de-culturing Yoga: Or, “You say asana, I say assana”

sadhus (yogis) at the Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, 2010

I’m a fan of The Babarazzi and of this post in particular:  Is De-Culturing Yoga an Act of Good Faith or a Promotion of Xenophobic Ideology? /// A Light and Easy Subject

There is a great discussion going on in the comments and I liked this one in particular.  A commenter said:

“There is a similar “secularizing” trend in Buddhism these days and some thought provoking articles in the Fall issue of Tricycle.  A quote from one:

“We reassure ourselves that the changes we’ve made in Buddhism are all for the best — that Buddhism has always adapted itself to every culture it enters, and we can trust it to adapt wisely to the West. But this treats Buddhism as if it were a conscious agent — a wise amoebic force that knows how to adapt to its environment in order to survive. Actually, Buddhism isn’t an agent and it doesn’t adapt. It gets adapted — sometimes by people who know what they’re doing, sometimes by people who don’t. Just because a particular adaptation survives and prevails doesn’t mean that it’s genuine dharma. It may simply appeal to the desires and fears of its target audience… Is a designer dharma what we really want?… People sometimes argue that in our diverse, postmodern world we need a postmodern Buddhism in which no one’s interpretation can be criticized as wrong.  But that’s trading the possibility of total freedom from suffering for something much less: the freedom from criticism…” -Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Replace the word “Buddhism” with “yoga” and tell me how it reads then.  As Thanissaro Bhikku asks, is a designer dharma Yoga what we really want?

More than a few yoga bloggers have written about the commodification or the cultural appropriation of yoga in the West.  Another commenter to the above Babarazzi post said, “In tonight’s class the teacher invited us to pantomime Hindu deities (i.e. “Kali” = squat and bring arms up and growl like lil’ grizzly bears; “Ganesh” = make an elephant’s trunk with our arms ; “Shiva” = stand on one leg and pretend to play the flute).”  Actually, the last one would be Krishna not Shiva.  Wonder if the teacher actually said Shiva.  Yikes.

I stopped saying namaste at the end of my classes when I came back from India the first time because I learned it does not mean “I bow to the light within you” or “the Divine in me honors the Divine in you” or “I honor the [fill in the blank] in you” or whatever the latest interpretation is.  After my first trip, saying it at the end of my class did not feel true to me anymore, it felt false, but that’s me.  Hey, you say po-TA-toe, I say po-TAY-toe.  As my friend Caroline says, “Don’t fold your hands and say ‘Namaste.’  Nobody does that, and if someone does, it means they have earmarked you as a naïve foreigner.”   Caroline lives in India.   People do not say it where I go because Tamil is spoken, not Hindi.

There was a short discussion on the use of namaste in my last training with Ganesh Mohan.  Every morning he led a practice and at the end said a simple “thank you” — as the teachers at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram say at the end of class; they never say namaste, the Westerners do.  The teacher I certified with also does not say namaste at the end of class; again, he simply thanks us.  I’ve wondered how namaste-ing at the end of a Western yoga class started.

When Ganesh said “thank you”, some of the students responded with namaste.  Ganesh smiled and said, “about that namaste….” and began to explain that at its most basic it means “hello.”   So why would I say hello at the END of my class?  I open my workshops with a big NAMASTE and I bow.

He said nama means “to bow” and te is the familiar form of “you”, just like there is the familiar and formal uses of “you” in Spanish, tu and usted.   However, he explained, in India one would not say namaste to an elder or to someone who is, shall we say, higher on the economic scale, that in fact, they would be insulted and might even get angry.  Better to say namaskar, Ganesh said.

After the explanation the students were silent for a few moments.  Then someone said, “well, another thing we’ve appropriated.”

Yeah, kinda.

I recite the four Brahma Viharas at the end of my classes:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the cases of suffering.
May all beings never be parted from freedom’s true joy.
May all beings be free from attachment and aversion.

and then…

OM MANI PADME HUM
SHANTI, SHANTI, SHANTIH

And I bow and thank them.

Peace and gratitude….good things to leave class with.

