Yoga: From Tradition to Trend and Back Again

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By Abigail Dennis

Yoga is…

Breath – The stilling of the fluctuations of the mind – A sport – Transformative – Transforming – About finding liberation – Detachment – About the mysteries of the universe – Rehabilitative

Yoga is about life. It’s not about flexibility or gymnastic prowess. It’s about life. It’s what we’re doing here, sitting still in front of the highway, it’s about your life with your friends and your family, it’s about your life in the restaurant, it’s how you are on a bicycle, it’s how you are at your work every day with your colleagues. It’s not just what happens in that studio for an hour and a half every day; it’s off the mat. Yoga is all off the mat.” – Steward Gilchrest (Who Owns Yoga?)

The word “yoga” has represented so much throughout time and across space. From an ancient Indian tradition to a modern western trend, it has made its way across the world and become a significant part of millions of people’s lives in the process. Researchers estimate that today over sixteen million people practice yoga in the United States alone (White 2012). But it is not only the scale of yoga that I find interesting – it is the practice itself. I started this project because I was curious about how young people experience yoga within the modern western world today and how that relates to yoga’s origins. I am interested in how yoga has existed as a religious phenomenon, whether that use of yoga persists today, and how this compares to how modern youth in the west experience it now. As a striking case of east to west globalization, I wanted to know what it is about yoga that draws so many practitioners and how, or whether, yoga has maintained its authenticity through this movement. I have found that although in some ways yoga has changed significantly over time, in others it has remained close to its roots and today allows young people living in the modern western world greater agency over their lives both on and off the yoga mat.

I have had a variety of experiences with yoga in the past, but would by no means call myself an expert yogi – I am very far from it. I went to a small, project-based middle and high school where each year we had the opportunity to participate in something called May term in which students chose only one class to take for all of May. This is where I first met yoga. One year I chose a mindfulness and meditation class, and in it we practiced yoga at a nearby studio multiple times each day. At the time I was a competitive dancer and I loved the physicality of the practice. I loved pushing myself in this new, but familiar way – challenging my already developed balance, flexibility, and strength in novel and interesting ways. I’ll admit too, as is echoed by others’ experiences that I will highlight later, I liked it because it simply felt good. It was a nice way to move and left me feeling better after leaving the studio than I did when I entered it. However, when June came along I left yoga behind me and continued with my dancing – that is, until I graduated from high school and my competitive dance years were over. I was left with this huge emptiness, both of time and also of feeling, where dance used to be. This is when I found yoga again. I started going to the free classes that my college offered and have continued yoga on a sporadic basis since then. With every change in my schedule, whether it be a simple class schedule shift or a move across the world, or even just to home for the summer, I took classes in different studios and with different consistency. For me, practicing yoga has been an important way to maintain my strength and flexibility, but also to fill the sense of satisfaction, success, and trust in my body that I initially lost when I stopped competitive dancing. Throughout this essay I will draw on my experiences where relevant, but will primarily rely on the experiences shared with me by other young yogis living in the modern western world today.

Young Yogis in Amsterdam and the U.S.

The bulk of my research is informed by in-depth interviews with four yoga practitioners both in the United States and in Amsterdam. I used a variety of interview settings based on the location and accessibility of the respondent. Two interviewees are living in the United States, and therefore I had to use WhatsApp and Skype to communicate with them while the other two interviewees are living in Amsterdam, and I was therefore able to speak with them in person.

Sara is a young yoga practitioner and teacher currently living just outside of Seattle, Washington in the United States. She first started practicing yoga during the summer after her freshman year of college at her friend’s suggestion. After that, she did yoga through her college classes, a local studio, got her teacher training through Core Power Yoga, and has continued to teach and practice near Seattle.

Mia has practiced yoga in many places throughout the world, but not on as consistent of a basis as the other practitioners I spoke with. She also started yoga during her first years of college and since then has practiced at studios in Wisconsin, London, Thailand, Germany, South Korea, Dubai, and now also lives in Seattle and practices there on an intermittent basis.

