December 3, 2010

Get Your Hands Off My Yoga: Did You Think Someone Was Ripping You Off?

When did yoga become a commodity that people wanted stock in and why? An article in the New York Times last Sunday revealed a growing debate in the “multi-billion dollar yoga industry” on “who owns yoga”. The writer describes the Hindu American Foundations “Take Back Yoga” campaign which is a request for Westerners to respect the Hindu people by acknowledging yoga’s Hindu roots. The Times reported that the Hindu American Foundation would like people to “become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions”. According to the Times they want Westerners to know that Hinduism underlies every single style of yoga. So why did the Times bring up the idea of ownership and why does that matter anyway?

It might seem that Westerners feel the need to get the Hindu out of yoga to make it more marketable. With Hinduism comes the apparition of caste systems, sacred cows, poverty, plural gods and asceticism. Or that might be the attitude implied by The Yoga Journal who according to the Hindu American Foundation said that “Hinduism carries too much baggage”. And The American Yoga Association which states on its website: “The common belief that Yoga derives from Hinduism is a misconception. Yoga actually predates Hinduism by many centuries…The techniques of Yoga have been adopted by Hinduism as well as by other world religions.”

The site also acknowledges that Patanjali created one of the first works of yoga. Patanjali did not predate Hinduism so maybe someone in the American Yoga Association is smoking some bad weed and I can see how this stance of something called American Yoga would infuriate the Hindus and it did. Or at least one co-founder of the HAF, Dr. Aseem Shukla.

I went to the HAF website to take a deeper look at their stance on rights to yoga and found this reference to property theft by, Dr. Shukla:
“Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism.” This was in response to a letter to the editor of the Washington Post that denied any religious connection to yoga. Dr. Shukla was clearly furious perhaps because it seems to be part of a wave of purposeful denial of the history of a people.

According to the Times there is a wide reaction of people who have a problem with the Take Back Yoga campaign including Deepak Chopra. Their response is that no one owns yoga. However, despite the confusing title, I can’t find any suggestion that anyone pay anyone else for the right to do or use yoga or the suggestion that anyone be stopped from using yoga No one can deny that modern yoga is rich with Hinduism in the form of devotional songs and rituals and homage to Hindu deities. Teach yoga that is bereft of anything Hindu and the fact remains that the yoga you learned came out of a Hindu society and a culture that was primarily Hindu. Many of the founders of the yoga we Westerners follow today were Hindu and their yoga was saturated with their Hindu beliefs. The only reason I can see for the wasted energy of arguing that the Hindus do not have yoga is ego born of a weird tribalism which is the tribalism of “my yoga” whatever incarnation that takes. Why would anyone feel threatened by a group of people who desire that another group of people appreciate their culture which offered up a discipline embraced by the world? Perhaps it’s because they have their own proprietary interests.

Shukla notes the irony of American yoga groups disassociating Hinduism from yoga.
“Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste — the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of “Om,” the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respiration as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned “mantra of the month,” taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of yoga in today’s western world.”

I’m no yoga purist or scholar but what came to mind as I read the article in the Times was a local yoga events calendar that listed class after class of post Thanksgiving “Burn off the Turkey Vinyasa Flow”. I wanted to run screaming from the moniker of yoga teacher when I saw that though it wasn’t the first time I felt that way. For the love of God and Krishna, how can anyone who professes to know the slightest thing about yoga incorporate gluttony, the killing of animals followed by excessive exercise, into a class under the name “Yoga”? I can see why the Hindu Americans want us to consider yoga’s history so that it doesn’t morph into something wholly disparate.

We Americans are good at searching out quiet gems, dusting them off, cleaning then up, making them over and turning that into a pile of money. Maybe you didn’t even notice how cool yoga was till it came with its own props and carrying bag. Now it’s in our public domain and if you like, we can sell it back to you shiny and new. India can profit by making our kitschy yoga swag in our Indian factories and hosting Westerners for yoga retreats to India to steep in the non-Hindu yoga vibe.

I don’t care if the Hindus claim yoga or not. I don’t even care about owning my own yoga mat never mind yoga. I was raised to honor my ancestors, my teachers and their traditions. Whether a tradition is sacred to me personally or not I still respect it. The Hindus want to teach their children the history of a culture they don’t want denied by the rest of the world. The resistance to that is questionable. I say to my fellow Westerners, beware of tribes vying for power and money and look for higher ground.

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