“I want to get physical, let’s get into physical, let me hear your body talk, your body talk.” Olivia Newton-John
There have been several religious revivals in the United States. There was one while it was still British America and another one in the early 19th century. They are called Great Awakenings, outpourings of the Holy Spirit, in other words. One sermon by Jonathan Edwards in 1741 was entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.
It immediately breathed new life into godliness in the colonies.
The third Great Awakening of the second half of the 19th century was centered on the rise of contemporary churches, missionary work, and an emphasis on social issues.
The last more-or-less Great Awakening happened in the 1950s, when among the post-war baby-booming moms and dads of an expanding confident Pax Americana there was a revival of interest in religiosity, especially among conservative denominations, sparking theological battles and the rise of politically powerful evangelicals.
The Great Decline began in the 1970s when prayer, church membership, and service attendance started to take a nosedive. Although most Americans still claim to believe in God, they largely sleep in on Sundays. Maybe that’s what some evangelicals mean when they talk about “Soul Sleep”.
At the same time that interest in the spirit was fading away in the United States, a practice centered on the spirit started gaining traction. It was the practice of yoga. It first appeared on the coastlines of the country, the most secular places in the land, but it was a new awakening.
Although yoga today has been mainstreamed manhandled merchandised into cute outfits twisting themselves into perfect poses and posting the results on social media, Yogananda, author of “Autobiography of a Yogi” and the man who brought the practice to the land of opportunity in the 1920s, thought it was something else.
“It is a profound science of unfolding the infinite potential of the human mind and soul,” he said. He thought the purpose of yoga was not asana exercise, even though health is an important component of the discipline, but rather union with the spirit, largely through meditation.
Yogananda wasn’t big on milk and honey. He didn’t necessarily believe cloud nine was going to be got to by wrapping yourself up in a lululemon heart opener knit wrap, the perfect light layer to wear to and from your practice. He might have thought they are great clothes, colorful and moisture-wicking, albeit tight-fitting for his plus-sized figure from a different fashion time.
The Great Decline was long in coming, set in motion by modern philosophy, questioning everything, modern ideas like agnosticism, deism, and evolution, and societal rebellion. Modern times have been trending to the secular for several centuries. It may not be true that when we stop believing in God we’ll believe in anything, but it is true we all believe in Wall Street and Main Street more than God nowadays.
The Decline of Awe also came into play in the steam age industrial age atomic age digital age. The heavens are full of stars photographed by Hubble. They aren’t portents of success or failure, victory or disaster, Heaven or Hell, anymore. Awe has been replaced by high camp comic drama self-promotion hurly-burly send-ups. The proof is in the pudding, in Facebook YouTube Twitter Instagram.
The four top social network amusement parks have almost 5 billion users between them. On the other hand, maybe 20 percent of Americans go to church on a regular basis, maybe less. The rest are on their cell phones. “Ask most pastors what percentage of inactive members they have, and they’ll say anything from 40 – 60 percent,” said sociologist Penny Long Marler in ‘An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America’.
There are far more No Church-affiliated Americans than Catholic Americans or mainline Protestant Americans. Only evangelicals are holding their own, probably because they believe in a success-oriented culture. Or maybe because they got their own haunted house ogre elected to the White House.
When yoga was getting its legs under it in the 1970s and 80s many Americans said they were spiritual, but not necessarily religious. What they meant was they weren’t organized religious. Even though arena-style mega-churches were springing up, seeming to be bursting at the seams, the writing was on the wall.
Just when the spiritual was fading away, along came yoga over the horizon, a ray of sunshine. A new kind of post-religious spirituality was on the way to a studio near you, brought to you from the East, where all religions have their roots. Sooner or later, everything old becomes new again.
Vivekenanda got the ball rolling in the 1890s, Yogananda popularized Kriya Yoga in the 1920s, and Yogi Bhajan inspired a large following in the 1960s with his Yoga of Awareness. At their core the practices were all spiritual. However, the spiritual aspect of yoga was not sustainable in the 20th century, not in a society becoming ever more secular and materialistic.
After World War Two greed rapidly outstripped need. By the turn of the new century the United States had become the most materialistic society in the history of the world. Yoga’s ethical guidelines, behaviors like non-excess, non-possessiveness, and self-discipline, were rapidly becoming irrelevant, even as the practice boomed.
Boomers and GenX’ers are less religious and spiritual than the Silent Generation. Millennials are the least religious and spiritual of any American generation. Americans are more focused on the freedom to do whatever they want more than ever before. The sense of spirit as the gospel truth has been tossed into the dustbin of history.
The problem for the bread and butter of yoga in the 1990s and 2000s was what to do. The union of the individual self and universal consciousness wasn’t going to pay the rent. In fact, being on the side of the spirit was being on the wrong side of the balance sheet.
The solution to the problem was to go back to Patanjali, who codified the system of yoga about two thousand years ago, and turn him over on his head. Modern yoga stepped up, dropped back, and threw a spiral for a touchdown. From the perspective of Head Coach Patanjali on the sidelines, the forward pass might have been thrown backwards into the wrong end zone. But, that was neither here nor there.
It was B. K. S Iyengar to the rescue.
He wrote a book all about yoga exercise, which was a blend of hatha, gymnastics, British Army calisthenics, Indian wrestling, and alignment. “Light on Yoga” was and still is a hit. “When teachers refer to the correct way to do a posture, they’re usually alluding to the alignment Mr. Iyengar instructs and expertly models in his book,” wrote ‘Yoga Journal’ in a tribute after his death.
