5 Western Yoga Practices that are Disrespectful to the Ancient Spiritual Tradition of Yoga by Swamiji
I am very happy that Yoga has become so popular in the West, but I am concerned about how the practice is changing and the effect that this has on Hindu people worldwide. These views are my own, and I do not claim to express a position that is representative of all the widely varied beliefs of Hindu people. However, I have worked extensively with Hindus throughout the world, for nearly 20 years, serving as a Hindu priest and a teacher of the traditional, spiritual practice of Yoga. I believe that many Hindus I know would share in a general agreement with many of the sentiments of this article, even if they do not agree precisely with each point. Yoga is and always has been a profoundly spiritual practice which has its origins in the Hindu faith. It is a sacred and revered practice to Hindus and an integral part of their faith and culture.
Many Hindu immigrants in the West have faced major discrimination and persecution on account of their faith. It is not possible in most US cities for openly practicing Hindus, who wear the traditional bindu, tilakams or other religious insignia, to easily find employment. There are many documented cases of Hindus being teased, mocked, or attacked for their cultural and religious differences from the Christian majority. In many locales in America, it is not possible for Hindu organizations to get permits for Temples or Cultural Centers, despite laws that prohibit Cities and Counties from discrimination based upon faith. As a result, many Hindus in the West have stopped the practices which in India kept them connected to their culture and their faith. Even if these practice have not been abandoned altogether, they have been quieted and concealed by most for the sake of a safe and successful life in which they can support their families.
Yet some of the same practices, which earn Hindus scorn when practiced as a part of their religious customs, have been seen to increase the popularity and marketability of Hollywood stars and musicians. Westerners wearing a bindu on the forehead is one example, and practicing Yoga is another. For Westerners to lightheartedly adopt the same practices, which in their original spiritual context are prohibited by society at large for Hindus, adds insult to injury. It leaves Hindu immigrants with a bad experience of practicing their cultural and religious heritage while simultaneously devaluing it and transforming it into something much more vapid and mundane.
Even in India, Hindus have faced similar oppression and persecution for centuries by Buddhist, Christian and Muslim invaders. The Christian Rajas outlawed many Hindu practices and they even translated the Hindu scriptures into modern Indian languages with the intent of exposing the inferiority of Hindus customs and promoting their own Christian dogma. The harm of such efforts can not be underestimated as the history and the traditional beliefs and practices of Hinduism are not well understood, even in India, because people are still influenced by the translations of the Christian missionaries. Violent and deceptive means to convert Hindus to other faiths have been used for centuries and continue in India today. I have heard stories of Christian missionaries in India tricking school children into conversion by rigging a school bus engine to fail when triggered. When the bus failed, the children were urged to pray to their Hindu Gods to fix the bus. After these prayers went unanswered, the children were urged to pray to Jesus. Then the driver triggered the engine to start and the children were impressed by the apparent superiority of Jesus and asked to convert. In other cases, Christian organizations have gone to underdeveloped areas lacking modern medical facilities. Using major resources from the West, they build state of the art hospitals and offer affordable health care. When the local medical providers have been driven out of business, these hospitals begin refusing care to all non-Christians and in cases have forced patients to get tattoos of crosses to prove their Christian faith before administering treatments. These acts are nothing short of an atrocity. If people can convince others to convert to their religion by the merits of the religion itself, this is acceptable, but these deceptive and forceful tactics are unconscionable. Yet these practices are allowed by Hindus and the Indian Government in a perhaps misguided effort to practice non-violence and tolerance.
Ahimsa, or non-violence is extolled as supreme among virtues by Hinduism. This belief inspired a completely non-violent revolution as brave Hindus cast off the oppressive hand of British imperialism through non-violent protest. But it has also lead to Hindus accepting tyranny and oppression in certain cases. Hindus believe that all things are good, because the Lord dwells in all things. They strive to maintain peace and joy in adversity due to the faith that what befalls them is their karma which they must face. But Hindu people must make a conscious effort to stand strong for their faith and culture in positive and non-violent ways or the fate of the Sanatana (Hindu) Dharma, the oldest continuously practiced religion in the world, is uncertain. Western thought and modern science encourages Hindus to view their spiritual tradition as superstitious and silly, and many Hindus are losing faith. This is the modern climate for Hinduism throughout the world. Even if Western Yoga practitioners do not intend to cause harm or to diminish the beautiful spiritual customs of Hindus, when they extract what suits them from the Hindu spiritual tradition while leaving behind the spiritual essence, they are unknowingly reinforcing the efforts of the many Western missionaries, scholars, and rulers who have aimed to causes Hindus to disparage their own culture and religion.
