How “Hindu” is yoga after all?

Yoga is to North America what McDonalds is to India: both are foreign implants gone native. The urban and suburban landscape of the United States is dotted with 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, a popular TV-yogi, 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 the 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.

The Mysore Palace mystery

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 (1915-2009) and Iyengar (b. 1918) learned yoga from T. Krishnamacharya during the years (1933 until late 1940s) when he directed a yogasala  in one wing of the Jaganmohan palace of the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV (1884-1940).  

The maharaja, who ruled the state and the city of Mysore from 1902 until his death, was well-known as a great promoter of Indian culture and religion, but was also a great cultural innovator who welcomed positive innovations from the West and incorporated them into his social programs.  Promoting physical education was one of his passions and under his rein Mysore became the hub of physical culture revival in the country.  He hired Krishnamacharya primarily to  teach yoga to the young princes of the royal family, but also  funded Krishnamacharya and his yoga protégés to travel all over India giving yoga demonstrations, thereby encouraging an enormous popular revival of yoga

Indeed, Mysore’s royal family had a long-standing interest in hatha yoga: Wodeyar IV’s ancestor,  Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (1799-1868), is credited with composing an exquisitely illustrated manual, titled Sritattvanidhi,  which was first discovered by Norman Sjoman, a Swedish yoga student, in the mid-1980s in the library of the Mysore Palace.  What is remarkable about this book is its innovative combination of hatha yoga asanas with rope exercises used by Indian wrestlers and the danda push-ups developed at the vyayamasalas, the indigenous Indian gymnasium.

Both  Sjoman and Mark Singleton, a US-based scholar who has interviewed many of those associated with the Mysore Palace during its heyday in the 1930s, believe that the seeds of modern yoga lie in the innovatory style of  Sritattvanidhi.  Krishnamacharya – who was familiar with this text and cited it in his own books —  carried on the innovation by adding a variety of western gymnastics and drills to the routines he learned from Sritattvanidhi,  which had already cross-bred hatha yoga with traditional Indian wrestling and acrobatic routines.

 In addition, it is well established that Krishnamacharya had full access to a Western-style gymnastics hall in the Mysore Palace which had all the usual wall ropes and other props which he began to include in his yoga routines. Sjoman has excerpted the Western gymnastics manual which was available to Krishnamacharya. Sjoman claims that many of the gymnastics techniques from that manual  — for example, the corss-legged jumpback and walking the hands down a wall into a back arch — found their way into Krishnamacharya’s teachings  which he passed on to Iyengar and Jois. In addition, in early years of the 20th century, an apparatus-free Swedish drill and a gymnastic routine developed by a Dane by the name of Niels Bukh (1880-1950) was introduced into India by the British and was popularized by YMCA.  Singleton argues that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.” The link again is Krishnamacharya who Singleton calls a “major player in the modern merging of gymnastic-style asana practice and the Patanjala tradition.”

So, who owns yoga?

The shrill claims of HAF about Westerners stealing yoga ends up covering up the tremendous amount of cross-breeding and hybridization that has given birth to yoga as we know it. Indeed, cotemporary 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 all around the world.

Hinduism whether ancient, medieval or modern, has no special claims on yoga. To pretend otherwise is not only churlish, but also simply untrue.

About the Author

Meera Nanda is currently a visiting professor in history of science in the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (Mohali), India. Her book God and globalization in India will be published in the US by Monthly Review Press in 2011.

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