From a spiritual practice to a modern way of staying fit, yoga has crossed many boundaries. But critics accuse Westerners of tearing yoga away from its cultural roots and creating something that is not yoga at all.
The origins of yoga are not very clear, although many in India believe that the practice began during ancient times under the tutelage of the learned sage, Patanjali.
One of India’s most popular yoga teachers, B.K.S. Iyengar, says in his book Light on Life: “Patanjali…is considered the father of yoga. In reality, as far as we know, he was a yogi and a polymath living around fifth century B.C India, who collated and elaborated existing knowledge of the yogis’ life and practices. He wrote the Yoga Sutras, literally, a thread of aphorisms about yoga, consciousness and the human condition.”
“Yoga is as old as the universe itself,” said Sanjay Singh, a professor at the University of Patanjali in Haridwar, India. “Yoga is a practice taught by god himself. It was not created by human beings and the purpose of yoga is to know the reality of life, to free the self from the cycle of life and death.”
The word “yoga” means “to be united, to be one with god and to be one with your real self, to know who you are, the purpose of your life and the best way to live your life,” Singh added.
What it is today
Today, yoga is not just restricted to India, but has become globally popular as a means to achieve physical fitness and peace of mind. Yoga schools, in India and the West, teach many forms of the practice, including Hatha Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, Bikram Yoga and Hot Yoga, all of which offer different ways of achieving the goal of physical fitness and relaxation.
The increasing demand for yoga among different groups of people has resulted in more innovation as far as the practice is concerned. Thus dog owners, for instance, can take their pets to their practice and do what is called Dog Yoga. Naked yoga involves doing asanas in the nude, reducing self-consciousness and accepting imperfections in the body. Beer yoga, a trend that emerged in Berlin, targets beer drinkers, who want to get some exercise while sipping their favorite beverage.
Although these modifications have helped increase the popularity of yoga, many teachers take offense at what they feel is a trivialization of the ancient spiritual practice. They say that modern ways of doing yoga do not take into account the practice’s origins in ancient India or the country’s colonial history, adding that it is disrespectful of religious symbols that are inherent to the practice.
“While not captured in history books, yoga and sanskrit were stripped of their people in their own country under colonial rule. Yoga was a spiritual way of life for India and its people — not separate as a practice in a yoga studio,” said Rina Deshpande, a yoga and mindfulness researcher, author and teacher.