Yoga and Spirituality: Wholesome Practice Or Capitalist Tool?


“Is it even possible to practice ‘real’ yoga anymore?”

I see this question pop up often in discussions between yoga teachers and practitioners alike. Is Yoga a New Age practice? Has it become a tool of capitalism? Is there even such a thing as “real” yoga?

In order to try and answer this question, I have done some research and sources will be able at the bottom of this post.

It is not surprising that the modern understanding of Yoga has been remoulded and reinterpreted over time due to globalisation. Yoga has been exported and reinterpreted by individuals who often do not hold the practice as part of their cultural background. Even when this is the case, teachers still felt the need to westernise and remove the practice from its traditions, making it more appealing to western standards and ideas.

Oriental teachers often found that Westerners would seek their teachings, only to later discover that due to the inevitable cultural barrier their precepts have been deeply misunderstood.

Such gurusw wanted to teach of enlightenment and letting go of the ego. What happened instead is that American self-improvement culture took over, and turned the teachings into a tool to focus on the ego instead.

And so we find that in the eyes of many yoga has been reduced to a consumable good in the category of the spiritual.

So, is there a way as a Westerner to experience yoga without falling into the attractive trap of its newly found goals of efficiency and sanity?

Spirituality and Capitalism

Yoga falls under the brand of spirituality, a generic term linked to the late 60’s and early 70’s New Age movement. Spirituality entails a person’s faith in a deity, nature, a moral value, or just in themselves. It is something which is experienced, an inner journey which taps into religion but is deeply individual and very much removed from any fixed tradition or institution. Everybody’s spirituality looks different, meaning that there can be no ‘wrong’: everybody’s journey should be respected, so misunderstanding is not a possibility.

It must be said that Indian spirituality has been the most important influence for Western spirituality, encouraging individuality and autonomous practice, which provides personal experience rather than blind belief. Just by engaging in effective practices, one can explore the Inner Self and experience one’s own barriers.

However, this ambiguity and individuality are also what allows spirituality to work so well within capitalist societies. It provides a niche, yet it applies to many social groups. It is a label for the search of meaning, values and connectedness.

Swami Vivekananda was central to the increasing popularity of spirituality and yoga in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He appealed to the Romantic attractiveness of the mystical and exotic east, claiming that while the West was materially superior, it lacked spirituality. From the 80’s, spirituality starts to become a part of all domains of public life, which led to the emergence of capitalist spirituality: the need to explore one’s Self becomes a demand from the corporate machine.

Picking tools from different Asian religious traditions, New Age Spirituality started exploiting and selectively repackaging tradition with little care to rectify misunderstanding and mistranslation.

This unfortunate mixture of spirituality and capitalism led to some individuals believing they were justified in making use of this selective appropriation approach simply because they paid to ‘study’ them in their original context first. Because superficial interpretations of Eastern traditions are so wide spread, it is easy to sell new products and techniques while claiming that they are ‘authentic’ to a certain tradition.

Spiritual Yoga

So, what happened to yoga?

Initially yoga was regarded as a set of renunciatory practices to attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth, while eradicating selfish desires and the fluctuations of the mind.

Now, it has been westernised into psychologised spirituality and a system of therapy (mental and physical).

It has become a tool to experience altered states of consciousness, but the original intent was to prevent such altered states, promoting stability and contentment instead. Yoga is marketed by appealing to its exoticism. It is a secular tool which is imbued with ageless wisdom.

As Cox skilfully puts it in his 1977 publication while referring specifically to meditation, this approach “turns into an excuse to keep Narcissus poised by the side of the reflecting pool, to persuade him that if he just keeps on staring he will eventually discover something.”

Thus, Eastern spirituality focuses on isolating the self, rather than the individual’s involvement within the cosmos.

Due to the aforementioned globalisation, this view of yoga as a tool for physical health and an embodiment of spirituality, while being stripped of its mysticality, has made into South Asia as well. In the late 20th century, yoga was regarded as an antiquated practice. It had no practical purpose and was not suitable for moden life. Now, as it re-entered the region in a westernised form, it has become a trendy activity, a technique for self-management.

So… is it possible?

Yes and no.

Because the East re-appropriated rebranded version of yoga, practices and audiences have homogenised, meaning it is almost impossible to practice “real” yoga as a Westerner.

The only way would be to actively seek out a direct source of the traditional version, which would then entail adhering to certain institutions and beliefs. This is not an easy feat, as many of these practices jut don’t fit with the rules and lifestyle of modern society.

It is not possible to live a holistically balanced life while still being a productive member of the workforce.

This is why yogis are traditionally renouncers of society!


Sources

Askegaard, S. and Eckhardt, G.M., 2012. Glocal yoga: Re-appropriation in the Indian consumptionscape. Marketing Theory12(1), pp.45-60.

Beaudoin, T., 2007. Consuming faith: Integrating who we are with what we buy. Rowman & Littlefield.

Carrette, J.R., Carrette, J. and King, R., 2005. Selling spirituality: The silent takeover of religion. Psychology Press.

