Yoga: Is therapy good without the philosophy?

by Ashok Ojha

Personal History

I grew up in an orthodox Brahmin family in India. In the late 50's and 60's, rituals and disciplines were part of daily life in the upper caste societies. My grandfather, the eldest in the family, practiced a very strict form of worship while members of the younger generation were more liberal in their spiritual behavior. No one devoted long hours going through yogic practices in the morning like my grandfather did.

Every morning my grandfather would spend an hour at the family well before taking his breakfast. He waited for the sun to rise so he could perform his 'Pranayam' (sun salutation) followed by showers of well water. At the sight of the sun he would squat in the sun's direction, close one of his nostrils with his left hand, and take a long breath. He would repeat the same technique with his other nostril. Then he would walk around the well, chanting mantras and pouring water to symbolize the sun worship.

Though, my grandfather's actions seemed overtly strict, he lived a very natural life aimed at keeping himself as pure as possible. He was a highly respected person in the area, as he was able to adhere to age-old practices expected from a true Hindu. The practices that were part of daily routine for my grandfather included meditation, spiritual preaching and yoga. He was looked upon in high esteem as he refused to compromise with the demands of a changing world. Slowly, while the society at large began divorcing themselves from the Hindu way of life for the sake of modernity and westernization, such as English education and behaving like an Englishman, my grandfather and many others of his generation continued practicing yoga and meditation as a daily routine. They kept themselves untouched by progress and modernization. My grandfather always rode his pony, cooked his own food while on tour, and never allowed 'impure' souls to touch him. He was an ideal example of a practicing Hindu who must observe all rituals to keep the mind and body free from worldly pollution.

The modernization imposed during the British rule diverted new generations of Indians from practicing rituals and values. However, yoga remained as part of basic rituals that never died due to socio-cultural changes. A common Hindu could be seen as observing yogic practices even while eating, praying, and working. But, by the sixties many young people were turning away from yoga. The young generation of India was passing through experiences of newly acquired independence and democracy. Attracted by the prosperity of the west, they got the wrong impression that their own culture was obstructing them from achieving materialist prosperity. The vedic philosophy of simplicity was misunderstood and Indians decided to discard their own wealth of spirituality for the sake of western prosperity. At the same time, the western society was feeling suffocated under the materialism that was failing to give them happiness and peace of mind. Later-on when the Indians were informed by the media that the west was discovering happiness in the eastern spirituality, they realized that they were making great mistake in neglecting their own cultural heritage. During the sixties the practice of yoga was fast spreading in the United States and Europe as it was considered a better way to relax body and mind, better than the fitness programs like aerobics.

Recently, I watched a news story on News 2, CBS TV that reported that yoga is helpful in reducing the symptoms of carpal tunnel disease. The symptoms of this disease are found among office workers who have been working long hours on computers for many years. The western man, in his pursuit for material prosperity, soon got afflicted with many physical and mental ailments that could not be addressed satisfactorily by medical science. To keep pace with our frantic society, physicians and media experts suggest yoga as a way to reduce stress and tension. As a result, yoga has achieved a popular place in the western society. In big cities like New York a number of yoga schools teach various ancient postures and exercises to keep people fit. Yoga today is accepted as an alternative medical therapy to treat a number of ailments such as high blood pressure, fatigue, chronic stress. It is not just a question of weakness of body, but also of mind. Though physical fitness has acquired an important position in modern life, people need treatment for their minds too. Yoga has provided these answers more effectively than western medical sciences.

Philosophy and Religion

The west's interest in Indian spiritual philosophy, especially Yoga, was initiated by a young monk from Calcutta, Swami Vivekananda during 1893-95. In his numerous lectures Swami Vivekananda showed western people how they could achieve peace of mind even though their pursuit of worldly goals. The educated scion of a distinguished Bengali family, Vivekananda became a disciple of the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, acknowledged throughout India as a saintly yogi. Before he died in 1886, Ramakrishna instructed his young disciple to carry his teachings into the world. In 1893, Vivekananda electrified the World Parliament of Religions at its meeting in Chicago with his speech on what he called raja-yoga, the "royal yoga." It was based on Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, as interpreted by Ramakrishna. In 1894, Vivekananda initiated classes in New York on the Yoga school on Vedanta, the dominant Hindu monistic philosophy rooted in ancient Vedic teachings. During a second visit to the United States in 1899, he founded the New York Vedanta Society and gave talks on raja-yoga, which were published by the society in a series of Vivekananda's teachings.

