Yoga means `union’ in Sanskrit. It could be your union with the universe. Or it can simply mean a meeting, as in a political or cultural gathering. In mathematical texts, yoga means sum. It is a rather common word in all Indian languages descended from Sanskrit.
But in America, Yoga has come to mean a system of physical exercise. It is a mystical and esoteric word. It is also a multi-billion dollar industry, a lifestyle, even a religion in all but name. Twenty million people practice it in the US alone. Like wine for France and pasta for Italy, yoga has become India’s defining export, its brand identity.
There are now mutliple brands of yoga being marketed by a variety of people and organizations. Some, like Sivananda and Iyengar, remain true to the spirit and purpose of the original Indian traditions. Others, like Bikram and Sri Sri (twice!) Ravi Shankar sound, to an outsider, more like shrewd marketing schemes than spiritual movements.
The ancient text `Yoga Sutra’ by Patanjali dismisses the physical aspects of yoga in one sentence: `Sthira Sukham Aasanam’: Sit in a comfortable posture. He is mostly interested in the nature of knowledge and various spiritual experiences encountered in the quest for it. The eight part (Ashtanga) yoga Patanjali is talking about is an ascent through various stages of spiritual evolution culminating in total union (yoga) with the universe. The Ashtanga yoga marketed here,though, is a series of challenging postures which might help you stay in shape in your career as a dancer. Its most famous practitioner is still Madonna (not mother of God, the singer from Detroit); although she has moved on to other esoteric activities.
All sorts of people are getting in on the act. There is someone named Rodney Yee whose variation is `Abs Yoga’ “With Abs Yoga, you can develop firmer, more supple abdominal muscles fast.” A six pack of abs rather than an eightfold way to salvation, was the priority of the Buddha . Who can beat the abs of steel of Lambodara, also known as Ganesha?
There is the Ultimate Yoga by one Kathy Smith, quite a different product from the yoga of the same title by Michael Prayag. Also, we learn that “Vinyasa Flow Yoga with Stephanie Keach is the ultimate way to tap into the sweet nectar of bliss consciousness.
Many of the people cashing in on the Yoga craze are savvy Indians. Bikram Choudhary has copyrighted yoga postures and threatens to sue anyone who teaches them without his permission. His aggressiveness has scared many yoga teachers into paying him royalties. As he so elegantly puts it himself .”I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me.” Om Shanti.
There is a thriving business in Yoga Accessories. There are entire clothing lines, good for every stage of your yogic evolution. For $94.99 you can get a Silk Yoga Meditation Cushion. “These silk zafu pillows have beautiful, unique and soothing designs. They have 100% silk covers and are filled with buckwheat hull”. What is buckwheat hull? Or, zafu, anyone?
There are even accessories to accessories. For $9.99 you can buy a strap to carry your yoga mat. Sling it over your shoulder jauntily as you sip a cup of Chai Tea after the Vinyasa class has filled you with the sweet nectar. The purpose of the Solid Cork Yoga Block with Bevelled Edges for $12.49 puzzles me. Do you sit on it?
As with anything else, the most interesting part of yoga is its connection to sex. That wickedly funny parody of Patanjali, the Kamasutra, is taken quite literally by people here. There is a whole continuum of services-from outright porn to Kundalini dating agencies available for the needy. The threat that this poses to traditional religion has not gone unnoticed. Yoga: A Religion for Sex Addictsscreams the headline of an article by the Landover Baptist Church, where the worthwhile worship and unsaved are not welcome. Amen to that brother.