Since then, streaming into the 21st century, yoga has become as body conscious as it can possibly be. Five of the eight limbs of yoga have been lopped off and left for dead, leaving posture poses and breathing exercises in control. Meditation has been repurposed as mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about fully minding what’s happening, minding what you’re doing, and minding the space you’re moving through. It used to be called paying attention. The best thing about the new practice is you don’t have to sit around meditating for hours anymore.
Yoga is a practice that fills in the space between now and forever, or at least it used to. It has since expunged the forever side of things and made the now side the happening side. It was once something between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is. But, times have changed. Now it’s elbow grease, and any sense of wonder is beside the point.
“I don’t believe in all that spiritual mumbo jumbo,” or words to that effect, are routinely heard in yoga studios from coast to coast. It’s like hearing not the door slamming shut, but its echo.
Yoga has become a choreographed sequence of squirming facts on a rectangular rubber mat. Nuts and bolts were once baffled by imagination, but now studio classes are full of them. Yoga used to know what facts not to bother with. Now facts are confused with reality.
When modern yoga stripped away most of the limbs of the practice it was doing what it had to do to cash in on a good thing. Physical fitness was never the purpose of yoga, but physical fitness is what most people will pay $15.00 an hour for, not instruction in the benefits of the spirit. Intangibles are not the point of gruntwork.
Who goes to a gym for enlightenment?
Before the Great Split the dichotomy was, it’s either yoga, or it’s exercise. It didn’t matter what you were doing, bicep curls or sun salutations. What mattered was the ethical motivation non-competiveness spiritual orientation and where whatever you were doing was heading. If tight buns were the goal, it was exercise. If the subtle body was the goal, it was yoga.
It doesn’t matter anymore. Yoga has become whatever you want it to be, whatever you say it is, whatever pays the best in the marketplace. Deconstructing the structural unity of the practice has become constructing the fast food drive-thru of the obvious on a bland burger bun.
When yoga studios add profit centers to their footprint – mats branded apparel props essential oils lifestyle items – it’s because they need the real McCoy to stay in business. Retail can add 20 to 30 percent to the bottom line. Trying to make money off the spiritual is like trying to give fish a bath.
Yoga businesses need to be profitable. All earnings are dependent on shoppers, since if there weren’t any shoppers there wouldn’t be any stores or studios. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the groove on the mat they’re looking for or simply looking groovy. It doesn’t matter whether shoppers want an awakening or tight buns. The customer is always right.
“The act of shopping is a form of stress release,” wrote Rebecca Kotch in ‘Managing Your Yoga Retail Space’. “Shopping within a yoga studio environment seems to be an exceptional antidote to everyday stresses,” she said.
It obviates the need for wasting your time in corpse pose, as well. It begs the question, however, whether the new yoga is yoga by another name, or is it something different altogether? Is the old yoga dead and gone? Does it matter?
“Do I believe that yoga can be imparted without being grounded in its cultural and spiritual heritage? No. Whatever that is, it isn’t yoga,” Kavita Das wrote in ‘Any Practice of Yoga That Isn’t Spiritual Isn’t Really Yoga’.
Although there is no disagreeing with the sentiment, there is no doubt Kavita Das is completely wrong. Yoga has a cultural and spiritual heritage and the practice was, within the last one hundred years, grounded in that tradition. That is not the case anymore. Yoga today is whatever most people say it is.
Even before the Great Decline the idea that we are compelled to create meaning had been crashing into the past, redefining modernity. Everybody has to create meaning for themselves and create their own outlook. Life used to be what other people said it was. Life nowadays is whatever you say it is. Hanging onto the coattails of yoga’s heritage doesn’t get it done in an age of engagement and commitment to the now.
Although it is true the present is like an egg that was laid by the past, the present is never like the past. When you’ve got the present in the driver’s seat, running the show, you control both the past and the future. What we dream up now is tomorrow’s reality.
Most yoga today is branded, delivered, and consumed in a commercial setting, and has no spiritual aspect to it. The cultural heritage of the practice has become beside the point, except for the yoga tourists who pay homage to it by going to the sub-continent on vacation. However, what they practice at the fountainhead is ironically a mostly Westernized form of the discipline.
The Great Dream of yoga used to be awareness, self-control, and higher consciousness. The way it was gotten to was by training the body and the mind. Even though teachers were helpful, neither gym nor studio memberships were necessary. The best teachers didn’t explain or demonstrate, rather they inspired. They didn’t confuse things with their names.
The next step used to be about going beyond the physical, beyond the mind, even, and straight to the spirit.
Most modern practice, however, has evolved so that it’s never mind anything except the physical. Modernity has given the heave ho to thousands of years of meaning, and replaced it with the provisional, so that essence is what you make of it, once you have come into being. The physicality of existence is what matters more than anything else.
It may be reductive to do yoga as a workout, but the other paths have been largely washed away in the Great Flood of rationalism secularism commodification. Besides, yoga has been decontextualized to the point that anything goes, anyway. Who really believes in the past anymore?
Traditional yoga was an enterprise after states of insight. Modern yoga is an enterprise after health and wealth along material planes. Traditional yoga espoused detachment from physical pleasures, or at least many of them. Modern yoga is a shopping mall of physical pleasures. Traditional yoga was then and modern yoga is now.
We all dream up our own reality, although now and then it’s fine to pause in our pursuit of yoga and just do it.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.