Do Yoga? Only in America

By | March 14, 2011

In Hinduism, yoga comprises one of the six main schools of philosophy, along with being integral to Buddhism and Jainism. Yoga is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which were written in the first centuries CE and are part of Hinduism’s foundational text. Yoga is a system of achieving inner and outer peace through the practice of three paths: lifestyle, ethics, and action. Progress is made through mental and physical discipline, which includes diet, meditation, training, gaining knowledge, and dutiful activity.

Something happened to yoga on its way to us—it was no longer spelled with a capital Y. We no longer had to live yoga, we could now just do yoga. All we have to do is go down to the local gym and choose yoga rather than aerobics. Or we can pop in a DVD and do it in the comfort and privacy of our own living room. We have stripped a relevant way of life down to a mere routine, the same as we did with transcendental meditation a few decades ago—pay your money, get your mantra, and you too can become a better executive.

With our society’s dearth of relevant ritual, I can understand why we so easily turn to what is commonly termed cultural appropriation. However, if we were to actually appropriate the culture rather than just cherry pick a morsel, we might do ourselves some good. Cultural traditions evolved over time to provide meaning and a continuum context for everyday practices. Mayan elder Carlos Barrios suggests that we “Follow a tradition with great roots. It is not important what tradition, your heart will tell you, but it must have great roots.” Without a holistic approach, we end up trying to restore health and relevance with what amounts to a mishmash of pop-culture scavengings.


9 Comments

patanjali on April 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm.

well, to clarify, what i read from tamarack’s advice seems more fitting to those who are actively rewilding. not so much for city dwellers and that sort who are consumed in societies’ gear turnings. for those who are looking to be outside and make those movements on their own the woods running is the way to go.

since yoga evolved with sedentary people possibly living lives closer to city people today than hunter gatherers, yoga actually fits their lifestyles better than running in the woods as some food for thought.

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Tamarack on July 2, 2011 at 1:42 pm.

Hi Tim,

You bring up an important point—that each of us need to do what we can, and what fits, to better our situation. My concern here is cultural appropriation. The term is usually used to imply judgment, and I think we take ourselves too seriously when we claim to know what is right and wrong for others. All cultures evolve by appropriation. What is important to me is that the source be acknowledged, just as with telling a story. It is said that life is a story, and stories are for sharing. The story is not owned by anyone, yet in many traditional cultures the source of the story is acknowledged, out of respect for the source.

Acknowledgment of the source is not one of our cultural practices, so we end up in effect buying tools without the instruction manuals. The tool might work for us, but we may never know how much more it is capable of doing.

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patanjali on March 25, 2011 at 8:41 pm.

how many city people see herons? they could imitate their dogs and cats, perhaps a pet rat. do the house fly pose?

your choices are fine, i respect them. i am saying there are lots of choices and people make them. somebody hunts and tracks on google, well that computer helps rape and pillaging continue in this world, but its a choice you or many people make because its the world we live in. it’s a neutered form of tracking to me, and it’s also okay to me. i agree it doesn’t need to be dichotomous, yoga doesn’t need to be this or that. for many people it helps, not everyone is going to hop over chairs and crawl to the ‘fridge. if the ultimate goal and best option is to be living hunter gatherer in a wild environment then all else is just different grades of less ideal. and if that is not the ultimate goal then yoga is just as good.

i think what you propose is great, it’s just not the best or only good way to me. if there is ever a hard crash of civilization then the only people left will probably be running, jumping, crawling, walking. until then it’s diversity with this many people in the world.

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patanjali on March 19, 2011 at 8:58 am.

another angle is for people to explore other cultures enough that they can even recognize aspects that are lacking in “theirs”, what is “our” yoga? and we are in a unique situation, we are not hunter gatherers growing up and living that life day in and day out, we are experiencing a different sort of full spectrum blend. and this also smacks of political or cultural idealism, to not do this or that because of an ideal. cultures as far as i have read have shared pieces of themselves back and forth. i have heard the arguments that now is different. this black hole of nurturing cultural aspects of this western culture sucks dry the repositories from around the world. what happens when running in the woods is not enough? and physical yoga practice actually helps to heal one’s body? well, the body is re-established in a sort of balance and perhaps the person has the experience of what worked and why. it is possible that hunter gatherers did not face the same problems we do. yoga is offered to some people, and they might be fools to deny it.

