Modern Yoga and the Yoga Tradition

“Our yoga is not a retreading of old walks, but a spiritual adventure.”

– Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), extract from letter to disciple (date unknown)

As an American who’s profoundly opposed to the about-to-be installed Trump Administration (Inauguration Day is tomorrow), I’ve been finding it difficult to sleep soundly since late October, when I felt the political winds shift sharply in his direction.

I’ve always been a light sleeper. But now, if something wakes me up at night, I often have a really hard time getting back to sleep. I’m flooded with deep feelings of unease. My mind flits from one anxiety to the next.

To get back to sleep, I often have to turn the light on and read something to help shift my psyche into a new gear. Lately, that’s been Peter Heehs’ Indian Religions: A Sourcebook of Spiritual Expression and Experience. That’s where I found the above quote from Aurobindo, reading his philosophy of Integral Yoga in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, during the daytime hours, amongst my obsessive following of the political news I’ve noticed a small but steady stream of social media posts from some of my favorite yoga colleagues discussing just how deeply they’re questioning their relationship to the yoga tradition.

While coming to different conclusions, the common thread is that the terms “yoga” and “yoga tradition” have come to carry so much unwanted cultural baggage that they need to reflect seriously on whether they want to continue to use them or not.

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Diane Bruni confesses that “in my heart, it’s all yoga.” Nonetheless, the “narrow meaning” of the “mainstream definition of yoga” has caused her to redefine herself as a “movement educator,” rather than a “yoga teacher.” Meanwhile, Matthew Remski suggests “that Yogaland stops using the word “tradition” altogether, or at least qualifies it by an order of separation”:

Have people been practicing the techniques of Iyengar, Jois, Desai, Krishnamacharya/Desikachar-in-Chennai for long enough to merit the status of “tradition”? Is forty years enough? I doubt it . . . So how do we get more accurate in our language? How do we make sure that the word “tradition” is not merely a way of bolstering a fragile sense of internal authority, or a marketplace validation device? Maybe use the word “version”? Iyengar’s version of yoga, Jois’ version of yoga, Desai’s version of yoga. Each with their antecedents that may or may not pass whatever test of “tradition” demands more than 40 years and a couple of photographs on the wall.

J. Brown reports that he knows a number of long-term yoga teachers who decided “to stop referring to what they teach as yoga,” and that he understands why (the commercialism, mass market demand for a stretchy workout, etc.). Nonetheless, that’s not where he himself lands:

I know what yoga means to me, based on my personal practice, study, and the discernment of my experience . . . I consider yoga to be a multigenerational and multicultural thread that reaches back into the dim mystical past and runs through humanity, from the earliest of ancient wisdom cultures to the civilizations of today. There is power and magic in this and I will continue to call it by the name imparted to me, yoga.

I don’t think that there’s a “right” or “wrong” side in this discussion. And, I suspect that all involved would agree. Each of these perspectives (and others besides) make sense to me. What’s important about them is that they challenge me to reflect on my own understandings, and sharpen them.

 

Reason vs. Experience

Upon reflection, I feel that my deeper psyche draws me towards the same place as J: that is, to the feeling that I practice yoga, and that in so doing, I’m part of the yoga tradition.

This feeling isn’t derived from weighing the evidence of what yoga today is or is not. Rather, it’s based on such basic facts of my life as being drawn to read Aurobindo in the middle of the night when I’m too anxious to get back to sleep.

It’s based on my felt necessity to return to my mat day after day in order to remain more or less OK and at ease in my body, mind, and spirit. It’s based on the pull of recognition I’ve felt when connecting with various aspects of the historic yoga tradition – reading the Gita, practicing Pranayama, reflecting on the profound import of “stilling the fluctuations of the mind.”

For me, the best way to answer the question of how I personally connect to yoga and the yoga tradition is to be honest about my own experience. And that means saying that yes, despite the many quite reasonable issues that could and in fact should be raised around the use of the term “yoga tradition,” I do feel connected to it. 

 

A “Yoga Traditionalist”?