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8 thoughts on “de-culturing Yoga: Or, “You say asana, I say assana”

  1. It’s true that south Indians (especially Tamilians) don’t use Namaste as a greeting that much, they may say vanakkam or some other formal or informal Tamil or English greeting( or may even start conversation without any greeting)! However, it’s not very uncommon to use Namaste in North India or west India. I used to live in Bombay (now Mumbai) and in high school we used to say Namaste with our hands folded to the teacher every time he or she came into the class or left the class :). Namaste doubles up both as “Hello” as well as “Good Bye”, although it’s true that it’s more commonly used as hello, but it’s not wrong to use it for good bye. However, more common than saying the word is just folding the hands in the gesture….and not saying anything at all. People in India don’t like touching other people much for hygienic reasons (as passing germs is very easy in India) and so it’s easier to just fold your hands and say hello to multiple people without having to shake hands with everyone.

    Yes, Namaha ([I] honor) + Te (You) = Namaste. It can be interpreted as “I bow to you” or “I honor you (or honor the light in you)”. I don’t think anyone would be offended by the term namaste even if they are elder or supposedly from a better social status :), although the term namaskar (namaha(honor) + kara (action) = the act of honoring or bowing) is more appropriate when addressing multiple people at the same time or to someone of important status because the word “te” in sanskrit means singular you and also an informal you, However in English , the word “You” can be used as a singular or plural pronoun (in Hindi/sanskrit it is customary to use pluralized form of you when addressing multiple people or highly respectable or elderly people). So in a yoga class, it would probably be more technically correct to say the term namaskar instead of namaste as it is being addressed to multiple people…although either word is probably okay as “You” is a plural in English:)
    _/)(\_

    • “more common than saying the word is just folding the hands in the gesture….and not saying anything”….yes, what I do.

      I do want to point out to anyone who may be getting their back up over this post, you say namaste, I say what I say. different strokes. my point was related to the Babarazzi’s post, specifically to certain comments in it.

  2. “But that’s trading the possibility of freedom from suffering for something much less: freedom from criticism”…..wonderfully stated indeed!
    The thing I love about yoga and “Hinduism” is that if someone asks 100 different people about a certain spiritual practise as to why it is so, one will get 100 different answers! There is freedom to explore and experiment and there is no one right answer. Whereas in certain eastern culture there is strict abidence to just one “right” way. In fact some westerners were totally confused as to what religion the people of India were practicing….there was everthing being practiced under the same umbrella from atheism, yoga, tantra all the way to idol worship….they couldn’t understand what it was, and decided to call the people of “Indus valley” as “Hindus”. Until that point it used to be called Sanatana Dharma or eternal religion , everyone had the freedom to explore and experiment their own path without being labeled right or wrong under the same umbrella. Now with the coining of the term “hinduism”, people who felt threatened by the open minded freedom-loving culture, decided to pick and choose certain seemingly “absurd” practices within “Hinduism” and used that as an argument to dismiss the who religion as fake. Others who feared criticism adapted parts which they liked from the yoga culture into their own culture and dismissed the rest as hocus pocus. But some one who remains true to the spirit of Sanatana dharma will not only be not afraid to experiment and explore different teaching without the fear of ridicule, but also will be non-critical and encouraging if others who choose a path different from them. It’s great to see many people coming forward to preserve the true spirit of yoga and Sanatana dharma.

    • “if someone asks 100 different people about a certain spiritual practise as to why it is so, one will get 100 different answers!”

      yes. like asking for directions in India…. :D

    • Your theory of how Hinduism evolved out of what was previously only Sanatana Dharma is interesting. Would greatly appreciate any links / books where you researched this.

      • Hi momwithadot, Rajiv Malhotra has done some really good research on the history of Sanatana dharma and about perceptions (mainly misperceptions) of modern day “Hinduism”. Some of his presentations are on YouTube like this one…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufZ1BZcZzKI
        Another presentation worth watching is called the U-Turn theory by Rajiv Malhora.
        You can also check out his book, I think it is called “breaking India”

        Jai sat chit Anand (awareness of the eternal is bliss)

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