On the bastardisation of yoga….via Rebelle Society (by Vikram Zutshi)

The spectrum of life affords something for everyone, but the true practice of yoga takes discipline, time, consciousness and humility. While millions of people claim to ‘do’ yoga today, those interested in cultivating a rich yoga practice are numbered. The below article, entitled On the bastardisation of yoga, like indigenous traditions by low-brow pop-culture, by Vikram Zutshi, is a superlative and insightful commentary on the dilution of the ancient origins and tradition from east to west.

As an American of Indian descent, I have always been fascinated by the arcane depths of the Hindu culture to which I belong.
I have been practicing Yoga and writing about Indian metaphysics, Buddhism and South Asian Art and Culture for a long time, and am fairly sensitive to how my native traditions are represented in the West, especially those in the mainstream like Yoga. Needless to say, the ancient science is now a multi-billion dollar industry with tens of millions of faithful acolytes, and has spawned wildly popular franchise chains like Yoga Works, Bikram Yoga and Anusara Yoga, among others.
All of them focus almost exclusively on the physical aspects of the practice, shunning or sidelining the esoteric and Hindu aspects, presumably for fear of driving away paying customers. As a US minority who was deeply connected with my roots, I could not help but feel that Yoga was being appropriated and deracinated to make it more palatable and therefore more marketable to western consumers.
I recently had the dubious pleasure of interacting with certain members of the Yoga community, which only served to drive home the point that the ancient wisdom tradition had been appropriated, annexed and colonized, much like the cultural appropriation of Native American, Asian, African and other indigenous traditions by vendors of low-brow pop culture. Moreover, it had been totally stripped of any connection with the culture which gave it birth, Hinduism, and now only had the most tenuous links with the esoteric science it claimed to represent.
As if to illustrate the point, I recently I came across a mangled version of Ashtanga Yoga called Rocket Yoga on a blog proclaiming the virtues of the same, written by a gent who refers to himself as The Lord Veda. Rocket Yoga was given the name by its founder Larry Schultz because it could you there faster, much like an advertising slogan for a new type of engine oil.
A Yoga teacher who unironically calls himself the Mula Bandha King and teaches a version of acrobatics with Eastern trappings resorted to personal attacks when I called him out on using the term Yoga to peddle a gymnastic routine that was not remotely connected with the Sanskrit epistemology from which it was derived.
To put things in context, Mula Bandha is the Sanskrit term for a yogic energy lock or seal, applied to the lower pelvis by contracting the muscles of the perineum. It is one of three Bandhas which prevents Prana or vital life force from leaking out during intense yogic Sadhana (practice), facilitating its movement up the spinal column to the crown of the head. So to call oneself Mula Bandha King is either hubris gone amok or the sign of an extremely low IQ.
In another example of rampant cultural misrepresentation, I came upon a blog written by popular Core Yoga teacher Sadie Nardini, who has raked in the moolah by exhorting her students to Unleash Your Inner Rock Star by signing up for her Badass Yoga Flow. Based on cursory readings of Norman Sjoman who claimed Mysore Yoga was largely influenced by western gymnastics, Nardini brazenly appropriates a 5000-year-old oral tradition and attempts to invalidate all Indian claims over its origins, implying that her Mickey Mouse version is as relevant as that of the Indian masters.
Sjoman, in turn, based his flawed hypothesis on the absence of detailed diagrams and instructions delineating all the Asanas taught by nineteenth and twentieth century Indian Gurus like Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, thereby arriving at the conclusion that since the texts were not in existence, Yoga must have been developed in the early twentieth century, and not thousands of years ago as the Indians claimed.
Clearly, both Sjoman and Nardini are not aware that Yoga, Kriyas, Bandhas, Pranayama and the various Tantras are largely an oral tradition that have been passed down from Guru to Shishya (disciple) since time immemorial. The absence of detailed accompanying texts, as is the custom in western academia, is not unusual since Indian wisdom traditions and esoteric sciences were not meant for mass consumption and only shared with the inner circle.
The ancient masters were only too aware of the pitfalls of misinterpretation and misrepresentation by semi-literate neophytes. Therefore, the quest for ancient documentary evidence, diagrams and flowcharts to verify the origins of Yogic techniques will always be a futile one. In fact, one would have to unlearn much of western academic indoctrination and develop an entirely new epistemic template to comprehend the ancient wisdom traditions of India or any other indigenous culture, for that matter.
On another blog, Nardini derides her fellow Yoga teacher Tara Stiles for being too commercial and selling out to the agencies who “see the incredible financial potential wrapped within our kula, now a multi-billion dollar industry. With only 9 percent of the country currently doing Yoga, this agency and others like them see a market to be expanded. This is what they exist for — to sell celebrity products, tours, speaking engagements and TV shows to people who will buy them. That’s what they all do.”
