“Anyone can find tranquility on top of a mountain. Can you find it in the middle of Times Square?”
Each summer solstice, thousands of yoga aficionados, and some novices, gather at Times Square to perform varying sequences of āsanas, or postures. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol, sun, and sistere, “to stand still,” and is of a piece with the event’s stoical organizing theme: “Mind Over Madness.” If you can find peace in this cauldron of light and noise, the thinking goes, you can find it anywhere. So amid the blaring horns of congested traffic, against the backdrop of garish billboards and amongst the unlicensed cartoon mascots—Elmo, Minnie, Hello Kitty—the attendees set about twisting and sweating under a high and harsh sun.
“If you find your heart needing to expand into 42nd Street, contract the shoulder blades,” advised a celebrity yoga instructor, her amplified words spreading through the square. There is beauty in such images—the body as extensive as a longing love, the mind as even as a length of breath—just as there is also wishful thinking. “We’ve turned Times Square into a temple … Yoga is magic!” gushed an instructor who had her students doing the “cosmic wave.” The event encapsulates what is best and worst about yoga today: its demotic, everywoman appeal and its fluffy, saccharine spirituality. But as the shadows fell and the trash collected, one thing became clear: the “collective ohm” the organizers envisioned did not so much challenge the atmosphere of Times Square as contribute to it. The major sponsor of the event, after all, was Athleta—the women’s activewear division of the Gap. Never had yoga been so big and never had it been so empty. Had America robbed it of its soul?
It was not always thus. Before yoga’s dramatic rise to prominence, it was largely regarded as transgressive, even dangerous. Carl Jung was entranced by it but thought Westerners culturally unfit for its practice. As he warned his readers, “Study Yoga; you will learn an infinite amount from it. But do not try to apply it, for we Europeans are not so constituted that we apply these methods correctly, just like that.” It was dark and difficult, esoteric and exotic—which was part of its appeal, of course, especially to the Sixties counterculture. One wonders, then, how yoga became so agreeable that people spring to it not only in cozy Brooklyn studios but in the “new” Times Square, that capital of uncool.
The first stirrings of an answer can be found in India around the turn of the twentieth century. Once a venerable technique of liberation, yoga had fallen into disrepute, becoming associated with tantric cults, vagrancy and black magic. Many yogis earned their keep as mercenaries, street performers, medicine men, and dream diviners. Reform-minded thinkers like Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), however, recuperated yoga’s public image. Shorn of its mysticism, yoga’s goal became not deliverance but everyday well-being. It also became more physical and body-oriented, athletic rather than ascetic, turning for inspiration to wrestling, bodybuilding, and gymnastics.
Yoga had been turned on its head. Its spiritual energies were transferred from the soul and mind to the body and senses. To this radically remade practice, Americans grafted middle-class principles of willpower, ego and personal responsibility. The spirit of yoga, which had long emphasized the transcendence of the self and the society that shaped it, merged with the spirit of self-improvement, a trait deeply embedded in American culture.
This brings us to its present popularity. Yoga speaks to something innately excitable in the American cultural imagination: the seductive idea that you can improve yourself in the interest of all humanity. Stretch your legs, stretch your soul. It’s cosmopolitan egotism: Build a better you, build a better planet. (The magazine Yoga Journal recently ran an airy article entitled “The Upside of Ego.”) It is this conflation of the perishable self of daily life with the absolute Self [Ātman] of Indian philosophy, of personal and cosmic concerns, that has allowed Americans to make yoga authentically their own.
And yet, yoga remains much more than a brilliantly marketed form of calisthenics. Although kinetic, it offers stillness through motion. Although self-interested, it elicits a dialogue between body and breath to which the mind has little choice but to listen. Although utilitarian, and too often laser-focused on results, it softens one to sensation, to the world within and without.
Patanjali, in his foundational Yoga Sutras (400 B.C.E.), provided step-by-step instructions on how to use yoga to achieve freedom from yourself. You should study scripture, stay celibate and abstain from harm. But most of all, you should meditate. This will relieve you of yourself. Precisely what happens next, after the self is transcended, is joyously indescribable. In the medieval period, the notion of joining yourself to the absolute—yoga means to yoke, to unite—was sometimes understood to mean acquiring supernatural power and becoming like a god.
It was around this time that yoga started arousing suspicion. This was due largely to its absorption of tantric currents. Classical yoga focused on the stilling of the mind; tantrism broke this icy silence. It engaged rather than shunned the senses, rechanneling libidinal energies so as to unite ecstatically with the divine. It did so because humankind was thought to have fallen so far under the spell of the flesh that the truths of existence were no longer accessible in a purely spiritual garb. One had to work with naked experience, so to speak, with the wellsprings of life. Over time, yoga became associated with extreme sensuality and excruciating asceticism. Stories abounded of debauched yogis giving themselves over to carnal joy on cremation grounds and of self-mortifying devotees hanging upside down over fires and swinging from hooks and boring holes into their tongues. Saint and sage shaded into bum and bogeyman, and back again.
