What comes to mind when you hear ‘Western yoga’ being talked about? Do you immediately think of yoga being trivialised and cultural appropriation in any of its forms: commercial, beautiful body image, physical therapy or western fringe movements and cults?
Searching for a yoga classes retreats on the web will deliver thousands of them all over the world all with a connection to Western yoga. They are competing on the commercial playing field. You’ll find luxury spa yoga retreats, exotic locations, combining yoga with other activities, from drinking clubbing, surfing to massage and therapies. The images associated with these are often of food, pictures of beautiful views, yoga teachers lo in their figure hugging clothes and poses that could be a part of a stage show. Adjectives like balancing, nurturing, meditative, deepening to describe the retreats. More often than not a Western style yoga retreat is a nice holiday with yoga thrown in and as such definitely provides benefits to our wellbeing. Yoga classes are promoted in the same way: Let’s have fun, look after our bodies, relax, restore and boost the economy. That's the way of culture not just in the west, but everywhere including the countries where yoga was born.
That is, of course, only one face of Western Yoga, physical therapy is another one. There is a branch of yoga for correct way of moving your body. That transports yoga into a more clinical Western medicine world of isolating the body and it’s functions from what we are as a whole. Apart from those few who have medical training, most yoga teachers are not qualified to work within the rigorous demands of Western medicine. Many doctors who recommend yoga as a therapy for anything from anxiety to back pain are just hoping that if nothing else helps, maybe yoga will. Yoga has the potential to do that, but we as yoga teachers know that it requires long term commitment from the student, dedication and change from the constraints of Western way of looking at the body as a collection of parts operated by a computer mind. Prana and nadis do not play any part here.
There are many more Western ways of approaching yoga. Some of them are tribal movements idolising lifestyles of the past, from different traditions, religions and a simpler way of living. This includes those wishing to connect with nature, various spiritual cults with firm a conviction that loving each other is the answer to all the problems in the world. It may be so, but is it possible? Utopias are great hobbies to work on.
In the seventies with my first contact with yoga, I felt that the teacher was passing on something he valued, that had helped him and he wanted to share it. I felt that he was completely outside the competitive, commercial yoga world that is so familiar to us even in the world of yoga. That was then. Life moves on, things change. Yoga can be only a word, a label that we associate with a certain type of movement, sequences using breath and challenging poses, becoming stronger and energised or it can be much more: a meaning to your life, realisation, letting go of the importance of all concepts.
In India, the birthplace of yoga, things have moved on too, Yoga has become a brand, everyone wants a piece of the cake. In 2002 I stayed in a rural village in Tamil Nadu, where I took yoga lessons from a Yoga ‘Master’. He was strict and I enjoyed the discipline and challenge as well as the sunrise and sunset on the roof of his house. A Tamil friend told me later on that my teacher wasn’t a yoga master, he was just giving classes to westerners to make money. Since then, and throughout the latter half of the 20th century, yoga boom has taken over India too. Thousands of tourists go over on yoga retreats and to take selfies in yoga poses with colourfully clad locals or in front of temples and palaces. Many more thousands of Indians teach yoga to satisfy the demands of the market and to feed their families, westernising their teaching or enhancing the exoticism that is loved by the visitors.
Our culture is many faceted and there is space for infinite diversity. Thinking that we should or could stop the commercialisation of yoga is simply wasting time. Thinking that we should or could stop the western way of looking at the body in medicine is simply wasting time. Thinking that we should the longing for the past, back to nature and primitive life as futile is also a waste of time. There will be many more developments yet to come, cultural changes and innovations in medicine, commerce, art and human exploration.
Anyone can interpret the word Yoga anyway they like, and it should stay that way. Yoga to me is something that does not come under any heading, the name is only a word. It’s simple, it’s pure, above any cultural manifestations. Yoga is about commitment, observing, focus, faith and letting go, surrendering to life. That needs to apply to all that we truly are, not what we think we are. Sometimes longing for an opportunity to return to the origins of yoga and live in a hermit cave.
Words and concepts are useful tools but if identity becomes something you believe in, exclusion happens. Labeling makes us separate and restricts us. Letting go of all restrictions of labels and identities makes us free. The true essence of yoga can never be destroyed. The popularisation of not just Western but any yoga is like any other popular culture. It takes much longer to find the true diamonds amongst the other glitter and sparkle. I hope people will always have time to play, explore and create under whatever title they like.