Yoga has recently gained great popularity in the West, but along with this have come many instances of misappropriation of the ancient Hindu spiritual practice. The single greatest example of this is arguably the multi-million dollar industry of Western "Yoga apparel." This article shares my perspective about this as a Hindu priest and teacher of traditional Yoga. For me Yoga is not a fashion or an exercise. It is an integral part of my spiritual practice which I regard as sacred. For me, and over a billion Hindus world wide, Yoga is a part of our Religion and it is a mystical practice revealed by our Sages for connecting with the Divine. The contents of this article draw from the spiritual tradition of my Guru and may or may not reflect the thoughts or opinions of other sects or denominations of Hinduism. Though I can not speak for other Hindus, I personally am very happy to see Yoga becoming so popular in the West, but I am concerned that it is changing as it is integrated into Western culture in ways that diminish the potency of the spiritual practice and which are disrespectful and harmful to the Hindu culture which brought Yoga to the world. Especially in the West, Hindus face a certain amount of discrimination and abuse as a minority group. The misappropriation of Yoga contributes to a misunderstanding of Hinduism which is in part responsible for discrimination against Hindu people. I feel it is important as Yoga spreads in the West and inevitably changes its form to suit Western culture, that Western Yoga practitioners learn about the cultural roots and the traditional practices of Yoga so that it is possible to practice Yoga in a way that honors the Indian people and culture which gave birth to the practice.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest trends in fashion in America today are so-called “Yoga pants.” But have the many people who wear them ever paused to consider if these garments have anything to do with Yoga? As a teacher of traditional Yoga, I can hardly imagine any article of clothing less suitable for the practice of Yoga. In India, where Yoga originated, there is not a multi-million dollar industry around the sale of Yoga attire. People simply wear what clothes they have to practice Yoga. Yet if recommendations for clothing are given in Yoga classes, Indian teachers traditionally suggest to favor comfortable, loose-fitting, light-colored, modest clothing. Yoga practice, pranayama, and meditation encourage the deepening of prana (breath / energy / life-force). As Yoga practice deepens, the pranas deepen and spread into the subtle channels and circulate more completely throughout the body. This process is obstructed by tight, constrictive clothing. Many Yoga postures require flexibility. But flexibility is also hindered by tight clothing, no matter how elastic the fabric. A much more ideal suggestion for Westerners practicing Yoga would be loose, comfortable, white-colored sweatpants.
Yoga is a traditionally a silent and introspective practice. “Yoga pants” are a distraction from the inward process of Yoga. Before attempting meditation, Yoga recommends practices of pratyahara (withdrawing the senses from the body and turning them within). Form-fitting apparel is extremely revealing. It encourages oneself and others to focus outwardly on the form of the physical body. But the aim of Yoga is to redirecting awareness from the body and mind, toward the subtle perception of the Soul, which is at one with all of creation. Gradually, practitioners of Yoga learn in meditation to limit awareness of the senses of the body and thoughts and feeling in the mind as awareness expands to experience of the Divinity latent in all things. One common obstacle to this process in public Yoga classes is the natural competitive nature of the mind. Revealing clothing in particular draws awareness to the physical body and encourages students’ tendencies to compare themselves with others, which is a great hindrance to the inner practice of Yoga.
Revealing clothing are also inappropriate for Yoga practice because they disregard the Yamas and Niyamas, and Brahmacharya (celibacy for the unmarried or marital fidelity) and Hri (modesty) in particular. Traditional Yoga emphasizes the necessity of practicing certain Yamas (restraints) and Niyamas (observances) before postures, breathing exercises, meditations, or any other techniques of Yoga be attempted. Without these preliminary disciplines, it is said that the practice of Yoga will confer negligible benefits. Many Westerners now view Yoga as a mere physical exercise, which strengthens and tones the body and calms the mind. They have little to no awareness of the traditional application of Yoga, or the true potential of the practice. Yet they take certain aspects of the practice which appeal to their Western sensibilities, removed from their original context, to be applied toward the desires of their egos, though the aim of traditional Yoga is to subjugate egoism. This is disrespectful to the more than 1 billion Hindus, for whom Yoga is an integral part of their spiritual tradition, whether they practice Yoga or not.