To put this situation in perspective for Westerners, one has only to imagine an analogous possibility involving the Christian faith. If Christians were persecuted and their religious practices prohibited by society, but then a practice like Christian Communion was taken out of context and marketed by non-Christians as an exercise routine, this would obviously not be acceptable. I can imagine instructors saying “Stand, sit, kneel. Join the palms together. And repeat.” This may sound ridiculous, but this is exactly what Westerners have done with the Hindu spiritual practice of Yoga. To me, Yoga is an integral and sacred part of my Hindu religion. I have capitalized the word “Yoga” in every usage throughout this article, in the same way a Christian would Capitalize the name “Christ.” Yoga is not a mere exercise to help people lose weight or to feel better about their bodies. Nor is it a trend to be marketed for profit. Yoga is a spiritual practice revealed by the Holy Sages of my Hindu religion, and it is a tried and tested technique for direct communion with the Divine.
I am not at all opposed to Westerners practicing Yoga. The mystical science of Yoga was revealed by the Sages in India for the benefit of humanity. But people who practice Yoga should be aware of its origins, its purpose, and the depth of the practice. If a person uses the practices of Yoga to deepen their spiritual experience, this honors the tradition. But Yoga is not an exercise and the benefits of Yoga are much different than those of physical exercise. If a person is using the practices of Yoga for other purposes, they should not call it Yoga, in respect of the tradition that is held sacred by over a billion Hindus worldwide. Call it exercise. Call it aerobics. Call it Pilates. I would think this would not offend anyone. Most of the poses done in Yoga studios in the West were not even a part of traditional Yoga practice until the 20th century, and most of the poses and practices talked about in the Yoga scriptures are never practiced in Yoga studios. However, if practitioners of this modern exercise, which has drawn influences from traditional Yoga, want to continue using the borrowed Sanskrit name “Yoga,” they should delve deeper into the mystical and spiritual science of Yoga in the traditional ways. The world would be a better place for their sincere efforts.
1) Stripping Spirituality from the Practice of Yoga
Since the mystical, spiritual teachings of Yoga were first brought to the West in 1893 by His Holiness Swami Vivekananda, Yoga has become increasingly popular. Today, 36 million Americans practice Yoga. But as the popularity of Yoga has increased in the West, the practice has changed. Swami Vivekananda wrote several books in English on Yoga, but he, himself did not teach or practice Asanas (postures) beyond a few simple sitting poses for meditation. In modern Western Yoga classes, the poses are everything and meditation is an afterthought, if it is not omitted entirely. Yet meditation and its benefits are the goal of every other practice of Yoga. In many Western Yoga classes, spirituality is intentionally omitted in order to not offend or to entice a broader range of students to attend classes. Yoga teacher training programs do not go deeply into the spiritual aspects of the practice, and many Western Yoga teachers know very little about the origins and history of the practices, or their intended purpose. This has led to a very different idea of what Yoga is in the West. Everyone has heard of Yoga, but few understand its mystical purpose or that it is inextricably connected to the Hindu tradition from which it arose. I have even given teachings at Yoga studios that have later asked me “Can you speak less about Hinduism? We don’t agree with the Hindu beliefs or practices. Can’t you just leave out the spirituality? ...or if it must be included, could you teach about Yoga from the perspective of a nicer religion like Christianity or Buddhism?” Many Westerners want to strip spirituality from their Yoga practice. This is understandable, because it is hard work that requires a lot of faith and courage to face the inner karmas and mental patterns. But it is simply not possible to strip spirituality from Yoga practice, and for that practice to remain Yoga. The meaning of Yoga in Sanskrit is “Union,” and the goal of Yoga is to realize the Divine within, or to merge one’s awareness into the Divine source. Without this goal and experience, it is not right to call it Yoga.
2. Claiming Yoga is Not a Spiritual Practice
This one is perhaps the fault of many Eastern Yoga teachers who have claimed that the mystical practice of Yoga transcends any particular Religious tradition. In the East, Yoga is practiced by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, and the mystical practices and beliefs of Yoga are indeed similar to those of other mystical traditions (like the Gnostic Christians, Sufi Muslims, or Kabbalist Jews) . But these traditions all teach the practice of non-violence, and a belief in dharma (spiritual duty), karma (the importance of right action) and reincarnation as a basis for the practice. Many Westerners, have misunderstood the statements of Eastern Yoga teachers and taken them to mean that Yoga is a secular practice which is not spiritual or religious. The traditional scriptures on Yoga are deeply spiritual and inextricably based in Hinduism. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are often cited as a source for claims that Yoga is not a religious practice, but the text is widely misunderstood. Patanjali was a Shaiva Hindu, and he was sent by his Guru, Nandinathar, to South India to convert the people to Shaivism. He consecrated temples to Shiva in Tamil Nadu and his place of Samadhi (burial) is at a Shiva Temple.From the large number of Shaiva Hindus in this area today, it would seem that Patanjali’s mission had been quite successful. The Yoga Sutras clearly state that before a person begins the practice of Yoga, they must practice certain restraints and observances, including Ishwara Pranidhana. Pranidhana means puja (a Hindu worship ceremony) and Ishwara means Lord Shiva. It is not coincidental that Patanjali chose a name of Lord Shiva and not a non-sectarian name for the Lord, like Brahman. The Yoga Sutras were written to as a guidebook for those wanting to practice Pantajali's Shaiva Hindu religion. Though the practice of Yoga may not involve spirituality for many Westerners, it is not right to claim that Yoga is not a spiritual practice. For the Hindu people who religious tradition gifted the practices of Yoga to the world, Yoga is a revered practice and a fundamental sacrament of their religion.
