Monday, July 2, 2018

Has Yoga in the West Been Inappropriately Appropriated by Westeners?

I confess I only learned of the concept of "cultural appropriation" last year. The Oxford Dictionaries defines cultural appropriation as the "the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society."

For starters, there's no secret that yoga came from India. One cannot say this is not acknowledged. As to inappropriate, well, where does "goat yoga" or "beer yoga" fit? I feel that serving wine after yoga class is inappropriate when I contemplate the history, the tradition, and the intention behind yoga practice. 

Therefore, while certain applications and adaptions of yoga seem inappropriate (culturally or not), the question in my mind is whether the very practice of yoga itself falls under this criticism. For that matter, are all adaptations or modifications or new uses for yoga inappropriate?

I happen to be a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the now famous classic story, "Autobiography of a Yogi." Yogananda taught hatha yoga but did not become famous or associated with hatha in the same way, say, as B.K.S. Iyengar. (There is a yoga style associated, however, with what Yogananda taught. It is called Ananda Yoga and was initially developed by Swami Kriyananda, a direct disciple of Yogananda, and the founder of the worldwide network of communities and yoga teaching centers called "Ananda.")

Any student of the modern history of yoga in the West will easily discover that renowned yoga teachers came to the West specifically to teach yoga and in the process bestowed upon key students the mantle of continuing that work in the West.

Far, therefore, from yoga's being unilaterally appropriated by westerners, teachers from India have intentionally brought yoga for the purpose of its perpetuation to the West. 

But there are additional points I'd like to make. Millions of have read "Autobiography of a Yogi." In his life story, Yogananda makes several statements indicating that a high spiritual purpose existed for the dissemination of yoga practices (principally, so far as his life's mission was concerned, its meditation aspects) in the West. Indeed, it was, Yogananda taught, in the divine Will that the best of East and West be distilled for the upliftment and evolution of human consciousness.

Many a qualified yoga teacher, both east and west, claim that yoga is a universal and nonsectarian science for physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Suited to every time and clime, the principles of yoga are discoverable by any sincere seeker. 

More than this is the assertion, and one that I endorse from my own research and intuition, that India's contact with the West, as painful as it was in many respects (having been conquered, etc.), helped revive, energize and even improve yoga (including meditation) practice. 

I say "improve" on the basis of two things: one, the particular analytical and scientific genius of western culture, and secondly, the assertion (made by Yogananda and his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar and one readily endorsed, however instinctively, by most of the planet's human inhabitants), that we are in an ascendant age of increasing knowledge and (re-)discovery. 

Yogananda, in speaking of the existence and practice of "kriya yoga," stated that it was almost forgotten through human indifference and priestly secrecy. Western medical testing of yoga and meditation has contributed significantly to the validation of its benefits for all the world to see. 

In India, yoga practice in the past has been burdened with unscientific claims of some of its proponents. Few westerners are aware that during the British Raj yoga practice and yogis had fallen into such disrepute as to be viewed as veritable gangs of thugs and reprobates that it was banned. (That this ban was also based on politics and prejudice cannot be denied. Further, such a view did not invalidate the true practice of yoga even if by but a few.)

The long-standing and deeply-held Asian and Indian respect for one's teacher (guru) is deeply embedded in the yoga tradition. In its contact with the West which doesn't have that cultural orientation, confusion and friction have sometimes resulted. 

Yogananda attempted to clarify the use of the term "guru" by applying the term to refer to the "sat guru." This is a reference to a spiritual "savior" on the level of Jesus Christ, Buddha and the like. 

Yet in the east and throughout the world, the ordinary term "guru" can be applied to financial or computer "gurus!" In the late 19th century and early 20th century, in India, a trend began that was influenced both with western physical body-building culture and with the renewal of pride in Indian culture that began to teach hatha yoga from a more strictly physical health point of view. 

In this process, the guru concept and its concomitant spiritual purposes began to weaken but did not dissolve. While the cultural relationship to the teacher continued in the tradition of deep respect and implicit obedience to the teacher, the reality was that few (if any) such teachers, even among the most popular (or perhaps "especially") were true, sat gurus: avatars or liberated masters. The clash with western culture was inevitable and took the uniquely western form of lawsuits and scandals.

Yogananda knew that the spread of yoga and meditation would not be met by a concomitant rising quantity of true, liberated masters. He himself employed printed lessons to teach the precepts of Vedanta, Shankhya and the practices of Yoga (especially raja and kriya yoga).

