Is Yoga Debased by Secular Practice?
BY DRU SEFTON
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
Millions of Americans are practicing yoga to improve flexibility,
strengthen muscles and relieve stress.
But they also are co-opting an ancient spiritual philosophy, many
yoga experts contend. A sacred practice, they complain, is
increasingly being debased and commercialized.
Yoga is a lucrative and growing business. About 16.5 million
Americans now spend nearly $3 billion annually on classes and
products, a February poll by Harris Interactive and Yoga Journal
Compare that with two basic tenets of yoga -- that it is unethical to
charge money to teach it, and that you need nothing but your body to
The sun salutation, perhaps the best-known series of asanas, or
postures, of hatha yoga -- the type most commonly practiced in
America -- is literally a Hindu ritual.
"Sun salutation was never a hatha yoga tradition," said Subhas
Rampersaud Tiwari, professor of yoga philosophy and meditation at
Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla. "It is a whole series of
ritual appreciations to the sun, being thankful for that source of
To think of it as a mere physical movement is tantamount to "saying
that baptism is just an underwater exercise," said Swami Param of the
Classical Yoga Hindu Academy and Dharma Yoga Ashram in Manahawkin,
What Americans are doing -- practicing everything from hip-hop yoga
to yoga with pets, using Hindu deities as knickknacks -- is "hurtful
and insulting" to the 5,000-year-old tradition, Param said.
The debate has intensified among yoga scholars and teachers as yoga
practice has grown in popularity.
Between 1998 and 2005 alone, the circulation of the 30-year-old Yoga
Journal tripled. Now there are yoga cruises, yoga book clubs, yoga
dating services, yoga snacks ("created specifically for yoga"), yoga
music ... the list goes on.
Todd Jones, senior editor of Yoga Journal, explained the evolution.
Yoga "did start primarily as a meditative-spiritual practice. But
it's gone in so many different directions." There are so many styles
practiced in America, he said, it's nearly impossible to describe
a "typical" yoga class.
"We live in a market-driven culture," Jones said. "If you're a yoga
teacher, there's pressure to separate yourself in some way from the
hundreds of others." Instructors often do this by "emphasizing
whatever feels most compelling and authentic to them, and that
differs from person to person."
But when Swami Param, now 56, was curious about yoga as a 16-year-old
in New Jersey, it was by no means ubiquitous. So he turned to a
"I still keep that Webster's with me," he said. "I looked up yoga and
it said, `Sanskrit, Hinduism.' That's what it is. Just look at the
Sanskrit is the language of sacred Hindu writings. "Every Sanskrit
word these teachers are saying in yoga classes, they are using a
religious language," he said.
Imagine the outcry if Christian, Jewish or Islamic prayers were
commonly and casually used in nonreligious contexts, Param said.
The word yoga is most often defined as a yoking, or union. Its
practice strives to unite the individual soul with the "greater soul"
of the universe, traditionally through four main paths: karma
(action), bhakti (devotion), jnana (wisdom) and raja or ashtanga
(mental and physical control).
Hatha yoga, which most Americans call simply "yoga," is in fact just
one aspect of ashtanga.
The physical postures of hatha yoga are practiced by Hindu yogis to
enable them to more comfortably meditate for hours, freeing the mind
from the distracting pains of the body.
"A yoga master in India is a highly evolved spiritual being, not a
gymnast," said David Frawley, director of the American Institute of
Vedic Studies in Santa Fe, N.M., who writes and lectures on the
But Americans tend to focus on fitness alone, perhaps because "as a
culture we are extremely physically oriented," as Hindu University's
Tiwari put it. "We are enamored by the physical aspect of who we are.
Some of us even worship our bodies."
Everyone agrees that yoga is physically beneficial.
"It's a very nice exercise activity," said Cedric Bryant, chief
exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise in San
Diego, Calif. "It improves muscle strength and endurance levels,
joint range of motion and flexibility, and balance."
The Yoga Journal's Jones believes these physical benefits can
ultimately draw participants into a deeper, more spiritual
understanding of the practice.
"I'm more peaceful, I have more energy and more patience -- but I
certainly didn't go into it looking for that," he said.
Even that is unacceptable to Swami Param. "Why be covert?" he asked.
Participants should be invited upfront to "come study Hinduism,"
which is what they're doing when learning hatha yoga, he said.
His New Jersey ashram does offer one nonspiritual class
called "Stretch and Relaxation Based on the Hatha Yoga of Hinduism."
He urges other hatha yoga teachers to explain to participants that
they're taking a fitness class based on a religious practice.
"Then, they could even charge money," he said.
July 15, 2005
(Dru Sefton can be contacted at dru.sefton@...