At the end of February this year a woman named Ronnie Abramson went to a yoga class. Amidst the positions and stretching exercises she was dismayed to realize that the instructor was telling her about the month of Adar, the Book of Esther, the feast of Purim and the Almighty. Abramson, who sought only a standard yoga class, felt that she was not getting what she paid for, and was in fact suffering a minor assault of religious coercion. She wrote a short account of the experience for ‘Haaretz’ in which she asks that secular folks be allowed to practice yoga without being forced to listen to religious sermons.
In a certain sense she is absolutely right – what does yoga have to do with Purim? Why must she serve as a captive audience for the creative homilies of the yoga teacher? In another sense, the history of yoga allows us to appreciate the deep irony of this situation. Yoga, which originated as a spiritual, even religious discipline, has undergone a radical process of secularization and has turned in the West into a series of exercise techniques. The gulf between what yoga once was and what it is today is as deep as it takes for Westerners wishing to purchase a yoga class as just another product in their shopping cart to be totally devoid of any awareness whatsoever as to its roots, and so are shocked when someone tries to add God into the mix.
The Living Point of Conception
Swami Vivekananda is widely considered to be the father of modern, non-traditional yoga. Vivekananda grew up in Bengal, in Northeastern India in the late 19th century, in a family belonging to the region’s rising middle-class. The Bengalis were the most Westernized of all Indians under British occupation, and were deeply influenced by Western culture. Accordingly, Vivekananda planned to become a lawyer. But in 1881, upon meeting Ramakrishna, one of the greatest Indian saints of all time, his life changed forever and he assumed the habit of a monk. As a Hindu monk Vivekananda sought to revive religion in his homeland, but his karma had a different fate in store for him. He was among those chosen to represent Hinduism in the “Parliament of the World’s Religions” held in Chicago in 1893.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions was one of the first attempts at ecumenical symposium, and attracted many representatives of religions. Vivekananda was not the sole representative of Hinduism, yet he quickly became its most famous. But then again, how can Hinduism even be represented? After all, more than a religion, it is a colorful amalgam of beliefs, schools, customs, laws, competing philosophical approaches and several thousand gods and idols. Vivekananda’s solution to this problem was simple: He presumed to present the American audience with “the very centre, the very vital conception” of Hinduism, as he put it. And what is this center, this point of conception? This is nothing less than the living experience in which the individual soul comes face to face with the divine. This, said Vivekananda, is Hinduism itself. For those seeking to reach this living point, he added, Hinduism had developed yoga.
A Universal Technique
Vivekananda claimed that yoga is a universal technique beneficial to all – men and women, Occidentals and Indians – and that there is even no need to convert to Hinduism in order to reap its benefits. He stated, in so many words, that it is the heart and essence of all religions, and that Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) can become better Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) by practicing it. He explained that yoga is the gift of spiritual India to the materialistic West.
And he reaped thunderous applause. Americans couldn’t get enough of him. Vivekananda promptly embarked on a series of lectures throughout the US, which in turn led to the writing of books that became international best-sellers, and these led to the establishment of instructional and spiritual centers. Due to his popularity in America Vivekananda became a national hero in his native India. The Indians, who were accustomed to being the target of scorn from Westerners due to their supposedly primitive and idolatrous Hindu religion, could thanks to him proudly raise their heads and feel that they, of all people, have the deepest religion and philosophy. Here, even the Americans admit that yoga is the universal spiritual path!
Modern yoga centers, inspired by Vivekananda, were opened both in the US and in India. Yoga became the flagship of Indian spirituality seeking renewed legitimacy, and Vivekananda was the captain at the helm. The problem was that in order to enter the fast lane the skipper was forced to jettison most of the cargo. Therefore, it is perhaps worthwhile to return for a moment to the roots of yoga in order to understand how Vivekananda’s version of the practice and of Indian philosophy differs from traditional yoga.
Who’s in for Kaivalya?
The canonical text of yoga is called ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’. This short text was composed sometime around the 3rd century CE, and it presents yoga as an intricate spiritual path which starts with the assumption that our pure true self, our ‘Purusha’, must disengage from the world and all that is in it, which are known as the ‘Prakriti’. This Purusha, mind, is different from everything we usually define as a ‘self’. It has no thoughts, memories, aspirations or any characteristics whatsoever. In short, it is not a ‘self’ in any accepted sense. Everything we are accustomed to seeing as a ‘self’ is considered a Prakriti which we must leave behind on our spiritual journey.
