About every Christmas for the past three years, I've talked to my sister-in-law about Yoga. She's studying to be a Yoga instructor, which involves taking so many hours of Yoga classes, and reading some classic texts in the Yoga tradition, and writing some responses, etc. She's a devotee of Shiva Rea, a popular teacher of Yoga loosely in the Hatha tradition. It's this "loosely" that fascinates me. Shiva Rea is pretty mainstream, very Western, very marketable. Check her out:
So anyway, this Christmas, my sister-in-law had recently attended a weekend workshop with Shiva Rea. She recounted hours of sitting in Lotus position, silent meditation, poses, etc. Then she excitedly mentioned that during one of the sessions, Shiva Rea instructed the class, "Now just dance around as wild and crazy as you will!--" and they did that for almost an hour! My sister-in-law loved this, but it really made me scratch my head.
What is Yoga? I've heard it called a science. I've heard lots of translations of the word "Yoga," but the most interesting might be "means" (as in, a "means" to an end). My understanding of Yoga is quite specific: it is a series of motions and poses, developed experientially, and maintained within a tradition, to bring about union with the Self and the Infinite/Divine. So I asked my sister-in-law, "Wait a minute: is that random dancing really Yoga?--or is it kind of just a break?" Because to me, Yoga is a specific series of motions and poses... to bring about union with the Self and the Infinite/Divine.
Do you see the problem here? See what I'm going to ask? Is Yoga arbitrary? Is it exercise? Or is it a very particular, time-tested, scientific way of manipulating the body and mind with the goal of experiencing oneness with everything?
If it's exercise, then dancing for an hour--or playing basketball, or fishing--might be considered Yoga. But the question I'd like to ask Shiva Rea is, "Are you teaching these new, non-traditional forms of Yoga, based on an experiential pedagogy?--that is, did you achieve enlightenment by incorporating dance into traditional Kundalini?--or are you just randomly providing Westerners with fun and slightly exotic exercise?" Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Or the other side of that question: what is the purpose of Yoga? Tellingly, even Wikipedia, that most democratic of sources, makes this distinction: here is Wikipedia's Yoga page; and here is Wikipedia's "Yoga as Exercise" page. (...the latter begins, "Yoga, in addition to its traditional role as a system for developing the highest wisdom in enlightenment, has also become established as, 1) a scientifically validated system of alternative healthcare, and, 2) as a widely practiced form of physical exercise.")
Here's what I'm afraid of: I'm afraid "the West" does this to sacred teaching traditions. I'm afraid the West is culturally unable to understand the end of spiritual discipline and practice. It's understandable in Yoga: if all it requires is 300+ hours of experience, a few 4-page papers, some reading (but no evidence of enlightenment), then any diligent, unenlightened person (Shiva Rea?) can become a certified teacher. Then, inevitably, the "science" becomes little more than a game of physical-telephone.
What if the same has become of Philosophy? Of Christianity? Of the Liberal Arts? Of Education? Have we accepted institutional certification as a substitute for authentic mastery?--is that wise? Do we care?
This strikes me as the problematic essence of protestantism: neglect practice, skip the discipline. Do whatever feels right. Fasting? No thanks. Secret Prayer? Leave off. Vegetarianism? No. Sacred chanting? Not for me.
Give us enlightenment, or salvation--but give it to us on the couch.