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Now & Zen: Meditation Through Time

How an ancient philosophy gave rise to a modern exercise

Written by Emma Penrod

High in the Himalayas, in a serene, soft green room overlooking the valley, an American college student made an unexpected discovery — the physical exercise she had practiced at the gym in her homeland was differed vastly from the philosophy taught by her new Indian swami.

“I like to call it the Gold’s Gym yoga, where it’s more of this aerobic exercise,” says Rachel Rueckert, who earned her 200-hour certification in yoga while on a July 2011 field study in India. “I feel like Americans have an obsession with abs; here it’s all about strengthening your abs so that you don’t get fat. In India, it’s more spiritual — we started every lesson with a prayer.”

Her observation isn’t unique. According to Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda, a new book on the history and influence of Indian spirituality in America, the Americanization of yoga began over a century ago, when a handful of swamis — an Indian term for a spiritual leader — introduced yoga to the western hemisphere. While this American yoga has introduced thousands to an exercise that, among many other benefits, builds flexibility and strength, some within the nation’s yoga community argue studios should return the yoga they teach to the practice’s philosophical roots.

Though numerous studies and publications have addressed the question, the exact age and origin of yoga continues to elude scholars. The best estimates place yoga’s approximate age at over 5,000 years — archeologists unearthed carvings that depict traditional posture in modern-day Pakistan and northwest India place, placing yoga’s inception sometime before 3000 B.C. But yoga’s modern-day evolution in America is far easier to document.

The incorporation of Indian philosophy, including yoga, into American thought began in the late 1800s with the works of writers such as Emerson and Thoreau, according to Goldberg. Emerson in particular became interested in Eastern spirituality as a youth, and his writings repackaged yoga’s spiritual aspects in language familiar to westerners. Later, in 1849, Thoreau became one of the first Americans known to call himself a yogi.

Meanwhile, a handful of swamis came from India to America to teach the physical practice of yoga. But the new exercise didn’t take quite as readily as Emerson’s essays.

“For a long, long time it was the kind of thing that only appealed to certain kinds of people like Emerson,” Goldberg says. “If they were fairly well educated and open-minded, then they would have been open to these ideas. Some of these people went on to have a large influence of their own and that’s how it spread.” From then to the 1960s, the few yoga centers that did exist remained relatively small. A swami in India, Jagannath G. Gune, founded a school for the scientific study of yoga during the 1920s, and his work managed to attract a few American scientists, but yoga remained unknown in pop culture.

Then, in 1967, yoga found its greatest ambassador to the American people—the Beatles. The popular rock band was fascinated by transcendentalism, the philosophical movement based heavily on Emerson’s writings. Before long the Beatles discovered meditation as well and announced their intention to travel to India for a retreat. The announcement made national news and planted a seed of interest in the minds of every American under 30. More American scientists began to study the postures and meditation and came back with exciting results. Enterprising fitness centers soon incorporated yoga classes into their schedules, and by the 70s, yoga had become as American as tacos and Chinese takeout.

“In India, Yoga is used in a spiritual way, to keep the body healthy,” says Amanda Buist, manager of Shiva Centre Yoga in Salt Lake City. “But in the west, where we are obsessed with fitness, it became an exercise. Now we are realizing that yoga has more spiritual aspects as well. It’s part of an evolutionary process.

“I think of it like a tree with roots in India. That tree pollinated and blew a seed all the way over to America. It’s just growing up, and it’s going to mature.” While this served as an effective way to introduce Americans to yoga on their own terms, some people, including Goldberg, believe it is now time to return yoga to its roots, rebranding yoga as a way to facilitate increased self-awareness. Others, like Buist, believe the Americanization of yoga has added a greater degree of variety to the practice and has therefore improved it, and a whole realm of opinions exists between the two ends of the spectrum.

“It really depends on the individual practitioner and how deep they want to go,” says Alexandra Bassett, manager of Zen Living Yoga in Salt Lake City. “Some of it has been modernized, but it’s not like we’re getting a watered-down yoga. In some cases, it has been refined and made more accessible to more people.”

Like it or not, the oral tradition by which yoga’s traditional practices and poses are handed down in both India and America has turned what was once an ancient philosophy into a living, breathing way of life for thousands all across the world. Until what it means to practice yoga is standardized, different ideologies and cultures will continue to add their own personal spin to the tradition of yoga, creating a spiritual exercise that is as unique as the people who choose to practice it.

Article Reviewed: June 1, 2012
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