As a commentator on that particular thread aptly noted, “Yogis now throwing each other under the bus with their fans cheering them on. Who needs to watch the Super Bowl?!”
The products that stock the shelves of the spiritual supermarket are being marketed for their exotic value, even though the essence has been totally removed from the final product. Indeed, why call it Yoga at all if one believes that western gymnastics has more to do with the practice than Indian mysticism?
Hot Core Yoga, Dog Yoga, Nude Yoga, Rocket Yoga, Yoga Trance Dance, Acro Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, John Friend Yoga, Bikram Yoga, pricey designer clothing, flashy accessories and Club-Med style Yoga Holidays are all products of this dumbed down, hyper-commercialized approach to the esoteric sciences. In this spiritual Disney World, discredited 19th century Orientalist bromides cannot help but thrive.
Attendees of ubiquitous, corporate style 200-Hour Teacher Training courses, are made to believe they are qualified to teach a complex psychophysical epistemology that has been imparted by oral transmission to an inner circle of initiates for untold millennia. This cavalier disregard for substance results in numerous distortions and half-baked notions floating around the new age blogosphere, lapped up as fact by spiritual tourists and neophytes.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, progenitor of western Yoga, was an accomplished Sanskrit scholar, deeply knowledgeable about the Darshan Shastras. He had devoted his entire life to the study of Nyaya-Vaisheshika, Uttara Mimamsa, Purva Mimamsa, Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta, the bedrock of Sanatan Dharma. His constantly evolving style and propensity for spiritual instruction emerged out of the vast scholarship and experiential wisdom that he had acquired over an entire lifetime, a stark contrast with today’s anodyne products of corporatized assembly line teacher training programs.
The truth is that there is only ONE Yoga, which cannot be branded and sold on supermarket shelves like laundry detergent, baked beans or tinned salmon. Its regular practice generates a feeling of detachment from the trappings of Samsara or the world of illusory and transient pleasures — quite the opposite of how Yoga is marketed today.
The renowned Palestinian public intellectual and post-colonial critical theorist Edward Said referred to the insidious process of intellectual colonization as Orientalism — the imposition of a Judeo-Christian, post-colonial or Western academic Weltanschauung onto an entirely different worldview that had no moorings in western epistemology.
Said’s work focused on inaccurate cultural representations that are the foundation of Western thought towards the Orient, of how The West perceives and represents The East. In his landmark thesis he postulated that “most Western writing about the Orient depicts it as an irrational, weak, and feminised Other, an existential condition contrasted with the rational, strong, and masculine West. This binary relation derives from the European psychological need to create a difference of cultural inequality between West and East; that cultural difference is attributed to immutable cultural essences inherent to Oriental peoples and things.”
The essence of Yoga can be found in Samkhya. They are regarded as twins, the two aspects of a single discipline. Samkhya, attributed to Rishi Kapila, is one of the six Darshan Shastras or schools of thought that constitute the foundation of Hindu philosophy. Samkhya provides a basic theoretical exposition of human nature, enumerating and defining its elements (Tattwas), analyzing their manner of co-operation in a state of bondage , and describing their state of disentanglement or separation in release (Moksha), while Yoga treats specifically the dynamics of the process for the disentanglement, and outlines practical techniques for the gaining of release, or Kaivalya. Yoga and Samkhya must both be studied in conjunction with other Shastras for genuine learning to emerge.
Jaideva Singh, Robert Svoboda, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, David Frawley, Paul Muller-Ortega, John Woodroffe, David Peter Lawrence, Mark Dyczkowski, Mikel Burley and Baba Rampuri — among others — have written extensively on the esoteric meaning of Hindu mythical/tantric cosmology, and their work should be made required reading for all attempting to dip their toes into the vast ocean of Hinduism (especially those with the temerity to market themselves as Yoga teachers).
Demagoguery and authoritarianism are antithetical to the central precepts of Vedic cosmology. Moreover, free speech and vigorous debate have always been integral to Sanatan Dharma. However, it is imperative to make corrections to the discourse when a skewed and incomplete narrative is accepted as the norm.
In response to the lumpenization of the subtle sciences by carnival barkers, I will conclude by quoting these immortal lines by Alexander Pope:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Vikram Zutshi is a writer-producer-director and photojournalist based in Los Angeles. After a stint as Creative Executive at 20th Century Fox and in Sales/Acquisitions at Rogue Entertainment, he went solo and produced two feature films before transitioning into Directing ‘Max Kennedy and the American Dream’. The feature documentary was filmed at various points along the 2000 mile US-Mexico border and has been broadcast in several countries till date. Apart from writing frequently on the metaphysics, art and culture of South Asia, he travels extensively on photo assignments and is currently prepping his next film, a fiction feature, ‘The Byron Project’. Twitter: @Getafix2012.