Flean lives in Amsterdam and has been teaching and practicing yoga here for several years. Before she was a yoga instructor, though, she was an accomplished boxer and originally had no interest in trying yoga. Since she first tried it, though, she continued to practice on a regular basis, eventually getting her teacher training and now regularly teaches and practices in Amsterdam and the surrounding area.

Ola grew up in Germany, but moved to Amsterdam twelve years ago. She is currently finishing her master’s thesis at the University of Amsterdam and is planning to pursue a PhD program here. She first started practicing yoga while living in Cape Town, South Africa where she discovered that some free beginner classes were available and since then yoga has become a staple in her life. She recently spent a few months researching in Cuba where she practiced Kundalini yoga, which she describes as being a more traditional form, now works at the front desk of a yoga studio in Amsterdam, and is considering becoming certified to be a yoga teacher.

Where It All Began

In order to understand what yoga is and how it is experienced in the modern world, I needed to also understand where it came from. Everyone I talked to agreed that the yoga we practice in the west today bears little relation to yoga’s origins – in his article, Yoga, a Brief History of an Idea, David Gordon White say, “the yoga that is taught and practiced today has very little in common with the Yoga of the YS and other ancient yoga treatises. Nearly all of our popular assumptions about yoga theory date from the past 150 years, and very few modern-day practices date from before the twelfth century” (White 2). My respondents concurred. When asked how she thought modern yoga relates to traditional eastern practice, Sara agreed, “It is very different. There are certainly places in the western world that teach it very much like what you would find in India, like hundreds of years ago, but those aren’t the popular places.” Mia, Ola, and Flean reiterated this sentiment. The question becomes then, what do we mean when we talk about “traditional” or “original” yoga and how far have we really come from that?

One thing that quickly became clear to me when trying to answer this question is how very many practices and ideas the word “yoga” has come to represent. While this realization did not exactly aid me in my quest to understanding what yoga is, it did show me that it is a well-founded question – yoga has meant so many different things that it is entirely understandable that it has become such a hard concept to define. White notes that the word has a wider range of meanings than almost any other in the Sanskrit lexicon, saying:

“The act of yoking an animal, as well as the yoke itself, is called yoga. In astronomy, a conjunction of planets or starts, as well as a constellation, is called yoga. When one mixes together various substances that, too, can be called yoga. The word yoga has also been employed to denote a device, a recipe, a method, a strategy, a charm, an incantation, fraud, a trick, an endeavor, a combination, union, an arrangement, zeal, care, diligence, industriousness, discipline, use, application, contact, a sum total, and the work of alchemists. But this is by no means an exhaustive list” (White 3).

From here he goes on to list even more examples of what “yoga” has described, and I find myself wondering – how in the world did yoga come from meaning so many things to become widely known as one type of practice today?

The type of mind-body practice that we associate with yoga today all started with one object: a yoke. The earliest use of the term in India’s oldest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, was when yoga was described as a yoke used to connect a war horse to a chariot or a bull to a plow. Because of this, “yoga” came to signify wartime since those types of horses and chariots were mainly used at war. Soon thereafter, when a warrior knew he was going to die he would say “yoga-yukta” which translates as “yoked to yoga.” White says that, “this time, however, it was not the warrior’s own chariot that carried him up to the highest heaven, reserved for gods and heroes alone. Rather, it was a celestial “yoga,” a divine chariot that carried him upward in a burst of light to and through the sun, and on to the heaven of gods and heroes” (White 2012: 3). This is where we first start to see a spiritual side of yoga, which is continued for centuries to come. It is not until the fifth century, though, that Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains agree on the core principles of yoga.

