There is a vociferous debate at present in social media about the cultural appropriation of yoga. It's not a debate I have wanted to enter into mostly because feelings run high and positions are defended to the point of offensiveness. But I read something this week which made me want to put my thoughts in writing.
I am a mitra in the Triratna Buddhist Community as such I undertake weekly Dharma study over four years. This week we were looking at the specific approach to Buddhism taken by Triratna. A distinctive feature of the Order is an ecumenical approach: transcending the differences between Buddhist schools, looking for inspiration and practices across the whole tradition. I read this particular passage and the message seemed to hold true for how I feel about yoga.
"For Buddhism to take root in the West it has to outgrow this culturally biased sectarianism. We need to look at the different schools, see what they have in common, appreciate them, gain inspiration from them and learn from them. We need to get back to the basic truths of Buddhism that underlie all schools and use what is useful under present circumstances from the whole range of the tradition. And we need to do this without simply taking a magpie approach, picking up the glittery parts of the various schools that attract our eye, while ignoring the apparently duller or more challenging teachings and practices that may be what we really need to transform ourselves."
Yoga, like Buddhism, is thousands of years old, has flourished into many approaches and traditions. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves similar questions. What are the basic principles of Yoga? What is useful under present circumstances? What will help us transform ourselves?
For some, of course yoga is not a transformative discipline in the spiritual sense; they look to it to transform their bodies in a physical sense. Postural, physical yoga has taken precedent over the more contemplative practices in the West because our culture is predominantly focused with the outer rather than the inner world. Having said that, more contemplative practices like mindfulness are coming into prominence and perhaps we will see a shift in yoga practices in the future.
In a BBC Radio 4 episode of Beyond Belief aired on 10 February 2014 the guests - Jim Mallionson from SOAS, Suzanne Newcombe from the charity Inform whose doctoral thesis was on the popularisation of yoga and Ramesh Pattni from the Hindu Forum of Britain - described yoga in the following ways respectively: yoga is a system of physical and mental disciplines which are used to bring about liberation and equanimity; it is a variety of beliefs and practices with a common goal of stilling the mind and bringing about health and well being; yoga is about uniting with the breath, mind and that which is transcendental.
Many may initially come to yoga as a physical practice or as a means to relieve stress in the same way that mindfulness can be practiced in a secular way devoid of its Buddhist roots. But this initial taste may encourage the practitioner to go further, explore deeper contemplative practices and underpinning philosophy. We may start with health and well being, but find ourselves on a path toward equanimity and liberation. Either way yoga has an effect.
We bring ourselves to yoga both as practitioners and teachers.
My approach is from a Buddhist perspective. I am interested in helping people be at ease physically and mentally, to live in greater awareness, to explore how the mind mediates our world, to explore how the body and mind are interconnected, to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. I am also strongly influenced by a background in dance and somatic practice. I hope to enable people to become more embodied, to explore their inner worlds, sensations, emotions, patterns, and thoughts.
Yoga like Buddhism is a path that can be practised by all; it is a human practice. Although it emerged from India it has relevance to all of us. It can be transformative on many levels.