On June 21, for International Yoga Day, people will pull out their yoga mats and practice sun salutations or sit in meditation. Yoga may have originated in ancient India, but today it is practiced all over the world.
In the United States, it was philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who first engaged in yoga philosophy in the 1830s. Yoga did not gain a wider American following until the late 1800s.
Today, part of yoga’s appeal is that it continues to be considered a mystical and ancient tradition. However, as I discovered in my research, the practice of yoga has undergone profound changes. Here are four.
1. Yoga for Health and Happiness
He was a Hindu reformer, Swami Vivekananda, which introduced yoga to a wider audience. Vivekananda originally came to the United States to seek funds for poverty relief in India. Several electrifying speeches he gave at the world parliament of religions, the first global interreligious dialogue held in 1893 in Chicago, brought him instant fame. He then traveled across the United States for several years, lecturing and teaching yoga.
Vivekananda revived the tradition of an ancient Indian sage, Patanjali, which had been almost forgotten. Patanjali probably lived in India somewhere between the first century BC and the fourth century AD He claimed that the goal of yoga was isolation from existence and freed from the bonds of mortal life.
According Patanjali, to overcome suffering, individuals had to give up the very comforts and attachments that seem to make life worth living for many today. Like journalist Michelle Goldberg, author of “The Pose of the Goddess” says it, Patanjali’s yoga “is a tool of self-effacement rather than self-realization”.
No one today is likely to see yoga as a means of renouncing their existence. Most people are drawn to yoga to find happiness, health, and compassion in everyday life.
2. Value of physical exercise
Today, most people associate yoga closely with physical exercise and postures, called asanas, designed to strengthen and stretch the body. However, yoga is not limited to the physical. Yoga also encompasses devotion, contemplation and meditation. In fact, the emphasis on the body would surprise both Patanjali and Vivekananda, who favored mental exercise over physical exercise.
Patanjali treated the body with disdain, believing it to be a prison. He insisted on the fact that we are not our body and that any attachment to our body is an obstacle to yoga. Vivekananda echoes these thoughts. He treated the asanas with contempt. Vivekananda argued that an obsessive focus on the body distracts from the true practice of yoga: meditation.
In contrast, contemporary practitioners consider the asana to be central to yoga. Contemporary yogis recognize that the spirit and the soul are embodied. By “get smart in their yoga”, contemporary yogis deal with their bodies, but also with their emotions, because the health of the body has an impact on the capacity to see clearly and to act deliberately.
3. Focus on yourself
Today, svadhyaya means self-study. People often embrace the practice of yoga to lead a happier, less stressful, and more compassionate life. Yoga involves, as I state in my book “The Art of Recognition” pay attention to his habits. It is only by first noticing his habitual patterns that it becomes possible to change them.
Widely understood scriptures can help this practice of self-study, as they encourage reflection on deep and difficult questions that have no easy answers. For practitioners today, these questions include: What is the purpose of life? How can I live an ethical life? And what would make me really happy?
Ultimately, self-study lies at the heart of a healthy yoga practice. This allows yogis to recognize their deep connection with others and the world around them. This recognition of interdependence and interbeing is at the heart of yoga today.
4. Ethics of a Yoga Guru
In ancient practice, the relationship between a guru and a student was crucial. Today, the guru-student model is changing. Yogis no longer train for years with their guru, as was the practice in ancient India. Instead, yogis practice in studios, parks, fitness centers, or at home alone.
Yet, many contemporary yoga teachers claim the title “guru”.
However, some yoga practitioners demand the end of the guru model, given that it is endowed with an inherent power, which opens the door to abuse. There are many examples of such abuse, a more recent one being the case of Bikram Choudhurythe 73-year-old Bikram yoga founder, who fled the country to avoid an arrest warrant in California in 2017 after being charged with sexual assault.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement in the United States and India, many yoga practitioners have initiated important conversations on the ethics of being a yoga teacher. At the heart of these conversations is how yoga teachers should, above all, treat their students, who are often deeply vulnerable, with dignity and respect.
Ancient, but not timeless
Indeed, there is great power and mystique in the age of yoga.
But as a professor of communication, I observe that one of the most common mistakes people make in everyday conversation is to appeal to antiquity – what scholars call the fallacy of “the argumentum ad antiquitatem” – which says that something is good simply because it is old, and because it has always been made that way.
Yoga is ancient, but it is not timeless. By pausing for a moment to consider yoga’s past, we can recognize the crucial role we all can and must play in shaping its future.