How the West Changed Yoga

When yoga came to the west almost a hundred years ago, it arrived ensconced within a cultural context. There were Sanskrit, Hindu, and Tibetan words to describe body and mind characteristics that had no counterpart in the English language. Visualizations requiring geometric forms, Sanskrit letters, or ancient deities lost their effectiveness when they were brought to the West because no one understood these symbols.

Whereas Shiva and Kali might have evoked some sense of the sacred in the average southeast Asian person, they were completely meaningless to a Westerner who had no idea about Shiva or what his symbols of power were or why his long matted hair, a necklace of skull bones, and no clothes was an image to be respected. Or why Kali, a fierce female figure associated with death, trampling, and dismemberment should be embraced as a power for good. One had to grow up with the mythologies of these figures to truly understand the lessons the archetype had to teach if used in a visualization. It’s no wonder then that yoga was stripped of all that didn’t immediately make sense until what remained were physical exercises and a couple of breathing techniques to go along. That is what most people know as yoga.

The other aspects of yoga like chanting (mantra), visualizing a particular deity (dhyana), breath control to redirect energy (pranayama), power shapes and mandalas (yantra), incorporating love in your meditation (bhakti yoga), or using logic to discern truth (jnana yoga) have all been pushed to the sidelines where only super enthusiastic seekers wander over, on their own, to discover and decipher how to use these tools.

That being said some of these exercises are finding their way back into mainstream yoga. This time people are encouraged to focus on energy or light moving in their bodies and there is a lot of emphasis on chakras and specific colors that go with them. In ancient yoga, they didn’t focus on nearly as many chakras or assign a specific color to them. Each color was understood to have particular characteristics and it depended on the intent of the person to choose which color(s) they would use to work with a given energy center in the body. That allowed for many more healing/clearing/empowering possibilities than one color per chakra.

As westerners became more adept at visualizing abstract elements like light and color, shapes and archetypal personas seemed to be the next step. The shapes of the western world were not mandalas and shri yantras, but crop circle formations, spirals, fractals, words or affirmations, or anything that was particularly meaningful for an individual. Modern psychology seems to have borrowed from traditional yogic practices the technique of exploring mythological/fairytale character dramas and themes that play out in our lives. Western yoga also uses this technique, but now one can choose any character or deity from any culture around the world to meditate on for a while and gain profound insights into one’s own nature.

In the old days, a person had to find a teacher to acquire secret yogic knowledge. Now that same knowledge is all out in the open, available to anyone willing to put in the work to understand it. It’s also interesting that the western world went through a fifty year period of looking to gurus for answers, which resulted in a mix of knowledge and a level of disillusionment. But this disillusionment has been the key to masses of people trying to figure things out for themselves. The current teachers are not so much physical beings like traditional gurus that one turns their life over to. More and more people are listening to an inner guide, or dreams, or visions, or multidimensional beings, or synchronistic events for clues on how to go forward and find the lesson gems that come from their experiences. It turns out this inner guide is spot on, superior to any outer teacher, and miraculously seems to know exactly what one needs at that particular moment and at what intensity level. So how does one find their inner guide? All the branches of yoga, i.e. stretching, chanting, breathing, meditation, and devotion are inherently designed to facilitate the communication between a person and their inner guide.

This is the new yoga, no outer guru needed, set within a culturally diverse and inclusive context with an amazing ability to be tailored to every single individual with just the right combination and intensity of practice. Where before, tradition was strictly upheld for fear of destroying the effectiveness of an exercise, the western world rebelliously stripped yoga down and put it back together in a completely, unexpected way, tailored to modern life, with understandable symbols and reference points, allowing new information to emerge and propel us into a greater multidimensional awareness.


Written by Soanya Ahmad

Om, Part 1 painting by Reid Stowe, 2009.


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