The term yoga tends to be awkward for students of Indian philosophy today. Traditionally in Sanskrit, yoga meant something like “spiritual exercises” in Pierre Hadot’s sense – practices intended to transform oneself. The term has this sense in the work most often associated with it, the Yoga Sūtras attributed to Patañjali. There yoga is a set of eight practices: vows of self-restraint (yamas, the same ones as in the Jain tradition, and very similar to the Buddhist Five Precepts); ethical observances (niyamas); bodily postures (āsanas); breath control (prāṇayāma); withdrawal of the senses (pratyāhāra); concentration (dharana); meditation (dhyāna); and meditative concentration (samādhi). The goal of all this is to reach a state of “aloneness” (kaivalya, again similar to Jainism) – a state in which one has transcended the world and merely observes it, a super-Cartesian subject detached from all the objects of observation. (In Thomas Kasulis’s terms, Patañjali’s yoga has a stronger integrity orientation than just about anything in Western thought.)
But none of this tends to come to mind when most Westerners think about “yoga” today. In English, the term has come to mean nothing more than the third of the eight practices, the āsanas or postures – perhaps occasionally with some of the fourth (breath control) attached to them. One might add some meditative practices as well, but certainly not with the intent of reaching kaivalya, a goal that would freak out hippie Westerners enthused about “interdependence.” The point is merely a limber body, and perhaps a slightly more disciplined mind – the philosophy of yoga has become a mere technique, a theme that pervaded this year’s conference of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy.
But even those who have made yoga into a technique have started to become uncomfortable with the idea. Two recent American news articles highlight the issue. First, the founders of Bikram yoga have recently been trying to make yoga into a competitive sport, even an Olympic sport – an approach which seems to stress an entirely physical approach to yoga, so that it is not different in kind from decathlon or beach volleyball. The article quotes California yoga teacher Julie Kleinman as saying competition “seems fairly antithetical to what yoga is all about”: “I don’t really understand how you would compete to be the happiest, most balanced person.”
At the same time, Missouri now charges a sales tax on yoga centres, even though it is not allowed to tax “religious” organizations – partially because yoga advocates had spent a long time trying to convince people yoga is not religious, in order to gain a toehold in a conservative Christian society. As I noted before, this is a common rhetorical move made by many teachers in the West, including Goenka and the teachers of “Christian Zen”; it allows one to practise the “technique” without sacrificing the exclusive loyalty demanded by Abrahamic traditions. But one shouldn’t be surprised when the “technique” move bites back. If all you’re teaching is a technique, then it can be taxed like any other technique, and it can be used for purposes (like competitive sport) that are entirely alien to its original intent.