The Americanization of Yoga: Why It’s More Good Than Bad

Kari-Ann Levine
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Yoga is a tradition that has transformed and reinvented itself many times throughout its long history, spanning from the 3rd century BCE all the way to the present contemporary West. Arguably, it was designed for just this kind of flexibility and persistence across all times and all spaces.

Despite this intentional plasticity weaved into the yogic tradition, it has become trendy to blame the Western world, and particularly the U.S., for it’s defilement — pointing to the $27 billion dollar industry and Instagram Yogalebrities as evidence. But such a claim ignores the uniquely American adaptation of yogic principles, along with the many influences that have shaped yoga since it arrived on American shores.

In this piece, we celebrate the American Yogic Tradition by honoring its dynamic history. We also pay special attention to the distinctively American context through which yoga’s timeless wisdom makes sense in our contemporary lives.

 

Indian Spiritual Roots

Yoga’s roots run deep within ancient Indian and Hindu culture, with its earliest mentions found in the Hindu Upanishads, along with other greatly revered spiritual texts. The first written work dedicated entirely to the philosophy of yoga is The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written in the first millennium CE.

In this text, Patanjali describes a method to end personal suffering — something he regarded as widespread and universal across humanity.

The majority of the text details the countless forms of false suffering endured by all humans, and the method through which one can come to pramana, or “correct seeing.” For Patanjali, once we can see through the suffering formed by influences outside of ourselves — those created by social expectation, regardless of what culture those expectations come from — we can correctly see and realize our true nature of pure peace, unbounded by time and space.

While the suffering that Patanjali observed in old world India may look very different from that which we experience today in the contemporary West, the fact that we suffer at the hands of society has not changed. And neither has Patanjali’s truth that moksha, or “liberation” from this struggle can be found within ourselves.

Throughout yoga’s history in the U.S., the context of Patanjali’s universal solution to human suffering has taken many shapes and forms, but the fundamental truth within it has remained the same.

 

A Bit More History

The Yogic Tradition was first introduced to the U.S. in 1893 at the Parliament of Religions Conference. The Indian Monk who spoke at this conference, and then in lectures across the states, went by the name of Vivekananda. He was met by an audience of Americans who were ready for his message of liberation. His presentations laid the foundation for a strong Yogic Tradition in the U.S.

But in Vivekananda’s yoga, and in yoga taught by those who followed in his wake, there was little to no asana (physical poses). For these early teachers in the U.S, the meaning of asana was much more firmly rooted in its direct, Sanskrit translation: “meditative seat.”

Even in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, of the 196 verses within this text, only three of them referenced the practice of physical postures. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the Yogic Tradition became a physical one with a stronger emphasis on asana. This trend began first in India, and then traveled westward towards the U.S.
 

 
Traditional yogic practice in India also evolved to become more asana-focused to accommodate the changing needs and values of their culture. The growing threat of British Colonization over the once free subcontinent inspired a social shift that valued physical strength just as much as mental. The underlying assumption was this: stronger, more resilient bodies = stronger, more resilient minds = stronger, more resilient resistance against Western Invasion.

Indian Gurus began reinterpreting asana through the lens of their new cultural reality, transforming yoga from a practice of liberating the mind from cultural oppression, to one that recognized the importance of liberating the body as well. Thus, when asana-based yoga arrived in the U.S., the Yogic Tradition had already been reinterpreted as a decidedly more physical one than in the tradition presented by Patanjali.

(As an interesting side note —the asana that developed in India was inspired by the same Western influence that threatened the very liberation the nation was seeking. As British colonialists invaded India, they brought with them a Western exercise system known as “Primitive Gymnastics.” This same system was adopted by the yogis of the day and incorporated into their asana practices.)

 

The Struggle of the Contemporary American Yogi

Yoga in America is set in the most consumerist, disembodied, ego and vanity-driven society the tradition has ever seen. American yogis practice their yoga in the midst of capitalist pressures that require their yoga studio to be profitable to exist at all. They practice during a time of technology, automation, and largely sedentary lifestyles. These yogis practice against a cultural backdrop that glorifies bodily aesthetics over the soul that exists within that body, and the mind-body connection required to access it.

With all of these cultural influences, is it any wonder that these American ideologies, for better or worse, have invaded the studio space itself? Yes it is true that American yoga has been commercialized, sexualized, and in many instances simplified to the point that many yogis miss its core message entirely.

Often times our yoga mat is described as the microcosm through which we learn to handle life’s stressors with poise and grace. Perhaps this must be so for our practice on the mat to mirror what our practice must be in our day-to-day lives, to find moksha… liberation.

Today, yoga in the U.S. continues as a largely physical practice. Many cultural critics point to this as evidence of our misuse of the tradition that began not so much as exercise for the body, but rather as an exercise in mindfulness and spirituality. But perhaps asana-focused American yoga is not as inauthentic as the critics claim.

Perhaps it is not that America has defiled yogic traditions, but rather we have kept them alive by reinterpreting them to fit our unique needs and our own cultural history. A tradition that stays static — one that does not move and transform along with history — risks becoming nothing more than an artifact, forgotten in the sands of time. The teachings within the tradition itself must allot for this kind of flexibility, so its relevancy persists for those who use it. And it is through this using that people themselves keep the tradition alive by continuously redefining it to make sense in their own lives.

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Kari-Ann Levine

Kari-Ann is a freelance writer, yoga teacher, and CrossFit coach. Her approach to all three is to get down and dirty with the realness and rawness of being human. Kari-Ann believes that spirituality is experienced right here, right now – in all the dust and divinity that is the earth, our body, and the seen and unseen. Her passion is to be a continual student of her heart, body, soul, and mind, and to share what she learns with others.

kariannlevine.com

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