|Physical Culture: from Wikipedia Commons|
Yoga is one of those hot-button issues which arouses strong feelings in Catholic social media, and as much of the discussion is not very well informed, I thought I'd try to inform it a little.
Before my full assimilation into traddie-land I did a bit of Yoga myself for a few years; accordingly I have my own impressions of the general atmosphere and attitudes of Yoga classes, books, and personal practice. However it must be said that my experience was fairly superficial; I never entered any inner circle of Yoga adepts. The spiritual aspects of Yoga was part of the reason I stopped: I got fed up with being told to say 'Om', for example. Another was doubts about its physical efficacy. I don't deny the health benefits, but there is a natural tendency in Yoga to want to advance to the more perfect performance of more difficult postures, and, in short, become really really bendy, and while being a bit bendy is probably a good idea, I don't think it is particularly beneficial to be really really bendy. However, I'm not qualified to comment further on that.
In this post I want to talk about the philosophico/religious presuppositions of Yoga, or rather why it is so difficult to talk about such presuppositions. Having cleared this ground, in the next post I'll say what I think can be said about Yoga as a phenomenon, and its relationship with the Catholic Faith.
Yoga is typically characterised as a set of physical practices, of ancient origin, associated with Hinduism. This needs to be qualified in a number of ways.
First, we need to distinguish 'physical' Yoga from way the term 'yoga' is used in ancient Indian texts. The term is in fact extremely broad; it can refer to any kind of practice or technique (and various other things). From now one I'll take for granted that we are talking about 'postural' Yoga unless I specify otherwise.
Secondly, a distinction between Yoga as we know it today and pre-modern (pre-20th century) Yoga, insofar as it is useful to talk about pre-modern 'Yoga'. The money quote is this (from Andrea Jain Selling Yoga):
In other words, today’s popularized yoga systems are new, not continuations of some static premodern yoga tradition from which practitioners and nonpractitioners alike often claim they originate. Even postures and breathing exercises were marginal to the most widely cited sources on yoga prior to the twentieth century, and the forms of postures and breathing exercises that were present in those sources dramatically differ from those idiosyncratic forms found in postural yoga today.
Jain cites many academic sources on this topic and goes into some detail about what kinds of postures are mentioned in pre-20th century texts: basically, just sitting still and comfortably for prolonged meditation; and what kind of breathing exercises they mention: basically, holding the breath, in or out, for periods of time. Anyone bamboozled by talk of the 'Yoga Sutras' and other ancient texts or artifacts should read her book. In a word, the claim that Yoga as practiced today has ancient origins, except in the loosest possible sense, is completely false.
Thirdly, ancient and modern Yoga alike (acknowledging that they are two completely distinct things) are not the property of Hinduism. Ancient Yoga is found in the context of the Jain religion, Islamic Sufism, and Buddhism, as well as Hinduism, the last being itself a vastly complex collection of religious beliefs and practices and philosophical ideas. Modern Yoga is found in the context not only of Hinduism, but versions have been developed and promoted by a Jain sect, and obviously also by every imaginable shade of syncretist, secularist, and even Christian guru or organisation.
The question is complicated by the fact that some Hindu groups in India would like to appropriate ('authentic') Yoga as their possession, and minority religious groups have responded in kind, by resisting, for example, the inclusion of Yoga as a compulsory school subject in Indian schools. The limited historical connection between modern Yoga and Hinduism does not mean that Yoga cannot become a badge of identity for Hinduism in certain contexts.
So, where does modern, postural, Yoga come from? It derives from a serendipitous meeting of Hindu nationalism with the early 20th century European/English speaking physical culture movement. All the stuff about exercising by bending and stretching in unison comes from Western sources. Just do an image search for 'physical culture' and you'll find lots of black-and-white photos of (mostly female) fit-looking individuals in taxing-looking poses in sync, from the 1930s; the one above is an early example, dated 1913. If it looks a little fascistic, obviously the fascists thought this stuff was great, but you didn't need to be a fascist to do it. It was picked up by Hindu nationalists in the 1940s, who connected it with Hindu spirituality and the concept of 'yoga'. This then re-entered the West in time for a craze for Eastern wisdom connected with the New Age movement, in the 1960s. (This, essentially, is the thesis of Jain's book.)
Now obviously anyone can pick up where the physical culture movement left off, but the spirituality and philosophy of its Indian incubation has had an impact on what Yoga is all about. The trouble is that this spirituality and philosophy is extremely complex, and movements and individuals can evolve and be as syncretistic as they wish.
There is a basic distinction which needs to be made in Indian thinking, between dualistic and non-dualistic approaches. By Dualism is meant a distinction between the body and the spirit, which leads to asceticism as a route for the spirit to subdue and ultimately escape the body and the physical world. Non-dualistic views, which can be pantheistic, see this distinction as itself an illusion, so are more open to the idea of using the body in spiritual exercises. Now, it is possible to see postural yoga as an ascetic exercise, along with a vegetarian diet and celibacy; confusingly, it is also possible to use postural yoga on the basis of a non-dualist philosophy, the most famous manifestation of which is Tantra. Everyone knows Tantra's connection with sex: not only do some Tantric practices promise enhanced sexual performance, but sex itself can be a practice of deliberate norm-violation to free oneself from false ideas about the distinction between the body and the spirit.
Different strands of Yoga can in principle be lined up with this distinction. The Jain religion is firmly dualistic, and one Jain sect has developed and marketed a version of Yoga. On the other hand, Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga, ended up in a scandal about inappropriate relationships with female devotees, something connected with the interest he developed, as his career progressed, in Tantra; something similar happened to John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga. Tantric theory is a bit like Freudianism, in giving support - real or imagined - to some unfortunate personal choices.
Having made this distinction, one has to ask whether it makes any difference to the experience of Westerners going to a yoga class. The philosophical views of the class teacher, or the school in which the teacher trained, may make some difference to the way he or she goes about the task of teaching Yoga, but most of the people in the class are there for the goals of physical health, beauty, and fitness. The titillating possibility of enhanced sexual powers is a nice touch of course, but you can spend a lot of time doing Yoga without that coming up.
Given Yoga's debt to early 20th century Western ideas about physical culture, and given its extremely successful adaptation to the modern interest in fitness and beauty, debates raging back in India about dualism and non-dualism seem of very slight importance. As I have described them neither view is compatible with the Catholic Faith, but then again you can find Yoga teachers with zero interest in any version of Indian religious and philosophical thought, and come to that you can find Catholic priests teaching Yoga.
The problems with Yoga need to be approached in a more subtle way.
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