Piedmont Yoga Studio News June 2008 | iHanuman


Love, Service, Devotion, Yoga

Piedmont Yoga Studio News June 2008

My original intention for this month was to write about one of the pioneers of modern yoga, Shri Yogendra. But just this morning I received a newsletter from a yoga school-here unnamed-where I found a short essay, "About Yoga," that begins with: "Yoga is an ancient science practiced for thousands of years." Friends, as Joan Rivers says, can we talk? Let's start with "thousands of years." The Sanskrit word sanatva means "ancientness," it's an idea that's found everywhere in Hinduism. The underlying belief is that the older something is the more authority it carries, and so we find some wild and crazy estimates for the ages of certain holy books, like the Rig Veda, or disciplines, like ... um ... yoga. The first mention of "yoga" as a spiritual discipline is in the anthology of books known as the Upanishads, the earliest of which we can conservatively date at 2500 years. The problem here is that this number has been cast into doubt by a few reputable researchers who maintain, for reasons too complicated to go into here, that the early Upanishads are a good deal older. So yes, we can say that yoga could possibly maybe be thousands of years old, but NOT in the way it's practiced here in the West in the 20th century. The yoga that's possibly maybe "thousands" of years old is what we'd call sitting meditation, which indeed may be a small part of a modern yoga class. But our yoga, with its huge repertoire of asanas and breathing practices, is more or less based on Hatha Yoga, which is no more than about 1000 years old. Moreover, the simplified form of Hatha Yoga that's taught in the West-thanks to our Shri Yogendra and a few other Indians-is about 80 years old, 100 tops. So we have to modify our introductory sentence to read: "Yoga is an ancient science that, in the way we teach it here at our school, is about 80 years old." Not quite as impressive but a whole lot more accurate.
But wait, there's more. The idea that yoga is a "science" is accepted without question in the yoga community. As far as I can tell, this idea originated with Swami Vivekananda in the early 1890s. Born Naren Dutta to an upper-middle class family in 1863, and educated at British-run schools, Vivekananda was a disciple of the Hindu sage Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna was given to fall- down, pass-out episodes from a very early age, and his rather extravagant behavior at first disturbed the college-educated Naren. But when Ramakrishna died in 1886, Naren assumed the leadership of the small group of mostly Western educated Indian males that had congregated around the saint, and eventually appointed himself a "swami." He came to this country in 1893, to speak (and hopefully raise money for his social improvement projects) at the World Parliament of Religion, an event staged in conjunction with that year's World's Fair in Chicago (which gave us the first Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jacks, and Little Egypt dancing the hootchie-kootchie ... "I went a bought myself a ticket and I sat down in the very first row, oh, oh ..."). He was only 30 years old, his first time out of India, but Vivekananda was no hayseed. He knew in order for his message to hit home with his Western audience he'd have to make certain "adjustments" to the traditional teachings of Hinduism and yoga, which were generally considered to be "mystical" and "irrational," not appealing to the skeptical Western "rational" consciousness. And so he presented yoga as the "practical result" of thousands of years of methodical observation and experimentation, which he then equated with a "science."
Is yoga a "science?" My dictionary defines "science" as a "methodological activity, discipline, or study," and an "activity that appears to require study and method." In this loose sense I suppose we could say it is, but I think it's important to ask why we want yoga to be a "science" in the first place. Is it just our overly rational Western mind clamoring for some assurance that our "yoga experiments," if properly conducted, will bring us "results" and not be a waste of time and energy, or is it simply that we fear the non-scientific "mystical" and "irrational"? Why do we want results, and what's wrong with questions we can't answer or don't seem to make rational sense? At least we can now revise our introductory sentence to read: "Yoga is a spiritual practice of great but indeterminate age, estimates of which are usually wildly exaggerated, but which in its modern incarnation is about 80 years old, that may, if it makes you feel more comfortable, be loosely compared to a science."

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