3. Focusing Practice Mainly on the Physical Postures
Yoga is a tradition which teaches of eight successive practices: 1. Yama - Restraints 2. Niyama - Observances 3. Asana - Sitting Comfortably 4. Pranayama - Calming the Breath and Mind 5. Pratyahara - Withdrawing the Senses from External Stimuli 6. Dharana - Concentrating the Mind 7. Dhyana - Meditation and 8. Samadhi - Union with the Lord. Most Yoga classes in America consist almost entirely of the physical postures originally designed to enable a Yogi to sit comfortably for hours of meditation. The Yoga poses were not designed as an exercise routine, and they are not well suited to be used as such. If a person searches the word Yoga in a Google image search, they will mainly find photos of white women doing Yoga poses. What is worse is how most of the major Yoga organizations in the US describe the benefits of Yoga. The Yoga Alliance, which is the largest trade organization for Yoga professionals in America, lists the following benefits of Yoga on their website: Stress relief, pain relief, better breathing, flexibility, improved strength, weight management, improved circulation, presence, and inner peace. All of these benefits could be claimed of most any aerobic exercise, but the true benefits of Yoga are not listed at all. The physical postures are only one very small component of a much larger system of practices. Ultimately, the practice of Yoga is aimed at Moksha (liberation from the confines of the body, mind, matter, karma, and reincarnation) and Samadhi (experiencing union with the Divine). This is the highest purpose of Yoga practice, to which any other attainments are secondary. Yet the traditional Yoga scriptures list a broad range of mystical and spiritual experiences and powers that can arise from Yoga practice including: levitation, being in two places at one time, the ability to make oneself invisible, making oneself very small or very large, healing diseases at will, knowing the past and the future, knowing the thoughts and actions of others, seeing distant or hidden objects or people, the ability to see and communicate with deceased souls and spiritual beings, being able to move or manipulate matter at will, being able to leave the physical body and enter into the body of others, and being able to transform base metals to gold. These and many more are described as siddhis (mystical powers) that commonly arise from the practice of Yoga, yet none of these are listed by the big Western Yoga organizations. Though Hindus can be proud that Western culture has embraced their tradition of Yoga, it is disheartening to see that Westerners in general have refused to acknowledge the traditional spiritual benefits of the practice, and that the practice has been relegated in the West to the place of a secular exercise routine.
4. Practicing Yoga without Yama and Niyama
Traditional sources on Yoga emphasize the importance of practicing certain restraints (Yama) and observances (Niyama) before any of the other practices of Yoga are attempted. The requisite practices of Yama and Niyama are considered critical before the practice of Yoga can begin. These practices are addressed in depth in the traditional Yoga scriptures, but little attention is given to the practice of Asana (postures). For example, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali has 16 verses elaborating upon the fundamental practices of Yama and Niyama, but only one line describing Asana. All that Patanjali says about Asana is, “Sit still in a comfortable position.” It is clear from these texts that Asana practice had very little importance in traditional Yoga. But Western practitioners of Yoga seem to usually omit the important practices of Yama and Niyama and skip to subsequent practice of Asana. The practice of Yama and Niyama is essential to prepare a seeker for the experience which the later practices of Yoga induce. As the process of Yoga begins to reveal the vasanas (karmic imprints) of the mind, it is quite likely that the intensity of thoughts and feelings which begin to purge from the subconscious mind would become overwhelming unless a seeker has been prepared by the dedicated practice of Yama and Niyama. They build the character and experiential knowledge of the process of consciousness going within, which is necessary for a person to have success in the practice of Yoga. The renowned Yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar said “The practice of Asana without the backing of Yama and Niyama is mere acrobatics.” I would go beyond this to say that a person whose practice of Yama and Niyama is advanced is a great Yogi, whether or not they observe any of the other practices of Yoga. A person who claims to be practicing Yoga should sincerely evaluate themselves as to whether or not they are observing these most basic Yoga practices, and they should strive each day to implement them more and more into their lives. The 10 Yamas and Niyamas listed by the traditional texts on Yoga are (Patanjali’s list has only 5 of each):
1. Ahimsa - Non-violence in thought, word, and deed. This principle restraint of Yoga is the reason that Yogis traditionally observe a strict vegetarian diet.
