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Mind Your Body: Has Yoga Lost Spirit?

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YOGA, IN ITS various forms, is an ancient tradition of physical and spiritual practices. But today in the West, it is also a billion-dollar industry that markets longevity, weight and stress reduction, tight butts and abs, amazing flexibility, and sexual endurance.

Yoga’s big attraction is that it works. Five thousand years of trial and error and passing fads have been added and subtracted to achieve a total process that effectively benefits the body and all it contains as mental and spiritual energy. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit, translated roughly “to yoke or to join;” its practice is meant to unite the body, mind, and spirit as one aligned unit. The question arises, though: Can such an ancient devotional practice as yoga save its soul in a tell-all, make-a-buck, quick-fix-and-move-on society? Will such a sacred traditional culture be copyrighted, trade-marked and licensed to the point it loses its meaning?

Yoga’s origins vanish in antiquity; over the centuries, it was maintained as an oral tradition passed from “guru” (teacher) to student. A few texts, such as the Yoga Sutras, and innovations, have been added through time. Here in the U.S., yoga began to be recognized in the 1920s, and as early as the 1970s, PBS broadcast a regular television show devoted to the practice. Today gurus pose not on holy tiger rugs, but on slip-proof sticky mats. Gone are cotton loincloths and turbans in favor of microfiber stretch workout togs that wick perspiration away from the body. Yoga has become part of the American culture, with regular infusions from India and innovators who focus on particular uses of yoga for particular benefits.

Some innovations target a certain demographic. Power Yoga[TM], for example, founded by Beryl Bender Birch as an out-growth of Ashtanga yoga, is a more athletic form found on health club schedules midway between aerobics and traditional moving meditations. Linda Sparrowe and Patricia Walden, in their publication The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness [Shambala, 2003], bring a therapeutic usage of traditional postures and herbs to women.

“We wrote the book because yoga speaks to women in really powerful ways,” says Sparrowe, who is also the mother of a professional ballet dancer. “Because they don’t often make lime for themselves, the time on the mat is a way for women to honor and better know themselves…. There’s a reason we call it ‘practice.’ What we learn on the mat we can take out into the world. If we hold a really difficult pose for even twenty, seconds, then we know we can get through any difficult situation for that long. It’s there that we practice holding our power.”

Kevin Kortan, the developer of Evolutionary Yoga[TM] who is also a Feldenkrais[R] practitioner explains, “We should differentiate between ‘yoga’ and ‘asanas.’ The postures, asanas, are only one part. Yoga is much more, with many aspects such as breathing, meditation, and service.” Kortan, a former dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, clearly understands the difference between performance and study. “I teach primarily principles, not individual postures. I don’t believe in becoming slaves to mastering or executing those forms. The postures should serve us.”

“I think it’s great that yoga’s so prevalent now,” says Kortan. [Estimates are that one in thirteen Americans practice some form of yoga.] “When it is approached in an un-yoga way–such as an overemphasis on quantity rather than quality–it ceases to be yoga. But no matter what, yoga is invincible.”

The practice of yoga in any form ultimately results in a healthier body that can cope with the stresses of any age. Yoga calms the mind so it is better able to make positive choices, and elevates the spirit above the ego. To paraphrase Indira Devi, who opened the first yoga studio in the West and authored Yoga for Americans [1959], “It doesn’t matter why you begin to practice yoga. You will derive benefits that you never anticipated on all levels.”


Editor in chief K.C. Patrick is a writer in the dance field. “Namaste” is a Sanskrit word defined as “The divine in me blesses and honors the divine in you.”