Cox, H.G. and Cox, H., 1977. Turning east: The promise and peril of the new orientalism (p. 32). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Heelas, P. The New Age Movement. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996.

What is Hatha Yoga?

Nowadays yoga styles like Vinyasa and Ashtanga are all the rage, while Hatha yoga is not as widely practised. It doesn’t have any strong defining traits, so some can be confused as to what exactly it entails.

Truly, Hatha is a practice of yoga that entails physical movement, meaning that all styles that include an Asana practice are types of Hatha yoga. There are instances of yoga styles that focus solely on breathing techniques and meditation, such as Raja yoga.

Generally, a Hatha yoga class entails a complete practice of poses, breathing and meditation. The poses are not practised back to back, but rather you are prompted to rest in recovery poses in between. As with all styles, Savasana is the most important pose.

Where does Hatha Yoga come from?

The term Hatha yoga can be understood in two ways:

  • the yoga of force’ due to the effort required to practice it, since techniques of breath control are strenuous
  • the union of the sun (ha) and the moon (ṭha) in the body.’

Some Buddhist texts and later medieval literature feature the term ‘hatha’, presenting it as a preliminary practice, often in rivalry with Raja yoga. A few texts claim that Raja yoga is superior because it is effortless yet fruitful. Hatha yoga, on the other hand, requires too much effort to reach the same goal. However, Hatha texts refer to practices with neutral words such as ‘carefully’, ‘diligently’, ‘gradually’, ‘gently’, sometimes ‘vigorously’, ‘energetically’ or ‘forcibly’.

Other sources saw Hatha yoga as a second-rate practice for second-rate students, since it wasn’t a purely intellectual practice. However, just a few centuries later the Haṭayogapradīpikā joined Hatha and Raja yoga into a complete system, still under the name of Hatha Yoga, asserting that they are dependent on each other.

Interestingly, no texts before the Haṭayogapradīpikā ever focused on asanas (or postures) in any significant way. This means we have no way of knowing how prevalent asana practice was.

The First Mentions of Asanas

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali calls asana any seated posture that is stable and comfortable to hold through the whole practice.

A later commentary of the Yoga Sutras specifies eleven asanas and indicates by an ‘etc.’ that the author knew additional postures. These are meditative asanas, which allow the practitioner to sit with a straight back for a long time.

Why the focus on seated postures? Simply, when you’re standing the mind cannot focus in the same way, and when lying down you could easily fall asleep!

The Innovation of Hatha Yoga

The goals of Hatha yoga, traditionally, are the same as those of other varieties of yoga: supernatural powers and/or liberation.

However, what made Hatha yoga different is the fact that the body does not function solely as a pneumatic system when it comes to breath control practices, it is not something that needs to be abandoned upon reaching liberation. The body is seen as a complete instrument, that can be perfected and retained after liberation, even cheating death with clever use of the advanced practice of Samadhi.

Is Hatha yoga then a superior practice? It depends on the practitioner’s goals. All yoga can be practised by all, regardless of their identity or beliefs, as it is practice alone that leads to success.

6 Transformational Benefits To Using Singing Bowls In Your Yoga Practice

Why use singing bowls? Well, have you ever listened to the sound of one in person?

If you have attended one of my classes you will know I love using Tibetan singing bowls at the end of class, walking around with one so that everybody can feel the vibrations. Like a mini sound-bath.

 Of course, this is not an original idea of mine, as many teachers use either Tibetan singing bowls, which are made of metal, or crystal singing bowls.

I have tried both, but I find that I’m drawn to metal ones more. Materials aside, the main difference is in sound: crystal bowls have a lovely light and ethereal sound, while metal ones are more soothing and grounding.

What are they?

Singing bowls are like standing bells, you can play them by striking them or rotating the mallet around the rim.

They originated in China, and they were made of bronze or cast-iron. Traditional Tibetan bowls are said to be made of a bronze alloy containing copper, tin, zinc, iron, silver, gold and nickel, metals that are connected to the 7 planets of the Solar System.

Crystal bowls, instead, are usually made of crushed Quartz.

Regardless, the bowls are tuned to certain notes, which are said to stimulate the corresponding Chakra.

singing bowl

The Benefits of Singing Bowls

I often find that my mind is pretty volatile, I’m always thinking about the future or the past, generally overthinking. Similarly, students most likely come to class wanting to shake off the day. Here, the comforting vibrations and harmonic sounds of the bowls are of great help. We know it from experience, but there is some science behind it too!

It has been estimated that about 75% of illnesses can be attributed to stress, especially hypertension and cardiac disease. There is a handful of scientific articles presenting evidence for the benefits of meditation and the mantra Om, the vibrations of which are replicated by the sound of the singing bowls. The main recorded benefit is the effects of such vibrations on blood pressure and heart rate. Using these instruments, especially during a relaxation session, significantly decreases both, which is extremely helpful in treating hypertension! Additionally, using them to accompany meditation has been shown to significantly reduce the feeling of physical pain, as well as decrease negative moods such as tension, anger and depression!

singing bowl

So, here’s 6 benefits to using singing bowls:

  • Deep relaxation;
  • Reduces stress, anger, and anxiety;
  • Lowers blood pressure and heart rate;
  • Improves mood;
  • Better pain management;
  • Improves hypertension.

