Current events have made this a good time to point out that all human practices, including yoga, change over time according to their cultural contexts.
William J. Broad‘s forthcoming book, “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards,” and its teaser article that ran Jan. 5 in the New York Times have elicited many thousands of words in the public conversation about yoga. Good. People have debated the benefits dangers of yoga compared with other physical activities, whether there’s too much focus on it as a physical activity to begin with (particularly in the U.S.), whose responsibility it is if someone does get injured doing yoga and even, recently, who should be allowed to teach yoga to begin with. All good.
Students have e-mailed me and stayed after class to ask my thoughts on the matter. I’m glad to see them thinking about how and why they do yoga, questioning their teachers’ and their own roles. I believe it can only increase their awareness of themselves and the world – a worthy goal for any yogi.
In answer to their questions, I would turn a page to the next chapter in our class, and in doing so look back to one of the canonical texts of the yoga tradition, the Bhagavad Gita. The next several weeks of my classes at Yoga Sanctuary will be based on various themes from the Gita. In his brilliant (although perhaps overly academic for non-scholar readers) introduction to the edition I studied with my teacher, J.A.B. van Buitenen places the composition of the Gita in a time of significant change in the practice of yoga.
For the historical details of what was going on when and where the Gita was written and how the story fits into all that, it’s best to read van Buitenen. Suffice it to say, he describes a shift that places more emphasis on individual action and contemplation, with less reliance on the assistance of a priest and his exclusive knowledge of rituals for spiritual salvation.
In this interpretation, Krishna‘s urging Arjuna to take up arms and do his duty as a soldier takes on a meaning we can easily understand today. The ancient codes and texts , as well as our teachers, serve an essential purpose on our spiritual path, but each person has his own duty to carry out on that path (albeit without attachment to reward, etc., which we’ll get to later).
To reduce this to the terms of the current debate, I must be properly trained, get continuing education, buy insurance, be mindful of students’ limitations and assume the many other responsibilities required of a teacher. Nevertheless, students aren’t guaranteed enlightenment, weight loss or even a good time in exchange for the fees they pay to take my class. What if they were? I can imagine the ad taglines for places selling such an ideal – “permanent bliss, or your money back.”
The world of yoga has kept changing since Krishna signaled the beginning of householders appropriating yogic power from the brahmins – for as many equally complicated reasons as those van Buitenen addressed. Today, unimpaired adult students in a yoga class are expected to take responsibility for their own well-being; the waivers they sign attest to this. Most American studios don’t adopt a strictly guru-centered approach, in which all one’s hopes (and conversely, his failures) could be pinned on a great enlightened one. Another way to put it is, there’s no one Yoga.
If there were, it would be easier to answer with a simple yes or no the question, “Can yoga can wreck your body?” You would only have to investigate the prescription in question. As it is, the effect yoga has on you – whether physical, spiritual, mental or emotional – has a lot to do with your teacher, yes, and a lot to do with you, too.