Much of Western culture seems to advocate admiration of the opposite sex, flirting, dating, and seeking multiple sexual partners in one’s lifetime. Traditional Yoga and Hinduism advise against these practices, advocating the ideals of abstinence for the unmarried or undivided focus of one’s sexual energy upon one partner through the sacred institution of marriage. Yoga is a profoundly mystical practice which teaches that energy which would otherwise feed a person’s spiritual practice can be dissipated through excessive sexual activity or many sexual relationships. When a sensual connection is made with another person, the auras of the couple are connected by an energetic cord which connects the karmas of the couple and through which thoughts, feelings, and energies are sent to one another. Such cords and the energies they facilitate the exchange of are typically very difficult to remove for many years after the physical encounter. One partner may wake up in the morning feeling angry for no apparent reason, until they realize they are noticing the feelings of their past partner, though that partner may be distant. These type of relationships create many karmic bonds also. A person becomes entangled in the karmas of each partner and this can create barriers to health, happiness, and prosperity. A person will tend to become affected by the astrology of each person they open an energetic channel to through physical intimacy. This situation often has detrimental results. Such relationships also tend to detract from the intimate connection which can be achieved in a marriage to one partner. Yoga practices are designed to help release karma and to lessen the thoughts and feelings that burden the mind. Such sensual encounters open a person to many other attachments, thoughts and feelings which must be sorted out through additional practice, possibly in future lifetimes. Marriage on the other hand tends to assist in the spiritual practice of the couple, because both partners are challenged to grow by the difficulties of living together. As they compromise to make the relationship work, true spiritual love deepens, and the karmas of each partner are released.
To understand how this relates to “Yoga pants,” we must examine the practice of Hri, or modesty, which is also considered one of the fundamental practices of Yoga. Hri can mean being humble and moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities. It also means dressing in unrevealing clothing and carrying oneself in a manner to avoid the attraction of sexual attention. Men and women in Western society often interact through the lower chakras. Yoga discourages these needless physical and energetic bonds which hinder the process of Yoga. When a person looks at the body of another with desire, they send energy to the aura which can lead to blockages in the flow of prana capable of causing physical and mental health problems. This energetic exchange is known as drishti in Sanskrit, and it implies harmful energies sent to another through glance along with negative emotions (like anger or desire).
People in the West are not very aware of subtle energies or the effect they have on them. People in India meditate much more often and have gained more subtle awareness about such things, and people in India interact differently. Men and women traditionally limit interaction with members of the opposite sex to what is absolutely necessary. They do not extend conversations; do not look at one another in the eyes; and they never touch. Unmarried men and women would certainly never be alone with one another. These traditions may seem prudish to Westerners, but they help protect young people from needless energetic and karmic bonds with others and they help to ensure that deep bonds are possible which lead to lasting marriages. They also ensure that people in search of an experience of the infinite do not wind up binding their consciousness in myriad ways to the transient physical body.
It is traditional in India for men and women to wear loose-fitting clothing which covers the legs to the ankles. This modest dress is required especially in Temples, Ashrams, and Yoga school in India. Form-fitting or revealing clothing like “Yoga pants” are absolutely prohibited in these sacred places. “Yoga pants” are perhaps the most revealing article of clothing commonly worn in the West, and currently many American schools have banned “Yoga pants” and certain locales have even proposed banning the wearing of “Yoga pants” in public. They tend to encourage men and women to think sexual thoughts, because they are very revealing of the genitalia. Some may try to deny this, but the American Society for Aesthetic Surgery has reported a dramatic recent increase in the number of women receiving labiaplasty, which is linked to a desire to look a certain way when wearing “Yoga pants." Such excessively revealing clothing necessarily leads to sexual thoughts and the exchange of sexual energy. When a person wears “Yoga pants” in the presence of other people, this forces those people to see their genitalia, and this certainly tends to cause other people to think about them and interact with them in a sexual way. It is said that “sex sells,” and the media is inundated with sexual images and suggestions. As a result, nearly every interpersonal exchange in the West is charged with some amount of sexual energy, and “Yoga pants” tend to increase this trend. Perhaps the most accomplished Yogis could look at the human genitalia without having sexual thoughts or being aroused, but it is simply not realistic to expect this level of self-control of every practitioner of Yoga, and certainly not of common people on the streets. Until the instinctive nature of the mind and body has been transmuted through a disciplined and dedicated practice of Yoga, such garments present a needless distraction and obstacle to practice.