Moreover, he knew that the egalitarian consciousness of the west would spread eventually throughout the world and would tend to consign to the past the sacred tradition of guru-disciple. Nor is it a matter of too few true gurus. Rather, in a fiercely egalitarian society, it is a matter of too few true disciples.

The point here is that in an evolving and expanding age of consciousness, change is not only more rapid but unstoppable. Yoga has come to the world to uplift society at large. That it will not resemble the forest hermitages and ashrams of tradition may be regrettable to some but inevitable to many. This is not "appropriation." It is change and evolution.

There will always be those souls who incarnate with a pre-existing understanding of the need for a true guru. The need for a guru and the role of a disciple will not disappear because not only will there always be some of have "eyes to see," but because in an ascendant age more and more people will awaken spiritually. This will happen through yoga practice. We see this every day at the Ananda yoga centers worldwide.

Nor is such an awakening the expectation (much less a prerequisite) in the teaching and practice of yoga (including meditation). "When the disciple is ready, the guru appears." Keeping the tradition alive and held out as an example is the role of those (relatively) few (in this culture). But this truth-teaching is not well served by mere proselytizing. Truth "simply is."

In his life story, Yogananda describes how he, while meditating in a dusty storeroom (to escape temporarily from the boys in his school!), had a vision of American faces: souls he would meet when he was soon to go to America. 

Souls who, in past lives practiced yoga-meditation in India where the tradition was kept alive (even if barely), are now being born in the West. How then can anyone truly claim "appropriation."

Yogananda would thunder from his "pulpit" to crowds of thousands: "The time for knowing God (through kriya yoga) has come!" Yoga is indeed for all. 

Let us put aside divisive accusations of appropriation, at least as it relates to yoga. Yoga is for the world and for anyone, regardless of skin color or birth, who armed with respect for its traditions and origin, and with sincere dedication to its practice "goes within."

With joy and the light of yoga,

Swami Hrimananda

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Security vs Compassion; Wisdom vs Mercy; Liberal vs Conservative!

In the uproar about separating children from parents at the U.S. border, I am reminded of the long-running controversy over abortion which pitted right to life against the right of personal choice. 

In the case of the children, we have security and integrity of the state (borders) versus compassion for the welfare of children. In both cases the obvious choice should be compassion and personal choice: both reflect the nature of the guiding principles and the overriding consciousness of American culture.

In the case of the children, it seems that there must be an administrative way to BOTH secure the border AND protect the children. On that score, I simply do not know enough about the issue. If a family attempts to enter and not everyone in the family is legal, maybe it's their choice whether they all are turned back or they are separated? Or, if they can provide sufficient documentation to ensure proper follow-up, they all enter and approval processes take place later?

I don't object to the right of our nation, indeed, every nation, to secure its own borders and decide who is allowed to enter and stay. Many are concerned about our having a porous southern border both in principle and given present world conditions of terrorism. Building a "wall" has come to be a symbolic issue but whatever practical means can be employed to better secure our borders should be considered on its own merits. Border security is basic to national security in these times.

But border security is far less an issue than the suffering of people in other nations who desperately seek to flee violence or poverty. But is pouring unending amounts of relief aid all that viable long-term? My impression is that decades of "relief" have had mixed results. (I am not referring to temporary disaster relief or medical assistance.) Better to help rebuild an impoverished economy from the inside out than simply sending food decade after decade, thus impoverishing the initiative, creativity, and self-respect of recipients.

Right now peoples in the southern hemispheres of Africa and South (and central) America are desperate for security and freedom. To open wide the gates of Europe and North America to immigration is politically and culturally unacceptable at this time. Thus we face the stark reality that present border and immigration policies could be viewed as indirectly causing more suffering in the southern realms. 

At some point, all human beings must face the reality that suffering on this planet exists and has always existed and that there will probably never be (in any foreseeable future) a global solution. We know we can feed every-body on this planet and that starvation shouldn't exist. But it does; so does poverty; abuse; exploitation; and addiction. Reason and the golden rule alone should suffice to end all injustice and suffering. But, they do not and never will. 

I sometimes come across non-profit organizations trumpeting the goal to erase poverty, hunger or illness. I'm all for it but I remain sceptical on philosophical and practical grounds. 

