Yoga garnered a significant amount of journalistic attention in 2013, but often not for spiritual reasons. A recent study has revealed that 15 million Americans now practice Yoga (mostly college educated women) and that almost half of them earn at least $75,000 annually. If you are looking to make money off of spirituality, Yoga perhaps now offers the best chance. Last year $27 billion dollars were spent in the U.S. alone on Yoga products. Yoga has truly become America’s next great prosperity gospel.
But let’s put to one side the lively debate in the Yoga community over whether the art form has been compromised by its new wealthy enthusiasts. The far more interesting question concerns how Yoga evolved from an ancient Indian spiritual discipline into a modern American exercise trend.
A number of scholars have embraced the task of explaining the reception of Yoga in “the West.” One of their aims is to challenge the idea that a “more authentic” form of Yoga has ever really been practiced in either Europe or the United States. They instead argue that Yoga was fundamentally transformed in India via the colonial encounter and thus remains caught up in European encroachments.
According to this argument, the practice of Yoga over the last hundred years, whether in India or the U.S., has nothing to do with partaking in an ancient spirituality – scholars have suggested something similar about fundamentalists who claim to represent the true essence of their professed ancient religion.
A recent Der Spiegel piece by Manfred Dworschak, entitled “Salvation Without a Savior” (Erlösung ohne Erlöser) illustrates how Europeans decisively influenced the practice of Yoga in India, and how the resulting spiritual bricolage made its way to the States. In a previous post, I mentioned Dworschak’s discussion of the body builder Eugen Sandow’s influence in India. I now want to look at two other examples Dworschak uses to suggest that Yoga, as we know it, is a recent invention.
Relying on the research of Peter van der Veer and others, Dworschak suggests that the Swede, Pehr Henrik Ling (1776-1839) must be considered a pivotal figure in the development of modern Yoga. Ling is perhaps most known for being the father of the “Swedish massage.” But his biggest accomplishment was founding the Royal Gymnastic Central Institute for the training of gymnastic instructors in 1813. Ling’s philosophy of bodily enhancement focused not on weight lifting or the use of gymnastics equipment but rather massage and healing techniques. “Swedish gymnastics,” according to Dworschak, were eventually embraced by the British army – since they could easily be transported – who in turn dispersed Ling’s techniques to their colonial subjects in India.
But where could the local Indian population practice Ling’s techniques? In 1857, the first YMCA in Asia was established in Calcutta, India. By the 1880s YMCAs could be found throughout the country. At the time, of course, the YMCA was a missionary organization that linked physical exercise with spiritual well-being. The major goal of its “fitness apostles” involved the physical education of the colonial people. Dworschak’s suggestion is that the YMCA provided the material site for the cross pollination of Ling’s medical gymnastics, local yoga techniques and the YMCA’s underlying theology that exercise constitutes a means of spiritual sanctification. It is at this point, observes the Indologist Axel Michaels, that Yoga and the gym came in contact with one another.
“Salvation without a Savior” is simply a newspaper article and thus is not concerned with providing the historical evidence necessary to prove its many interesting claims. It should, rather, be interpreted as a journalistic attempt to explain the origins of a highly popular trend in contemporary spirituality. In doing so, it ultimately suggests that when “the West” looks to India for spiritual alternatives, it is, in fact, significantly responsible for shaping those alternatives. But Dworschak also stresses that this influence is anything but one way, and uses the example of Swami Vivekananda to make this point.
Perhaps the difference between the old guard of Yoga practitioners in the U.S. and their younger, more trendy counterparts involves not a question of authenticity, but of motives: in rebellion against the conventional religion of their parents, Baby Boomers embraced Yoga as an ersatz spirituality with an imagined golden past; Yipsters use it to feel healthy or as a way to keep their dogs in shape (i.e. Doga).