A Westerner’s Perspective
Oṁ sadāśiva samarāmbhāṁ śaṅkarāchārya madhyamām
asmadācārya paryantāṁ vande guruparamparām. ||
Oṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ || Hariḥ Oṁ ||
My pranams to everyone. First of all, I would like to thank Swāminījī Ātmaprājñānanda for the invitation. It was a big honor to me. Dhanyavād. Talking yesterday with Nirāj-ji, we thought that it would be a good idea to share a few of my experiences with you regarding my personal process as a Westerner looking for spirituality and as a Yoga practicioner.
From there, we will elaborate along this talk about the representations of Yoga in the West and conclude our talk pointing to the contributions of Pūjya Swāmi Dayānanda Sarasvatī to the preservation of Yoga, as we understand it from our own experience. But, first of all, I would like to say that am coming here as a devotee and a siṣya of Pūjya Swāmijī.
30 years ago I came for the first time to Rishikesh. I was looking for enlightment. Had practised Haṭha Yoga (āsana, prāṇāyāma, relaxation, meditation) for a few years and at the time, believed that Yoga was a technique which would work like this: proper practice, proper result. More or less like a child, whose mother says “if you take your soup, you get a nice desert”, I had heard from a teacher that I would have samādhi in less than one year of intense tapasya and sādhana (physical, energetical and meditative practises).
That was my goal and the motivation for my sādhana. However, the time passed by, the practises were going on and on, but that elusive samādhi was not coming. It was simply not happening, despite my vigorous efforts. Besides, from the emotional point of view was quite imature.
At a given moment I thought that the problem could be that I was looking at Yoga from a “western” perspective. Let us put it like this: I felt that something was missing, and that something was my relationship with a “few things” that were around Yoga. That was how I came to Mother India the first time and that was the reason why continued to come year after year.
So, on my second trip took a one-way ticket to Delhi and decided I would not leave this land before I solved this situation. I had not any idea about what would happen. Just jump in the plane and here I was. Spent many months of intense sādhana at the Oṁānanda Yogāśram, not far away from Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
There, asked Swāmi Oṁānanda to enter Sanātana Dharma. Had my upanayana with him and after my second birth I was feeling more confident, because now I belonged to the Hindu Dharma, for real. That was an important step in my process. A few years later, I came to meet Pujya Swāmijī and asked him if he could validate my dvīja. As you know, he was one of the most generous person to walk this Earth, so he accepted.
As a follower of Dharma, and especially as a mumukṣu, the fact that from the moment of my dvīja I was protected by the Sanātana Dharma gave me tons of strenght to go on, despite in Brazil the conditions are not the most conductive for those looking for emancipation. In due time, more and more of my friends also came to Índia and had their own upanayanas. In a given moment, Pūjya Swāmijī said: “If you want to find real brahmins in the future, you will have to go to Brazil”.
Representations of Yoga in the West: health and mystical experiences.
Now, I would like to say a word about the representations of Yoga in the West, mostly as a health and quality of life system, or as a means to gain mystical experiences, despite I think that you already know this.
Looking back, I understand how lucky was in my personal process, because most of the people in the West that practice Yoga, do their practises in the belief that it is just a technique. A technique that, in the best of the cases, will give them samādhi if they “behave properly” (like the kid waiting for his desert) and, in the worst of the cases, just good shape, health, longevity and quality of life. And that is all. Nowadays, Yoga is getting more and more popular in the whole world, but always through the Western version, which is postural Yoga, basically.
We have seen this wave of popularity starting in the mid nineties, and it is still growing and growing. If you look around these days here in Rishikesh will see that many of the people walking the streets are coming from many different countries to attend these Yoga Festivals and Conferences.
But the representation of Yoga that we have outside India, and especially in the West, is strongly influenced by that idea that it is just a technique. The idea is that the Western Civilization is mostly “rational” and that Yoga must be stripped of any spiritual meaning or message to be acceptable there. That is untruth to the spirit of Yoga, because at the end it means that Yoga is suffering something very subtle and negative: cultural assimilation.
Acculturation of Yoga.
Acculturation is an English word that has been used since the end of the XIX century by American antropologists to refer to the assimilation of one culture by another, dominant. If we apply that definition to what are witnessing now in relation with Yoga, we must accept that Yoga is suffering a process that could be called acculturation.
We say so because Yoga is neither an exercise, nor a technique. It is neither a science, nor an art. It is neither a religion, nor a philosophy, but a vision that implies a way of living. That vision makes of Yoga a culture. And that culture is part of something bigger: the vedic tradition.
So, when Yoga travels to the West, it wears the typical robes of this tradition: the Sanskrit language, the universal values of the Hindu Dharma, a positive view on vitality and the human body, which includes a proper, ahiṁsā diet and the cultivation of healthy habits and attitudes, without and conflicts or guilt, since it shows us the Psychical Order of Īśvara.
When we talk about acculturation, we refer to the lost of those contents that build the very essence of Yoga. The idea is that Yoga must be naked of its symbols, language and qualities. Essentially, that what makes Yoga Yoga. If that is the point, do we still have some reason to call Yoga Yoga? Couldn’t it be easier to choose another word to point to that system?
Judaism and christianity, both important pillars of the Western culture, have enough age, value, deepness, beauty and poetry to be able to leave Hindu Yoga aside, if this is the case, to create its own Yoga. The greek philosophers of yore, like Heraclitus and Parmenides were the jñānayogis of the West.