The reason for compassion for these children and for giving women the rights to choose (an abortion) is because the greatest gift given to humanity is free will, reason, individuality, and choice. The fact that this has the very real potential to create suffering, whether self-inflicted or inflicted upon others, is the necessary corollary to this God-given gift. 

God permits suffering because God has given us the right to make choices, including those which cause us to suffer or to inflict suffering. We are teenagers and have been given the car keys. Each person is on a long journey on which we have choices in our efforts to seek the pearl of great price: happiness. That no-thing, position, status, object or fleeting experience will give us what we seek takes a LONG time (lifetimes) for the individual soul to learn. It may be ironic, or even be seen as cruel, but the simple fact is this: it is suffering that causes us ask the deeper questions and to seek lasting solutions. We are here to re-discover that we are "One" and that unconditional love and the existence of that Love is the sole reality of creation (the true purpose of our creation).

We must learn, individually, to use the gift of freedom wisely. Preservation of individual liberties is a higher moral standard than collective security (at least under present circumstances). As is so often said: "Democracy is messy." Yet, the northern nations (Europe and America) are in the midst of a battle over where the border between individual freedom and collective security lies. That boundary line is the real national border and by necessity will move up and down within a given bandwidth. 

When prosperity, liberty, health and security are strong, we can be more "liberal." When all of these are threatened (or perceived to be), then the "border" will get tighter. As it tightens owing to fear, it appears to give permission to express prejudice, even hate. As it loosens owing to security and prosperity it appears to give permission to express love and acceptance. Thus we find the great irony that on a collective level, security and prosperity will tend to foster love and acceptance! Can we have it both ways: loose and loving? At this point in history and in consciousness, perhaps not. 

But the issue is not just a collective one, but an individual one. Institutions do not have feelings; people do. Can we affirm compassion even at the perceived expense (or fear) of our security? That takes courage and will. Right now the northern nations are faltering. Strident condemnation on both sides only makes matters worse, for it re-directs compassion towards anger while it reinforces fear's tendency to turn a blind eye to suffering. 

BE THE CHANGE -- a campaign the worldwide Ananda communities initiated a few years ago -- goes to the heart of the true solution. For the only lasting change that can emerge from in the collective reality comes from a change of heart in the individual consciousness. 

Does a nation like America have the courage to admit asylum seekers and help them get re-established? Do we have the wisdom and courage to offer not merely relief to the suffering nations from which come the asylum seekers, but to offer genuine long-term tools for their own security, justice, and prosperity? 

But do we even have such tools to offer? And, in the end, can we accept that they, too, have to want to change their cultural consciousness and embrace higher ideals and equality and refuse to accept corruption and exploitation within their own ranks? Can we force our ideals upon other peoples? As our nation fought for its freedom long ago, don't other nations have to do so--perhaps alone?

The simple fact is that the karma of individuals and nations rule. We can't save other nations and peoples from their suffering. We can be wiser and more compassionate but if we are only compassionate, the lack of wisdom may undermine our compassion. Wisdom and mercy must forever balance one another. 

The middle path starts in our "middle": our own heart. Then comes action which follows feeling. Successful action is balanced. It learns to compromise on issues such as border security vs. compassion; the right to life vs. right to choose. In a world of endless flux and duality, we must be practical in our ideals. 

The suffering of others is hurtful to those both wise and pure. But the question of "What is right action" is not so easy to answer. For me and for now, the only avenue open is to pray for these children. [Our meditation temple is hosting a prayer vigil for just this purpose. (see]

There is a desperate need to return to the "middle" path of reasoned dialogue, mutual respect, and willingness to compromise. Self-described liberals must learn how to do this, perhaps more so because the heart is wiser than the head, and, more courageous. Those "on the right" are driven by fear (and sometimes worse). They are not as open to change unless forced upon them. As Gandhi said and King reiterated, those in power do not yield it willingly. So, who, then, will make the first move?

[The very nature of conservatism is inertial. The very nature of progressivism is to change. Conservatism affirms static, unchanging values and realities while progressivism affirms the reality of evolution and the need for creative and positive change. Conservatism tends to support the status quo while liberalism tends to support change. Both represent relative and valuable truths.] 

Screaming at each other from left to right and vice versa increases in inverse proportion to the power to do anything about the situation. Left and right need to dial down the volume. Once an issue is polarized screaming is all that's left. And, it's easy to scream because there are no consequences to screaming when no one is willing to talk.

May our calls for compassion be compassionate not angry. Gandhi and King identified the redemptive power of unearned suffering. They gave their lives for their ideals. 

