America started to find religion -- the Christian religion, that is -- in 1720. For the next two centuries there was a recurrence of what was called "The Great Awakening" led by evangelical preachers, which spread like wildfire across the limited-though-growing expanse of land known as the United States. Tented cities sprang up; entire municipalities were built for annual retreats. The Second Great Awakening (1800-1870) formed the basis of what today we know as American Christianity, creating the foundation of “Judeo-Christian” values.
Of course, there are a few things to consider. First off, religions is a better term: there are nearly 34,000 recognized denominations of Christianity worldwide. Secondly, the history of these revivals blows apart the Tea Party myth of a founding religion. Any basic history text reminds us that our European ancestors were running from religion, not to it. It took quite a while for our forebears to “get the spirit.” Ever since Europeans touched down and decided that the people who already lived here would no longer be in charge, we’ve had a tumultuous connection to our spirituality.
What’s happening today in yoga is no different. The moment Emerson championed the Bhagavad Gita for the quasi-ascetic Northeastern community, yoga has meant many different things to many different people. (To be fair, this has always been the case in Indian history, blowing apart another long-held myth: that only “one yoga” exists.) In comparison, evangelical preachers might have used the umbrella idea of Christianity as a template, but their philosophies were regional and following tribal. Their take on whatever god they were heralding was the right one, much like yoga teachers today.
What became known as yoga arose from six schools of thought, the atheistic Samkhya being the most influential on Patanjali. In general, three major forms arose: karma, the yoga of action; jnana, knowledge; and bhakti, devotion, the eventual driving force of Tantra. From the outset there were numerous yogas to be practiced, due to the fact that each individual’s rasas, or flavors, varied. As the Taoists would say, many rivers lead to one ocean.
Being actively engaged in social media for different components of my career, I’ve noticed a strong uptick in assorted sets of ideals, such as: many rivers lead to my ocean, those other rivers are stagnant, my river runs fastest, come stare at my oceanfront ashram village and even there is one river, mine. Of course they are not expressed quite this way. If you peel back a layer or two, that’s the general sentiment, couched in nuevo-spiritual musings over an infinite something or other.
This is yoga-as-self-help, unconsciously stealing a playbook from revivalist preachers and most every other spiritual movement that has arisen on American shores. Communities unwilling or uncaring of the totality of the practice are tailoring components of the discipline, similar to the Great Awakening rift that allowed preachers to extract the biblical quotes that most effectively served their personal theology. The god you invent is the god you end up serving.
This is in no way an argument against such fracturing. It’s natural for humans to compartmentalize, which brings into question the whole notion of “oneness” (the topic of my next MBG column). What has quickly become tiring is this continued insistence that the fragments constitute the whole. Yoga might be broad, but that does not mean it’s “anything,” especially when anything means whatever you want it to that day. This sort of rhetoric is nearly as exhausting as the soap operas that occur when teachers make announcements that they’re leaving this style or that studio, or that they’ve “discovered” a method which builds upon all previous methods but stands atop the yoga mountain. Danger lies in the long stumble downwards.
We should invite discourse and dialogue among all the components of yoga. We just have to beware of the fundamentalism that emerges when one ingredient is cherished more than others. If our intention is truly what I often see mentioned -- to help transform lives and educate people about yoga’s benefits -- then we need to quell the drama and focus on what’s important: sharing, exploring, learning, and perhaps most importantly, ridding ourselves of this notion that we’ve found the right way.