Critics argue that yoga as a 'pop' fitness trend has taken yoga out of its spiritual context and arranged it in a modern health club setting. Ancient yoga that is conducted in India differs greatly in its practices as compared to Western yoga as a fitness trend. The methods used to obtain information for this topic include: participant observation, three interviews were conducted; one with an American Yoga instructor, two were with American Yoga participants, in addition, extensive library research was conducted on Yoga.
The history of yoga in Ancient India dates back approximately five thousand years. It has been acknowledged in the United States since the early1960's. The many resources I have used to collect the data for this study gave inconsistent information pertaining to yoga's date of origin; therefore, I calculated an estimate. Its place of origin has been verified as India. "Yoga is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning union" (Harvard Heath Letter 1998:24).
"When a mans union or existential contact with Being becomes [balanced and complete] he is transformed into a dynamic personality. Yoga may be defined as the art of harmonious and creative living. It stresses the need for the balanced growth of personality...it warns against extreme tendencies which mislead people into lopsided development." (Chaudhuri 1974:37)
It continues to describe such "lopsided" personalities as people who are unbalanced. For example, one who is overly social may be suppressing their own emotions, those who overly exercise the muscles may be under developing the brain, and those who over-exercise the brain may be neglecting the body.
Yoga is an everyday concept in Indian culture; moreover, Sanskrit is the language of yoga. Yoga has been a source of religious and philosophical movements throughout history.
"The basic issue of human suffering include moral, religious, and psychological problems, has been traced to one ultimate cause...self estrangement, alienation from existence, loss of contact with being,
emotional conflicts, social discord, political wars, all of these...flow from mans loss of contact with the ground of existence." (Bose 1996:48)
Alienation and depression lead to emotional conflict; consequently, it may produce a feeling of restlessness; moreover, stress. Ancient yoga has called out to alleviate such problems and alleviate the anxiety caused by stress. It taught people how to take care of their minds and bodies; in addition, how to relate to other people. It also taught people what to eat and how to exist in nature. The majority of traditional yogis are vegetarian. Ancient yoga's goal was to emphasize complete spirituality and to be all to your human potential. "It emphasizes the need for balanced integration of the physical, emotional, intellectual, ethical, and religious aspects of personality" (Chaudhuri 1974:38).
In the United States yoga is mainly practiced as relaxation therapy. Relaxation therapy has been used as "a broad term used to describe a number of techniques that promote stress reduction, the elimination of tension through the body, and a calm and peaceful state of mind" (Martin 2002:1). Stress and tensions experienced through everyday life have been linked to many illnesses including but not limited to: heart disease, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, anxiety disorders, insomnia, and substance abuse. "Stress can also trigger a number of physical symptoms including nausea, headache, hair loss, fatigue, and muscle pain" (Martin 2002:2).
In addition to the benefits of yoga "it can also be tailored to people of different ages and different fitness levels. An athletic person will likely opt to do more [yoga] postures and hold them for longer than someone who is just beginning [in addition] many people use yoga as a complement to a sport or aerobic activity...stretches can [also] be done as a warm up [prior to a work out]" (Harvard Health Letter 1998:3). In reference to biomedical effectiveness "Yoga has been used to alleviate problems associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, migraine headaches, asthma, shallow breathing, backaches, constipation, diabetes, menopause, multiple sclerosis, varicose veins, carpal tunnel syndrome, and many chronic illnesses" (Dupler 2002:2). In this study I chose to focus on asthma and constipation due to the fact, there was more medical evidence established to confirm the practice of yoga assisting those health issues.
The data for this study was obtained by researching the broad topic of yoga. The topic was then broken down into sub-groups including: medical aspects of yoga, ancient history of yoga, American yoga, and yoga for relaxation. In addition, interviews were conducted. One interviewee was an American yoga instructor; two others were American yoga participants. Each interviewee attended the same class. Moreover, I practice yoga and added my opinions and participant observations through the use of it.
Paula was the yoga instructor I interviewed. When I asked her the question "Why did you decided to teach yoga?" she replied "I like helping people but I don't agree with the practice of biomedicine". In response to my question "Why don't you agree with biomedicine?" She replied "It seems too rigid and rushed, [moreover] people don't seem to get the medical help they really need and most of the help they do receive is only a temporary fix." Paula was a student at the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States for approximately three years. She has been teaching yoga as a certified teacher for approximately two years.