But today's issues do not seem to invite this heroic level of self-giving. I strongly suspect that our culture's fascination with superheroes is in direct proportion to our lack of them. Furthermore, I doubt there are any superheroes on the horizon line of our planet's destiny at this time.

Instead, we need to grow up and recognize reality as we find it. More nuanced tactics are needed for today's sophisticated issues of climate change; voting rights; prejudice on the basis of gender, race or religion; immigration policies; global trade; sustainable and healthy lifestyles; and more.

What's needed today is to learn the art of cooperation and compromise. Collective change is directional, not absolute. Imperfection is the nature of the outer world. Perfection exists only in the pure heart which "sees" God. All else is woven in the fabric of fleeting flux.

May we be both wise and compassionate.

Swami Hrimananda

Addendum: Having said "What's needed today" above, I have no illusions that it is likely to happen in this highly polarized environment of America and the world. Sadly, but seemingly inevitably, only a crisis of monumental proportions will motivate any given nation, or perhaps the planet, to unite in its response. Most people or nations change only when forced to by external circumstances. 

Addendum no 2: The silent movement establishing intentional communities, such as the Ananda communities worldwide, will someday set a pattern and an example of "how-to-live" in troubled times. There is no doubt that a planetary storm is brewing. Like weather-related storms, some will be devastated, others untouched, though they live side-by-side. Jesus said, "Two will be in the field; one will be taken; the other will remain." The law of karma (action and reaction) rules the universe. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

International Day of Yoga

June 21 : International Day of Yoga

June 21 is the day each year that the United Nations has set aside to honor the ever-expanding role of yoga practice and precepts, and to acknowledge yoga as India’s contribution to world peace and harmony.

Yoga is a veritable symbol of peace in a restless, polarized and uncertain world. And yet, while peace may be yoga’s dividend, yoga practice requires self-discipline, training, and persistence. The lesson must not be lost and is one affirmed generation after generation in American culture when it is said that “defending freedom is the price of democracy.”

India’s greatest and most beloved scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, has for its initial precept the teaching that we must take up the battle of life. Yoga, India, Mahatma Gandhi—Indian culture itself—is known as a place of ahimsa (non-violence). Yet the modern state of India was born in the midst of unspeakable communal violence.
Jesus Christ may have taught his followers to “turn the other cheek” but he also said “I bring not peace, but a sword” by which our higher nature can do battle with our lower nature.

But peace is the goal. Yet peace cannot be achieved “at any price.” Peace comes through self-conquest. Whether in politics or for inner peace, the dividend of peace begins with the desire for harmony, a willingness to accept “what is,” the strength and courage to act without dictating the results, and is buoyed upwards on the intangible but underlying knowing that the goal can be achieved.

The scripture of yoga itself is said to be the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In this famous but pithy tome, the first stage of the upward unfoldment of human consciousness from selfishness to saintliness is that of non-violence, popularly known as ahimsa. The ever-expanding reward of the attitude of ahimsa is peace. As one accepts and embraces in one’s attitudes and actions in daily life the importance of truth-telling, moderation, self-control, introspection and non-attachment we find that an invisible aura or blanket of peace is bestowed upon us. It is not achieved however without effort: for most people, our victory is hard-won for we must overcome natural impulses towards self-centeredness and self-indulgence.

The same is said of the practice of yoga and meditation. We must learn the basic techniques for control and focus of body and mind even while using the tools of deep relaxation to achieve self-control.

And peace is just the beginning. When a war is over, the country must be rebuilt, justice served, forgiveness and reconciliation achieved. From the state of inner peace, we re-make our self-identity into one of Self-reliance AND Self-giving. No longer focused upon our little self, we cannot remain simply self-contained for habit will draw us back into self-absorption. We must raise our energy and consciousness to embrace the world as our own. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna avers that the yogi is one who “feels the pangs, sorrow and joys of all.”

Is this not the recipe for the “healing of the nations?” And, for self-healing? Let us celebrate International Day of Yoga as peace-giving, olive branch of world and inner peace.

The newly published book by Phil Goldberg, "The Life of Yogananda-the Life of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru," is an apt celebration of one of the most renown exponents of yoga throughout the world. Paramhansa Yogananda's life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," has captured the hearts and minds of millions of people since its first publication in 1946. It has made accessible, real, and inspired India's greatest contribution to the world: YOGA!

Joy and Peace!

Swami Hrimananda