Why our choices matter…

(If you don’t wish to read this post in entirety, please do watch the video below)
Yoga can sometimes appear to be a bit like a slippery ball of yarn; difficult to grasp onto one comprehensive meaning that gives a lay person an understanding of the enormity and spectrum of the practice. While the direct translation of the word is solid – to yoke or unite – the interpretations and understanding of what yoga is differ enormously, and most of the time only capture a limited aspect of an all-encompassing practice. Regular practitioners can generally agree on one thing; there can be a passion regarding the practice that is on the same level of importance of life itself; in fact, the yoga practice is embedded into all aspects of life.

My experience with yoga is that it is a practice of relationship: relationship with self and relationship with other. The state of yoga is seeing ourselves in all other human beings; treating every living being as oneself. The world most of us live in is not created from this fabric. Holding a job, a home, a family implies a sense of self, or ego (‘my’ job, ‘my’ family). These labels, or containers, help to define and separate, it becomes a way of managing ourselves in the world. Yoga, however, is the process of integrating.

To the outside world, or those new to the practice, it may seem that the teachings of yoga can be radical, or extreme. These are two different words, with very different roots. Radical actually stems from the word ‘root’, or ‘inherent’, while extreme stems from the root word ‘outermost’, or ‘utmost’. These subtleties can easily be mistaken and overlooked by the dedicated practitioner, but make a very big difference in the intention of the practice and the ability to be integrated in the world, and in seeing ourselves in other beings, versus living a life of separation that opinates and judges.

In the eight-limbed path of yoga, otherwise referred to as ashtanga (literally translated to eight, ashtanga, attachments or limbs, anga) there are guidelines for practicing yoga in an integrated way in life; not just on a man-made yoga mat, and not just as a specific time in the day when one works on the body-mind relationship. Yoga states that the body-mind relationship extends well beyond time and our body, for yoga inter-relates all of animate life; yoga states we are one.

The first limb of the eight limbs are the yamas, or restraints. These restraints refer to how we relate to others. While we still see ourselves as separate, individual beings (jiva in Sanskrit), the first yama states that we should be kind to all other beings. In Sanskrit the word is ahimsa, or non-harming. This is a rich topic because there are many interpretations and mechanisms for harming others, some without even knowing it.  For example, we may think non-harming suggests that it is better to lie to another being to avoid conflict, or to lie to ourselves to avoid a painful truth. Ahimsa does not imply lying, or making judgements (in fact, the second yama is satya, or truthfulness). Non-harming does imply compassion, the act of experiencing the suffering of others as one’s own. As yogis, we practice both not harming others, as well as identifying with others who suffer. The next step is an obvious one, and that is to not only not harm others, but to actively do something to prevent the suffering of others.

The link between practicing non-harming behaviour, consumerism and activism is a well documented topic, which my teachers, Sharon Gannon and David Life have spent their life articulating. Most of us can agree that when it comes to consuming other beings as food, it is clear that harming is involved-one being must be killed in order for the other to eat it. However, there are many misunderstandings of the conditions the animals in the average factory farm are treated, and the horrific conditions the workers in those factories must endure. In practicing ethical vegetarianism, or veganism (the practice of not consuming animal products), it is a proactive measure to not participate in the cycle of harming. Even so, lifestyle and diet choice can become a fixation point where other relationship falls by the wayside. It is possible, for example, for ethical vegetarians to harm to themselves if left undernourished for a lack of knowledge about how to eat healthfully in this manner or due to specific health reasons. There also may be a tendency towards harmful thoughts, or even actions towards others who do not assume the same label. This often is guided by ignorance, of relying labels which only ultimately feed the ego instead of relating to the other being. Practicing the yamas and yoga in general, implies having the awareness to catch and eradicate critical thought when it enters the mind. It is a practice, and like all practices, we each do the best we can within our abilities and constraints.