Vivekananda popularized the breathing exercises that are so important in the yogic system. He talked at length about the theory of Karma. According to D.V. Athalya, "Vivekananda said that man is a center, that attracts all powers of the universe, fuses them, then sends them off in a big current. All the actions that we see in the world, all the works that we have around us are simply the display of thought, the manifestation of the will, of man. Machines of instruments, cities, men of war, all are manifestation of the will of man, and this will is caused by character and character is moulded by Karma.(65)"

One of the reasons that yoga along with the greater Hindu disciplines have survived for a long time, is because dogmas were always challenged by newer generations of yogic schools in an effort to renew the spirituality. One such form is Tantrik Yoga that was recreated by the reclusive yogis. The tantriks worship Shiva, and take pride in achieving supernatural power through difficult rituals and meditation. Tantric yoga seeks to experience the enlightenment within the body. One of the advanced form of tantric yoga is Kundalini, which is traditionally represented by lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe. The body consists of a series of chakras (cycles) that are positioned in different parts of the body. The study of chakras and nadis as channels of energy is a complex one and it is not easy to practice the awakening of Kundalini.

Yoga is considered one of the fundamentals of the Indian culture. It is the medium of reaching the Goal, and the Goal is the beyond. Some call it God. The practice of yoga culminates in a state of spiritual freedom, an absolute calm. Although the freedom of yoga cannot be grasped by ordinary knowledge , it is not only realized through mystical experience, but through a logical series of meditative practices. This complex system of physical and spiritual disciplines deeply influenced the religious practices of Hindus. So much so, that it supported the fundamental theories of all the three religions that originated in India- Buddhism, Jainism, and Hindu. Some of the familiar images of the Asian religions are meditating sculptures of Buddha, Shiva, and ancient kings and philosophers. The image of cross legged Shiva with half closed eyes in deep trance evokes much needed devotion to an ordinary Hindu.

Yoga is one of the ancient six philosophical traditions, namely, Vedanta, Purva Mimansa, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, and Vaisesika. These are basically Brahminical orthodox traditions that were challenged in later centuries. Carvak and Buddhism derived their own schools of philosophical traditions. The tantric tradition of Yoga evolved from challenging the vedic tradition of illusion or maya. Later on it merged with the greater Indian tradition. It is believed that the Yoga text was first written by Patanjali, in the Second Century BC However many scholars think that Yoga existed much before Patanjali. Patanjali's Yogasutra(formulae) gives us five forms of Yoga practice: Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Gyana Yoga, Hatha Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga. Each of these have been elaborated by different ancient scriptures that later were identified as Hindu religious texts. Most important of them is Gita in which Lord Krishna has explained these forms to Arjuna, the warier prince of Mahabharat. The Gita (also known as Bhagavat-Gita) is a record of preaching by the lord to Arjuna, who suffered from war fright.

In the middle of the battlefield, Krishna preaches about what a yogi should do. He asks Arjuna to behave as a Karma yogi and fight the war for justice without worrying about who will die and who will rule. A Karma yogi does his duties that are based on truth and justice and leaves the results to rest with the almighty. As Ernest Wood interprets the jnan yoga of Krishna:

...All work culminates in knowledge....Knowledge reduces all karmas to ashes. There is indeed no purifier in the world like knowledge. He who is accomplished finds the same in the self in course of time. Having attained this knowledge he very soon goes to the peace of the Beyond. (55)

The ancient practice of yoga incorporates two notions of Hindu philosophy, reincarnation and the quest of emancipation( Nirvana) from the cycle of birth and death, and rebirth. The Vedanta says the world is an illusion (maya). However, Yoga believes that due to the ignorance of the spirit, the world exists. Hence, Yoga demonstrates the means of attaining salvation, oneness, the liberation of ego. Patanjali describes many levels of experiencing the yogic results. Some of these are Samadhi (concentration of mind), Siddhi ( magic power), Kaivalya (isolation of spirit). In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Fernando Dragonetti writes:

The total and absolute restraint of the mental functions constitutes the yogic trance. With this restraint the mind empties itself of all contents, it becomes still in a complete quietude. The senses then do not receive the messages coming from the external world, the faculties stop functioning, the conceptualizing activity comes to halt...The Yogin will concentrate his mind on a determined entity. For example, he will fix his sight and his attention on a luminous point. The mental function of process made up of this intensified perception will eliminate little by little all the other processes.

The more intense the concentration, the greater the restraint of the mental functions. When the concentration has reached its highest stage, the restraint would have equally attained its highest stage. Then the yogin enters what is called the trance. (XIV)

In the United States, yoga grew out of the very hedonistic sensuous revolution of the sixties. Disillusioned with the government policy of drafting young people for the Vietnam war, a movement of free love, and communion with nature swept over the entire country. That was the time when young people became attracted to yoga. Ashrams proliferated all over the nation. The demand for yoga teachings created many fake yogis who adopted means to commercialize it. According to Prof. Julia Keefer, an expert in physical fitness and stress relieving science, yoga treats the body as a sacred vehicle. "There is nothing like yoga in Christianity. Yoga is part of a religion that teaches us that enlightenment comes from a pure, healthy body. It is superior to any other religion. The philosophy is so good that it transcends India and enables people who are not Indian to practice it."

Prof. Keefer argues that the generic philosophy of yoga is acceptable in the west, while the ancient Indian philosophy of nirvana does not suit the westerner. The western man finds it hard to grasp the idea that the world is an illusion and that one's final goal is nothingness. The Indian yogis believe that they are going through the incarnation not because they want to come back but they keep coming back until they are freed from the incarnation and achieve nirvana. So, modern man will take yoga through the body, through the physiology, to the spirituality, to stress reduction, to the emptying of mind, to commune with nature. But he will not necessarily like to travel to the final goal which is annihilation of self. The annihilation of self is a philosophy very antithetical to the American culture. The idea of getting rid of everything is something many Americans will not accept.

Commercialization of yoga

Yoga can't be imported and exported as a consumer product. No one can claim to patent yogic practices as one's trade mark and then market it. However, the popularity of yoga prompted many smart entrepreneurs in the west during the past few decades to innovate and devise programs as if they were selling a brand name for a high price. The ancient proponents would never had thought of packaging yoga with attractive names and selling it to different classes of consumers. Some modern Indian yogis as well as American 'experts' have demonstrated similar approaches when they devised ways to open lavish ashrams and resorts to cash in on the popularity of this eastern science. Some so called ashrams go to the extent of selling yoga practices for enhancing sexual pleasures. These centers don't care about the total radical approach of yoga towards sex. Yoga treats sex as a natural process on the path of awakening the energy that is otherwise sleeping in the spinal route of the body. Yoga does not offer worldly pleasures, it is based on achieving the ultimate power of the body by merging all energy at the center of the body and mind. But the pundits of profit making are more interested in making money than spreading the essence of yoga. They have devised weekend workshops for people who are attracted to experiencing exotic ways of physical pleasure. The workshops are aimed at rich people who don't mind spending money for enjoying these workshops in a five-star setting.

One such center, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, boasts of yoga workshops that meet the needs of participants with different agenda in its booklet that says:

Located in an exquisite natural setting in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, Kripalu provides an ideal environment for you to get away from the demands of your everyday life and enter a real sanctuary for your body and soul. They provide meditation and Kripalu DansKinetics classes, a unique blend of yoga and low-impact aerobic dance.(2 )

The booklet caters to the rich people who are curious about yoga and have little idea about the spiritual aspects of it. The center advertise a number of workshop with different names in a way the names are copyright of someone. And one is supposed to pay substantially for attending any one of them. Kripalu center claims to believe in the ancient vedic philosophy of looking at the whole world as one family. It calls its yoga program as Kripalu Yoga Technology. Let us look at some aspects of this 'technology':

At Kripalu, yoga is less about standing on your head than learning how to stand on your own two feet.(12)

For tuition ranging from $90 to $295, excluding room and meals, one can experience the benefit of slowing down, relaxing, and refreshing one's tired body and mind. According to the booklet "the emphasis will be not only on perfecting the pose but also on understanding how you think about your life."