Given this realization, I found myself wondering whether I could possibly describe myself as a “yoga traditionalist.” Given that this is a term that I’ve never identified with at all (quite the contrary) this has felt like an odd, even absurd question to consider.

Still, at a time when some exceptionally thoughtful yoga teachers are choosing to distance themselves from yoga and the yoga tradition, and I find myself drawn in the other direction, it’s a question that I needed to ask.

With some reflection, I found that it wasn’t hard for me to answer. Given the valence of the term “yoga traditionalist,” I’m no more of one now than I ever was – which is to say, not at all.

One might ask: Isn’t this contradictory? How can I feel connected to the yoga tradition, yet not identify as a yoga traditionalist? Isn’t that illogical, even nonsensical?

I think not. This is because in my experience, the status of “yoga traditionalist” has been reserved for those who believe that they’re participating in a practice that hasn’t been significantly impacted (if not corrupted) by modernity. Although not always explicitly stated, I’ve only seen that term being used by those who convey a sense of being heir to a singular, unchanging essence of yoga that has clear, unambiguous boundaries.

This vision of a neatly bounded yoga tradition doesn’t resonate with me at all. Nor does it make any sense based on what I know about yoga history – or, for that matter, human history in general.

 

Yoga & Modernity

Personally, I believe that the practice that I’ve become so cathected to is profoundly modern. In fact, its essential modernity is key to why I feel so positive about it.

I believe that modern yoga developed as a tool to help us live better and more meaningful lives in the context of the modern world. To me, this is a positive and valuable thing. I don’t feel that I need to do the same yoga that select groups of men in medieval India did in order for it to be legitimate or worthwhile.

In my view, different sets of beliefs and practices inevitably emerge in different cultural and historical contexts. That’s not to say that certain enduring questions don’t speak to the human condition across time and space; I believe that they do.

I also believe that certain loosely defined sets of answers to those profound questions (e.g., why am I here? what happens when we die?) share a common valence. For example, different religious and spiritual traditions point to the power of divine love in different ways. They’re not the same. But they seem to have a shared impetus. And perhaps those vague similarities are more important than their many differences.

 

A “Modern Tradition”?

Still, I recognize that there’s something inchoate about my sense of being part of a “modern yoga tradition.” It seems incoherent to say that something can be experienced as both “modern” and “traditional” at the same time.

Can I really believe that modern yoga is a distinct set of ideas and practices that emerged during the past hundred years – and that it’s part of a historic yoga tradition that’s thousands of years old?

Any logical answer to this question must define the terms “yoga” and “tradition” carefully. Then, it must marshall evidence that demonstrates either the continuities between modern and pre-modern yoga, or the lack thereof.

But as noted earlier, how we answer such questions often doesn’t depend solely, or even primarily on logic.

The word “tradition” carries a special weight. However we might technically define it, emotionally it conveys a sense of deep meaning and import. It envisions a great river of time. It invokes our ancestors and forebearers. It says that while this legacy may be only human, it’s withstood the tests of time in ways that make it more than that. It’s a link to something enduring and important.

To feel part of the yoga tradition is to feel connected to something profoundly valuable that’s much bigger than myself. Such feelings aren’t based on rational analysis; they’re rooted in deeply felt personal experience.

 

The Razor’s Edge

We human beings are a complex and troubled lot. We need to feel connected to something much larger than ourselves in order to be the best people we can be, and live truly happy lives. Feeling part of “the yoga tradition” is one way in which this can happen. There are, of course, many others.

That’s the sunny side. But there are also endless examples to prove that this vital human feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves has a deep shadow.

Rather than fostering expansive enlightenment, it can propel one-dimensional fanaticism. This, in turn, can encourage and justify the sort of blind submission to authority that invites abuses of power. Conversely, it can fuel the desire to wield such power oneself.

Early in the course of my yoga studies, a man told me that to be on the spiritual path is to walk the razor’s edge. At the time, I had little context to put this in, and wasn’t sure what he meant. But his words stuck with me. Now, many years later, I think I get it.