What is important to note is that as consumers, the choices we make and our purchasing behaviour is powerful. The more knowledge we have, the more we may make informed decisions and implement changes where possible. If the choice is to eat meat, for example, know where it comes from and how the animals are treated; subtleties and small details matter. This small step may change the lives of thousands, not to mention your own.

Abel and Cole
Planet Organic
Books at Jivamuktiyoga.com


Jivamukti Yoga Focus of the Month: April 2014: Inversions, by Sharon Gannon

Inverted asanas are the most important of all the asanas for several reasons. Their positive effects are felt on many levels: physical, psychological and spiritual. Inversions help to bring the many systems of the body into harmonious equilibrium, balancing not only the physical, but also the energetic, emotional and mental bodies, as well promoting spiritual development. Turning upside down improves physical health, slows down the aging process, tones the muscles and the skin, improves circulation and respiration, improves digestion, increases bone density, strengthens the immune system, reduces stress and anxiety, increases self-confidence, improves concentration, stimulates chakras and makes you feel tranquil, happier, optimistic and spiritually oriented. The practice of inverted asanas may even lead to Self-realization. How can such claims be true?

Because inversions reverse the action of gravity on the body inside and out, they provide a powerful toning massage to the internal organs. This helps detoxify the organs by stimulating movement and counteracting stagnation. This internal invigoration also has a positive effect on muscles and skin tone. Turning the body upside down provides a different orientation to its relationship to the Earth and while holding the position provides an isometric experience that can increase bone density.

Inversions exercise the heart and encourage venous return. Many experts say that this is as good for the body as aerobic exercise for promoting a healthy heart and good circulation. Normally after arteries have circulated fresh oxygenated blood to all the body parts, the veins have to rely on muscular movement to counteract gravity and return the blood to the heart . Turning upside down enables this venous return to happen effortlessly. This also helps prevent varicose veins in the legs. When the body is inverted the heart gets a rest. Usually the heart has to work hard all day and night against gravity to move oxygenated blood up to the brain and throughout the body, but when you are upside down the blood flows on its own with out the heart having to do all the work.

Turning upside down causes the entire lymphatic system to be stimulated, thus strengthening the immune system. Turning upside down also stimulates and nourishes the endocrine glands, especially the pituitary and pineal glands, which when stimulated by the pressure created in inversions release hormones that regulate cellular metabolism, bringing health, balance, clarity, vitality and optimism to the whole body/mind system.

When we turn our bodies upside down, we are literally turning our world upside down. Turning upside down allows us to experience the advantage of different attitudes and ways to perceive. Everything we know as right side up, typical and normal is pulled out from underneath us. This disorientation requires us to draw from places in our psyches that we may not have accessed much before. In order to fully experience this new angle of perception we must relax both our bodies and minds and surrender to the Divine with faith.

Through inversions we can experience a kind of regression and rebirth. Especially the experience elicited by shirshasana when our head rests on the terrestrial plane of the ground and becomes the seat of the asana, we find ourselves going head first back into the Earth, our source. The feeling can be like diving head first back into the womb. The result can be a renewal of creativity. Physically elevating our hearts above our heads has a profound psychological effect as our intuitive feeling brain, situated in the heart, takes precedence over our rational intellectual judging mind.

The major inverted asanas are shirshasana (headstand), salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand), halasana (plough), adho mukha vrikshasana (handstand), pinchamayurasna (forearm stand) and viparita karani (legs up the wall). They should be practiced daily. If you don’t have time for a 1-2 hour asana class that includes the 14 points of a Jivamukti Yoga open class, then at least practice inversions—especially shirshasana and salamba sarvangasana—remaining in each of them for at least five minutes. If you don’t have time to do that, then at the very least practice adho mukha vrikshasana and try to hold it for at least 25 breaths, against the wall if necessary. The point is to not go a day without turning upside down, unless you are a menstruating woman (in which case it may be best to rest from all inversions, because turning upside down will disturb the downward movement of apana toward the Earth).

