The story of yoga

Untangling the roots of the ancient practice

June 19, 2015 05:49 pm | Updated June 23, 2015 12:20 pm IST

Yoga is now a billion-dollar industry Photo : Vijay Soneji.

Yoga is now a billion-dollar industry Photo : Vijay Soneji.

Tired of running on broken pathways in parks and dodging past shady men on roads, I opted for yoga as a way of escape from my cubicle-walled existence at work and (hopefully) what might become a healthy way of life. After almost two weeks of trying to achieve balance, breathing correctly and finding focus and concentration — concerns that normal people have when practising yoga — it’s flummoxing how a number of people are trying their best to make yoga a tension-filled activity.

Funnily enough, declaring an International Yoga Day has only brought about stress instead of helping us relieve our psychological burdens and build physical and mental strength. Why is yoga tied to one god or in fact any god at all? Over the past two decades, yoga has become so much a part of Western culture, especially the United States, that an estimate by Yoga Journal puts the number of practitioners in the U.S. at 20.4 million and the industry’s value at $10.3 billion. Yoga, is thus, more of a commodity than a religious practice. James Mallinson, a faculty member at the popular School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and someone who has spent a decade living and travelling with yogis and ascetics in India, observes in a recent lecture that “Even the White House has weighed in, clearly stating its opinion that ‘Yoga has become a universal language of spiritual exercise in the United States, crossing many lines of religion and cultures’.”

Although the argument that yoga is religious is becoming increasingly moot, the fear that it could be used to reclaim India’s ‘Hindu roots’ is quite valid. And BJP MP Yogi Adityanath isn’t making it easy for his own government when he said that those who oppose suryanamaskar should “drown themselves in the sea” and “could leave Hindustan” — a far cry from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who recently called attention to the fact that yoga does not discriminate, and that “all people can practise it, regardless of their relative strength, age or ability”.

Coming back to the origins of yoga, academician David Gordon White, in his groundbreaking study The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography , states that the yoga of the present has very little in common with the yoga practised in the Yoga Sutra and other ancient treatises; it has been reinvented continuously for 2,000 years now. Here, yoga has a wide range of meanings — primarily ‘to join’ or ‘to harness’ and ‘to mix various materials’ or even ‘a union’. In the Bhagavad Gita , yoga is mentioned by Krishna in the context of salvation and liberation, and in the Rig Veda, it’s denoted as the yoke placed on a beast of burden (bullock for example) connected to a plow or chariot. The 3rd Century BC was when most of the perennial principles of yoga were formulated in both Buddhism and Jainism — defined as the ‘activity of the body, speech, and mind’. There’s no doubt that yoga was born in India but it has been packaged for the West — notably by Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo (his ashram in Pondicherry) and Paramahansa Yogananda ( Autobiography of a Yogi ). In all these years, within India, the practice of hatha yoga was quite minimal, writes White, and that it was not until the publication of a number of editions of hatha yoga texts, by the Theosophical Society and others, that interest was revived. Yoga is secular because modern asanas were developed by Swami Kuvalayananda (who mixed Indian asanas with Western gymnastics) and, of course, T. Krishnamacharya, among others, who later taught global proponents of yoga such as Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar and Indra Devi.

What the present government is now attempting to do can be classified as a re-appropriation of India’s cultural legacy, which the Sangh bhakts have claimed as their own, treating yoga as an extension of Hinduism, when it is nothing but a changing lifestyle and a billion-dollar industry involving clothes, accessories, spas and mats.

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