It is not necessary for interactions between men and women to be so sexualized. It is quite common for men and women in the West to interact with one another through the lower chakras which resonate with lust and desire. Many relationships in the West are based upon lust without regard for the other person involved. It is possible also for people to connect with true love, with compassion, forethought, and sensitivity to the needs and desires of another. Yoga encourages people to connect through the higher chakras, which adore every other person with equal love and respect and which do not harbor selfish expectations or desires. Yoga philosophy does not see anything wrong with sexuality. Its recommendations have been given by the great Yogis without judgement for the purpose of reducing human suffering and helping to lead human consciousness away from the gross material realm and toward the subtler planes of consciousness within.
If people truly want to wear “Yoga pants,” I feel they should do so with awareness of the attention it attracts to them. I would ask such people to please not feel slighted if I decline to shower them with such attention. I am striving humbly to interact with people from a place of selfless service, love, respect, and acceptance; and to strive to reserve my lust and desire for my Divine Beloved. This is simply the way I choose to conduct myself, which is my right. I do not ask you to understand, approve of or to assist with my practice. But I do what pleases me, even as you do. I have experienced greater bliss in the awareness of the Divine which permeates all things in the Universe than I have found in any limited or temporary pleasure in this world. As a practitioner of Yoga, I strive each day to dedicate myself more and more each day to the vision of the Divine Light which shines in all things, and I honor the tradition of Yoga which has enabled my experience of this by teaching the profoundly mystical wisdom which it expounds.
“Yoga pants” are generally regarded as obscene, inappropriate, and unsightly in India, and are avoided by most. Women from the West are advised by authorities in India that they should not wear such clothing in India to avoid sexual harassment or assault. In cases when tight leggings are worn by Indians, they are typically accompanied by an extra long top that covers the legs to the knees. A few large Indian cities are beginning to embrace Western fashions and culture, and some Indians are beginning to wear Western style “Yoga pants.” But even the few people who wear them, would never consider wearing these to a Temple or Ashram where Yoga is taught. Would a Western woman wear "Yogas pants" to her own wedding? Probably not, because she wants to look her best. But Yoga is even more special and intimate than a wedding. It is the spiritual process of uniting oneself with the Divine Creator. People tend to wear their Sunday best when they go to church, not their exercise clothes. The same is true in India for the spiritual practice of Yoga. People wear their best new (or clean) Sari or Dhoti when they do practices designed to help them approach their beloved God or Goddess. “Yoga pants” are an outrage and an insult to the values and culture of traditional Yoga and Hinduism. But such garments have been named as “Yogas pants” in a perversion of the bona fide spiritual tradition, in order to mass-market a product which takes advantage of the tendency of West society sexualize women for the gratification of men. This is blatantly disrespectful to the ancient spiritual tradition of Yoga and the many thousands of Hindu people who practice Yoga daily as a means of seeking connection to the divine.
It is my humble opinion as a Hindu Priest and a Teacher of Traditional Yoga that, in respect for the spiritual science of Yoga and the great Hindu culture which gave it birth, those who practice Yoga in the West should absolutely stop wearing “Yoga pants.” They are inappropriate for a practitioner of Yoga both when doing their Yoga practice and when living their lives in the world. The practice of Yoga is not limited to a Yoga mat. It permeates every aspect of the practitioner’s life, as life presents many opportunity to deepen the practice. For people who are not practicing Yoga, I am no expert on Western culture or what people should or should not do or wear, so I am not really qualified to comment. Though I can admit it would make my Yoga practice easier if I was not forced to see people wearing Yoga pants every time I leave my home. Not everyone is seeking spiritual awareness. People are seeking many different things in this world, and I am not in a position to be able to comment on what attire best suits the purposes of all people. As a teacher of Yoga, I would say, however, that those who chose to wear these leggings should definitely not call them “Yoga pants.” They have nothing to do with Yoga and to call them such is misleading about the spiritual practice and potentially insulting to true Yoga practitioners and Hindus. We as Yoga practitioners should absolutely boycott any company or facility marketing such clothing as “Yoga apparel.” There is much misunderstanding about Hinduism and Yoga in the West and we should hold companies and organizations responsible for perpetuating such misunderstandings accountable for their actions by denying them our business. Western Yoga teachers and Yoga schools should absolutely prohibit wearing “Yoga pants” in their Yoga classes. What if pants with a revealing opening around the crotch were marketed as “Christian Communion Pants?” Westerners would not disrespect Christianity in this way, so we as Yoga teachers and Yoga practitioner should think about the effect of this name. Call them “leggings,” call them “tights,” call them “work-out pants,” but please do not name them for the sacred tradition of our beloved Sages who have attained enlightenment and revealed for the benefit of humanity the system of Yoga for transcending the body and mind.