At the beginning of the fifth century, White notes four principles of yoga acknowledged by all three parties. First among them is the idea of yoga as an analysis of perception and cognition (White 2012: 6). This is the idea that knowledge is what allows for transcendence to salvation, and yoga is a tool for that knowledge. White describes this saying, “Yoga is a regimen or discipline that trains the cognitive apparatus to perceive clearly, which leads to true cognition, which in turn leads to salvation” (Ibid.: 7). The second principle is of yoga as the raising and expansion of consciousness. This is the idea of yoga as not only heightening consciousness, but expanding it to allow for higher levels of cognition and even includes “the notion that the expansion of consciousness is tantamount to the expansion of the self to the point that one’s body becomes coextensive with the entire universe” (Ibid.: 8). The third principle is of yoga as a path to omniscience. Related to the previous two principles, this is the idea that yoga can help to remove all limits to knowledge. Without limits, a yogi could have knowledge of the past and the future and of any and all locations. Lastly, White describes the principle of yoga as a method of “entering into other bodies, generating multiple bodies, and the attainment of other supernatural accomplishments” (Ibid.: 10). This is the belief that through yoga, one’s consciousness can be so heightened that they can not only see things in a true way, but can also see through them to what is beneath the surface. Following this, one can enter into others’ bodies and exist within them.

These four core principles of yoga in the early fifth century as identified by White initially seem very different from the popular yoga in the west. They are highly concerned with the attainment of knowledge, clarifying the mind, and, ultimately, achieving salvation. Throughout the essay I will revisit these principles, and see if the four yoga practitioners I interviewed have experiences related to them, or if the yoga they practice seems to be an entirely new phenomenon.

Yoga for One, Yoga for All

While each of the people I interviewed had unique experiences to offer, they also shared some similar ideas about yoga. First among them is the concept that yoga is for everyone. However, yoga has come to be associated with wealthy, thin, primarily white females. It is marketed as such through the media, through advertising, and often times through imagery at yoga studios themselves. My interviewees acknowledged this – Mia said, “There is a very pervasive image of a yogi being a young, thin, already fit woman wearing Lululemon and drinking green smoothies and who can afford to pay two hundred dollars a month to go to studio classes.” Flean discussed this idea thoroughly in my discussion with her as well. She emphasized that, it’s really a tall, tall subculture. People are really buying their nice clothes and they go on trips together and they eat healthy food and drink their herb tea and they chit chat about, I don’t know, raw food.” Sara admits that she fits into this stereotype but, like the others, believes that yoga is accessible to many more people than fit into that mold. She says, “Yoga is not just for rich, white, skinny chics,” thereby both acknowledging the stereotype and dismissing its validity.

Despite this pervasive stereotype, everyone I talked to insisted that yoga is for everybody. When asked how they would describe an ideal practitioner, my respondents unanimously replied that there was no such thing – and to them, that was one of the great things about yoga. Ola says, “I think everyone can be a great yoga practitioner. That’s a nice thing about yoga – literally everybody can do it.” Examples from a recent AlJazeera documentary, Who Owns Yoga?, illustrate this well. Throughout the film we see yoga adapted to many groups of people. It shows Christian worship yoga, power yoga, rave yoga, competitive yoga, boxing yoga, and more.  This says something significant about the nature of yoga itself – it is so incredibly customizable. Just as the word yoga has meant so many things over time, the practice currently means a plethora of things to different people even within the modern western world. As white says, “One reason this has been possible is that its semantic field – the range of meanings of the term “yoga” – is so broad and the concept of yoga so malleable, that it has been possible to morph it into nearly any practice or processes one chooses” (White 2012: 2). As White notes, it is both the term and the concept itself that is flexible. This is true both with the many different types of yoga settings noted above, but also within one setting.

My interviews expressed appreciation for the malleability of yoga and how this allows them to customize it to their own needs. Ola discussed this saying that she can always choose a different type of class based on how she is feeling on a given day, but also that she can adjust exercises within a class to give her what she needs from the practice that day. She says, “It’s just about holding back. It’s about listening to your body and not going that far. Not going as far as you can. Just halfway.”

