves in the public sphere in the face of an encroaching Protestant establishment.