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East meets West

Yoga has become
increasingly popular in the United States, but its original meanings have been ignored to reach
a wider audience.
Sunday, December 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:27 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Students gather inside a dimly lit room at Gold’s Gym downtown. Thirteen pairs of fit arms stretch far in front. Their limber bodies kneel, pushing every muscle into blue, padded mats.

Suddenly, the rhythm picks up. Without hesitation, the students swiftly stretch from one position into the next. The college- and middle-aged crowd begins to break a sweat, meticulously switching from downward dog to plank to cobra — yoga lingo that may as well be Greek even to some of the more devout students.

The exercise is intense, but if you’re seeking Eastern-style enlightenment or a transcendent experience, forget it. Tonight, it’s all about burning calories.

The Gold’s Gym class schedule even promises no “weird language or chanting, just safe and effective classes that allow you to work at your own level without any jarring of the joints, judgments or competition between participants.”

Call it yoga, the American way.

“There wasn’t anything called power yoga until it came to the United States,” said Sue Fox, the gym’s exercise class coordinator who says she is 45 but appears much younger. “You know, the United States has to make everything bigger and better, stronger and sweatier, and that’s just the way it is.”

Fox, who switched to yoga seven years ago after a weightlifting injury, thinks that just because something differs from the original doesn’t make it worse.

“Things can be improved upon,” she said.

This attainability has caught America’s attention. According to the Chicago Tribune, 36 million people have vowed to try yoga in the next year and 15 million already practice it on a regular basis. Another nine million Americans have taken up yoga within the past two years.

Traditionalists criticize this simpler form of yoga as a watered-down version fit for American mass consumption. Lost is the mind-body connection that is at the core of yoga’s broader philosophy.

Signe Cohen, an MU professor of religious studies, doesn’t necessarily agree with this characterization. But she considers the exercise-driven approach to yoga in this country as a direct contradiction to Eastern social mores.

“Yoga in India is not performed for a way to relax or to get better health, to reduce stress or reduce muscle tension,” Cohen said. “The goal in India is to reach beyond the cycle of death and rebirth.”

Some who practice Westernized yoga have interest in Hinduism, regarding themselves as spiritual seekers, Cohen said. Others will simply use the techniques and refer to it as yoga without the same goal as Eastern students.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Cohen said. “I don’t think any Hindu would be offended either. It is just incorrect when this type of yoga tries to present itself as something very ancient and it’s not.”

Some adherents to traditional yoga practices find certain aspects of the American interpretation vexing. Christian Current, an MU master’s student in religious studies, knows natives of India who have a problem with this “bastardization of yoga.”

“But, I’ve also noticed some Indians going to the YMCA to practice yoga too,” said Current, a member of MU’s Vedic Society, which meets weekly for meditation and yoga. “Who has the authority to say what is appropriate and what is not?”

Current doesn’t mind the Western adaptation as long as its practitioners offer respect to the discipline’s origins. Specifically, he thinks it’s the instructor’s responsibility to inform students they are only looking at one part of an enormous philosophy.

Fox agrees. She has witnessed many students who eventually get past the exercise and grasp the bigger picture.

“People in the fitness world view yoga just as an exercise. I think it begins as an exercise for most, but then develops into a philosophy,” she said. “But at Gold’s Gym we really emphasize that this there isn’t any type of meditation or religious philosophy that goes along with it.”

Fox said the gym doesn’t use Sanskrit, the original language of yoga, or chants because few people will understand their meaning.

“We don’t encourage much knowledge into the ancient,” Fox said. “It wouldn’t be a bad thing, but it’s just not the way I was trained.”

Not religion

Critics of commercialized yoga contend that companies such as YogaFit, which trains instructors in weekend sessions, bring the practice even further away from its guru-student origins. Traditionally, yogic gurus not only teach a student how to practice, but also impart the significance of the poses, said Current.

“That whole relationship has been taken out, not everywhere, but the majority of places,” he said.

Current acknowledges a lesser trend in the United States of students seeking gurus for very in-depth and traditional classes, regardless of religious background.

“Yoga is rooted in Hinduism, but it’s not exclusively Hindu,” Current said. “And it doesn’t try to press any philosophy or belief on people.”

Cohen also has noticed Christians and Jews practicing yoga without conflict, whereas in India, yoga would be very much a Hindu practice.

“Why do they not see a conflict?” Cohen asked. “Is this because Americans have taken the religion out of yoga?”

Oddly enough, Barbra King, who has been teaching yoga for five years, picked up the meditative exercise while attending a Catholic high school in East St. Louis.

“I guess they didn’t see a conflict at the time,” said King, owner of the Yoga Room in Columbia. “But it was a very unusual, free time in the ’70s.”

Other adaptations have turned yoga into a female-dominated practice, said King, who plans to soon shut down most of the Yoga Room’s regular classes to concentrate on nursing. Traditionally, only men practiced yoga, she said.

Commercialization

Yoga has been officially accessorized by Americans in music, books and videos. Mainstream stores like Wal-Mart and Target carry yoga mats and kits. Entire magazines like Yoga Journal, which has 300,000 subscribers and nearly 1 million readers a month, have been dedicated to the practice.

Puma, J. Crew and others now offer yoga apparel so yogis can “walk to and from the yoga studio in style” in pastel pink. Nike even offers yoga-inspired shoes for women called “Kyoto” for $55.

When Current started yoga, he used his comforter and pillow but now uses a zafu, or meditation pillow, and a mat.

“Obviously if you’re going sit in mediation for a while, you would prefer to be comfortable,” Current said. “I think (the accessories) are cute but not necessary.”

By contrast, said Cohen, traditional practices of yoga discuss the importance of sitting on an uncomfortable spot on the ground while meditating.

“And then, I see Web sites selling yoga mats and I think, ‘You’re not supposed to be that comfortable,’” she said. “What’s with the yoga mats?”

Then again, many religious traditions do become commercialized, she said. From fancy leather Bible covers to religious lollipops sold near the Vatican, people have always found ways to exploit nearly anything.

“I don’t want to judge to what extent people should or should not, but people have always done it,” Cohen said.

New forms of yoga have also found their way into the popular lexicon. Hip-hop, funk and more recently punk-rock yoga have students doing the same poses to more upbeat tunes.

Gold’s Gym tried funk yoga, but it wasn’t well-received, Fox said.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t try it again,” she said. “It’s probably an insult to the Eastern culture, but if it brings people in, then what’s the harm?”


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