Recognizing the diversity of yoga practices even within the modern western world, I expected to find highly differing experiences among my interviewees, but instead they shared surprisingly similar accounts, first among them being this appreciation for the customizability of yoga. Being so malleable, yoga allows the individuals to maintain agency within their practice by controlling not only which classes to attend, but by adjusting the class itself to their own individual needs.

From the Physical to the Mental

Another element that unified the accounts of the three individuals who were highly involved in yoga – Ola, Flean, and Sara – was that they had each initially approached yoga with physical goals, but somewhere along the way found the mental benefits to be incredibly significant to their practice. As briefly mentioned, I noticed this to be in relation to the involvement of the practitioner. They each painted a similar picture of starting yoga with the hopes of physical improvement, but instead (or additionally) found great mental benefits. Sara describes this saying:

“Before I got more into intention, like focusing more on the meditative part, it was always like physical goals, like can I get into a handstand. Like I always just really wanted to get into a handstand in the middle of the room. And now I can do that, right, like I’ve built up the strength and the alignment to be able to do that, and it’s like, and it’s cool to be able to show it off or whatever, but it’s not… that’s not what it’s about and I didn’t really get that until after reaching some of those physical goals.” Ola described a similar shift in herself, but also reflected on other people as well saying, “I think most people start due to the physical benefits. But I don’t think a lot of people stick to yoga due to the physical benefits. Not for years. I mean you can do it for a while, but the people that really do yoga for years, they don’t do it because… I mean, to lose weight or anything.”

After speaking with Ola, Sara, and Flean who were so deeply involved in yoga and who all acknowledged the mental benefits, I decided to talk about this with Mia, who, although she had done yoga for years, did not practice on nearly as consistent a basis as the other interviewees and who did not have or aim to have a teacher training certification. I was interested to find that Mia fit into the picture that the other three respondents had described of themselves at the start of their practice. To her, the benefits she gained from yoga were akin to those she gained through other forms of exercise. She does not deny mental benefit, but believes she gains the same mental benefits from running cross-country, doing Pilates, or exercising in other ways. She says, “I feel like I really like doing it, but whether I go for a run or do yoga or I, you know, take a Pilates class or a bar class, or you know, play Frisbee, I just feel really good and I take that in from the endorphins and exercise and that just makes me feel happier.” I was intrigued to hear this from her because it matched so perfectly how the other practitioners described their own early experiences. Knowing this, I asked Mia if she believed that continued practice would change this about her yoga experience – possibly give her more of the mental benefits that the other interviewees described. She didn’t think so, though. She thought, Maybe it’s just that’s not what yoga is for me.” But as Sara said, she herself did not understand what yoga was “really about” (referring to the mental side of it) until after she had surpassed her physical goals, so I suppose one never knows whether Mia would potentially experience the same shift if she continued yoga in the future.

Yoga as a Tool and a Lifestyle

After hearing so much about the benefits yoga gives my interviewees extending beyond just weight loss, flexibility, strength, and other physical improvements, I was curious to understand more about what exactly these advantages are and how they relate to the practitioners’ lives outside of the yoga practice itself. When first approaching this project, I expected respondents to describe yoga as a sort of outlet. Living in such a hectic, fast-paced world I thought that people would describe yoga as a type of escape from that. However, that is not what I found at all. Instead I found yoga experienced as a tool and fully integrated into modern life. The benefits my interviewees derived from yoga extended far beyond the mat or the studio and affected them throughout the rest of their lives. Highlighted in these advantages were help with illness, improved relationships with their own bodies, and better focus and overall mentality.

