Tag Archives: yoga

How Yoga Came to America Via Russia

YogaA recent interview on NPR’s show Fresh Aire featured Michelle Goldberg, author of a book on yoga as it is known in the United States.

Her book traces the modern Western practice of yoga to a Russian woman named Indra Devi, who was born in 1899 with the birth name Eugenia Peterson. Devi became interested in yoga after reading about it in book written by an American new-age thinker. She studied the practice in India before introducing it to political leaders in Russia and Shanghai and, in 1947, bringing it to America, where her students included Hollywood celebrities like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson.

So if Goldberg is correct, then yoga as we now know it in a zillion studios is about as authentically Indian as Taco Bell is authentically Mexican. Who would have taken seriously a yoga teacher named Eugenia Peterson. Indra Devi just sounded so much more exotic!

Goldberg explains that not only was the teacher not exactly the real deal but the yoga that Peterson brought from India was probably not terribly similar to the yoga that had been practiced in the dim and distant past along the banks of the Ganges,

There’s no mention of warrior poses or sun salutations in any ancient text at all. That might be a little disillusioning to some people, [but] what I hope and what it ultimately meant to me, is we don’t have to feel so anxious about the authenticity of our modern practices because like anything … it’s a modern adaptation and that might, I hope, let people feel a little less anxious about adapting it for their own needs.

That means that those sun salutations that Don Draper was dragged into doing in the final episode of Mad Men were just about as traditional as the advertisements that poured out of the man’s imagination.

I’ve written about yoga before, explaining my mixed feelings on the topic. At its heart, I think my biggest beef with yoga is its pretensions to be something that it is not. When it turns out that the modern versions of evangelical Christianity are every bit as “ancient” as is yoga (as practiced in the U.S.), I feel a great deal more spiritual than I did before.

Yogini or Yogurtini?

YogaI am conflicted when it comes to the practice of Yoga. My decidedly secular college fills up as many Yoga classes as they offer. While I have never attended one of those classes, I feel confident that there are no mantras chanted, no chakra magic invoked, and no references to Lord Shiva or any other Hindu deity.

Yoga is, stripped of the Hindu mumbo-jumbo–that’s a Sanskrit term, I’m pretty sure, synonymous with “folderah”–can provide good exercise and stretching. I do a couple of Yoga poses in my lower body strength training but without calling them Yoga. The “locust” asana or pose came to me as a “Superman.” You lie, face-down, on the floor and then lift up your head and arms at the same time that you lift your legs, leaving only your mid-section on the mat. The plank pose, basically holding yourself in an “up” pushup position, is not one of the traditional positions from what I can discover, but it is a staple of Yoga classes today. Hold either of these positions for 15 seconds or so and you’ll probably be feeling less spiritual and more shaky than before.

My mixed feelings come from the very religious, very Hindu roots of the practice. The traditional 84 Yoga asanas were supposedly created by the Hindu god Shiva. One traditional sequence, the surya namaskara, is known in English as the Sun Salutation. Essentially it is a form of worship toward the Hindu sun god. The whole purpose of Yoga practice, at least originally, is to allow the yogi (male) or yogini (female) to be able to meditate for long periods of time. This is a very religious practice in its origins.

While I can use my two “poses” and not feel any risk of being drawn into Hinduism, I’m reluctant to fully explore this sort of exercise. On the other hand, I wonder at that original purpose.

How many Christians fail to worship to their ability, fail to pray deeply and effectively, and fail to have the focus necessary to really embrace a long sermon because their body is saying, “No.” I once heard good advice for teachers: “The brain can only absorb what the seat can endure.”

Shouldn’t Christians tune their bodies just as carefully as Hindus tune theirs? Shouldn’t we do our best to ensure that achy joints or finicky backs do not  limit our ability to worship the one true God? When we have a living object for our worship, shouldn’t we do our best to make our bodies capable of enduring and enjoying that worship?