2. Satya - Truthfulness
3. Asteya - Not stealing or taking credit for the works of others
4. Brahmacharya - Celibacy for the unwed and marital fidelity for the married
5. Aparigraha - Non-possessiveness / Renunciation of property
6. Kshama - Forgiveness
7. Dhriti - Fortitude and Steadfastness
8. Dhaya - Compassion
9. Arjava - Sincerity and Straightforwardness
10. Mitahara - Moderate appetite
1. Tapas - Practicing austerities like fasting, wearing robes (or plain, unfashionable clothes), sleeping on a hard floor, remaining awake for extended periods, practicing silence, etc.
2. Santosha - Contentment
3. Astikya - Maintaining faith in God, Guru and Scriptures
4. Dana - Charity, Donation
5. Ishvarapujana - Worship of Lord Shiva through the 16 traditional daily offerings
6. Siddhanta Shravana - Listening to recitation of sacred Hymns
7. Hri - Remorse
8. Mati - Mindfulness
9. Japa - Repetition of Mantras
10. Vrata - Observing Holy days, pilgrimages and sacred vows.
5. Practicing Yoga without a Guru
Traditionally, no serious student of Yoga would ever attempt practice without the instruction and initiation of a Guru. Practicing Yoga without a Guru is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. Traditional wisdom warns that without guidance and the energetic support of a living Guru, the practices of Raja Yoga designed to awaken Kundalini will lead a person to the asylum, hospital, or cemetary. The point is emphasized by all the traditional scriptures on Yoga. Yogic philosophy teaches that it is the nature of the ahamkara (ego) to be bound and to bind itself further by its very nature, but that it is the nature of a realized Guru to free the soul from maya (delusion) and karma (actions done out of this delusion). By Guru, what is meant is a realized master, who is uniquely qualified to lead souls to liberation by his (or her) own practice which has lead to a direct experience of the Divine. This does not mean a Yoga teacher who has had 200 hours of training, but someone who has humbled themselves before their own master and dedicated their life to the practice of Yoga through years of effort. Patanjali says in verse 1.26 of the Yoga sutras that before a person begins the practice of Yoga, they must find a Guru who has realized God. He goes on to suggest that a person who has not yet found their Guru can attract the Guru to them by practicing the mantra, “om.” Though all the texts on Yoga emphasize the necessity of a living Guru, certain modern schools of Yoga claim that realization is possible without a Guru. These schools of thought are founded on egoism and they expose a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the soul and maya. The Lord reveals himself to sincere seekers through the efforts of the enlightened masters, yet for those who are too egotistical to bow at the feet of a master, realization waits until the soul can mature through the self-centered delusion that the ego can free itself from suffering. It is not always easy to work with a master, because the presence of the master will bring up unresolved karmas and emotions for the seeker to process. But without the blessing of a master, the process of Yoga cannot really begin. It is hard to understand the grace of a master for those who have not experienced it. Hidden doors are opened in the presence of the Guru and things that were not possible despite the best efforts of the seeker become effortless. Should any serious student of Yoga seek a master? Yes. Absolutely. Anyone who is sincere in their practice must admit that grace comes from beyond the veil of maya and the binding force of the ego. There are numerous traditional Gurus teaching various forms of Yoga, and many are traveling the world each year. It is not necessary to go to India to find one’s master. It is only necessary to prepare oneself and to attune oneself to the energy of their master. If a person has not yet found their Guru, they can prepare themselves by practicing the Yamas and Niyamas and follow the traditional suggestion of Patanjali. They can chant “om” and pray to Lord Ganesh, who is said to be embodied by the mantra om to prepare them for their Guru. When a person attempts the practice of Yoga without the guidance of a Guru, they are not only devaluing themselves and their own practice, but also the system of Yoga. When seeking to learn a skill like playing piano, people generally seek an accomplished teacher. But it is relatively easy to learn to play a piano concerto. Most good students could do so within a few years of practice. Realizing the Divine Self is quite difficult, and requires many years of disciplined effort. It is the highest accomplishment possible for embodied souls and the ultimate purpose of human incarnation. People should not take the practice lightly nor should they belittle it by acting as if they do not require the assistance of a qualified teacher.