My extensive travels and workshops across the globe coupled with the numerous foreigners who come and stay with us at Kaivalyadhama has brought some striking differences in the way Yoga is perceived, promoted and practiced in the West and India. The east and west are two very distinct cultures and while the “east” and “west” may be dying terminology, the dichotomy in the way of life between these regions of the world is still incredibly relevant today.
Being very flexible, the ability to do advances yoga asanas are seen as a barometer of progress in the field of Yoga in the West. So while the west is focused on “doing” yoga, all we really need to do is live yoga. This, in my view, is perhaps the most fundamental differentiator between yoga in the “west” and “east.”
In the west, yoga as a “way of life” has turned into a multi-billion-dollar industry that is synonymous with doing asanas, breathing well, eating clean, and spending too much money on yoga pants. It is unclear as to how these all became synonymous, but it is clear that it continues to be perpetuated in such a light. In many ways, western countries have commercialized yoga so much that with the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, many “yoga” studios are being forced to shut down. This begs us to question that even though we tout the difference between “on and off the mat,” is this a guise to justify the lack of cultural appreciation we have for yoga’s roots?
Growing up in a yogic environment meant exposure to practices like asana, and pranayama, but in a subtle way. In fact, there would be times where it went completely unnoticed that I was practicing Yoga at all. Sitting in vajrasana after a meal or doing shitali to help battle the intense heat of Indian summers were part and parcel of our lives. I was never forced to do any of these things, nor did I see them as something I had to “practice.” Rather, these were powerful habits that my family normalized. And through observing them, I normalized them too without much recognition to the fact that they were considered “yoga.”
Not everyone gets exposure to yoga practices from a young age and this is the reason why we need to take Yoga to grass root level and start with schools. While the asanas and pranayama have benefited thousands of people, but I feel that the most powerful way to live Yoga is to being taught self-awareness and not through mere physical practices. This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of yoga in the west today. In the Patanjala Yoga Sutras, Patanjali said a student should not even advance to asanas until he or she has mastered certain behavioral disciplines known as the yamas and niyamas. In sum, the yamas and niyamas are depictions of one’s character and how he/she should behave towards others and also themselves. It mirrors the adage “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Applying this adage is exponentially more difficult than learning a back bend. Why? Because it deals with the conditioning of our mind, and behavior. And if you come so far as to taming your anger through yogic teachings, then you have learned and practiced enough yoga for a lifetime.
The Indian tradition of Yoga lays emphasis on learning how important it is to be compassionate, sincere, and aware of your own short comings. We all have our moments of anger, jealousy and letting our ego getting the best of us and this is completely human. Yoga can us teach to deal with these feelings and all the colors of our personality by giving us the tools to step outside of our skin before we react. In other words, we can learn to reflect on our words and actions before they even came out. One needs to realize that truly yoga has nothing to do with your body, and everything with your behavior. Introducing the “right” Yoga through schools will thus not only impact the student, but also the teacher and parent thereby creating the right eco system for healthy and happy families.
In the west, the exposure to the yamas and niyamas is hardly ever discussed, save for teacher trainings. Seldom will the average yoga class mention these important tenets as part of your practice. Perhaps this is principally because yoga is seen as something to be “done,” “practiced,” or “learned” for certain hours in a day. Complex asanas are seen as something to be “accomplished” before a practitioner moves to a new sequence. But when will our accomplishments in yoga be measured by acts of self-awareness? When will we live yoga through our daily lives taught by the originators of Yoga in India? With capitalism taking over all countries of the world, including India, it begs us to question- what will remain?
As a country we have the responsibility to preserve the 5000-year-old heritage and tradition of Yoga and ensure that it does not get diluted due to the so called commercialization of Yoga. The establishment of dedicated ministry for Yoga, initiatives like the International Day for Yoga, Yoga Certification Board and coming together of all the leading Yoga institutes in India through the India Yoga Association are some very good steps taken in this direction in last few years. However, we need to voice the true merits and meaning of Yoga globally to ensure that it does not end up becoming a physical or a breathing exercise and land up being Beer Yoga, Hot Yoga or Goat Yoga, rather than being the means to ensure health, well-being and happiness for all globally.
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