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Making the Familiar seem Strange and the Strange seem Familiar

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The title of this post is a quote from an essay written by Jonathan Z. Smith1, which I found in David Gordon White’s note to instructors, who plan to use the essays found in Yoga in Practice.

I thought the sentiment expressed also applies to modern-day hatha yoga teachers. I think many times yoga teachers relish being “exotic” (Sanskrit anyone?), when often the best pedagogical technique is to use familiar concepts.

In many cases authenticity is tied to Hindu concepts and formulations. Whenever you find yourself looking down on a particular style/lineage/school of yoga, consider that there have been so many systems of yoga, your favored system is just one of them. So embrace the yoga system that works for you, but realize that “authenticity” and “lineage” can be slippery slopes.

From Yoga in Practice pages 24-27:

Given the fact that the people who “do” yoga number in the tens of millions in the West alone, many students will come to a course on yoga with a number of preconceptions received from their teachers and trainers. Primary among these is the received notion that all yoga are one, and that one Yoga tradition has remained unchanged since its origins in the mists on antiquity. An alternative assumption is that yoga has evolved in a straight line and following some sort of historical determinism from the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra down through the classical works of hatha yoga and into modern-day Vinyasa, Astanga, Kriya Yoga and so forth. What a chronological reading of the outstanding translations and introductions in this volume makes abundantly clear is that there are as many discontinuities as there are continuities in the history of yoga, and that there are nearly as many yoga systems as there are texts on yoga.

… There are continuities — historical, philosophical, ritual, and so forth — between and among various yoga traditions … This being said, once cannot help but notice that even when they are seeking to refute one another, the authors of these words were clearly engaged in some sort of conversation. So, while there are distinctively Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Tantric, non-sectarian, and even Islamic yoga traditions, there are a number of pervasive themes that recur across texts and time. … As the six contributions on yoga in South and Inner Asian Tantric traditions make clear, sectarian differences among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains paled in comparison to the commonalities of their shared Tantric worldview, metaphysics, goals, and techniques.

… What distinguishes the principal types of yogic practice from one another are the components of the self that are the objects of one’s discipline. So it is is that in meditative traditions, the principal focus will be on immobilizing thought, usually in conjunction with breath control, the inner repetition of mantras, and so on. In most forms of Tantric yoga, thought, semen, and the body are highlighted to varying degrees. In hatha yoga, the focus can be on all four components as immortalized in a medieval vernacular poem attributed to the Nath Yogi Gopicand: “Steady goes the breath, and the mind is steady, steady goes the mind, the semen. Steady the semen, and the body is steady, that’s what Gopicand is sayin.”

… culture warriors from worlds apart are making the nearly identical claim that yoga is fundamentally Hindu. In the United States, a number of Christian evangelists are taking this position for the expressed purpose of controlling the bodies of Christian women, while in India, Hindu fundamentalists are doing the same in the service of their ongoing campaign of identity politics.

… As for their shared claim that Yoga is fundamentally Hindu, this can only stand if one allows that there has only ever been one “yoga” , and that yoga has remain unaltered since incepetion, i.e., the yoga being taught today in yoga studios across the globe is identical to the yoga of the Upanishads or that taught to Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita, the two earliest treatments of “yoga” in the Hindu cannon. However, upon inspection these two original Hindu teachings on yoga are found to diverge on several points, an so one must conclude that from the very outset there have been at least two Hindu systems of yoga. And, as the contributions to this volume make plain, the past 2,500 years have seen the emergence of many, many systems of yoga — the earliest of which may not have been Hindu at all, and many of which arose outside of India — whose theories and practices have often been diametrically opposed to one another.

… Now, it is the case that many modern-day yoga gurus have collapsed the rich and varied histories of the many yogas of India, greater Asia, and now the West, into a simplistic vision of yoga as an unchanging tradition grounded in the religion of the Vedas. However, the simple fact that some contemporary teachers and practitioners of yoga hold to such an untenable hypothesis does not make yoga Hindu, any more than the presence of a plastic Jesus on some dashboards would make all automobile drivers Christian.

(1) “… the task of the religious studies scholar is not only to make the strange seem familiar, but also to make the familiar seem strange.”


Written by virtualsatsang

January 3, 2012 at 12:06 am

Posted in History, Yoga

Tagged with ,

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