Isn’t it true that the ancient texts describe eight limbs of yoga and that only one of them, asana, deals with physical poses?
Right. The thing is, even though yoga is so incredibly popular, I don’t think people know anything about the eight limbs. For most people, there’s just asana, along with a general sense that there’s something spiritual about yoga. There’s usually some kind of chanting or incense in a yoga class, something you can pick up in the air. But the vast majority of people who drift in and out don’t know that much about what yoga really is.
Why do you think the physical aspect of yoga has become so much more popular than the other branches?
We’re very body conscious and we like to exercise, so that’s been the entrée for yoga into the mainstream culture. Plus, we’re a culture that has a hard time sitting still. If you read histories of the old Indian yogis, even the ones who came from the elite classes, they spent a lot of time holding poses or sitting in meditation. Americans find this very difficult. It involves turning off your Palm Pilot, then turning off your Blackberry, then turning off your cell phone, then turning off all your thoughts. I mean, we can hardly sleep, let alone sit and think of nothing. So moving around is one way to force us into relaxation.
You have to remember, though, that the first yogis who came over to America took neglect of their bodies as a sign of holiness. You hear so many stories in which the master says to the student, “You really look like you’re wasting away. Eat something.” That was supposed to be a compliment. The body was secondary. Americans have completely flipped that around.
Do you think the physical nature of yoga also makes it seem like spiritual neutral ground—something that Americans of all religious backgrounds can do together without telling each other what to believe?
That’s a really good phrase, “spiritual neutral ground.” In this age of seekers, everyone is trying to find a placid place that doesn’t turn them off or remind them of their past. If you feel guilty about living a materialistic life but don’t want to join the Christian right, yoga allows you to have that little bit of spirituality. Instead of going through life with no spirituality, maybe it’s enough that twice a week you get to tap into it this tiny bit.
A yoga class gives you those small reminders that there is a higher power, or there is grace. But hearing spiritual ideas in this setting doesn’t seem like a betrayal of your urban self. You’re a passive recipient, just drawn along in the flow. You’re wearing your cool pants, and you have your purple mat. You’re proud of yourself for jumping around—that takes a certain discipline and strength. You still get to be trendy and physically fit, so it doesn’t feel alien, like dressing up to go to church.
In the article, you write that yoga classes have “mixed up our gym and our church.” But is the scene you’ve just described—wearing cool pants and listening to a few soothing words—really so different from a Pilates class?
It depends on where you are and what class you go to. I think some teachers are afraid to do much; they’ll maybe slip in a word or two about breathing or being centered. But I’ve been to classes where the instructor goes on and on with a twenty-five minute lecture. If my husband sat in on one of those classes, he would kill the teacher. He really just goes and wants to get some exercise. To him, two minutes of “yogaspeak” is too much. Other people think it’s a betrayal of yoga if teachers don’t at least teach people how to meditate and breathe.
You make an intriguing point in your article that the American mainstream had to become shallower in order for yoga to really catch on.
Well, in the 1970s, you had to have a certain degree of commitment to do yoga. Yoga implied following a whole lifestyle, becoming a vegetarian, going to an ashram. But in this generation, people feel comfortable taking a bit of their hippie past and a bit of their business past, a little bit of Christianity and a little bit of Buddhism, and mixing it all together. It’s impossible to tell what’s rebellious and what’s mainstream—it’s all just thrown in there. And it’s in this atmosphere that yoga becomes non-threatening. It doesn’t involve any serious commitment to a discipline or a way of life.
Was yoga ever mainstream in India?
No. You had to have a calling to be a yogi. You had to live a life of poverty. Whenever someone from an elite class decided to become a yogi, it was very controversial—until the turn of the century, when it became a chic thing. And now it’s become chic again. There’s a nouveau riche yoga trend in India now, inspired by Americans.
Even here, when you look at the very first issues of Yoga Journal, it’s hilarious. They’re not doing anything you’d recognize as yoga; they’re just flopped over in something that’s supposed to be a position. It’s all about reaching higher consciousness, but even I can see that they’re doing the poses horribly. You’d never have a picture like that in Yoga Journal today where it’s all about perfection, the exact placement of the foot and the spine.