Shirshasana is called the king of the asanas and is thus considered the most important of all the asanas. Each asana affects a particular chakra, and headstand stimulates the sahasrara (crown) chakra. The karmic relationship associated with this chakra is our relationship to God. Consciousness is chemical, and shirshasana stimulates the pituitary and pineal glands in the brain to release hormonal substances that cause an expansion of consciousness, which provides us an opportunity to let go of mundane, worldly concerns and become available for Cosmic consciousness. Inversions open a doorway to the Divine.

~Sharon Gannon

Happy Six Month-Aversary, New Liver!

March 26 marks the 6 month mark of the biggest day of my life (besides being born and giving birth), the day of my liver transplant.

People ask me how I’ve been doing since then, and while I feel very blessed to be alive, by all accounts this time of recovery hasn’t been without great challenges and self-reflection. Nevertheless, I remain fascinated in the journey and what unfolds with each new day. My scar and the transience of life is the first thing I feel each morning and the last thing I remember before sleep.

It has been a long road, perhaps longer than an average recovery time, with many unexpected medical setbacks that have become the status quo of daily life. In a sense, this has been the easy part; it is a physical reality that requires some patience. Just last week the gauze from my long standing wound came off; daily I experience echoes of pain from the scarring and dissolvable stitches deep under the skin that have yet to dissolve. While I am exploring ways of retrieving my energy sources, I suppose the mental and emotional build up and descent post-surgery has left me learning to be more energy efficient and realistic in how I spend my time. My priorities have become clearer; I’m less apologetic about who I am as a person. I take time for the important things, like spending time with my son and listening to the subtleties of sound and messages embedded into daily life.

It is humbling to be practicing (not to mention teaching) yoga in a body that feels raw and in many ways ill-equipped. All the same, it is enriching, and inspiring to continue to be involved with that things I love, and that includes the human experience. As I hear the stories of other beautiful beings in daily passing, rarely do I hear of an experience of which I can’t relate. We are truly in this journey together.

Being unable to do some of the physical things I used to enjoy has been illuminating; it has highlighted other resources and activities I enjoy, such as re-igniting my passion to create music and art. Even though I don’t always feel skillful in my body, most of the time I do feel whole and complete within myself. Taking stock of, and celebrating the resources available at any given time has been a valuable practice that has helped me remain grateful.

The emotional aspect of healing has been the most challenging aspect of the past couple of months. Wading through my life has become a regular pastime; re-experiencing the important moments branded into my memory as well as recalling the events that have slipped away seems to be a high priority of accepting my life as it is now. I suppose when life’s slate is nearly wiped clean, there may be a knee jerk reaction to want to hold on to as much as possible; a re-attachment process to life.

One thing has become clear to me, and that is, it takes time. I had no idea just how much time my body and mind would need to process. We live in a digital age when our expectations of ourself and other seem to speed up. However, with time comes clarity, space and acceptance of any situation. There is an Irish proverb that says something like, ‘When God made time, he made enough.’ It is remembering this every moment that is the challenge and the joy!

My (Wo)manifesto?

As human beings, we spend our time on this earth inhabiting our body, yet how many of us have an idea about our body and it’s sense of space, depth, and potential? As we journey from point A to point B and in between the defining moments of our lives, do we know where we are in space? Do we move with mindfulness in our skin, and in connection with the beings and places we touch? Do we have an understanding of who and what is affected by our presence?

The human experience is ultimately one about relationships: relationship with self; relationship with other, which we can define, in a sense, as gravity. There is the gravitational pull to the earth, of course, but our relationships with others also come with their own gravitational pulls and forces of attraction and repulsion.

Yoga is an embodiment practice that explores and cultivates the relationship of self, and self and other, while Rolfing extends these relationships into the realm of gravity.

My fascination and life’s work is in navigating through these changing relationships, while enhancing my life and hopefully also the lives of those around me as we build an awareness and understanding of these relationships together. I delight in bringing this to my yoga practice, my yoga classes, and to my practice as a Rolfer.

Every thing is in relation to every other thing, a concept that defies borders and boundaries by first defining them. Separation leads to integration. What a concept.


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