Yoga in the West

yoga retreats in the modern world

Eli Christman –

These days yoga has been pretty much stripped of most of its Eastern mystique. The average dating profile is likely to list yoga among their interests along with R&B, Louis Vitton and Rihanna. Yoga is another feel-good therapy along with Pilates and aerobics.

When Westerners first came to India in sizeable numbers in the 30’s and 40’s pursuing Eastern wisdom the Indian yoga teachers refused to teach them at first. You’ll make a business out of it, they told the, with quite breaktaking prescience. It’s not hard to understand their doubts. Yoga is part of the Indian heritage, a discipline intimately tied into ancient spiritual traditions and one of their paths available to the adept seeking to skip the cycle of rebirths and attain samadhi.

See that? I used an ancient Sanskrit text to give this post some authority. Never mind that I only have a vague idea what it means. No one reading this is enlightened so no one can contradict me.

yoga in India

Indians making yoga in 1688.Those were the days.

What is clear is that studying yoga with a guru in India was a serious business. Whether you were learning meditation, music or dance, you were expected to honour your teacher by dedicating several hours a day to your practice. He might refuse to teach you until you had worked in his house for a year and proven yourself. And once he deigned to instruct you you owned it to him to become the best you could.

Of course, the modern wave of travellers turn up in India and essentially say so, this yoga business you’ve been studying all your life…can you give me, like, a weekend crash course? I’ve got a flight on Monday…
Or take yoga teachers in the West. They may tell you that they’re qualified or certified but what does that really mean? Most yoga teachers in India don’t have a certificate to prove they know their stuff. They’ve just been doing it all their lives. It’s the essence of who they are. Whereas in the West you can go for a month-long yoga teacher training retreat and you’re ready to make people do sun salutations and get paid for it.

yogic meditation

Shiva, the original yogi

Having said that, it probably doesn’t matter all that much. I personally do about ten minutes of yoga a day and am grateful that I can find drop-in yoga classes almost anywhere I go when I want to refresh a little. I’m never going to become a dedicated yoga student and have only a passing interest in the spirituality behind it. The stretches help me a lot, however, and give me another tool for increasing awareness of my body and staying healthy.

Also many teachers in the West are more open-minded about the instruction of yoga and won’t insist upon a practice like cleaning out the nostrils with salt water, and instead adjust their classes according to the needs of their students.

It was perhaps inevitable that as yoga spread through the world it would become diluted and yoga retreats are now big business. But it’s better than there being no yoga retreats at all and you can always go to India and dedicate years of your life to a guru if you want…