After India gained independence from the British in 1947, there was a rise in nationalism and interest in Indian traditions, which led to a revival of yoga. It was the right moment in history for introducing yoga and meditation to the West. How it was spread and gained popularity abroad also significantly changed yoga itself. Although yoga was always considered a science, the spiritual dimension had traditionally been given higher value. Health and spiritual tourism retreats played a big part in transforming yoga from a religious practice to a health practice. Because science dominated the Western worldview, presenters emphasized the science of yoga and its practical benefits. One key player in that realignment was Jagannath Gune, who created a center for yoga in 1924 and invited scientific researchers to study it. They framed yoga in ways that could more easily find acceptance in the West.
Cultures are codes for ordering, making sense and understanding the world. Metaphors are keys to how codes work. For one culture to adopt ideas and practices from another, they have to be integrated into that culture’s own codes. The metaphors at the heart of the Western worldview include progress, the “goodlife,” fitness, the ideal body, independence, and personal freedom (based on individualism). Early presenters of yoga understood the Western lifestyle.What better way to promote yoga then by appealing to these values?
Western societies invest a lot time and energy into personal and economic freedom, with the aim of perfecting and extending bodily life. Self-effort appeals to the Western independent spirit. Classes, books, DVDs, and the internet make yoga easily accessible. Yoga provides a practical, inexpensive method to control and mold the body, relax the mind, and prevent disease. It helps people control the undesirable facts of life-entropy.
One central tenant of traditional yoga is that true happiness is found not in the outer world or body, but by turning inward, to discover your natural state, which is normally covered up. In its transmission to the West, however, yoga was gradually reframed from a method of transcending the physical world to a way of perfecting the body. A deeper understanding of yoga got lost in the popular mix. The message became: There’s no need to renounce life, to deny the pleasures of the body and mind. You can keep liberation as a goal, but liberation now means balance, fitness, and personal freedom.
The main Vedic concept that links easily to Western culture is Jivanmukta—the state of being liberated while still living. It’s conceived as a “middle path” between dedicating your life to pursuing the ideal “afterlife” on one hand, and indulgence and consumerism on the other. Jivanmukta connects the Western ideal of individual freedom to yoga’s goal of transcendence and evolution. The focus has shifted from the limitations of the body and realizing “super-consciousness” to improving bodily fitness and overall health. This dovetails nicely with the holistic health movement. Jivanmukta lends support to this way of framing yoga, with the message: You don’t have to renounce desires and worldly pleasures to be free! That’s one reason why Tantra yoga, commonly but erroneously associated only with sex, is gaining popularity. With yoga, pleasures can be channeled and justified spiritually.
Popular literature circulating in the 1900s about yoga increasingly emphasized its health and fitness benefits. This appealed to a Western mindset and was compatible with the idea of “progress” as the guiding tenet of modernity. Advertising images of thin or large-bellied older men, dressed in white or orange dhoti, don’t appeal to most Westerners. These images reflect a life of renunciation, non-materialism, poverty, and lack of ambition. But fit, strong, virile bodies represent progress and wealth! Now, you can buy latex tights and yoga accessories—it’s a whole new business. The original spiritual goal of yoga—freedom from the material world, rather than attachment to it—had to be rebranded, even inverted, to gain acceptance.
Some believe the Western emphases on material life and progress are incompatible with traditional yoga and spiritual ideals. But people have easily adapted yoga to other cultures and worldviews by emphasizing the bodily practices of postural and Hatha yoga and leaving out the ethical and spiritual parts. What could be more attractive than a set of exercises that create a strong, healthy body and relaxed mind? Yoga is inexpensive, can be done anywhere, and manages STRESS! The religious beliefs and language are optional.
Yoga has gone global and is part of the new “cosmopolitanism.” Cosmopolitanism is an ethos of shared humanity and transnational community. It’s based on the concept of interdependence, where geographical distance is no obstacle to community. This “new” ethos fits well with the eco-sustainability movement and is creating a worldwide culture that finds roots in the ancient ideals of yoga.
By Keyvan Golestaneh M.A., L.Ac.
Keyvan is a natural and Chinese medical practitioner, herbalist, bodyworker,
psychotherapist, writer, Yogi, the developer of Micro-Yoga™, and Micro-Yoga workshops.
www.NewWorldMedicine.net & www.ConsciousHealthInstitute.org