W. Arthur Mehrhoff is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology, which is currently exhibiting "Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art."
Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau were early yoga enthusiasts. At the turn of the 20th century, exotic yogis captured the American imagination at international exhibitions such as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Yoga became a popular Hollywood fad during the '20s and '30s (even contributing the nickname for a popular baseball player), then went counterculture in the groovy '60s after The Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India and returned wearing colorful flowing caftans while George gently played his sitar. Yoga and the New Age allied in the '90s, but globalization has now taken yoga into the mainstream of the marketplace. An estimated 15 million Americans now practice one version or another of this 5,000-year-old Vedic discipline, all adding up to a $6 billion (no misprint) industry.
Market research indicates that yoga classes and centers track very closely with an upscale demographic cohort, especially among women, so advertising for yoga reflects that trend. A viral, three-minute video taken in the penthouse of the hip Mondrian SoHo hotel in New York shows a gorgeous young woman performing expert yoga moves. As she slowly stretches in the morning light, someone dozes in the nearby bed. The not so subliminal message: yoga gives you a great body, stress relief and a killer view of the Big Apple cityscape. It’s part of the contemporary package of Success.
However, it’s certainly not the traditional yoga path. Sixty years ago, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung wrote in "Psychology and Religion: West and East", “Yoga in Mayfair or Fifth Avenue, or in any other place which is on the telephone [or wireless, to bring his insight up to date], is a spiritual fake.” Philosopher Alan Watts wrote (1974) that Indian yoga is “a purification of the senses from their bondage to concepts” such as success. Much more recently, Suhag Shukla, managing director of the Hindu America Foundation, insisted that much of the burgeoning yoga industry is not really yoga at all. Yoga’s true aim is unity of body, mind and spirit, not just another way to sell gym memberships and expensive yoga stretch pants. “The whole purpose of the asanas [poses],” says Shukla, “is to prepare your body to sit still and focus. It’s not about having a cute ass.” Without focusing on the present moment and calming our restless mind, going to a yoga class really is just going through the motions.
B.K.S Iyengar, considered by many to be the world's greatest living yoga master, also emphasizes (a bit more gently) that yoga involves far more than physical fitness: "The practice of yogasana for the sake of health, to keep fit, or to maintain flexibility is the external practice of yoga," he wrote in his book "Light on Life." "While this is a legitimate place to begin, it is not the end... Even in simple asanas, one is experiencing the three levels of quest: the external quest, which brings firmness of the body; the internal quest, which brings steadiness of intelligence; and the innermost quest, which brings benevolence of spirit.” While Yoga can help people realize their deeper human potential, its intense commercialization has obscured the spiritual dimensions of yoga. So what’s a Museum to do about that?
A university museum such as ours teaches. More specifically, “Yoga and Spirituality,” a 50-minute lecture on Thursday, Nov. 15 at 5:30 p.m. in Pickard Hall 106 by Dr. Ritcha Chaudhary with key body postures (asanas) and breathing practices demonstrated by doctoral student Deepika Menon, will explore some of the physical, psychological, religious and spiritual dimensions of Yogic practices overlooked by the contemporary yoga boom but ready to be seen at the very heart of the Museum’s current exhibition “Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art.” Let me offer you a brief overview:
The External Quest
English mystic artist and poet William Blake declared that the soul can only find expression through our five senses:
“Man has no body distinct from his soul for that called Body is a portion of the Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”
Whether true or not, Blake’s comment certainly suggests that we should pay attention to our physical self on our spiritual journey. The potential health benefits of yoga for what Iyengar calls this External Quest may include:
Increasing physical fitness. Although we probably shouldn’t look down on them, cute glutes probably are near the bottom of yoga’s important health benefits. However, as you learn and refine your asanas with expert guidance, like most practitioners, you will undoubtedly enjoy improved balance, flexibility, range of motion, strength and endurance. Besides looking great in your yoga outfit, you can translate these improvements to other fitness activities or to hunching over a computer keyboard and screen for hours. Not surprisingly, yoga practice typically leads to some degree of weight loss. The reason? In addition to energetic and energizing exercise, if you're overweight or have eating disorders such as bulimia, yoga can help you become much more mindful about your eating so you are likely to drop unhealthy weight in the process. But wait, there’s more.
Reducing stress: In 1975 Harvard researcher Herbert Benson scientifically demonstrated that short periods of meditation, using breathing as a focus, could alter the body's relaxation response. For five millennia, yoga practitioners have demonstrated and taught pranayama, "control of the life force," which seems very much like the relaxation response. Yoga breathing shifts your focus away from your quotidian existence, helping you become calmer as you move your body through the asanas that require careful concentration and breathing in order not to plow your face into a yoga mat.
