Yoga has made its way into mainstream American culture. Designer yoga apparel is now the ultimate status symbol, and yoga affects way we shop, listen, eat, date, exercise, relate, vacation and socialize. Things were different in the late nineties when I was in college: Madonna had just released Ray of Light, and that was what sold me on yoga. I wanted to get her sculpted arms, for one. Secondly, Madonna made yoga look and sound sexy, provocative and new. From that point I was on a slow trajectory toward an increased self-awareness through the practice itself. I started practicing yoga to bring more flexibility and balance to my body, then as a means to heal and prevent injuries. Eventually, it became the most important thing I do for my spiritual and physical fitness. To me, yoga isn’t just a spiritual practice or a way to maintain fitness and physique–it’s both.
And yet, many who place deep value on the authentic practice of yoga remark on the perceived bastardization and disconnection of the practice from its authentic, intended roots. The criticisms often suggest that the a la carte nature (pick and choose elements that you feel like), commercialization and sexualization of the practice is damaging to the intended purpose and path of yoga. Many think that “the Westernization” diminishes and counteracts any potential benefit to be gained from maintaining an authentic practice. But the suggestion that only in its purest form can the practice of yoga be beneficial to the practitioner and anything else, is missing the mark.
Parmahansa Yogananda, responsible for bringing the practice of Kria Yoga to western culture back in the 1920’s and 30’s, was himself aware of the significant challenges and possibility of inauthenticity. This, however did not discourage him, because as long as yoga practice brings us closer to our truth by increasing our awareness, it will have been true to its original intention. Practicing yoga is merely a path toward reaching that awareness, not a prescription. A path to surrendering. With, or without yoga, we as humans have the natural potential to expand our consciousness and achieve enlightenment. In short, there is no hard and fast rule to evolution and expansion of human capability. Therefore, the practice of yoga is not truly vulnerable to any Western watering down.
The nature of the American commercial culture, in many ways, is in polar opposition to the authentic teachings of yoga. So how could the value of such teachings resonate within a society which sees selflessness, passiveness, and cooperation to be a sign of weakness and of less value than ambition, assertion, and competitiveness? We are a culture that values physical beauty, youth, wealth and sex appeal over peace and empathy. Even though we fill up yoga classes and have drawers full of yoga clothes, we are still a society that talks the talk, but only walks the walk when it’s convenient.
Yet, this is a start. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the collective consciousness of the American consumer can’t be expected to change overnight, either. Growth and increased awareness can be built over time in a way that is palatable and not threatening to the current culture. Once on the path, all one needs to do is continue seeking truth. This is basic evolution. I compare this in a way to the shift in the relationship I’ve had with Brussels sprouts over the years. For me to eat them as a child, likely you would’ve had to drown them in chocolate for me to consider eating one and if I did, I’d likely have just sucked the chocolate off and spat out the sprout. I now have a more mature palate and I sauté them with just a little olive oil, sea salt and lemon, but I am nowhere near eating them fresh off the stalk..maybe someday.
In the same vein, if yoga needs to be covered in chocolate for people to eat it (and yes, there will be some who don’t initially benefit from any of its nutritive value), then so be it. If yoga needs to be presented in a manner that is a little more pleasing to the general population’s palate, it is then likely to make a successful, collective impact over time and help cultivate a deeper connection to one’s own truth, not just retire over time as a passed trend and lesson unlearned. The commercialization of yoga, then, is ultimately for the good. I believe as the boundaries of consideration and acceptance continue to be expanded, the awareness and appreciation for the authentic elements of the practice will be preferred and sought out over time.
Also by Kara: 3 Steps to Living Less from Fear
Photo: Royal Olive via Flickr