The pruning of yoga’s tantric branches was performed by a diverse set of hands. The yoga that Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) gave the world was clipped of reference to miraculous yogis who could enter other people’s bodies or harness the power of the sun. He aimed to reclaim yoga from conjurers and contortionists, and to establish it as an emblem of Indian identity. The result was a masculine religious nationalism. As he advised his countrymen: “You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the [Bhagavad] Gītā. You will understand the Gītā better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger … You will understand the Upaniṣads better and the glory of the Ātman when your body stands firm upon your feet, and you feel yourselves as men.”
Indian philosophy has long found wisdom in the mingling of the sacred and sordid, the high and the low: the lotus flower blooms in the muck. It was this great dialectic, by which you transcend dualistic thinking, that modern yoga rejected in favor of a comparatively sterile purism. (“Anything that is secret and mysterious in these systems of Yoga,” Vivekananda urged, “should at once be rejected”). This meant that the horribly vulgar fact of the body—that collection of flesh, blood, phlegm, and bile—had to be sublimated. For how could something so filthy contain something so pure? So it was that long-standing anxieties about sickness and decrepitude were converted into questions of medicine and health. If death could not be denied it would be deferred. The body could be strengthened, even perfected.
If Vivekananda was modern yoga’s chief ideologist, then Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) was its field marshal. The practice he designed was one for boys in the flush of youth: active, dexterous, martial. He refined and sequenced poses, then linked them to deep breathing. There is a silent video from 1938 that shows the great master demonstrating his craft through āsanas as suggestive as metaphors: headstands with legs revolving jointly like a lone propeller, backbends arching like mountain tunnels. And there is his simhasana, the lion’s pose, in which Krishnamacharya’s eyes roll back into his head and his tongue darts out like a snake’s. He looks like a crazed beast and you can almost hear his muted roar. While these exercises were supposed to confer any number of health benefits, there is something exhibitionistic about the performance. The body had a special majesty, a numinous glow, and yoga was meant to coax it out.
This was true of much of the yoga at the time, whose practitioners believed themselves to be engaged in the material manipulation of otherworldly power. Accomplished yogis could break iron chains with a twist of the neck. They could bear the passage of carts, cars, and elephants over their chests without injury. They could stop and restart their hearts at will. Muscular definition came to signify spiritual acumen. As S. Sundaram put it in his Yogic Physical Culture: Or the Secret to Happiness (1930), “May God … shower health and strength on all! May He create in the hearts of the sons and daughters of India a burning desire for Physical Regeneration.” Another of this ilk, K.V. Iyer, claimed that he had “a body which Gods covet.” The flesh was made spirit, and the body made temple.
For yoga to survive its journey to the West as a living practice it had to be transformed. Thoreau was moved by its spare poetry while that international band of pedantic mysticists, the Theosophists, loved its exoticism but loathed its “nonspiritual” accretions. Ironically, as yoga was becoming more corporeal in India, many in the West turned to the practice as an antidote to plunging feelings of existential emptiness. Every group that gets hold of a cultural form interprets it in the light of their own traditions. It is of real consequence, then, that yoga laid firm roots in the fertile soil of Progressive-era America with its plucky, can-do spirit.
Flamboyant guru Pierre Bernard (1875-1955) had his well-to-do clientele rollicking on the hills of an estate in upstate New York, where he founded his “Tantrik Order” in 1905. Why waste your time genuflecting before altars, he mused, when a fabulous power was at your very fingertips? As he wrote, “The trained imagination no longer worships before the shrines of churches, pagodas, and mosques or there would be blaspheming the greatest, grandest and most sublime temple in the universe, the miracle of miracles, the human body.” The spiritual and mercantile merged seamlessly in Yogi Ramachakra (1862-1932), formerly William Atkinson, who wrote of the “master the Universe within—the Kingdom of the Self” that could be accessed by exercising that “wonderful thing, the will” and harnessing the “Power of the Ego.” If the body was “the Temple of the Spirit,” yoga would keep it in clean and working order.
The Bengali Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, spoke similarly of the galvanic will: “I reasoned that [the body] could be recharged with energy through the direct agency of the human will.” And Shri Yogendra (1897-1989), who established his Yoga Institute in 1924 in Santacruz, Mumbai, saw yoga as a “science” that would “achieve psychosomatic sublimation through a system of physical culture” and enable “biologic control of the autonomous nervous system affecting the hygiene of the mind and moral behavior.” Strange as it still was, this recasting of yoga as a rational pursuit of health and wellbeing spurred its movement from the margins to the mainstream.
This turn was greatly assisted by B. K. S. Iyengar (1918-2014). A sickly youth, Iyengar turned to yoga as a healing cure. He took to it with feverish devotion—once tearing his hamstrings while forcing his knees to the ground with bricks—and his convalescent years forever left an imprint on his teaching. Iyengar made of yoga an exacting physical therapy, evidenced in his Light on Yoga (1966), an international bestseller. Elegant and dense, the book’s every page featured illustrative photographs—a how-to manual you could turn to on creaky winter days. He wanted to restore you to your body: “Many moderns use their bodies so little that they lose the sensitivity of their bodily awareness. They move from bed to car to desk to car to coach to bed, but there is no awareness in their movement, no intelligence.”
