‘Owning’ yoga

How ‘Hindu’ is this modern version?

Yoga is to North America what McDonalds is to India: both are foreign implants gone native. Today, anywhere in the US, you are bound to run into neighbourhood health clubs, spas and even churches and synagogues offering yoga classes. Some 16 million Americans do some form of yoga, primarily as a part of their exercise and fitness routine. Thus, when everyday Americans talk about yoga, they mostly mean physical, or hatha yoga, involving stretches, breathing and bodily postures, or asanas. Many styles of postural yoga pioneered by India-origin teachers are thriving, including the Iyengar and Sivananada schools, the Ashtanga Vinyasa or 'power yoga' of Pattabhi Jois, and 'hot yoga' recently copyrighted by Bikram Chaudhary. The more meditational forms of yoga popularised by the disciples of Vivekananda, Sivananda and others are less popular. Americans' preference for postural over meditational yoga is not all that unique: In India, too, hundreds of millions follow Baba Ramdev, who teaches a purely medicalised, asana-oriented yoga.

By and large, the US yoga industry does not hide the origins of what it teaches. On the contrary, in a country that is so young and so constantly in flux, yoga's presumed antiquity ('5000-year-old exercise system', etc.) and its connections with Eastern spirituality have become part of the sales pitch. Thus, doing namastes, intoning 'om' and chanting Sanskrit mantras have become a part of the experience of doing yoga in America. Many yoga studios use Indian classical or kirtan music, incense, signs of om and other paraphernalia of the Subcontinent to create a suitably 'spiritual' ambience. Iyengar yoga schools begin their sessions with a hymn to Patanjali, the second-century composer of the Yoga Sutras, and some have even installed his murthis. This Hinduisation is not entirely decorative, either, as yoga instructors are required to study Hindu philosophy and scripture in order to get a license to teach yoga.

One would think that yoga's immense popularity and Hinduisation would gladden the hearts of Hindu immigrants to the US. But in fact, the leading Hindu advocacy organisation in the US, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), is not swelling with pride. On the contrary, it has recently accused the American yoga industry of 'stealing' yoga from Hinduism. Millions of Americans will be shocked to learn that they are committing 'intellectual property theft' whenever they do an asana, because they do not acknowledge their debt to 'yoga's mother tradition'. HAF's co-founder and chief spokesperson, Aseem Shukla, is now exhorting his fellow Hindus to 'take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage.'

The take-back-yoga campaigners are not impressed with the growing visibility of Hindu symbols and rituals in yoga and other cultural institutions in the US. They still find Hindu-phobia lurking everywhere they look. They want Americans to think of yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the great Vedas when they think of Hinduism, instead of the old stereotypes of caste, cows and curry. They would rather that, to paraphrase Shukla, Hinduism is linked less with 'holy cows than Gomukhasana,' a reference to a particularly arduous asana; less with the 'colourful and harrowing wandering sadhus' than with 'the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali'. It seems that this yoga-reclamation campaign is less about yoga and more about the Indian diaspora's strange mix of defensiveness, combined with an exaggerated sense of the excellence of the elite, Sanskritic, aspects of Hindu religion and culture.

The 'who owns yoga' debate gained worldwide attention in late November, when the New York Times carried a front-page feature on the issue. But the dispute started earlier this year, with a battle of blogs hosted online by the Washington Post between HAF's Shukla and the New Age guru, Deepak Chopra. Shukla complained of the yoga establishment shunning the 'H-word' while making its fortunes out of Hindu ideas and practices. Chopra, who shuns the Hindu label, instead describing himself as an 'Advaita Vedantist', declared that Hinduism had no patent on yoga. He argued that yoga existed in 'consciousness and consciousness alone' much before Hinduism, just like wine and bread existed before Jesus Christ's Last Supper, implying that Hindus had as much claim over yoga as Christians had over bread and wine. Shukla called Chopra a 'philosophical profiteer' who did not honour his Hindu heritage, while Chopra accused Shukla and his foundation of Hindu-fundamentalist bias.

Neither eternal nor Vedic
This 'debate' is really about two equally fundamentalist views of Hindu history. The underlying objective is to draw an unbroken line connecting the 21st-century yogic postures with the nearly 2000-year-old Yoga Sutras, and tie both to the supposedly 5000-year-old Vedas. The only difference is that, for Chopra, yoga existed before Hinduism, while Shukla and HAF want to claim the entire five millennia for the glory of Hinduism. For Chopra, yoga is a part of a 'timeless Eastern wisdom', while for HAF, 'Yoga and Vedas are synonymous, and are as eternal as they are contemporaneous.'

The reality is that yoga as we know it is neither 'eternal' nor synonymous with the Vedas or the Yoga Sutras. On the contrary, modern yoga was born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a child of the Hindu Renaissance and Indian nationalism in which Western ideas about science, evolution, eugenics, health and physical fitness played as crucial a role as the 'mother tradition'. In the massive, multi-level hybridisation that took place during this period, the spiritual aspects of yoga and tantra were rationalised, largely along the Theosophical ideas of 'spiritual science' introduced into India by the US-origin, India-based Theosophical Society, and internalised by Swami Vivekananda, who led the yoga renaissance.