Yoga as a tool to help individuals with illness is one of the more intriguing aspects of it that I found. I have noticed that we often draw a divide when thinking about yoga between when one crosses over from simply going to classes and buying nice yoga gear to really believing in the healing powers of the practice. Apparently, as my Dutch respondents both informed me, in Dutch there is a word to define this, which they described as someone who has their head lost in the clouds. My U.S. respondents recognized this too. Sara talked about how many people perceive the belief in yoga’s health benefits as “sort of just like a woo woo, like, ‘oh sure, eastern medicine says this’” type of thing. But what my respondents have found is that the benefits are real to them. Sara states, “There’s so much I didn’t know and there’s still so much I don’t know. But, I mean, I didn’t’ know about like chakras, and centers, and why the breathing makes a difference and like, you know, the sympathetic nervous system, that kind of stuff like calming yourself down… like it actually physiologically has a basis.” Ola says something very similar; “I had kind of like a stereotype idea that it’s very slow and meditative, and then I actually discovered that it actually has a lot of benefits for your body too… so I think that’s a stereotype that a lot of people have, that it’s about being off when it’s actually about being more real in the world.

What I found, though, is that it extended beyond just this ability to calm the body down from yoga. It also provided individuals with agency over their own health problems. For example, Sara illustrated this well as she uses yoga to tackle some of her own recent health problems and also started a company in part for people with illnesses or disabilities to practice yoga privately with her. She describes her clients saying,

“Most of them have a hip or knee replacement or something that just doesn’t make sense for them to go to a regular studio, there’s just too much movement that they wouldn’t be able to do. And I really like that, like I like the focus of…. that true yoga is really rehabilitative. Which is just a different way to use it, like really amazing. People with injuries are like, oh well, I guess I just have to sit on my butt and not do anything for like eight weeks or whatever‘”

With her business, then, Sara is using yoga to give people back that agency over their own bodies. They no longer have to just sit and do nothing and give the illness control over their bodies, but instead can take back control by using their bodies again through yoga. One example of this that I found particularly striking was an army veteran taking one of Sara’s classes who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has had to use marijuana frequently in order to function during the day. Through continuous yoga practice, though, he is becoming sober. Here we see that yoga is definitely not just something that he comes to, enjoys, but then leaves behind him as he goes throughout the rest of his day. Rather he carries the effects of his practice with him throughout life, enabling him to regain control over himself without the use of medication. Sara tells of him, “He said his mind is so chaotic. It took him months of doing hot yoga to calm it down, and it’s the only way that he can get through the other twenty-three hours of the day.” Ola gives another example of a yogi she read about. She says, “I read an article about a guy who was in a wheelchair and he was actually practicing yoga while he could only move his hands, his neck, and his feet. And a lot of people say that’s not yoga, but for him it was yoga.” Again, we see a case of a man who was severely limited in his physical mobility, but took back some control of his body through his yoga practice. These are extraordinary examples of how much further beyond the studio yoga extends. When dealing with illness, disability, or health problems individuals use yoga to regain agency in their entire lives, not solely while practicing.

The women I spoke with also discussed how practicing yoga improved their relationships with their bodies. As previously mentioned, many of them approached yoga for physical goals – to lose weight, to get more toned, or for other desired improvements. What they found though, is that their relationship with their bodies did improve through yoga, but not because of these things. Instead, they came to appreciate their bodies for their strength and power. Ola says, “I just started appreciating my body more, and not even for like being flexible or anything like that, but just for being strong and healthy and…  yeah, you get a better body awareness. And I think that’s really what yoga, like physically, did for me.” In a time in modern western society when women’s bodies are so highly scrutinized and held up to such highly impossible standards, through yoga they regained confidence in themselves, not because it brought their bodies closer to that impossible aesthetic standard, but because it made them appreciate their bodies for what they are and all that they do.

