Essay for SOAS
The Extent to Which It Is Possible to Practice Yoga in Ways That Do Not Reinforce the Rebranding of Yoga in a Western Context as a “Psychologized ‘Spirituality of the Self’” Driven by the Ideologies of Capitalism and (Neo)colonialism Introduction
Pics. Mysore, India 2017 by Vaida Kvedaraite
The purpose of this essay is to examine the extent to which it is possible to practice yoga in a modern world by not reinforcing rebranding of yoga as a “psychologized ‘spirituality of the self’” driven by the ideologies of capitalism and (neo)colonialism. As terminology of the proposed discussion is very broad and complex, it has a lot of capacity to navigate the topic in very different directions. Therefore to start with the very basis of terminology is going to be established, starting from what yoga is, including very brief history of yoga and etymology of the word. Eventually discussing what is the purpose and the main goal of practicing yoga in order to understand when the border of rebranding is crossed and when yoga is misinterpreted and commodified by modern practitioner. Finally discovering what are the ways of practicing so this goal of yoga practice is achieved.
Analysis “The oppositions of yoga would be godless materialism, spiritual bankruptcy, endless devision of sects and classes, struggles and strifes” (Strauss, 2008, p.55). It is much easier to describe what Yoga isn’t, rather what it is, as its history is very broad and complex. Therefore in order to assess the extent to which it is possible to practice yoga in its true meaning it is important to set a framework of the terminology and the timeframe which Yoga and purpose of practicing is going to be discussed. The term Yoga has a long history in South Asia starting from Vedic wisdom ranging from 1500 BCE to 200 CE, to great epics of Mahābhārata (including Bhagavad Gīta) and Ramayana (compiled between 200 BCE - 200 CE), to Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali being composed in 400 CE and most recent transnational Modern Postural Yoga dating from late 19th Century till now (Connolly, 2014). As well as it is important to acknowledge that Yoga originated from ancient India and has its roots in various traditions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Ājīvikism, Sikhism, Buddhism and other smaller branches and sects of the world known religions (Connolly, 2014). It is vital to start by determining the etymology of the word Yoga. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2020) “the word yoga comes from Sanskrit yogaḥ, "yoking, joining together" and by extension "harnessing of one's mental faculties to a purpose" and thus "yoga." The Sanskrit word comes from the Indo-European root *yeug-, which means "to join, yoke”. Other sources gives very similar or the same consecutive results, which leads to conclusion, that from the etymological perspective Yoga means to join, to yoke, to unite. But it is unclear what needs to be united, which leads to further investigation. It is crucial for the purpose of this paper to narrow down the field of discussion of the concepts and ideas what Yoga is and what is the main goal of practicing is. Therefore the main ideas are going to be taken from Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. One of the most important sūtra which gives a great starting point is the 1.2 sūtra: “Yogaḥ-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ योगिश्चत्तवृित्तिनरोधः” (Satchidananda, 2015, p.3). Translations from Sanskrit vary from author to author, but most of them agree that it describes the aim of Yoga system which can be defined “as that which leads to the cessation of mental fluctuations” (Carrette and King, 2005, p.115). In here mental fluctuations include our mental activities such as perceptual experiences, reasoned arguments, errors of knowledge, deep sleep, dreams and memories (Carrette and King, 2005). And these states of continuousness causes suffering and requires calming according to the author of Yoga Sūtras. According to Patañjali it is achieved by prevention of the unsteadiness of the mind by practicing eight limbs of Yoga stated in 2.29 Sūtra: “Yama-niyama-āsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo’ stāv- aṅgāni” (Satchidananda, 2015, p.117). The eight limbs of Yoga from this sūtra are: yama
(abstinence - ethical rules), niyama (virtuous habits and observances), āsana (posture practice), prāṇāyāma (breath control), pratyāhāra (sense withdrawal), dhāraṇā (concentration), dhyāna (meditation), samādhi (absorption) (Satchidananda, 2015). These limbs or in other words folds of yoga are present not only in Hindu, but in other traditions as well. In Jain tradition post canonical time Yoga, eight limbs are defined similarly to Patañjali’s but using different names with the same or very similar meaning. Not developing discussion to details, as an example, what Patañjali defines as Yamas, in Jain tradition it is called mahāvratas and it matches with five of the Yamas from Yoga Sūtras (Chappel, 2015). What is important to emphasis is that Yoga has a lot more than just physical