In turn, the physical aspects of yoga were hybridised with drills, gymnastics and body-building techniques introduced from Sweden, Denmark, England and other Western countries. These innovations were creatively grafted on the Yoga Sutras – which has been correctly described by Agehananda Bharati, the Austria-born Hindu monk-mystic, as 'the yoga canon for people who have accepted Brahmin theology' – to create an impression of 5000 years worth of continuity where none really exists. HAF's current insistence is thus part of a false-advertising campaign that has been going on for much of the 20th century.

Contrary to widespread impressions, the vast majority of asanas taught by modern yoga gurus are nowhere described in the ancient texts. The highly ritualistic, yagna-oriented Vedas have nothing to say about Patanjali's quest for experiencing pure consciousness. Indeed, out of the 195 sutras that make up the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali devotes barely three short sutras to asanas. The Mahabharata mentions asanas only twice out of 900 references to yoga, and the Bhagvat Gita does not mention them at all.

There are, of course asana-centred, hatha-yoga texts. But they were authored by precisely those matted-haired, ash-smeared 'harrowing' sadhus that the HAF wants to banish from the Western imagination. Indeed, if any Hindu tradition can at all claim a patent on postural yoga, it is these caste-defying, ganja-smoking, sexually permissive, Shiva- and shakti-worshipping sorcerers, alchemists and Tantriks who were cowherds, potters and such. They undertook arduous physical austerities not because they sought to transcend the material world, but because they wanted magical powers (siddhis) to control their bodies and the rest of the material world.

Krishnamacharya lynchpin
The problem for historians of modern yoga is that even these medieval hatha-yoga texts describe only a small fraction of modern yogic postures taught today – Iyengar's Light on Yoga alone teaches 200 asanas. The 14th-century Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists only 15 asanas, as do the 17th-century Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita.

Given that there is so little ancient tradition upon which to stand, unverifiable claims of ancient-but-now-lost texts have been promoted. The Ashtanga Vinyasa system of Pattabhi Jois, for example, is allegedly based on a palm-leaf manuscript called the Yoga Kurunta that Jois's teacher, renowned yoga master T Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), unearthed in a Calcutta library. But this manuscript has reportedly been eaten by ants, and today not even a copy of it exists. Another 'ancient' text, the Yoga Rahasya – which no one has been able to trace either – was supposedly dictated to Krishnamacharya in a trance by the ghost of an ancestor who had been dead nearly a millennium. Such are the grounds on which rest Hinduism's intellectual property rights to yoga.

Furthermore, new research has brought to light intriguing historical documents and oral histories that raise serious doubts about the 'ancient' lineage of Ashatanga Vinyasa of Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar yoga. Both Jois and Iyengar learned yoga from Krishnamacharya during the late 1930s, when he directed a yogasala in a wing of the Jaganmohan palace of the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV (1884-1940). The maharaja was also a great cultural innovator, welcoming positive innovations from the West and incorporating them into his social programmes. Promoting physical education was one of his passions, and under his rein Mysore became the hub of a revival of physical culture for the whole country. He hired Krishnamacharya primarily to teach yoga to the young princes of the royal family, but also funded him and his protégés to travel throughout the Subcontinent giving yoga demonstrations. In turn, this encouraged an enormous popular revival of yoga.

Indeed, Mysore's royal family had a long-standing interest in hatha yoga. An ancestor of the maharaja, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (1799-1868) is credited with composing an exquisitely illustrated manual, titled Sritattvanidhi, discovered by a Swedish yoga student named Norman Sjoman only during the mid-1980s. Both Sjoman and Mark Singleton, a US-based scholar who has interviewed many of those associated with the Mysore Palace during its 1930s heyday, believe that the seeds of modern yoga lie in the innovative style of the Sritattvanidhi. Krishnamacharya was familiar with this text, and carried on the innovation by adding a variety of Western gymnastics and drills to the routines. Interestingly, Sjoman has excerpted the Western gymnastics manual that was available to Krishnamacharya – much of which, he claims, found its way into Krishnamacharya's teachings. Further, Singleton argues that at least 28 exercises included in a Danish manual popular at the time were 'strikingly similar (often identical)' to yoga postures popularised by Jois and Iyengar's Light on Yoga. Again, the link was Krishnamacharya.

Today, the shrill claims from HAF about Westerners 'stealing' yoga cover up the tremendous amount of cross-breeding and hybridisation that has given birth to yoga as we know it. Indeed, contemporary yoga is a unique example of a truly global innovation, in which Eastern and Western practices merged to produce something that is valued and cherished around the world. Whether ancient, medieval or modern, Hinduism has no special claims on yoga. To pretend otherwise is not only churlish, but simply untrue.

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