One of North America’s first brushes with yoga occurred when the Hindu Swami Vivekananda delivered his landmark address at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893. The monk and philosopher’s introduction of eastern thought, especially the Vedantic philosophy and its practice in “yoga,” opened up eastern spiritual traditions to legitimacy and respect in the west.
Over one hundred years afterwards, North America’s latest yoga landmark came as Vancouver-based yoga retailer lululemon announced on May 1, 2007 that it was seeking $200 million in a bid to go public and double the number of its stores, which currently include 52 ultra-trendy locations across Canada, the U.S. and Japan.
Seemingly evolving from fringe philosophy to ubiquitous mainstream frivolity – yoga poses now appear on cereal boxes – yoga’s genesis in North American culture has not been entirely Zen (not that yoga should be confused with Zen philosophy). Defined alternatively as a science, religion, physical therapy, psychological therapy, cult, philosophy, way of life and more, yoga’s alleged benefits (and detriments) have been haggled over by a variety of practitioners. The argument is often over the “true” nature of yoga, which has become as nebulous and changeable a concept as the definition of the word “yoga” itself. Yoga’s cultural ubiquity has made it a microcosm of contemporary culture’s major anxieties: the clash of deep spiritual tradition and superficial pop culture, eastern and western values, the conflict inherent in globalization, accusations of exploitation and distortion.
Yoga’s entry into the mainstream has led to one measure of certainty – the markets. A 2016 Yoga Journal report estimated that Americans spend about $3 billion each year on yoga classes and equipment. This cash flow has prompted a few entrepreneurial spirits to patent select yoga poses and practices. This turn of events was subsequently characterized as an attempt to cash in on an ancient, culturally sacred knowledge that belonged in the public domain. The Indian government generated headlines two years ago when it attempted to thwart this “yoga piracy” by establishing a database of traditional folk practices, such as yoga poses, in order to put a stop to these offenders, often Indian emigrants who did business in the United States, such as Bikram Choudhury, who has made millions with his Bikram “hot yoga” chain.
The “hot yoga” and lululemon phenomena contribute to the current yoga craze in North America in which yoga refers first and foremost to a fitness fad, with a focus on health benefits. This definition permeates North American society to such an extent that yoga’s cachet is capitalized upon widely, with claims of yogic inspiration to a multitude of exercise programs, from Pilates to one company’s set of exercise cards marketed to schools. Such marketing can have curious consequences, as the British Columbia public school board found out when it had to respond to accusations from some Christian parents that yoga-inspired exercises were turning kids on to Satan. If the yogic religion was acceptable in classrooms, they asked, why not the Lord’s Prayer?
Such vehement criticism resonates more, somewhat ironically, with what yoga would have meant to Vivekananda than with what it is popularly identified with today. Mass popularity translates into a mass market – for toned abs and flexible bodies and maybe a bit of “in the now” mind/body philosophizing, but certainly not an intense course in ethics and spiritual meditation on the path to an ultimate self-awareness and union of the self with universal consciousness (what the word “yoga” has always denoted to its traditional practitioners).
The word itself means “yoke” or “union” in Sanskrit, referring to this union of the individual with the divine cosmos. The practice that moves one toward this union is called yoga. In this context, yoga does not refer to a physical set of poses, but can be divided into four main paths:
- Jnana: through wisdom, intellect and will
- Bhakti: through the heart and devotion
- Karma: through selfless service
- Raja: through psychological practice, the mind, meditation
Conspicuously, none of these yogas are close to what yoga means in common North American speech today. Even Hatha yoga, which refers to physical practice, is simply one branch of Raja yoga, and has ultimately a meditative end.
So is yoga in North America destined to be just another link in the great retail chain? Such a prospect has already generated consternation among some more spiritual practitioners who have begun to make an effort to spread information about yoga’s philosophical roots. In the preface to his new book, Yoga Morality, yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein writes that he “seeks to …counterbalance the unfortunate trend witnessed today toward over popularizing the yogic heritage. Often Yoga’s modern votaries are no longer even aware of the spiritual and moral aspects of the age-old tradition they presume to practice.”
Feuerstein covers nothing less than environmental doom, the pitfalls of science, modern existential malaise and global politics of corruption in the preface of his April release, and links them all to a call for a renewal of yoga not only as a self-transcendent philosophical practice but also as a highly moral and ethical one. The former meshes well enough with popularizers such as lululemon – “Yoga embraces a wide range of disciplines whose ultimate goal is the joining of body, mind and spirit, a conscious unification into Oneness,” its website informs the curious. But grounding the sale of mass-produced “yoga totes” and cargo pants in ancient, traditional and complex thoughts on morality isn’t so market-savvy.