To learn more about the Iyengar School of Yoga I looked it up on the internet and learned that the assessment for certification included: demonstrated practice of Asanas, a written exam, and demonstrated teachings. In the demonstrated practice of Asanas (poses) portion the students are expected to show a working knowledge of all of the poses in the syllabus for the assessment level, the written exam asked questions regarding the required reading on the syllabus as well as theoretical questions regarding teaching such as sequencing concepts, medical modifications etc. Their teaching skills in areas such as understanding of the pose and the knowledge of basic instruction, clarity of instruction, pacing, interaction with and manner toward the students, demonstration skills, observation of class and appropriate corrections, are critically evaluated before certification is granted. After passing the assessment all teachers are required to renew their certification bi-annually (http://www.iynaus.org/).
Through participant observation I noted that the environment in which American yoga is practiced is usually quiet, dimly lit, comfortable in temperature, and spacious. Floor mats are provided to comfort the participant during the session. Soft music is played in the background and a candle or incense it burned (depending on the instructor). The instructor speaks softly and verbally guides the group through a variety of asanas (poses). The instructor often moves about the room correcting participants' postures when appropriate. Relaxation and meditation is promoted through verbal suggestions and chants of Om. Moreover, each session last for approximately one hour.
Linda was one of the participants I interviewed. She is married, has two school aged children, recently moved to the area, and is not employed. When I asked her who she chooses to participate in Yoga she replied "I don't work and the children are in school all day so yoga and [the other activities she engages in] gives me something to look forward to. I have also met many nice women that I have become friends with. I am not from the area so it has given me more of a sense of community." Michelle was the final participant I interviewed. Michelle leads a very busy lifestyle. She is married with no children and works 50 hours per week; moreover, commutes one hour each way to work. In response to the question of why she chooses to practice yoga she responded, "it helps me clear my mind and forget everything that is going on in my life outside of this room, [it also] gives me an energy boost for the rest of the day or if I take an evening class it helps me sleep better."
I also asked Michelle "How do you know yoga really helps you?" She revealed that "I used to suffer from anxiety disorders and had difficulty falling to sleep at night because so much was on my mind, after taking yoga classes for a few months I started to relax more and sleep better." From my personal participant observations I agreed with much of what Michelle had concluded through her practices of yoga. I am a full time student and own and operate a small business. Moreover, there are additional things that life demands of me. I have been practicing yoga for approximately two years. I began practicing yoga because my fitness facility offered it. As I began to practice it weekly I noticed more movement and flexibility in my body. Then, I began to notice my mind that was once overloaded with stress from deadlines that needed to be met, became more relaxed. Moreover, my sleeping pattern became more regular and my mind and body felt more at ease, all of which I attribute to overall stress reduction.
Yoga in America has been advertised as a means for relaxation and to free the self of stress. It is practiced in health clubs and spas in groups headed by a yoga instructor. There is no formal training an instructor must undergo to teach yoga in the U.S. There are seminars that can be completed from one week to six months; respectively, to obtain certification; nevertheless, one does not need certifications to teach a yoga class. In contrast, Ancient yoga's idea is that "of freedom in spiritual self expression, yoga does not believe in any standardized path for all to follow" (Chaudhuri 1974:21). Yoga is practiced in private or with a teacher (a yogi, male or yogin, female). "A yogi [yogin] is one who does not merely talk philosophy but lives philosophy, he does not simply have faith in God but experiences God" (Chaudhuri 1974:19).
One becomes a yogi when his/her teacher gives permission to teach. The teacher (guru) guides the student through a spiritual path to self-realization. It is not until then, a student becomes a yogi. The guru's teachings can last for years before a student is ready to teach the yoga philosophy. Energy is said to be passed from the guru to the student or yogi. This process is the natural conversion practiced in India. "Yoga is not a matter of belief; it is the inner growth of consciousness which results in direct insight into the heart of reality [it is a] progressive realization of the full freedom of the inner spirit" (Chaudhuri 1974:22).
The physical exercises and breathing exercises do not belong to the essence of yoga they are the "bodily preparation entitling one to take up higher phases of yogic practices such as concentration, meditation, and the like (Chaudhuri 1974:21). In conclusion, it appears that yoga practiced in America is in fact a preparation effort; moreover, the first stage in ancient yoga. In the American practices of yoga the physical exercises and breathing exercises are what is emphasized; resulting, in a relaxed state of mind and body.
In addition to American yoga being practiced for relaxation and stress reduction, there has been a discovery that it is also used to help treat chronic illnesses that biomedicine has had difficulty managing. In this study I chose to focus on asthma and constipation due to the fact, there was more medical evidence established to confirm the practice of yoga assisting those health issues.
