In one of his many humorous asides on Real Time earlier this year, Bill Maher got into a discussion about Eastern spirituality and made the claim, ‘Yoga is just stretching.’ While talking about the many connotations often attached to yoga in our culture, his assessment, as much as it made me laugh, is historically untrue. ‘Stretching’ is something that overtook yoga only a century ago, first as a strengthening and toning regimen as part of a new wave of Indian nationalism, and shortly thereafter on American shores in our cultural glorification of the body.
While I’m all for celebrating our bodies (much in yoga’s roots consider them toxic baggage), one piece of traditional yoga ideology is being reconsidered: the yamas and niyamas. Historically one would not be allowed to study if these ethical rules of conduct were not adhered to. If you weren’t practicing these social and personal codes—not stealing, not participating in violence, speaking and acting truthfully, reflecting on your inner nature, and so forth—you were not considered prepared for the deeper experiences of sense withdrawal and meditation.
Over the last half-century we’ve emphasized physicality over philosophy. Yet a growing contingent of yogis has been asking questions such as: What is yoga’s relevance in today’s world? How can we take these ethical, philosophical and moral codes and apply them to our times? What can we learn from, and what do we discard?
Recent books by Mark Singleton, Matthew Remski, Julian Walker, and Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey challenge cultural notions of yoga’s place in modern society. Yoga culture at large has often been lazily clumped into the recent upswell of positive thinking running rampant in New Age circles—the idea that our thoughts can influence reality from a distance, vis-à-vis contemporary sympathetic magic. While Barbara Ehrenreich has succinctly deconstructed the possibility of such wishful thinking, yoga is touted as a panacea for a wide range of physical and emotional ailments, while from the outside it remains a lingering hippie knock-off from a forgotten counter-culture.
Don’t misinterpret that. As a teacher, I know well the therapeutic value of yoga. I use the philosophical and physical components in what I hope makes me a more compassionate, humane and understanding person. I would also argue that yoga can be a valuable tool in an arena in which it currently has very little connection to: politics. And I am not alone in this regard.
According to Yoga Journal’s latest study, there are currently 20 million Americans practicing yoga. While this number represents a people of diverse political and spiritual beliefs, that such a vast array of practitioners come together in a similar space is telling. I am not insinuating they all enjoy the same thing; with so many styles of yoga available, there is hardly one consensus on what yoga ‘is.’ As the Romanian scholar of religions Mircea Eliade wrote,
If the word “yoga” means many things, that is because Yoga is many things.
The notion that yoga is just something you do inside of a studio or gym is, however, dissipating. Experienced yogis already know the value of a meditation/sense withdrawal/breath-focused practice. What I’m suggesting, and what I’m seeing more of in a burgeoning community, is that the values and morals of yoga affect national policy.
A popular sentiment one of my former teachers would express: How we do anything is how we do everything. Separating our spiritual discipline from our everyday lives means we’re not taking our practice seriously. Although we might not have a biological imperative to treat strangers as closely as kin, compassion and empathy are valuable allies in developing a more human- and nature-conscious world—tools that a devoted yoga practice helps cultivate.
When you take care of yourself, you generally take better care of others. By extension, you become more cognizant of how you treat the world and other people who inhabit it. This leads to shifts in policy, which is why yoga’s moral principles can be translated to an entire nation.
Recent calls for stripping religion of its metaphysics and employing its ethics has been voiced by a range of thinkers, from the Dalai Lama to Sam Harris. We need to strip yoga of its transcendental roots as well. I’m not calling for an end of its mythologies—the Ramayana is a beautiful tale (though with an unfortunate patriarchal bent), and the Mahabharata is the greatest war story ever told, no sleight to Homer. But yoga, as described by Patanjali, describes the development of siddhis, such as turning your body into a diamond, becoming infinitely small, and levitation. This, along with a misunderstanding of polytheism, is why Americans translate yoga as ‘strange’ or even heretical.
What we can use is the ten major restraints and observances of yoga:
- Not being greedy
- Displaying sexual integrity
There is no clear-cut road to policy from these. Social agreements are relative and must be weighed in light of the time and culture you inhabit. Some current policy shifts we can address in America:
- Is telling a woman what to do with her own body in everyone’s best interest?
- Does filling every school with armed security guards cause less violence?
- Can we afford to let executive bankers destroy our economy without being prosecuted?
Yoga as a belief system is useless, as any religion focused solely on beliefs is. Action matters. Policy shifts are part of an action that can affect positive change for the greatest number of Americans. Cultivating a more humane and conscious citizenry that respects all forms of life and the world we live within is a direction yoga points towards. We just need more yogis to take that knowledge off the mat and into office.
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