postures, known as third limb - āsana. Which Yoga in capitalist and (neo)colonialist modern world is understood and practiced very commonly. For many westerners Yoga is a way to enhance health and fitness or means of overcoming the stress and difficulties of modern day living (King, 1999). It is because Modern Postural Yoga in most of the cases has very little relation with traditional practices, “institutionalised as they were within established traditions or lineages (sampradāya) of weather (guru) and pupil (śiṣya), structured according to hierarchical and initiatory stages of development and bound up with an ascetic lifestyle and worldview very different from the concerns of the modern western urbanite” (King, 1999, p.67). Every single limb and especially every single Yama and Niyama are important and necessary in Yoga practice, because they set moral principles, lifestyle path for a Yoga practitioner, which eventually leads to ultimate goal of Yoga. Therefore it is worth mentioning few which are the most misinterpreted or not very often practiced among modern world Yoga practitioners. First of all would be asceticism and austerity, the third Niyama called Tapas in Yoga Sūtras also known in other resources. Complimentary to Tapas Niyama would be Aparigrahā Yama which is well worth discussing accordingly. 2.39 sutra: “Aparigrahā sthairye janmakathamtā sambodha. When non- greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes” (Satchidananda, 2015, p.132). Niyama Tapas and Yama Aparigrahā are one of the potential elements of Yoga which are rarely taking in consideration by Yoga practitioners and Yoga business owners, especially talking about multibillion dollar Yoga businesses (for example well known Bikram Yoga case, which is further discussed later in this essay). Tapas or in English translation asceticism and austerity was one of the key practice elements to attain liberation in most of the traditions, especially Jain and Ājīvikas traditions. “The means to accomplish the virtue of protective kindness, and therefore to ward off evil; put an end to transmigration; and attain the state of perfection (siddhatva), omniscience (sarvajñāna), perfect knowledge (kevala), and eventually liberation (mokṣa/nirvāṇa), is austerity (tapas) and complete inactivity (nirvṛtti) in all aspects.” (Balcerowicz, 2016, 280-281pg). Jain and Ājīvikas had practiced this element of Yoga in a very determined and strict way, meaning renouncing of all possessions, everything what they owned, including what could be considered as basic form of belongings, for example clothes, as well as all activities of a physical body. So nothing can interrupted the development of mind which eventually leads to liberation. It is not realistic that the same strict ascetic attitude could possibly be applied in a modern world society, but it could definitely be incorporated in a daily life and yoga practice in a more subtle easier approachable ways. Having less, living a minimal life, owning only what is needed, not getting trapped in the race of individualism trough consumption of material goods. Also being humble in speech, behaviour and appearance. This ties up closely with Yama Aparigrahā, which “is abstention from greed and hoarding” (Satchidananda, 2015, p.132), and “not desiring things of enjoyment which are superfluous to the physical body” (Jois, 2002, p.12). Carrette and King (2005) very well links it consumerism, greed and will to buy and own more with spirituality of the self. They very accurately states that “psychology makes religion into a product for private consumption and, as the fabric of old institutions crumble”, practitioners instead of embracing modern form of asceticism, austerity and non-greed, get trapped in worshiping the new alter of capitalism. Which provides various yoga and meditation products “dressed in the outer garments of traditional religion” (Carrette and King, 2005, p.79). A good example of it would be Yoga studio and a shop of “spiritual” consumer goods hybrids. Which encourages practitioners to purchase and ‘enrich’ their practice with a relaxing ‘tantra body mist’ or incense sticks from India, which should make their home practice feel a little more ‘authentic’. And it is exactly the opposite direction which yoga
practitioner should be guided to. Yoga studios should rather discourage greed and consumerism through showing a good example of more simple, ascetic environment to practice Yoga, where practitioners would be discouraged to demonstrated their individualism. A perfect example of completely going against Tapas Niyama and Aparigrahā Yama is Bikram Choudhary and his court cases raised because of the potential Intellectual Property violence. Since 2002 "Bikram Choudhury, the founder and the president of BYCI, attempted to enforce BYCI’s copyrights and trademarks against “renegade” infringer studios” (Fish, 2006, p.192). According to Fish (2006) since than Bikram has been involved in two US federal court lawsuits, which is significant not only because it was first individual Intellectual property claims to Yoga, but also underlays a