In addition to gained control over illnesses and improved relationships with their bodies, the practitioners I interviewed talked a lot about improvements in their general mentality not only inside the yoga studio, but in all aspects of their life. Flean discussed this at length, having previously come from a boxing background where she felt that she did not gain the same sort of mental benefits. She talks about yoga as something that keeps her balanced, with both her mind and body attended to, while with boxing she only felt like she was getting physical advantages. As a parent of four children, and with six children living in her house, she has a very hectic life. She says that it can get to be too much sometimes, but with yoga she feels much more able to manage; “It changes you. Not incredibly, but it changes you. It can make you more calm in moments when you are stressed. Because you know how to deal with your thoughts.” Ola describes a similar feeling in relation to her studies. As a student currently finishing her masters thesis and heading towards a PhD program, she is very busy, and in a very stressful, competitive environment. What she told me, though, is that yoga helps her manage this. By this she did not mean that yoga gives her a break from that stress, but rather that it is a tool to help cope with it. For example, she says, “If I need to study and I have bad focus and I do a yoga class, then my focus is just much better.” Here again we see how yoga is not used as an escape, as I had originally anticipated, but is fully integrated into these individuals’ modern lives. Through their regular yoga practice they are not only able to gain a sense of calm while in the studio, but also gain a sense of both physical and mental control over their otherwise hectic modern lives.

“It Just Feels Good”

While talking to my interviewees about their initial impressions of yoga, I was intrigued when they all said something along the lines of “it just felt good.” What did they mean by that? What was it about the practice that contributed to this experience? Flean, Sara, and Ola speak of their beginning experiences with yoga saying that they fell in love with the very first class – even before they fully acknowledged the mental benefits. While their goals were still physical, at some level they recognized it as something more. Flean compares this to her boxing background saying that although she only went to the first yoga class at the suggestion of her friend, she says after “just one class I thought, ‘wow, what is this!’ and then I fell in love.” Similarly, Sara’s colleague at the time asked her to go to a yoga class and she went along without any real impressions but, as she says, “I loved it. I just totally fell in love with it” long before she reflected on what it was really doing for her mentally. I find it interesting to consider these accounts in relation to Mia’s experience because in many ways, she is right now where the others describe themselves in the past – and she speaks about her experience similarly. Though she does not overtly acknowledge gaining mental benefits from yoga that she wouldn’t from other forms of exercise – and the other interviewees did not either when they first started – she reiterates this sentiment of yoga leaving her with a good feeling. When asked why she practices she says, “I find it really relaxing and I find it really refreshing when I finish. Like I feel really refreshed, I feel reinvigorated.” She summarizes her feelings towards it saying, “Yeah, I just do it because it’s fun and it makes me feel good.” I was interested in Ola’s ideas about this sense of “it just feels good” – she not only acknowledges this in herself from the start of her practice, but reflects on how others, like Mia, experience it. She says,

“I think it’s also like an unconscious thing. I don’t think people consciously feel what it does to them, but it just makes them feel really good. Because it kind of forces you to be in the moment. I think that’s… because meditation, for example, for a lot of people is just too far off, and maybe yoga is the step towards… maybe living more consciously.”

Here Ola summarizes what I too noticed when reflecting on my interviewees with the four yogis – they all started with the sense of yoga just leaving them feeling better than they did before they came, but not necessarily having a greater understanding of the mental benefits than that, and Mia’s current experiences fit well into how the others reflect on this from their own pasts.

 A Community of Individuals

Another aspect of modern day yoga culture that I was curious about while exploring this topic was whether my respondents experienced any sense of community in relation to their practice. Initially, I noticed them relaying strong feelings of individualism in yoga. Sara summarizes this feeling well when she says,

“When I practice though, like when I’m taking a class for myself but not teaching, it’s individual. It’s all about me and what’s going on in my body… and it’s just, its super personal and it’s super individual… It’s almost like I’m alone even though I’m in a room with twenty other people. You know, it’s like I’m alone.”