At the center, Todd Norian and Ann Greene invite participants to "come on your own or bring your spouse, partner, friend, or relative to an enjoyable, fun-filled, invigorating weekend of partner-assisted yoga (for $140 for two nights). Stretch farther than you'd ever stretch by yourself with all the support and gentle encouragement you need." (As if teachers are not enough to guide you). In the so called Contact yoga, the magazine continues, communication happens at a cellular level, using the purity of touch and movement and the expression of the fullness of your spirit.

Apart from teaching yoga, Kripalu organizes workshops, such as, "Nature's viagra for men and women." The focus of such a workshop is to increase "virility, vitality, circulation, and stamina for sexual enjoyment." Susan Taylor conducts a workshop that bridges the gap between Western medicine and the wisdom of yoga. Then there are a number of courses that have little or nothing to do with yoga therapy or the ancient philosophy, such as, Kripalu Bodywork Basics to Partner Massage, Shiautsu and Thai massage. Most of these workshops are supposed to be trademarked.

Going through the information booklet, one gets the impression that Kripalu as well as other such ashrams misuse yoga for commercial purposes. They like to promote the ashrams as 'spa' or 'weekend gataway' with an exotic flavor. Yoga helps them get a brand name for marketing their 'resort'. Anyone interested in yoga may agree that yoga is a too serious a subject to be allowed to be cheapened. Some workshops that are marketed under different names make interesting reading: "Finding Lavender Love", " A Singles Weekend for Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals", "Relaxing into Love-A couples' Retreat for Lesbians and Gay Men."

Unfortunately, a number of commercialization organizations are involved in spreading a superficial message about yoga that limits its power to help humanity. The so-called Yoga tradition from the Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox, Massachusetts is carried on by teachers like Bobbie Ellis who teaches in Highland Park, New Jersey. She paints a dot on her forehead, a symbol of Indian womanhood, while she teaches "YogaRythmics." In an article in a local newspaper, The Home News and Tribune, the writer, Laurie Granieri describes her experience at the class of Bobbie Ellis:

The floor shakes. The window rattles. Aretha Franklin's rowdy anthem, "Respect" blares from the stereo, and three women perform a delirious jig. The writer herself is unsure of the kind of performance going on there. She continues: "Is this a modern dance class? A high impact aerobics session? Nope. Believe it or not, it's yogaRythmics to be exact."(E1)


The Fake Gurus

Are these so called Yoga schools or Ashrams, as they would like to be known as, teaching the therapy as a way of life or they are trying to cash on the popularity of the ancient practice? While some of them do try to present this ancient philosophy the way it exists in India, many centers like to present themselves as resorts and retreats and at the same time indulge in fake actions. Some Indian gurus don't feel ashamed of showing of their wealth in form of branded spirituality when they drive in orange colored Mercedes that match their spiritual uniform of orange robe. It is pointed out that even in India such fake gurus do exist. Rajneesh of Pune, India was one of them who owned seventy five BMWs. He came to the United States in the late seventies only to be expelled on drug charges. He had a large western following. Rajneesh successfully sold a philosophy of 'eat, drink, and make love' as much as you can till you get disgusted with it and then meditate to achieve nirvana. The hippie generation of the west found mystics like Rajneesh appealing. The fake gurus took advantages of the emptiness of this generation of sexual revolution who needed escape from the materialism of the west. These followers help their gurus build spiritual empires. These followers also became part of the 'groupies', who helped the cult like society flourish.