great amount of greed, both materialist (money made from privatised type of Yoga) and moral of owning certain style of Yoga. Which in fact draws out a concern if Yoga could or could not belong to private sector, which raises a serious debate about (neo)colonasing Yoga in a modern western world. Fortunately not all Modern Postural Yoga styles support and embrace capitalist consumerist ways to spirituality, there is at least one which takes in consideration if not all eight limbs of Yoga from Yoga Sūtras, but at least few aspects of Yamas and Niyamas very seriously. Aṣṭāṅga Yoga has well integrated practice of Tapas and Aparigrahā. Aṣṭāṅga Yoga is a method of Modern Postural Yoga (De Michelis, 2004), developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India (Smith, 2008). "Pattabhi Jois often links this transformative power of Yoga to “heat”, a theme closely tied to the (post-)vedic concept of tapas, which variously refers to asceticism, discipline and in generation of “internal heat” (Smith, 2008, p.142). This cultivated internal heat has a power to purify body, internal organs and the mind in order to achieve final goal of Yoga - the attainment of eight limb - samādhi - “the blissful state of realisation of the true self” (Smith, 2008, p.142). This ascetic path to liberating knowledge is called tapta-margā and essentially achieved by practicing tapas according to Kaelber (1989). Although it does not have a direct link of promoting ascetic lifestyle, but it is closely linked with (post-)vedic ascetics’ practice it self. Another aspect of Yoga, Aparigrahā is noticeable in Pattabhi Jois teaching to diminish students ego by stopping them in their practice and not letting them go beyond certain āsana, if the student is not ready and not capable of performing that particular āsana correctly and fully. This is “idea that Yoga should be practiced dispassionately without hope of reward”, which “unfortunately is often replaced by drive to achieve an accomplished Yoga practice amongst many contemporary practitioners” (Smith, 2008, p.156). It perfectly correlates with how much greed and how much ego is invested in the ones yoga practice (Smith, 2008). Which only reinforces the ideas of capitalist driven enhancement of the self, own body, fitness, flexibility leaving completely forgotten the true goal of yoga - “incromprehention of the true Self and the attainment of samādhi” (Smith, 2008, p.156). As expression of ‘true self’ has been mentioned several times, it is necessary to discuss the meaning of it. In various sources the realisation of true self is overcoming misconceptions about the nature of the self and the egocentric impulses that this ignorance feeds (King, 1999). It is vital to acknowledge that “whereas Buddhist philosophy rejects the idea of a permanent self completely, the Hindu traditions generally postulate a kind of unchanging and permanent essential self (atman or purusa) underlying the flux of experiences we have as individually embodied beings” (Carrette and King, 2005, p.115). Although both traditions has a different approach and understanding about the self, both of them radically criticise ego-driven understanding of ourselves as a centre of our lives which also leads to misconception of seeing the self as a centre of universe. One more aspect of ego-driven psychologised spirituality of the self according to Carette and King is the spirituality which is based on self development, disregarding religion and completely separating spirituality from it. Or as per Maslow’s (1970) teachings - self actualising process, peak experiences separated from as he calls conventional religion. As Maslow identifies that “conventional religion, while strongly religionizing one part of life, thereby also strongly "dereligionizes" the rest of life” (Maslow, 1970, p.40). He is stating, that religious spiritual experiences to a member of certain religion happens only on certain days of the week (for example Sunday service in a Catholic Church) or religion based celebrations (birth of the Christ - Christmas) if as he said, happens at all (Maslow, 1970). That could be a reason why spirituality of the self - interiorisation of spirituality emerged in nineteen century with development of psychology. This “feel-good spirituality of the self was part of the wider process of turning the social ideals of religion into the interiorised world of the self” what Carrette and King have called the ‘psychologisation of