Managing health conditions: Because of its ability to improve fitness and reduce stress, yoga can relieve insomnia by reducing fatigue and altering your mood. It can also help alleviate a variety of health conditions such as anxiety, depression and chronic pain. I can think of no more inspiring example of this dimension than that of Twin Cities yoga instructor Matthew Sanford, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since age 13. In his powerful NPR story “The Body’s Grace,” Sanford shares his hard-earned wisdom and faith about knowing our bodies despite illness, disability, aging and even death, giving eloquent expression to Blake’s notion of Body as inlet of the Soul in this often soulless age. And that leads us to…
The Internal Quest
One of the most important dimensions that “Yoga and Spirituality” will consider is what happens to your brain on yoga, about which our speakers are especially knowledgeable. Due to growing sophistication of neuroimaging technology such as PET scanners and functional MRIs, we now know that we can actually change our brain structure over time based upon what we do. Most college students (when stone cold sober) can already verify that drinking can negatively affect your brain, but recent research shows that even aging brains (such as mine) can actually add new neurons. Scientists have coined the term neuroplasticity to describe the brain’s ability to reshape itself, confirming what Aristotle in classical antiquity and yogis such as Iyengar have been teaching for millennia—the more you think, say, or do something, the more likely you are to think, say, or do it again. With every activity, neurons forge connections with one another. The more we repeat a behavior, the stronger those neural links become as they fire and wire together.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali recommends steady and enthusiastic yoga practice without interruption for a long period of time as a fundamental principle of good practice. This approach utilizes the characteristics of neuroplasticity to physically rewire the brain. Swami Vivekananda once said, “The only remedy for bad habits is counter habits.” As your yoga practice deepens over time, it becomes a strong new habit that can compete with ingrained patterns like incessant multitasking, test anxiety or binge drinking. Yoga does not work because the asanas are relaxing; it works because they cause stress. Remaining calm and focused (usually with expert guidance) during these stressors awakens your ability to sense what’s happening in your body, mind, and spirit. As your somatic awareness deepens, it can guide you in all areas of your life. How deeply, of course, remains up to you. And that leads us to…
The Innermost Quest
After visiting India in 1938, Jung remarked that “it is quite possible that India is the real world, and that the white man lives in a madhouse of abstractions.” Can the 15 million Americans now practicing yoga in our contemporary ‘madhouse of abstractions’ ever really achieve that “innermost quest” that B.K.S. Iyengar alludes to as a fundamental goal of its practice?
British novelist E.M. Forster dramatically explored that question in his epic novel "A Passage to India" [the Museum will present David Lean’s movie version of "A Passage to India" on Friday, Dec. 7 at 7 p.m.], especially in the novel’s pivotal scene involving an outing to the ancient Marabar Caves. Forster depicts the reactions of two Englishwomen, the younger Adela Quested and the older Mrs. Moore, to confront Western civilization with what Jung called its "shadow," or repressed, aspects. Adela Quested moves painfully and at considerable cost to everyone beyond her shallow initial desire to "see India" toward radical psychological honesty about herself. But it is Mrs. Moore’s claustrophobic experience, in which she confronts innermost reality in the Marabar Caves, which makes Forster’s novel and Lean’s film version particularly challenging and relevant to our current exhibition, “Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art.” Many critics believe that Forster used Mrs. Moore's experience of the Marabar Caves to explore fundamental differences between India and the West regarding “the innermost quest” about Good and Evil, Truth and Illusion. Looking inward, whether into ancient caves or what Yeats called “the heart’s deep core," requires more than a tourist mindset.
“Yoga practice is unthinkable, and would also be ineffectual, without the ideas on which it is based. It works the physical and the spiritual into one another in an extraordinarily complete way”.
—Carl Jung, "Psychology and Religion: West and East," (pp. 532-533).
Seeing the divine in yoga, or at least understanding it much more fully, requires us to venture into our own cave of illusions (with two thoughtful and knowledgeable guides for the Nov. 15 presentation) in order to illuminate this important tessera of the cultural mosaic. Perhaps, as Jung and E.M. Forster concluded, Europeans and Americans can never achieve a true Passage to India, but adding depth to your understanding and practice of the global phenomenon of yoga seems like a worthy first step for a late Thursday afternoon. Skip your yoga class just this once, and we’ll see you at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 15. Namaste.
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