Sports  Stretching the meaning of yoga

On Western appropriation and maintaining yoga's spiritual roots

From Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling novel, Eat, Pray, Love, to the newer (and slightly more cynical) Poser by Claire Dederer, it seems like everyone’s got something to say about their personal experience with yoga. Increasingly used as a form of aerobic exercise interchangeable with Pilates or jazzercise, today’s conception of yoga has traveled far from its roots. The more yoga becomes a part of Western culture, the more it takes on a commercialized form.

B.K.S Iyengar’s informative Light on Yoga explains the etymology of this ancient tradition. “The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to bind, join, attach, and yoke – to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply. It also means union or communion.” Its origins are contentious, but many agree that the first recorded description of yoga dates back to the sacred Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad Gita, written between the fifth and second centuries B.C. However, yoga isn’t normally conceptualized this way in western culture. Yoga isn’t alone – many different Hindu traditions have also been detached from their original religious roots, including meditation, cremation, and beliefs such as karma and reincarnation.

As a result, the Hindu American Foundation recently felt compelled to start a campaign, called the Take Back Yoga project. Given that yoga is so entrenched in Hindu tradition, the group encourages yogis (people that practice yoga) to become educated on its underlying history.

This concern has been exacerbated by the corporatization of yoga. Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram’s Yoga College of India, is one of the more famous cases of commercialization. Many call Bikram Yoga the “original hot yoga.” An article in Yoga Journal by James Greenberg explains how Choudhury “has copyrighted and trademarked everything from his name to the verbatim dialogue that accompanies the teaching of his classes.” Before Choudhury, Greenberg explains, “no one had ever tried to copyright a specific sequence of yoga poses.”

Choudhury seems to feel that, even though none of the poses are actually his own creation, he still has a right to trademark the sequences. “It’s become the Bikram system, but there’s no such thing as Bikram Yoga; yoga is yoga, yoga is hatha yoga,” said Choudhury. “It’s not anybody’s property; it’s like God, it’s love, it’s nature. But anybody picks up a few postures in a sequence and makes it a book, it’s a copyright, so somebody copies my book, I sue them.”

Following Choudhury, many others have trademarked, copyrighted, and patented their forms of yoga, classes, and phrases. David Life, cofounder of Jivamukti Yoga, has also trademarked the Jivamukti name. Because of this, there are many different names (and brands) of yoga today. Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram, Moksha, Hot Yin, and even Power yoga are all recognized disciplines. Jessica Robertson and Ted Grand started Canada’s Moksha Yoga in 2004, and the first three studios were opened in Toronto.

On the CBC radio show Q with Jian Ghomeshi, John Philp, author of Yoga Inc, debated with Ted Grand about the commercialization of yoga. Philp’s concern was that those practicing yoga today are more interested in “trying to look good naked” than in attaining enlightenment. Grand explains, however, that Moksha brings yoga “through the filter of a consumer society.” He doesn’t care if people come in “for a tight butt” or “to look better naked…our goal is to try and create more peace with people.”

But narrowing the practice of yoga into either entirely shallow or completely spiritual is a gross oversimplification. It’s hard to take the time to attempt communion with the divine when you have papers to write and midterms to take, but both aspects can be equally appealing. In order to aid those who seek both, Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison wrote an instructional and reflective guide called Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga. Like many yoga guides, it is filled with cheesy (and sometimes trite) quotes like, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” (Hopi elder), “The first step in this process of mindful awareness is radical self-acceptance” (Stephen Batchelor),  “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult” (Seneca), or my personal favourite “I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul” (Cat Stevens).

Many people don’t realize that you can embrace the spiritual nature of yoga, meditate and learn from it, and still find these kinds of quotes trite. It doesn’t have to be one or the other – it can be exercise and religion. And ultimately, everyone should define their own practice of yoga.