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Tamarack on March 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm.

Greetings Pat-on-jolly,

I think your perspective is solid—many people benefit from yoga (and dozens of other practices) so why not use them? And we are no longer living as hunter-gatherers, so why not reach out to other cultures and find what we are missing?

I’d like to propose another option: we are still hunter-gatherers to the core, living the lifeway every day, and there is nothing missing. It is all a matter of perspective. When I step out of the dichotomous mind frame of this versus that, yoga versus woods, choices fade away and I see with new eyes. I realize I’m hunting things down on Google and gathering data for my new book. Like the tracker and the tracked, the journey to wellness and the results become one and the same. My teachers appear before me: I learn the Heron Stretch from the bird out there on the stream rather than a person or book. The Elders showed me this way when I used to go to them for guidance by saying, “Why do you come to me when you can go and ask them?” Instead of debating with me over my this-and-that quandaries, they would often just look out past me. I used to get so frustrated and judgmental—until I finally realized that they were suggesting I also look beyond myself.

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Matt on March 16, 2011 at 8:05 am.

Just out of curiosity, what would you suggest for someone who has been living a sedentary lifestyle for 50 years and whose body is stiff and sore and inflexible?

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Tamarack on March 19, 2011 at 9:11 am.

I would recommend ibuprofen and a La-Z-Boy. But seriously, yogic exercises have helped many people. My awareness is that stretching and workout routines were developed by and for people with sedentary, repetitious lives. When our days are centered around preprogrammed, repetitive activities, it doesn’t surprise me that we would come up with another preprogrammed, repetitive activity to attempt correcting the ills of the first.

As both a preventative and a cure, I encourage people to step off the pavement and into natural environments—the more varied, the better. There no two steps are alike, and especially in brushy or rocky terrain there is the continual stooping, stretching, and twisting that exercises all muscle groups. When I’m in the woods, I’m off the trail more often than not, crawling over and under logs and snaking through branches. I have a multidimensional experience: fresh air and sunshine, nature observation, and awareness training, along with limbering and sensory exercise. With every movement demanding attention and coordination, I naturally stay present.

Of course, not everyone is privileged to live in a national forest as I do. In and around urban areas, one can take advantage of overgrown lots, green belts, the unkept areas of parks, and nature preserves. When I was confined to an apartment for a period, I set up an obstacle course with chairs, tables, and whatever else was around and had a great time with it. I believe we do best physically, mentally, and emotionally with activities that are continually varied and involve the whole being. We evolved to perform such activities and they are what we have practiced for all of human existence prior to our abandoning the natural realm.

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patanjali on March 14, 2011 at 9:26 pm.

There are quite a few people who “do Yoga” and are serious about making it a lifestyle and beyond a substitute for aerobics. I see the point made about cherry picking, but this western culture is bankrupt of culture, what else is to be expected?

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Tamarack on March 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm.

I think your question, “What else is to be expected?” is where we need to go. What else is there other than to cherry pick other cultures, or to attempt adopting them as our own (as you state some people do with yogic tradition)? One option I would suggest exploring is the tradition of our indigenous neighbors. It evolved in relation to the seasons, the landscape, and the native plant and animal community.

Perhaps doing so would help maintain the tradition, along with nourishing ourselves as it does them. My dream message this morning was that fulfillment comes not from striving for what isn’t, but from recognizing what already is. Before we import something we think we don’t have, do we look around to make sure we are not ignoring or denying what is already here? This was brought home to me when an elder said that every time we speak to her in her language, we strengthen her culture, and every time we use our language, we erode it. I wonder if we might be hurting ourselves at the same time by disregarding what is laid before us. Is there any real difference between exploiting the world’s mineral “resources” and the world’s cultural “resources?”

When we insist on doing things our way, indigenous people have no choice but to adopt in order to interact with us, and even to survive. I see that many of us who have become aware of our colonizing-exploiting legacy—me included—still have trouble cooling our jets and sitting down to listen.

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