From the Aristotelic ethics the West could drain a code similar to the yamas and niyamas. There are also efficient meditation practises in the religious traditions of the West. In brief, the legacy of the Western culture is good enough in itself. So, what is the point with the acculturation of Yoga?
Acculturation for what?
The acculturation Yoga is suffering nowadays could happen for two reasons:
1) it could be happening because of some good intention that has gone the wrong direction, or
2) it responds to some ideology that has another non-visible goal. Even when Yoga teachers have the best of intentions, the idea that Yoga can be naked of its intrinsecal values, symbols and elements is very very bad for Yoga itself.
In the best of the cases, “UHT Yoga” is inocuous for those who practise it. Still, those who praise the simplification of Yoga do not try, necessarily, to make Yoga available to all. Let us remember that the use of Sanskrit does not make Yoga incomprehensible. The fear of the culture of “the Other” is what makes Yoga incomprehensible. That fear is a form of xenophobia, the dislike of lack of confidence about everything that comes from another place or people.
A clear example is the so called No Om Yoga: “Yoga without Oṁ”. that is a trademark of an American business which slogan is no mantra, no granola. Granola, you know, is someone like me: long hair, vegetarian, kind of hippie. So, they propose Yoga without mantras, id est, Yoga without mahāvākyas, and without people that can look offensive to their target-consumers, which is the upper-middle class.
There is no intention at all in this approach to Yoga to make it popular or accessible to everyone. They just pretend to sell āsanas as if they were Yoga, presenting the practise as something purely technical. Underlying that attitude is the belief that says that any form of presenting Yoga is acceptable.
However, if we are going to take the mantras away from Yoga, if we are going to strip it from the meditations, from the vegetarian diet, from Sanskrit, from the yamas and niyamas, and even from mokṣa, what will we have left? Do you think that we could still call that Yoga?
Simplify, until when?
If I do not present my students the real, deep and total tradition of Yoga the way it has been presented to me, I would not be honest. Sometimes, I need to simplify or adapt the intensity of the practises to suit the needs of some students. However, that does not mean that I give up the Vedic Tradition to which any form of Yoga belong.
The xenophobic ideology that we mentioned earlier, no mantra, no granola, means that sistematically, the values and spirituality of Yoga are denied. That is not connected to details like the use of Sanskrit when we refer to the names of the postures, but to remain silent about the real goal of Yoga, that is mokṣa. So the question is: do we Westerners have the right to do that?
Since its very beginning, Yoga proposed a vicāra, questioning one’s own paradigms and was an open invitation to a sincere contemplation. That is the reason why both Śrī Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavadgītā and Patañjali in the Yogasūtra recommend abhyāsa and vairāgya. It is virtually impossible to remove that vicāra, and the consequent liberation from blinding beliefs and conditionings from Yoga without losing altogether its very essence.
If we do so, we would remove from Yoga its very essence, and it will become just a tool for us to become conformists and insensible people. It that is the situation, then, why don’t we let Yoga simply be Yoga?
For those who are real mumukṣus, that can be really frustrating, because it is virtually impossible to understand the reason why one would spend time practising meditation, prāṇāyāma or āsanas if one has not understood the importance of antaḥkarāṇaśuddhi, the mind-body-senses complex purification. And that can only happen under the light of Brahmavidyā, Self-Knowledge.
If there is a role for the Yoga practises, that role would be as an exercise to put into practice the non-dual vision, as the third part of the śravaṇam-mananam-nididhyāsanam process, as you well know. There is no Yogaśāstra in which this is absent. There is no Yogaśāstra which says something different from this. Those who look at Yoga as simply an exercise, could eventually, if exposed to its real dimension, open themselves to the Light of Knowledge.
Yoga is nothing without the Vision of Vedānta. Yoga was originally born inside and arose from Sanātana Dharma, despite there are several forms of Buddhist Yoga, Jain Yoga and Sikh Yoga as well.
I used to say Pūjya Swāmijī that I was like his sheep dog in Brazil: would bark at the people to tell them to wake up, to say that there was much more to Yoga than just good shape and health. That they could come to learn with him and that he would open their eyes, as he had open mine. And we would come for these Vedānta Camps from there, and also from Portugal. And Swāmijī would say that we had big wings, because he knew how far Brazil was, since he went there over 15 times to bless us with the clear vision of Vedānta.
So, besides what you already know about Pūjya Swāmijī’s tasks here in Mother India regarding the preservation of our culture and Sanātana Dharma, or his beautiful movement, AIM for Seva and all his other initiatives and achievements in the field of the public health, I will tell you one more thing: he could have also saved Yoga from that destructive acculturation process in the rest of the world.
Of course, he was not alone in this task, since there are also a number of excellent gurus that will give Westerners the whole vision of Sanātana Dharma, but Swāmijī’s role was essential to many of us, mostly Brazilian and Portuguese yogis, in whose name I think can talk. Well, that is what I had to share with you today. Hope you liked it. Thanks for listening. Namaskāram.
Oṁ pūrṇamadaḥ pūrṇam idam pūrṇat pūrṇamudacyate |
purnasya pūrṇamadhaya pūrṇameva vaśiṣyate ||
Oṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ || Hariḥ Oṁ ||
Śrī Gurubhyo namaḥ || Hariḥ Oṁ ||