Historically in India, yoga was practiced by men. In fact, yoga had such great appeal that the Indian culture codified the impulse to withdraw from society by creating distinct phases of practice so that Indian culture wouldn’t be wholly disrupted by “runaway yogis.”
A man was allowed to study scripture as a celibate youth during the “Brahmacharya” phase. The second phase was known as the “Ghrihastha” (householder period) where he would be expected to marry and have a family. After the man’s duties to the family had diminished, he was allowed to enter the “Vanaprastha” phase and become a hermit living in the forest, meditating on scripture and practicing yoga. During the final stages of a yogi’s life they became a full renunciate, or a “Sannyasin.” Renouncing the pleasures of the illusory world—Samsara—they possessed nothing but a begging bowl and spent their last years meditating and making pilgrimages to Hindu holy sites.
Since yoga has migrated to the West, we have a virtual reversal of the traditional stages of yogic study. People are often led to the more esoteric or spiritual components of yoga by way of the physical postures, the asanas. Or, they become interested in yoga after traveling to a foreign country. Many Western women make yoga part of their daily physical and spiritual practices, while men do not embrace it so readily. So the question is, how did this transformation happen and how we can understand this phenomenon?
Yoga in the West
First, let’s take a moment to define yoga, contextualizing it within Western culture. Yoga is translated as “union” or “to yoke.” This has been interpreted as the union of the physical with the spiritual. In truth, a full conception of yogic practices includes many elements: purifying the body through breathing techniques (pranayama), practicing concentration (dharana), meditation (dyhana), and physical postures (asanas), and engaging in scriptural and metaphysical study (svadhyaya). Although different traditions might have different emphases, the bedrock of yoga is philosophy and spirituality and not merely the physical postures that we in the West so often initially encounter.
Yoga philosophers and rishis (teachers) began migrating to the West in the late nineteenth century. At the Parliament of World Religions during the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Swami Vivekenanda first introduced yoga and Hindu philosophy to the United States. After this initial contact, other teachers made the journey West, including Paramahansa Yogananda in 1920. Back in India, in 1924 T. Krishnamacharya opened the first hatha yoga school in Mysore and in 1936, Swami Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society on the banks of the Ganges River in Rishikesh. Three students of Krishnamacharya continued to popularize hatha yoga and contribute to its ongoing legacy: B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Pattabhi Jois. In the 1960s these teachers and others began making their way westward, making yoga more widely available.
This westward movement and the general cultural expansion of the 1960s produced more interest, exploration, and acceptance of Eastern religions in the West, through which Westerners were also introduced to the yoga asanas. As people began to question traditional Western mores, yoga gained more exposure and traction. Then, in the 1970s, Americans became obsessed with running, aerobics, and physical fitness, with Jim Fixx and Jane Fonda leading the relative charges. Additionally, Herbert Benson published “The Relaxation Response” about the positive effects of transcendental meditation and relaxation, and Dean Ornish pioneered the notion of a “heart healthy” lifestyle. Somewhere within this fitness renaissance, yoga was pegged as an effective way to manage stress. Since then, yoga has taken off as an integral and necessary part of the Western exercise model.
Currently, over twenty million people are said to be practicing yoga in the United States alone. So what is precisely the popular appeal? And what niche is yoga filling in our increasingly complicated world?
“In Big City Small Things are Happening…”
Several years ago, I met Ramsen. He was in the center of Delhi, lurking (as so many young Indian men are wont to do) on the outskirts of Connaught Place, waiting to see if he could offer his services as a guide to all the overwhelmed international travelers.
Ramsen was dressed neatly in a button down shirt and a blue wool blazer, but my traveling companion still shook his head cynically at his bluff opportunism. I, on the other hand, was charmed.
I was looking for a video camera in the American format to record the overwhelming and beautiful sites of India. It was my first time visiting India and I was awed by the destruction and splendor I saw all around me. When I first opened my hotel shutters, I saw a gorgeous little girl, a true street urchin, defecating on a piece of cardboard just as an elephant, magnificently liveried in gold and red sequins, lumbered by. This was India! A foreign land caught somewhere between a medieval fairytale and the epic problems of modern globalization. I had to capture it on camera.
My companion, a third time traveler to India, was leery of the infamous Indian Touts, so he excused himself as I went off on a wild excursion through Delhi with Ramsen as my guide, in search of the golden goose of an NTSC video camera.
“Oh yes,” said Ramsen, as we trundled through the narrow streets in the back of a bicycle rickshaw, “Anything you want you are able to find in Delhi. You will see madam. You will see.” What I saw that day were the bustling remnants of a colonial city struggling to give birth to itself in what was then still the twentieth century. Ramsen brought me to many urban bazaars where among other things—oils, spices, silks, rugs—you also found electronics. But, alas, no NTSC video camera. So we kept moving.
Ramsen served as my translator and guide all day, and I wasn’t at all surprised when he corralled me for the inevitable Indian home visit. Halfway through the day, when it looked like our chances of finding a NTSC camera were slim, he convinced me to go home to meet his mother.
Indian hospitality is legendary. And Ramsen was no exception: he brought me home like a prize to the modest plaster compound where he lived. I don’t remember much except that his kindly mother, dressed in a pale, worn Sari reminiscent of thin cotton sheets, spoke no English but served us tea and sweets in a sun-drenched second story room. As the sun shone its last rays across the January sky, we sat on rugs and pillows and talked about Ramsen’s future.
