“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.
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!
Askegaard, S. and Eckhardt, G.M., 2012. Glocal yoga: Re-appropriation in the Indian consumptionscape. Marketing Theory, 12(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.