The over-arching goal, the supreme ideal of yoga according to Patanjali, is therefore not seeing the divine or even communing with it, but what is called Kaivalya, which means “alone-ness”. The yogi is supposed to reach a state in which their Purusha is completely detached from the Prakriti, and “they” exist in shining eternal solitude as pure, content-free awareness. It is hard to find anyone who is much tempted by such an existential state nowadays, and perhaps that is why Vivekananda did not mention it much to his American admirers.
It should be said that since the 3rd century yoga has undergone many changes and broad alterations, and a goal such as meeting or communing with the divine has become accepted within its circles. On the other hand, until the 19th century it has never been conceived as a neutral and universal technique applicable to believers of all religions. It most certainly was never conceived as a series of exercise drills meant to bring helath and proper posture to its secular practitioners.
The Pizza Effect
Hinduism scholar Agehananda Bharati coined the phrase “The pizza effect” back in 1970 to describe what has happened here. Pizza, in its Italian origin simply a sort of bread, arrived in the US along with Italian immigrants. In the land of opportunities the pizza became a doughy tray of cheese, vegetables and meat, and became immensely popular. When Rome saw how much people love the American version of their traditional dish, they also began to bake pizza as we know it today, and Italian pizza integrated the American innovations. Today, not only are we blind to the process undergone by this popular treat, but we also know for certain that pizza as pizza should be – original pizza – can only be had in Italy.
The pizza effect, therefore, describes a process of acculturation – that is, change, integration and cultural customization – in which a traditional item undergoes Americanization, and then returns to its homeland and wins popular acclaim in its new form. This form then becomes the authentic form of the item not only for Americans (or Westerners in general) but also for the local culture, due to a naivete eager to buy anything the global market offers for sale. Agehananda Bharati shows that many Indians practice modern yoga, which is not traditional at all, a yoga that returned to them following “adjustments” in America (and at this point we may note that Bharati himself was an Austrian Catholic named Leopold Fischer who became a Hindu monk).
In the case before us the pizza effect works both ways. Vivekananda brought yoga to America, where it met with phenomenal success and has become an export item that fills the hearts of Indians with pride (‘Look at us, teaching the decadent West what true spirituality is all about!’). On the other hand, Vivekananda’s yoga wasn’t the ancient yoga, but a modern, white-bread version of Indian tradition, which gives up the traditional context of its beliefs and customs, and adds to the original dough base various goodies such as humanism, feminism, materialism and empiricism. Vivekananda learned all of these from the British colonialists. The Americans who fell in love with Vivekananda’s gospel fell in love with a westernized version of yoga, even before changing it further themselves, each according to their own lights. They bought Indian goods which even on Indian soil had taken on more than a bit of the West’s image and likeness.
Jewish yoga, Yogi Judaism
The yoga we find before us today, therefore, is a modern product presuming to distill a universal technique from the Indian tradition. Sometimes it still preserves spiritual pretensions, and its practitioners treat it as part of their spiritual journey. At other times it has turned into nothing more than a light athletic endeavor, in which case it is seen as the ancient Indian method of keeping tight skin, a firm butt, and finding a mate with similar attributes. All this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good that different people find use in a foreign cultural heritage, and that they have the freedom to choose and adjust themselves to whatever advances them by their own lights. We call it democracy.
On the other hand, the wonder at God being mentioned in a yoga class is misplaced. Yoga was a religious matter from the start, and there is no reason that it shouldn’t continue to be so. True, it was never associated with Purim, but that is only one of the changes yoga is undergoing these days. And at this point we meet one of the changes Judaism is undergoing these days. Here we have a new-age Judaism seeking to utilize a foreign spiritual technique in order to enrich its world. Jewish yoga produces yogi Judaism. Like yoga in the modern age, Judaism is changing, and often turns from a covenant between a certain god and a certain people, or from a tribal nationalism, into a ‘spiritual path’ for the seeking individual. And that is also not a bad thing at all.
Published in Maariv newspaper, 19.4.13. Translated by Rechavia Berman.