Friday, August 19, 2011

Popular Versions of Yoga in the West

Originated in India, Yoga has been with us for the past 2500 years. During its historical journey, though it was predominantly influential among the various brands of Hinduism, it became a quintessential part of the Buddhist and Jain meditation. Its contemplative practice was also adopted by the Chinese Taoists and Japanese Zen. Recently, the West too has opened its doors enthusiastically by making Yoga as a way of life.

There are more than 15 million Americans that practice some form of yoga and meditation. This staggering number has taken the esoteric spiritual discipline from the caves of the Himalayas and brought it to the door steps of every American. At present, yoga has become fashionable among the diverse strata of society ranging from the rich and famous to the ordinary person in the street. With the increase of its popularity, more people go after its faddish aspects and less for its serious study.

There are multiple ways that Yoga has been perceived in America and the West. All of them can be put under four general headings. I call the first type as the Hollywood Yoga. It was initially popularized by the Hollywood celebrities, who were looking for beautiful bodies and sound physical health. They were interested in the practice of physical postures, which would make them look and feel good. Also called the Hatha Yoga, it is the most popular kind. I call the second variety as the Harvard Yoga because it constituted a group of researchers from various universities. They were interested in measuring the claims made by the practitioners that the regular practice of yoga and meditation brought about positive changes in their personality. This was the province of the psychologists, psychiatrists and medical researchers, who worked at the major university centers. A third kind, which I call the Cultic Yoga, was introduced by the religious leaders from the East. They proclaimed themselves to be living at a heightened state of consciousness that was achieved by them through their own efforts or the aid of their teachers. They openly declared themselves to be the carriers of this enlightenment and could easily pass it on to others who were ready to pay the bills for their spiritual services. Though the Cultic Yoga created a huge following, it also watered down this ancient discipline and made it very pedestrian. However, the fourth, which I call the Himalayan Yoga, is the authentic brand dating back to 500 B.C. Its ideas are found in the Yoga Sutras, a book compiled by an Indian sage Patanjali. This ancient book contains the philosophy, psychology, science, religion and the way of life of yoga. Though the Hollywood, Harvard and Cultic Yoga find their roots in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, they merely scratch the surface of this masterly developed philosophical and empirical system that promises a meaningfully balanced spiritual life through the perfection of the body, control of the emotions and mastery of the mind.

By Dr. Ashok Kumar Malhotra

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