If you feel that yoga connects you to something larger, and that you’re part of an historic tradition, you may be lucky. You may have discovered something in this life that works to put you in touch with a sense of bigger meaning, and an experience of grace.

Conversely, you may be in trouble. You may have become swept up in something that could cause harm. You may have lost your bearings. You may need to reground yourself in order to find them. This may be very hard.

And the really tricky part is that this balance may shift at any time. As the by-now extensive history of good yoga teachers gone bad amply demonstrates, even the most adept masters aren’t immune to the seductive pull of the shadow.

 

Same as it Ever Was

“Our yoga is not a retreading of old walks, but a spiritual adventure.”

Sri Aurobindo was a revolutionary and a mystic. Writing in the early 20th century, he was unapologetic about developing a new form of yoga. He was also adamant about its essential connection to the past.

Reading his words in the middle of the night, anxious about what’s been unleashed in my country and our world, I feel connected to something bigger. I feel more grounded, calmer.

I tell myself that what happens politically, spiritual adventure exists nonetheless. Soon, I manage to get back to sleep.

 


5 Comments

  1. David Fink

    Thank you. Useful and thoughtful writing. The one thing I find myself wondering about is the sentence “We need to feel connected to something much larger than ourselves in order to be the best people we can be, and live truly happy lives.”

    A recurring theme in my own research is that the idea of a happy life (rather than a life that is truthful, meaningful, passionate, significant or creative) might be a fairly modern idea that corresponds with the rise of consumerism. In my own practice and teaching I’ve noticed that connecting to something beyond our limited construct of ourselves can be terrifying or disturbing as well as joyful.

  2. One citizens “unwanted cultural baggage” is another citizens intangible gift to the world.

  3. Ted Grand

    Always a treat to read your words, Carol. Thank you.
    I would imagine that one could readily replace the word ‘yoga’ with ‘Christianity’, ‘Judaism’, or even ‘golf’. Those communities, indeed all communities, go through change, growth and evolution, and perhaps there is always a cultural push and pull within the adherents/practitioners (and so endless discussions about what the thing ‘really is’)?
    So grateful that your voice exists out here/there in the yoga world.

  4. Keshav F

    The ‘H’ word (Hinduism) or Sanātana Dharma tactfully avoided 👍👏. Instead, Yoga finds its origins apparently in a “mystic past which may or may not have anything to do with ancient Indian traditions so vague that we cannot give a name to them lest it dredge up ‘cultural baggage.'” Reducing the spiritual tradition (which also has a name, mentioned above) of over 1 billion people to mere ‘cultural baggage’ may not reflect an attitude which is ‘socially engaged.’ Apologies for the directness of my comments, I just feel that there are problems with the way Yoga is being taught about by teachers who say they represent the entirety of the tradition, yet know very little of its traditional context, content, or origins.

  5. Hi, Carol. I missed this excellent essay when it first came out, for some reason. Hence this belated comment.

    In this context, I thought you might enjoy rereading my very first post for elephant journal, back in 2009.

    First It Was Yobo, Now There is Ratra (Radical Traditional) Yoga
    https://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/first-it-was-yobo-now-there-is-ratra-via-bob-weisenberg/

    (#1 One who thinks everything after the Yoga Sutra is an unnecessary modern innovation.)

    This is still pretty much my own personal solution to all the issues you raise above–a strong intellectual interest in and acceptance of all aspects of yoga, but a personal practice based almost entirely on my own personal relation with the Bhagavad Gita.

    I realized some time ago that my approach is simply the Gita as world literature. Something can only be a great work of world literature if it speaks directly to us, all by itself. It’s the world of pure ideas. It’s interested in and informed by, but not preoccupied with, religious and historical and social science connections. It assumes that the reader is going to have a personal interpretation of and relation to the work. It assumes that the key issue is how the great work can directly inspire us today.

    Like your approach being heavily influenced by your social science background, I guess mine is heavily influenced by my literature background.

    Not for everybody, for sure, but this approach is what works for me, and helps me sleep at night!

    Thanks again for your inspired writing and for all the other great things you’re doing.

    Bob

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