Approximately ten-million Americans have asthma. It usually begins in childhood; although, it may also begin to show its signs in adult life
(Dupler 2002:1). "In most cases asthma is caused by inhaling an allergen that sets off the chain of biomedical and tissue changes leading to airway inflammation, broncho- constriction, and wheezing. "Studies have shown that yoga significantly helps asthma sufferers, with exercises specifically designed to expand the lungs, promote deep breathing, and reduce stress" (Dupler 2002:2). Breathing exercises will strengthen and relax the muscles of the lungs. Controlling the breathing helps the respiratory muscles and lungs to develop and breathe more slowly reducing stress on the airways; consequently, reducing the chance of an asthma attack. Being able to control and focus breathing patterns also aids in the awareness in a change in regular breathing; in short, the onset of asthma attacks.
Yoga has also been useful in the alleviation of abdominal gas; moreover, constipation. "Constipation is an acute or chronic condition in which bowel movements occur less often than usual...it is one of the most common medical complaints in the U.S" (Haggerty 2002:1). It can occur to any one at any age, although, it's more common among women. While conducting my interview with Paula, the yoga instructor, I asked her if she was aware of any medical uses for yoga. She informed me of several positions to relieve constipation discomfort. The first position is called a "knee-chest" position. It involves:
* Standing straight with arms at the sides
* Lifting the right knee toward the chest
* Grasping the right ankle with the left hand
* Pulling the legs as close to the chest as possible
* Holding the position for about 10 seconds
* And repeating those steps with the alternate leg
The second position was called "cobra". It involves the following steps:
* Lying on the stomach with the legs together
* Placing the palms just below the shoulders, keeping the elbows close to the body
* While inhaling lift the head and chest off of the floor while keeping your face forward, also keep the naval in contact with the floor
* The goal is to stretch and look as far upward as possible to elongate the abdomen
* The cobra position must be held for about 8 seconds
* Exhale as you lower the chest toward the floor
In the interview with the yoga instructor, Paula remarked that,
"Too often today when we have a headache we take a pill or something to
stop the pain and discomfort. We try killing the pain instead of realizing and coming to an understanding that there's some thing causing the headache. Some people work too hard and try to juggle too much, maybe they ate something wrong for lunch, or are holding in negative emotions. Instead of realizing that stress in life exists we try to numb everything."
In my personal practices with yoga it has assisted me in the following: allowing full concentration, sleeping more soundly, increasing my energy level, and allowing my creativity to flow better. Linda one of the participants revealed that she suffers from asthma and she has tried a variety of medicines and in conjunction with Theophylline, her medication, yoga helps her in controlling her breathing. Her doctor also remarked about how beneficial yoga has been to her condition.
In terms of the American culture, yoga provides participants with a sense of relaxation that is necessary in such a busy society. Today, people are trying to balance many activities; including but not limited to, work, family, education, and other personal activities. Moreover, yoga helps provide many people with a social system to incorporate within.
There is a misconception in the practice of yoga in the United States. It is practiced as a method to relieve one self of the stresses caused by everyday life and meditation is used to temporarily block thoughts to encourage a deeper sense of temporary relaxation. Traditional yogis have been insulted by the interpretation of yoga in the West. Critics argue that yoga as a 'pop' fitness trend has taken yoga out of its spiritual context and arranged it in a modern health club setting. Ancient yoga that is conducted in India differs greatly in its practices as compared to Western yoga as a fitness trend.
Yoga may also be compared with Christian healing groups and metaphysical groups in the following ways: each is practiced within a group setting and there is a call to a higher power. Each believes that "health and healing come from tapping into a powerful life force...this type of healing is based upon a wholly immanent power, fully within the reach of each believer" (McGuire 1998:79). "They believe that the key to the desired wholeness is mental more than purely spiritual...a healthy mind will help you have a healthy body" (McGuire 1998:81).
The ancient practices of yoga highlight spirituality. "A yogi is one who does not merely talk philosophy but lives philosophy, he does not simply have faith in God but experiences God" (Chaudhuri 1974:19). Many Americans think of yoga as a religion and have reacted to it negatively. Some think that if they practice yoga then they would be undermining their personal religious beliefs. "Instead of undermining their personal faith, Yoga can actually deepen it...some yoga instructors are more religious than others, but Yoga itself is a tool for exploring the depth of our human nature..." (Feurstein 1996:1).