All the while, yoga retained its patina of spirituality. Yogi Bhajan’s Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO) helped revive its meditative undercurrents. The 1965 immigration act, moreover, opened doors to gurus near and far, many of whom settled into retreats on the California coast. The Esalen Institute—founded in 1962 in Big Sur—with its focus on the realization of human potential, helped integrate yoga into the growing “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability” industry, a market segment composed mostly of upscale consumers interested in holistic living. What was once contrarian became accessible and agreeable.
Even Bikram Choudhry, the yoga mogul who relentlessly asserts the superiority of his trademarked sequence of postures with lawsuits and brash boasts about the robustness of his testicles, is a puritan at heart. Though he reportedly owns a fleet of some forty Rolls Royces and Bentleys, the Calcutta-born yogi to the stars expounds regularly on the virtues of delayed gratification: “Would you rather suffer ninety minutes or ninety years?” And while he calls his hothouse studios “torture chambers”—the heat is cranked up to 105 degrees—the point is to teach that grueling labor is redemptive. You are sweating yourself clean, physically and morally. Nor does today’s yoga stamp out or transmute desire like it did before. In true middle-class fashion, it responsibly reins it in. A friend tells me of a yoga class in which students chanted the chorus to the Rolling Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”: a mantra for an age of austerity.
Yoga’s bourgeois proclivities are further evidenced in a row surrounding Lululemon Athletica. The company, a leading purveyor of upscale activewear for women, recently committed what many regarded as yoga sacrilege. It had to do with its signature, reusable shopping bags. One side featured silhouettes of a woman performing various āsanas. The other bore the enigmatic question Who is John Galt? in tall white letters. In contrast to the uncomplicated messages of cheer and uplift it normally prefers (“Dance, sing, floss and travel.”), the slogan was lifted from Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. An odd match: Rand’s deification of freewheeling self-interest clashes rather harshly with the yogic values of mindfulness and agapic love. But according to Lululemon founder, Chip Wilson, Rand’s vision inspired his “quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness.” Scoff though one might, the company is now valued at $10 billion, and is proof that yoga has become a very profitable business. There is yoga for anxiety and arthritis, for constipation and colds, for men (“broga”) and migraines.
It is fair to ask, under such circumstances: What remains of yoga? What, if anything, is “authentic” about it? Unsurprisingly there are struggles over definition. Some, for example, have sought unsuccessfully to remove yoga from California’s P.E. curriculum on the grounds that it smuggles foreign idolatry into the classroom. Others complain that it is not religious enough, that Hinduism has “lost control of the brand.” And others still lament the way consumer capitalism resolves the demands of a philosophy of liberation into the clarity of self-help homilies for the haute bourgeoisie (and into discount yoga DVDs for the petit bourgeoisie).
But if you insist on purity then you’re liable to see pollutants everywhere. What these varied critiques share is a nostalgia for a yogic past that cannot be fully known, let alone retrieved. And so we are left with a miserable, anxious, neoliberal present in which we are estranged from each other and ourselves. And with a yoga whose appropriations cause us to flush with embarrassment, and whose standardized, one-size-fits-all forms deplete its ability to heal broken bodies and to stay tittering thoughts.
Yet this same practice ends up re-enchanting people’s lives, if only as a splendid parenthesis in an otherwise busy and stressful day. How? The brilliant irony of modern, Americanized yoga is that the very concepts it introduced into the practice, such as ego and will, are undermined by its methods. Through a kind of inverted Cartesianism, it gently subordinates the meandering mind to breath and physical exercises. The authority of the anxious ego, with its retinue of psychosomatic ailments, is unsettled by a wise system of movements. As American teacher Joel Kramer puts it, “The proper use of breath gets you out of your mind and into your body, bringing a grace and sensuality to movement impossible when the mind is in control.” This echoes uncannily the sentiments of Jnaneshvar, a thirteenth-century poet who described yoga as an “action of the body in which reason takes no part and which does not originate as an idea springing in the mind. … To speak simply, yogis perform actions with their bodies, like the movements of children.” In each āsana there is an anti-philosophy that gives rise to visceral intuitions.
The guru Desikachar has a saying: “Do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose.” (You should therefore approach āsanas—most of which are charmingly named after animals—by circular movements rather than angular thrusts, by subtle stretches instead of harsh jerks.) Indeed, the overzealousness of practitioners is a leading cause of yoga-related injuries. Despite the tough-love hectoring of certain instructors—“Grab your foot … No one’s going to grab it for you!”—there is a check on the purpose-driven individualism of the American tradition that is inherent to yoga. Push too hard and you will hurt yourself.
Photo credit: Noel Y.C., “Celebrating Summer Solstice in Times Square.”