During the past few decades, many Indian spiritual gurus propagated and taught yoga to Americans who in turn started their own schools. Along the line the historical and philosophical context of yoga was lost and classes tended to adopt the glitzyness of a health club. The ancient art of mental concentration was commercialized. Suddenly Americans adopted Indian names and commercialized its philosophy by turning chants into slogans. They put on orange robes, and dots on their foreheads in order to "look" more authentic. Mr. C.G. Jung comments on this situation:

Newly arrived gurus and yogins vied with psychotherapists over a similar clientele who sought who sought other counsel than was provided by Western philosophy, religion, and medicine. (XVIII)

Is yoga just another form of physical exercise? Or is it a philosophy of life whose roots are found in age old Indian culture and religion? Can yoga be total without the context of Indian spirituality? How wise is it to practice yoga devoid of its philosophy.

According to Prof. Julia Keefer, who is also a yoga practitioner, yoga is good for making the body flexible and keeping blood pressure low. Prof. Keefer also thinks that yoga should be practiced to decrease tension. While she strongly supports yoga for the health of mind and body, she doesn't find it wrong to practice aerobics. At the same time she feels that there is no need to pretend to be a Swami by displaying dots on one's forehead and wearing orange robes.

Prof. Keefer spent a few days at the Sivananda Yoga Center in the Bahamas where the inmates were provided with the basic needs of daily life. There was no television. The bell would ring at 5.30 in the morning to summon the inmates for meditation. After one hour of meditation practice they would spent two hours doing asanas (postures) and breathing exercises. At about 10 a.m., the inmates would do the dishwashing after a vegetarian breakfast. Service is called Karma yoga. The lunch would consist of beans and rice.

A weekend at a yoga ranch

Looking at the web pages of the Shivananda center it appears that they try to teach various forms of Hath Yoga, that are difficult for many accomplished practitioners. Termed as Yoga 1, the five week course at Shivananda Center consisting of Asanas (postures), Pranayam ( prayer to Sun God), and Relaxation. The Expanding Light Yoga Center located in Nevada city in California offers "The Meditation" and the atmosphere of a 'personal retreat.' The web site has an article published in San Francisco Examiner in which the author talks about 'spiritual practices' at the camp and the 'vibrations' people claimed to experience. The author Glenn Pribus quotes a staff member Anandi as saying: "Yoga is not a religion. It is a practice, a method, a way of life."

When I visited the web site of Sivananda Yoga Center, I learned that the organization maintains eighty centers all over the globe. All centers offer yoga classes. Since the nearest is in Manhattan, I called to inquire about its activities. A formal invitation to visit their ashram in the Catskills mountains was politely extended to me. I spoke to Shrinivas who agreed to give an interview about the ashram's teaching activities.

The center in Manhattan looks very homely. Visitors are not scrutinized. When I arrived on a Friday afternoon, I met a number of yoga enthusiasts who were visiting the center for yoga classes on a regular basis. The visitors were greeting each other as friends. In this informal atmosphere I quickly found myself at home.

A van took two hours to reach the ashram in the mountains. I met with Srinivas, the director of the ashram, who has spent more than twenty years serving the organization. We were served a vegetarian meal and then we retired for the night.

Srinivas, who was born and brought up as an American, conducts the meditation in the ashram temple. He appears to live a very simple life style. His wife, Lakshmi spoke with a French accent. She is a yoga teacher. Srinivas explained the program for the next day and asked me to join in meditation at six in the morning.

The 77-acre ashram is secluded and offers a very quiet, natural environment. The serenity of the surrounding countryside uplifts and energizes the spirit. We meditated in the temple that has glass windows on all sides. I followed various breathing techniques and visualization with eyes closed. When I opened my eyes the sun had already touched the temple floor with the gentle brightness of the dawn.

The meditation was followed by four hours of intensive yoga practice. It was practiced under the direction of a yoga expert in a very disciplined manner that touched and twisted all parts of the body. The yoga session ended with a long spell of savasana during which all participants relaxed fully. Since everyone was so hungry after the yoga, a simple vegetarian meal appeared sumptuous. All participants took part in cleaning the kitchen as a part of Karma yoga. Within half an hour the kitchen was thoroughly cleaned and ready for preparing the next meal.

