Ascetic yogi in India – photo by James Mallinson
Following up on my previous commentary on the yoga art exhibit, I want to express my frustration about trying to make meaningful remarks about the exhibit, symposium and catalog. Here we have a major trans-global intellectual enterprise about yoga, past, present and future. Major authorities participate in the conceptualization of the the enterprise, its visual nature fills the eyes with light, the juxtaposition of artifacts sets off ripples of imagination, the road map points in multiple direction of investigation and meditation.
I see a picture of an Indian ascetic seated in Lotus pose and I myself am seated in easy pose (Western hips don’t lie), and I feel a connection across the centuries, across the oceans, across the cultural and language barriers. I can feel it in my bones, tissues, blood and breath because yoga affects the physical bodies of all human beings the same way — it’s in our DNA, our genetic code. But the meaning is not. That’s why the physical practice, hatha yoga, is the most easily and directly assimilated by Westerners.
The yogi ascetic attending the Kumbh Mela religious festival has thousands of years of social, cultural, spiritual, and historical weight both bearing down on him and sustaining him, in addition to the years of his personal practice. On my end of the equation, I feel the impact of postural yoga (and related influences) over the past 100 years on the American mainstream, the referential value of Yoga Journal, books, blogs, and videos, the contact with truly inspiring teachers, and nearly 10 years of personal practice.
When Indian or Hindu organizations or advocates lament that American yogis are hollowing out the nature of authentic yoga and leaving a physical practice stripped of deeper significance, they are partially right. Yoga has existed and flourished in the Americas for about a century, a mere hiccup compared to yoga in India. Few of us have the option of “going native” — live in Mysore for a year or two, learn Sanskrit, be accepted by a guru, but still be operating from a a socio-cultural deficit. Yoga in America can not be sustained by an invisible apparatus or scaffolding of a dense, multi-layered society with a living memory, such as India. And the efforts to replicate this experience in the Americas (ashrams, Jivamukti-style experiments) are fragile creations. Compared to the Indian version, ours seems flimsy and lightweight.
My understanding of how yoga took a Hanuman-like leap across the oceans is imperfect, filtered and partial, even though the Yoga: The Art of Transformation exhibit can give us tantalizing glimpses of the historical springboard. Thus, my frustration.
I have to come back to my fundamental connection to yoga: my (hybrid, bowdlerized) yoga practice alleviates my suffering as a human being, just as with the yogi ascetic. I will have to abide in that space, that presence, and let the maddening and stimulating experimentation of adapting yoga to Western society run its course, a hothouse environment in which many subspecies and mutants (yoga buns, yoga pants, yoga bunnies, yoga fitness, secular yoga, yoga vacations and all the branding, patents and copyrights of yoga styles) will spring up and wither away in the capitalist, consumer market. It’s enough to make those committed to yoga’s potential despair, but the survivors will invigorate the species and ensure its future.
Remember, the title of the exhibit is “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.” Although it is a visual exhibit, the emphasis is on transformation.