religion” (Carrette and King, 2005, p.75). As a result of that religion, spiritual practice (including Yoga) is left aside and individuals fall into consumer thought control individualism. Modern Postural Yoga is part of it in most of the cases, practitioners left the religious, dogmatic part aside and took just the part which promotes individualism, self enhancement and self development. Which leads to conclusion, that the way to practice Yoga is not by rejecting the true essence and its Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Ājīvikas or other original traditions roots, religious, authoritarian, dogmatic base, but by integrating it, embrace it and practice it. Another aspect closely related with misconception of the self is ego driven Capitalistic ideas influenced Yoga practice, which encourages competition among yoga practitioner between one another and competition with the self whilst trying to achieve aesthetically pleasing, picture worth, physically demanding āsanas without essential understanding what is the purpose of doing so (with obvious exception of beautiful picture taken in a sunny beach acknowledgement from the others in social media). In Cambridge dictionary Capitalism is described as “economic, political, and social system in which property, business, and industry are privately owned, directed towards making the greatest possible profits for successful organisations and people” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020). And from it is obvious that capitalism is success oriented, which only means making profit. And the only way to do so is through competition with one another. Competition being an old conception of the society embodied by Darwin and Wallace (Kropotkin, 1955), which no longer works and it creates stressful environment at the work place, social encounters, relationships and other day to day situations whilst interacting with other people. Therefore people are seeking a short term cure from social angst in Yoga, which creates addiction to private spiritualities (Carrette and King, 2005). And what makes it worst, is that in some of the cases even Modern Postural Yoga practice promotes competition and individualism as well. As Carrette and King very accurately suggest, that “spirituality in its privatised psychological formation is not a cure for our sense of social isolation and disconnectedness but is, in fact, part of the problem. Private spirituality, as opposed to an understanding of spirituality as linked to issues of social justice, is dangerous precisely because it conceals the underlying ideological effects of individualism.” (Carrette and King, 2005, p.58). Therefore according to Kropotnik cooperation, community support, mutual aid and altruism is the answer to functioning society - mutual aid theory based social organisation development and coexistence structure - adopted by absorbing animal behaviour (Kropotkin, 1955). In already discussed Aṣṭāṅga Yoga practice community experience plays rather important role, which sometimes is described as “shared affective experience, which is taken to be the result both of the efficacy of the practice of yoga and the “energy” that inheres in practice spaces”. (Smith, 2008, p.151). Although traditionally Aṣṭāṅga Yoga is practiced as a self practice, called Mysore style, meaning that every student is focusing on their own practice, there is no synchronicity like in teacher led classes, Scott (2000) acknowledges group dynamics which is linked with heat, Victorious breath called ujjayi prānāyāma and every students focus to produce a high-energy atmosphere. This energy gives a sense of community, rather than competition, encouragement to focus inwardly rather than on outer aesthetics of the āsana, inner performance rather than outward obstructions. Another aspect of bonding experience in Yoga was also promoted by Vivekananda, which contributed to his popularity and of course popularisation of yoga in the West. Whilst teaching yoga, Vivekananda encouraged "universal brotherhood, a community of like minded folk transcending national boundaries” (Strauss, 2008, p.58).
Conclusion Yoga is not about self development or self-actualisation. Yoga is not a feel good spirituality. As feel good describes a quick fix tool and Yoga is a long process of calming the fluctuating mind till it unites as one with universe, the practitioner achieves realisation of the true self and the final goal of Yoga practice - samādhi. In one point it can be seen as individualised spirituality as the process a person is going one his own, but the aim is unite body and mind for the higher purpose than just feel good as soon as possible and for individualistic reasons. The underlaying reasoning of practicing is different. It’s not about me and my needs. It’s about others (in Buddhism) or unity with universe, becoming part of it (Hindu). Therefore to practice Yoga in a way that it does not reinforce the rebranding of yoga in a western context as a “psychologized ‘spirituality of the self’” driven by the ideologies of capitalism and (neo)colonialism is to practice it reaching the main goal of Yoga -
unity with the self with universe, seeking to realise the true self and eventually attain samādhi, using tools provided in by ancient texts, Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali, following moral vows called Yama and Niyamas. As explored in this essay there is at least one Modern Postural Yoga style, called Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, which to some extent embrace these eight limbs of Yoga and promotes community feel in their studios, discourages ego-driven competition and physical achievement based Yoga practice.
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