I interviewed Srinivas on the topic of commercialization of yoga. He credited the founder of the ashram, the late Swami Shivananda for establishing a great tradition of simple living and high thinking including meditation and yoga practices. Srinivas said that his guru was devoted to the vedantic practices. He was aware of the danger of yoga being commercialized. Swami Sivananda's strategy to save his teachings from commercialization was to practice the teachings of Vedanta in the original form. According to Srinivas:

In the process of commercialization, people compromise with the original form of teaching and that leads to failure, while devotion to the original values may lead to success. Swami Sivananda taught what people needed and not what they desired. He wanted people to look within themselves. He said that happiness would not come from external orientation.

Srinivas is not totally against making money out of yoga. The ashram conducts a very intensive program to train yoga teachers. Since the inception of the ashram, over ten thousand people have been trained through this program. These teachers returned to their home towns to teach yoga.

Many of them make their living from the yoga classes they conduct. There is nothing wrong in it. They may not reach the higher level of Vedanta but at least they are planting the seeds of yoga.

Srinivas feels that the teachings of yoga have created mass awareness about lifestyle related to yoga. Those who are involved in yoga practice realize that they should keep away from smoking, drinking, and drugs. An imbalanced life is not compatible with yoga.

The ashram maintains a library of spiritual books on yoga and vedic culture. Most are authentic books on yoga philosophy. Yoga classes are conducted in a temple atmosphere. It is very different than a studio. There are idols of Indian gods and goddesses that are worshipped in ritualistic manners. The American devotees and participants demonstrate serious interest in the original style of worshipping and meditation. Some of the ashram occupants have memorized slokas and mantras in Indian language of Sanskrit and Hindi. They have been able to create a balance between the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga. The ashram is inhabited by committed people who work in kitchen and the reception. They don't live in luxury.

Sivananda ashram pulls a lot of resources from its centers in Trivendrum and Uttar Kashi in South India and the Himalayas. The ashram staff and some students are taken on pilgrimage to India on a yearly basis. There is a strong emphasis on pursuing a life style that is set by the proponents of this philosophical system.

The Manhattan ashram was established in 1964 while the Catskill retreat was opened in 1974. The center is a proof that yoga is not just a therapy. It includes a disciplined system of living healthy and a spiritual life. In spite of not being run as a for-profit organization, the ashram is maintained by committed disciples of its founder. Sivananda, before his death, selected seven disciples to run the organization. These seven prominent heads of various centers run the major centers all over the world and support each other. They get together on a regular basis to share notes for making important managerial decisions so that the ashram is not short of fresh ideas. Fresh ideas keep the organization vibrant and alive.

According to Prof. Keefer the theory of reincarnation and nirvana are not necessarily adaptable to the American culture. Instead of going towards nothingness, she would advocate for eco-yoga, to return to nature. We should practice yoga to commune with nature. The Indian philosophy may not advocate this, as it is a patriarchal one in which Shiva is the supreme power as destroyer. But nature is circular and cyclic and Kundalini could be awakened in cyclic form. The idea of Kundalini is that you awaken the serpent through the chakras in progression. A lot of life stays in the first three chakras of earth, water, and fire. It requires tremendous meditation and concentration to raise the Kundalini. Until the Kundalini goes through crown chakra the annihilation does not take place. Very few people get to that point until they die.

The way of yoga is not a simple path. It demands radical change in the way we experience the world. It gives us techniques with which to analyze our own thought processes and finally to lay bare our true human identity. To achieve this the right context of yoga could not be allowed to be lost in the commercial glitz of the culture of profit making.





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Periodicals and Brochures

Granieri, Laurie. "Now Exercising your Body also Works out the Mind." Home News Tribune 6 Feb. 1999: E1.

Kripalu Guide to Programs, Retreats, and Events May-October 1999.

25 th Anniversary Ashram Guide, Shivananda Yoga Ranch, 1999.

Brofman, Martin. "Body Mirror System- Chakras" X-press magazine 1999: 24.

Internet Sources

Shivananda Yoga Center, Los Angeles: http.//

The Expanding Light, Nevada City: http.//

Keyboard Yoga: http.//

Who is Wai Lana, CA: http.//www.

American Yoga Association: http.//