I hope you will include the use of these lovely instruments in your future practices!

Share this article if you’ve found it interesting, and let me know what your experience with bowls is!

Om Shanti

P.S. If you’re interested in reading the data-filled articles I mention in this post, you can find them here and here.

P.P.S. Enjoy some singing bowls music from my Instagram!

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Have you ever listened to the sound of a singing bowl in person?⁣ ⁣ If you have attended one of my classes you will know I love using Tibetan singing bowls at the end of class, walking around with one so that everybody can feel the vibrations. Like a mini sound-bath.⁣ ⁣ But did you know that singing bowls are not just musical instruments?⁣ ⁣ There is a handful of scientific articles presenting evidence for the benefits of meditation and the mantra Om, the vibrations of which are replicated by the sound of the singing bowls. ⁣ ⁣ The main recorded benefit is the effects of such vibrations on blood pressure and heart rate. Using singing bowls, especially during a relaxation session, significantly decreases both, which is extremely helpful in treating hypertension! ⁣ ⁣ Additionally, meditation accompanied with singing bowls has been shown to significantly reduce the feeling of physical pain, as well as decrease negative moods such as tension, anger and depression!⁣ ⁣ Keeping in mind that it has been estimated that about 75% of illnesses can be attributed to stress, being able to keep it all in check with such an easy and relatively affordable item is amazing!⁣ ⁣ What is your experience with singing bowls? Have you ever had a sound bath?⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ #yoga#singingbowls#yogalove#yogainspiration#yogalearning#yoganerd#yogapath#hathayoga#hatha#yogateacher#yogaofinstagram#singingbowl#singingbowltherapy#singingbowlmeditation#meditation#mindfulness

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The Secrets of the Yogic Diet

Every time we go online or open a newspaper or magazine we will find a new ‘miracle’ diet that will supposedly allow us to lose all the weight in the blink of an eye and that will make us the healthiest we’ve ever been. These diets usually involve being very restrictive with the kinds of food that we eat, but having celery juice in the morning and a whole head of lettuce for lunch is not a good plan long term.

Achieving and maintaining physical health is, of course, one of the basic aims of yoga. If we lack physical health, we cannot advance mentally or spiritually. If you are sick and you try to meditate, what will happen? Well, Nothing. Your mind feels foggy, you feel sleepy, your back and your neck hurts, your foot is falling asleep, you need to cough, and you’re also getting a migraine.

Therefore, we have the 5 points of yoga:
– Proper exercise;
– Proper breathing;
– Proper relaxation;
– Proper eating;
– Positive thinking and meditation.

All of these are the tools to achieve health.

The Yogic diet is very simple, and follows the rules that doctors already recommend: have of freshly prepared, wholesome food that gives us energy (or Prana, a derivative of that universal energy which keeps us and the universe alive). You should eat slowly and chew properly. Avoid snacking. Do not overeat, rather leave some space in the stomach for stronger digestion. Eat with awareness, avoiding discussions or distractions of any kind. If we feel stressed while eating, it will impact our digestion. Have food that was prepared with love and care. Meat is greatly discouraged as we will absorb the last emotion that the creature felt before passing, which is usually fear, anxiety, or anger. The Yogic diet is therefore historically vegetarian, but many yogis nowadays prefer to take a step further and become vegan.

Eat to live, don’t live to eat.

Food is divided in three categories called Gunas, or qualities of nature:
Sattvic
 foods are fresh, in season, pure, and create balance. Sattva is the quality of light, knowledge, balance and purity. These are the kind of foods we should eat the most. These foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, milk, grains, legumes etc.
Rajasic foods are stimulating and if taken in excess can make us aggressive and irritable. They give us a big rush and then have us crash. We should have these in moderation. They include spicy and salty foods, as well as sugar and caffeine.
Tamasic foods create dullness, they represent the principle of inertia. All stale foods are tamasic and even freshly cooked food becomes tamasic after couple of hours of preparation. They are hard to digest, and make us more prone to illness. These also include meat, alcohol, processed foods, onion, garlic etc. Tamasic foods are strictly discouraged for those on the spiritual path and even for those who aren’t, are best kept to a minimum.

Achieving health is not an easy task, but we should do all we can and not take it for granted.
Living in the hectic, modern world makes it hard to follow the rules of proper eating, because we’re stressed, we’re in a rush, we don’t know where our food comes from, we eat foods that cannot be grown without the aid of chemicals, and at the first sign of illness we rush to medicines and antibiotics that deal with the simptoms but not the root of the problem.

Having a perfect, proper diet is extremely hard, and food should not become such a big factor in our lives that it defines who we are.

Experiment with food, listen to your body, really try to understand what gives you energy, what makes you feel tired, but also try to gauge what is doable for you.

Be kind to yourself.

Meditation - Basildon

What is Meditation?