Authenticity of yoga practice in the West

Perhaps you never knew the frog that lived in one old well. Water still in the depth of its circular crevasse, overgrown by mossy plants, the infinite layers of stacked old bricks turned deep-green with coppery patina over a long time.  The water at the bottom, green with an abundance of algae that can survive the scarcity of sunlight, had swallowed the thick and worn out rope, and the old aluminum bucket that once was in use with a hammered texture from dents against the edge of the well. To this frog living inside the perimeters, this was the world. The universe consisted of the flora and fauna within, plenty of things to stay busy with and keep amused, particularly with the circular canvass of sky with its blue and stars, and raindrops that made sound against the leaves and bricks.  The frog had exhausted many adventures in the well, and was happy with its world and universe.  Then one day something strange happened.  After a bad storm, it noticed that on one side of the well was a rusty, worn out ladder, deeply buried in the twines of vines and leaves.  How exciting! The interest grew deeper, daunting desire to hop and climb, until … this height never reached before, even to think there could be anything beyond, absent in the realm of consciousness. One last hop and frog landed on the ledge at the brim of the well.  In a single moment its awareness expanded, seeing vast expanse of land, trees, sky, universe – the world as it knew it was transformed forever!

I have felt at times in my life that I have known that frog from the well.  I grew up in a city of almost thirteen million people – it’s a world hard to describe unless you have been there.  The sights, sounds, smell, air, greenery, the gridlock of breath, time, and transactions, the entire cognition and constitution of the world that I had ever known since birth was dramatically shifted when I landed, of all places on this spinning earth, in Walla Walla, Washington.  A town of barely twenty-thousand people then with rolling hills and wheat fields of all shades of green, yellow, and brown known to nature.  My world, did not know that sky could meet the earth, and that evergreen trees were exactly that – they never lose their leaves.  I felt mesmerized while pondering how basements would not fill up with water after a heavy shower, when in Kolkata monsoons flooded the entire city every single time.

One incident stands out.  It was my first Fall Semester and the air was getting crisp and cool every day.  One Saturday morning I woke up early, as I usually do and felt something different in the air.  I looked outside of my second story dormitory window and saw that the green of the volleyball courts was gone.  Instead it was filled with something stark white!  I was spellbound. I changed my clothes fast and ran outside.  Everything felt so mysterious, the ground giving in to every step I take.  I could not help myself but lie down trying to feel the ground against my body.  I guess I was laughing hysterically without being aware.  Soon I heard a distant voice – a classmate of mine, Benny had opened up his window on the third floor, peeking out, asked me, “Raj, what are you doing?”

“Look at all this snow!” I responded, thinking how one could be so callous to this majestic beauty of nature.

“We call it frost, dude,” he shouted as he smiled and shut his window.

Walla Walla had one of the highest snowfall later that winter – almost 5 feet.  One of my friends tried to teach me how to ski, we camped in Rainier National Park, and eventually, after few years I joined a mountaineering club, climbed peaks, and went on to avalanche rescue training.

Often, I get asked the question how I feel about westerners practicing yoga.  I suppose curiosity takes an intriguing turn when you actually see an Indian actually teaching methods of yoga!  In a society and at a time when human consciousness is in conflict with human attention span, anything that tries to create synergy between the two stands in stark contrast with the rest of life. More diversified your streaks of attention runs through the sharp crevasses of media, technology, ambition, and multi-tasking, your human psyche craves to find solace, harmony, and quietude as its innate state.  As such, anything that hints of a quiet mind – whether practicing asanas while pumping dumb-bells, or creating shapes while hanging from swan-white cotton bedsheets tied to the ceiling, or singing along with a harmonium player swaying his or her head while butchering Sanskrit phonetics – will intrigue people, even though the visible intention may be that of having a fit and lean body, or steadying the monkey mind through uncommon activities. 

Each time I hear the question, I hear the voice of Benny through the third floor window in response.

In spite of some incredible personalities trying to help the western world understand the nature and purpose of yoga, and the increasing spread of mindfulness movements through popularity of Yoga Journal, Gaia TV,  Buddhism magazines, Allen Watts and the likes, the majority of the ‘yoga practitioners’ in the west are simply rolling in a few flakes of crystalized water rather than learning to ski in five feet of snow.  One cannot blame them because the fortunate few who have realized the true nature of yoga have also realized that this tool of self-perfection and self-identification is not for mass market.  Yoga practitioners who have dedicated their lives to evolve themselves and have chosen to teach yoga have only the space to bring a few folks who are equally as dedicated.   

Somewhere along the lines, the definition of yoga got shifted and became synonymous with asanas.  The reason for that is manifold.  There is the tradition of Brahmins (knowledgeable, spiritually higher class in the caste system) in India generally not distributing traditional (yogic) knowledge to the non-Brahmins, and particularly to foreigners.  Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that the three father-figures of modern-day yoga: Krishnamacharya, BKS Iyengar, and Patthabi Jois were all Brahmins. One of the most repeated quote from Jois to his western students, some of whom are considered stalwarts in shaping what the western world knows as yoga today, is “Yoga is 1% theory, and 99% practice.”   Practices taught by Krishnamacharya, Jois, and Iyengar to the western students were primarily, if not mostly, asanas. Growing up in an Indian family that was immersed in spirituality and yoga, I had learned that while practice is vital, practicing without theory is effectively blind faith, and a ritual of the externally demonstrating mind.  While rituals are a part of yoga, it is more playing in frost.  An argument can be made that frost is a much-needed initial condition for snowfall to occur.  I agree, as long as the yoga practitioners have had a chance to witness and experience snowfall, and are curious about climbing snow-capped peaks!

Oh, how I wish I could be there for the frog at the moment it sat on the old-water-well! I wish I could witness through its eyes the beauty and awe of the immediately expanding universe, the transformation of its known consciousness, and the immediate sense of belonging to something that is so much greater than what was known.