Ramsen was Muslim and had been to college. I don’t know where his father was, but he had two brothers, assumedly out and about in the city like he was, trolling for tourism prospects. Ramsen was convinced that I should come with him to Kashmir to see the houseboats and the beautiful mountains. He laid it all out for me: the price, his uncle’s hotel, and the various levels of service. After I declined due to an already set itinerary he relaxed on the pillows in resignation. We were now free to chat.
“India” he said, “Is a place where you cannot have the same spiritual freedom as in America. I see that Americans have a hunger to know God, and also that they have an ability to choose. In India you are born into a religion and a culture. It is not easy to make the move to intellectual or spiritual independence. It is not easy to choose here. Things are decided for you. You will see this as you travel.”
I, of course, was quite cynical about America’s spiritual prospects. In America, Christian spirituality seemed codified into a righteous brew of political and spiritual ignorance. I was coming to India precisely because I wanted to investigate other options. Raised with a perfunctory introduction to Episcopalianism, I was on the search for some sort of spiritual roadmap with which I could identify. I was lured to India by the possibility of a more sophisticated and refined religious philosophy. But as Ramsen spoke, I began to see his point.
In India, more often than not you stayed within your inherited religious culture. Yet here I was, a foreigner intending to feast on the smorgasbord of Indian spirituality. The reverse sort of pilgrimage was unimaginable. Nowhere do you hear of Indians traveling to America in order to explore American religion or spirituality. People travel to America to go to school or to make money: whatever else happens to them during that time is purely incidental.
I could see how I was afforded the liberty of intellectual and spiritual freedom. In one sense this was disorienting, in another it was liberating. I could have what Ramsen called a “true spiritual awakening” because I was thirsty for and needed the ineffable fruits of spirituality. Yet Ramsen and his contemporaries were born into traditions that afforded little choice. You followed your heritage and that was that. Of course there were many opportunities for spiritual awakening within the respective traditions, but it would be very unusual to abandon your religion altogether.
Ramsen had been to college. He had an education. And yet he felt his options were somehow limited. It was hard to earn significant money in India as an independent tour operator, and yet, he seemed happily resigned. “Why should I travel the world, when the whole world comes to me?” he smiled. “People come from all over. I am traveling just living here… I am traveling with you right now!”
We left his house before the sun went down and took a taxi to an underground shopping market. It was here in a tiny electronics shop with heaps of exotic Indian rugs that I at last found some sort of suitable camera: an Hi-8 Pal camera that would have to be converted. Under the circumstances it was the best that we could do.
In a scene directly out of an American Express commercial, Ramsen translated my wishes to an elderly man in a peach-colored shalwar kameez while I sat on a sumptuous pile of rugs and waited. The man had to call an international number to get permission to run my credit card. This would take some time. I looked around me. Three stout, dark men perched like tree stumps between the mounds of rugs. They would not meet my eyes, but sat wordlessly witnessing the entire transaction with a keen yet respectfully distant focus. It was not unusual to see an Indian man translating for a western woman, and yet it still held a special sort of intrigue. They watched the man on the phone intently and I wondered how they perceived my connection to Ramsen, but they revealed nothing and hardly glanced at me at all.
At last I saw a flicker of smile on the older man’s face. He hung up the phone and nodded his head sideways in that delightful Indian manner, indicating that the transaction had been successful at last.
Ramsen was pleased. “Yes, yes,” he leaned down to me whispering, “In big city, small things are happening, and today we have found a curious American woman a beautiful camera. May she be blessed with beautiful images of Mother India for all time!”
We hustled up the cement stairs of the underground market and out into the twilight streets of Delhi. Ramsen dropped me off at my hotel where my friends were waiting and I tipped him and said my goodbyes. I had intended to meet with him after I returned from Rajasthan, but somehow it never came to pass.
I did capture many colorful and intriguing scenes of India with my Hi-8 camera, focusing my inquiry on issues of arranged marriages and Hindu spirituality—or love and divine love. This was back in 1999, before the global and cultural partition of 9-11. Ramsen was a Muslim. Since then, I have occasionally wondered what happened to him, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have met him…
According to Ramsen, because of the West’s relative freedoms and actual spiritual hunger, Westerners are more likely to have a true spiritual awakening. Perhaps yoga has captured the hearts of so many because it sneaks spirituality in through the back door, presenting helpful metaphysical concepts non-invasively, through its concrete physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.
The troubling consequences of the West’s rampant materialism (job dissatisfaction, workaholism, addiction, poverty, crime) have Westerners searching for a different way to conceptualize material reality. Ironically, one of the main tenants of both Hinduism and Buddhism is that reality as we perceive it is an illusion—“samsara” or “a wandering through.” The true reality lies behind the illusion in the relative Hindu and Buddhist concepts of Brahma and Nirvana. In the material West, yoga is now a vehicle for exercise and relaxation that becomes a “gateway drug” for greater exposure to the beautiful, refined, and truly helpful tenants of Eastern spirituality.
This is not to deny the benefits and beauty of Christianity. This is just a theory that the body-centered philosophies of yoga are leading thirsty and exhausted Western householders to greater Self-awareness, self-mastery, and the possibility of centeredness within an unbalanced material culture. But the physical asanas are just the tip of the yoga iceberg. The possibilities of true liberation or “moksha” and “samadhi” via meditation and transcendence are hidden deep within the further study of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual philosophies.
As things heat up and become more complicated daily, many Westerners are more than ready to embrace these possibilities…
By Keralee Froebel, a Hridaya Yoga certified teacher teaching Hridaya and Vinyasa in Chicago, USA