Has India Lost the Real Yoga?

Prasanth Aby Thomas
Published: June 2015
Image courtesy: Pixabay

Image courtesy: Pixabay

Last Sunday the country marked the first celebration of the International Yoga Day with a massive event at the capital which included the Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. The PM hailed the day as a new era of peace as he took to the mat with about 35,000 people, which included government officials, students and soldiers.

In fact the event is so huge that organisers expect it to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The exuberance aside, marking such a day with a declaration from the United Nations is more relevant for yet another reason. It’s a step to reconfirm Yoga is indeed an Indian contribution.

Yoga’s origins in the subcontinent have been widely documented and most foreigners practicing the ancient system know where its roots are. But within Indian culture the role of Yoga is getting more and more complicated. As Yoga has become increasingly popular abroad, there is much debate on the actual forms and exercises, and who should be considered to teach and opine on it. This is not just outside India, even within the country Yoga practitioners vary in their opinions.

So severe is the dilemma that once it had even reached the Supreme Court itself. In 2013 the top court was asked to decide if Yoga was associated with any particular religion and not ideal to be part of the physical education curriculum of a secular country like India.

“Can we be asking all the schools to have one period for yoga classes every day when certain minority institutions may have reservations against it?” the court had asked.

That same year, a California judge met the same problem when a pair sued the Encinitas Union School District for endorsing religion by proposing voluntary yoga classes without of cultural references, including the poses’ Sanskrit names. The judge had then come to the conclusion that yoga did not invade upon the separation of religion and state, adding that that the practice may have religious roots but not in the way it was being practiced in Encinitas schools.

This was acceptable to many who saw Yoga as just another exercise, albeit one that had a holistic effect. But this attitude is actually what is plaguing the practice today, which is seeing an increasing number of variations, often packaged and sold as customized systems to suit modern day requirements, but claiming to have all the positive effects of traditional Yoga.

The complicated part is that nobody claims Yoga did not come from India, but everyone finds it convenient to modify and make it their own. The problem here is obvious; the real Yoga that was handed over from ancient India is lost.

Research has shown that most of these Yoga poses that are popular today have been invented over the past 100 years or so. According to Alanna Kaivalya, author of Myths of the Asanas and Sacred Sound, most of what is practiced in the US as Yoga is just being made up.

“Even in the decade that I’ve been teaching yoga, I’ve seen postures “appear.” Most recently, additions like “falling star,” “reverse warrior,” and “flip the dog,” weren’t around even 10 short years ago,” Kaivalya said. “Actually, it feels like they’ve appeared over the past few weeks! We can even take a look at modern yoga schools and realize that most every type of practice we enjoy here in America has a fairly recent history.”

Most yoga practitioners start their journey to Yoga through some simple exercises or asanas. Several traditional Yoga practitioners claim that these form only a minor aspect of Yoga which is more like a way of life than an exercise regime. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation maintains that these are “only the most superficial aspect” of this “5000 year old Indian body of knowledge.”

Yoga scholar Dr. Mark Singleton termed what he considered “a crisis of faith” when he learned that the tradition he had practiced for years was only slightly related to ancient spirituality and freely recreated by practitioners over the last century.

“The ground on which my practice had seemed to stand—Patanjali, the Upanishads, the Vedas—was crumbling as I discovered that the real history of the ‘yoga tradition’ was quite different from what I had been taught,” Singleton wrote in an article forYoga Journal, according to Huffington Post. “If the claims that many modern yoga schools were making about the ancient roots of their practices were not strictly true, were they then fundamentally inauthentic?”

Granted the poses and exercises might provide some effect to the practitioners, but they might receive the same from any kind of exercise. Of course, there is the role of placebo effect involved but that can’t be helped. To modern people who are going to extremely stressful situations at work and personal life, exercise itself can be a cure to a lot of problems.

To a lot of traditional practitioners, Yoga is more about meditation, along with instructions on ethical living. Swami Narayanda, director of the Sivananda Yoga Vendanta Center, told HuffPost that the asanas have their part to play, but at the heart of yoga is the meditation practice, along with the ethical guidelines that form the first limb of the eightfold Ashtanga yoga practice outlined in the Yoga Sutra. These guidelines include nonviolence and honesty and are not bound to any particular religion.

It’s high time we devised a way to preserve the original form of Yoga and make sure that people are able to make use of it. It’s also important that we make people understand the fallacy of modern modified Yoga and create awareness so that they don’t fall for it.

To this end, the International Yoga Day might bring in more discussions and debates on the matter. It may not help much in eliminating fake Yoga teachers and systems, but it will definitely make people think more about what they are going to practice.