Ola, Mia, and Flean agreed with this sentiment in the way they talked about their feelings of being individuals during their practice. When asked directly what they thought about the yoga community, each of them also denied being part of a community in a traditional sense. Mia says, “It’s probably more of an individual thing for me because even doing it in college when it was sort of a community they were people I was friends with before doing yoga, you know? Like I knew them outside of yoga; I didn’t meet them doing yoga. It wasn’t like our shared love of yoga is what bonded us.” Flean echoes this saying, “No, not at all. My friends don’t [do yoga], I have nobody who I talk to… no. I really see it as my own private thing.

What I realized, though, when Sara told me “I definitely feel part of a community that’s huge,” is that when pressed further most of these practitioners acknowledged feeling part of a different sort of yoga community – one that’s not defined by friends and direct relationships. Mia illustrated this idea well when she described her experience of practicing yoga all around the world. She travelled frequently for her job and often lived abroad for months at a time, so would find a new studio wherever she went. What she said though is that it never felt terribly new – instead there was a familiarity to it, a common language if you will. She said, of her impressions of yoga in the several different countries, “In terms of like studio culture, like how they approach yoga, I’ve found it to be pretty similar. Which is kind of what’s nice about it too – that you can go anywhere in the world and you can join and it’s… there’s a familiarity to it.” When I asked her then, if she considered this to be a sort of community she said, “Yeah I mean I guess that’s a good point. It’s kind of a global community in the sense that now it’s so popular that in many places… you can find a studio to practice and if you have, you know, some degree of familiarity with it you’ll be able to kind of just pick it up in the studio regardless of what the language is.” A shared knowledge of yoga across cultures gave Mia the agency to practice anywhere she found herself in the world and make herself comfortable there, despite the local language or cultural barriers facing her in other aspects of life. In this sense, while my interviewees did not feel part of a community in the traditional sense of the word, they felt part of one in a greater sense and after all, as Flean says, “what is a community? Where does it start, where does it end?”

Conclusion

When I started my research I hoped to find out how young yoga practitioners in the modern western world experience yoga today and how this relates to older versions of the practice. What I expected to find was a huge discrepancy between where yoga came from and where it is today. In some ways, this is true. Yoga as a western trend seems much more concerned with image, marketing, and aesthetically improving the physical self than the original practice did, which was geared toward gaining knowledge and achieving salvation. However, in other ways it is not as far away as it initially seems. What I learned from my discussions with Sara, Ola, Mia, and Flean, as well as from the documentary and literature, is that when individuals are deeply involved in yoga their experiences shift back towards mental benefits. While they may not be concerned with exactly the same four core principles that David White notes united Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist practice in the fifth century, they are similarly concerned with gaining consciousness and an overall better mentality through yoga. In this way, yoga does not seem to be as far from its origins as it might first appear. Yes, it has escalated into a major western trend and has been capitalized upon as such, but for the people who are deeply engaged, it is much more than that.

In Believing in Belonging, Abby Day (2009) discusses the shift she has noticed from young people believing in an ideology to believing in each other. She talks about this movement saying the, “[belief] is not absent but relocated to a social realm where it is polyvocal, interdependent, emotionally charged, and illustrative of the experiences of belonging” (Day 2009: 76). I see a similar shift occurring with yoga. While the practitioners I talked to did not speak about yoga as a path to religious salvation, they still clearly had strong beliefs in its positive effects. Yoga allows them to gain agency over their lives both inside and outside of the studio through control over illnesses, disabilities, stresses, and their relationships with their bodies, so while they may not be concerned with achieving religious salvation, yoga certainly provides them with salvation in their daily lives.

References

Day, Abby (2009). “Believing in belonging: an ethnography of young people’s constructions of belief.” Culture and Religion, 10, 263-278.

White, David Gordon (2012). “Introduction: Yoga, Brief History of an Idea.” In David G. White (Ed.), Yoga in Practice (1-23). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

AlJazeera Correspondent (2014, November 27). “Who Owns Yoga?” Accessible at http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeracorrespondent/2014/11/who-owns-yoga-20141117114315748275.html.

Cover image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1f/Kailash_Integral_Yoga

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