A while back, I had an interesting though unsettling experience. I’d posted a question online asking yoga teachers and practitioners to help me tease out the difference between the sixth and seventh limbs of yoga. One of the teachers who responded led me to think in more depth about yoga in the West.
If you’re not familiar with the eight limbs of yoga, they are aspects of the practice first described in Sanksrit centuries ago. The sixth limb is dharana and the seventh is dhyana.
According to most of the translations I’ve read, dharana is “one-pointed focus” and dhyana is a form of meditation. But the difference is subtle, so I asked for some help understanding these two terms.
I received a few helpful answers to my question, but one—actually, the first one—stands out and led me to wonder if yoga in the West is truly yoga.
A man who seemed to hold an important status in the Hindu and yoga communities in India scolded me for even attempting to understand dhyana and dhrana, especially in English. He more or less accused me of being part of an insidious industry in the West that attempts to divorce the yoga sutras from their original cultural and religious context.
Yikes. I promise, this is not my intent! But I did consider his words carefully., because he had a valid point.
Later in the conversation, though he was no longer specifically addressing me, this person bemoaned what he called the commonplace actions of “the most unqualified neophytes to dictate, distort and define the science of self-realization and in so doing become obstacles in their own progress and indeed to the progress of others.”
Writing, Reading, Speaking, and Learning Yoga in the West
Another man jumped in to explain the Eastern way of learning. He suggested Westerners who learn about yoga from Sanskrit translations and then write about it do so misguidedly. “Do not speak like you know or you have found something when in fact you have not,” he warned.
I was sad for the rest of that day as I thought about this. I’m pretty sure I found something in 1987 when I discovered what my teachers called yoga. And when I talk about, write about, or practice yoga, I am not trying to perpetrate deception.
In that online conversation, I was trying to understand the ancient roots of a practice that transformed my life. Yes, my English-speaking life in the Western hemisphere, so probably not the kind of transformation the original yogis sought. But it was a transformation nonetheless.
Until a few years ago (decades after I took my first yoga class), I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering if yoga in the West is authentic yoga.
I wasn’t offended when scolded in cyberspace for the audacity to practice yoga. My critics were right, though they could have been kinder or more welcoming of Westerners who genuinely seek to understand yoga’s roots.
We do approach learning differently in the West, and our language is much more limited than Sanskrit. (English has only 270,000 words while there are more than 350,000 in Sanskrit, according to one source I read.)
But is one way of learning better than another? Does listening to a guru guarantee a student will understand what is taught? And most importantly in this context, isn’t learning subjective when the subject is spirituality?
If I’m a better, more peaceful, more loving person because I practice what I, as a Westerner, call yoga, isn’t that good?
Yoga in the West Is Not Pantanjali’s Yoga
I don’t know anything with absolute certainty. I write about yoga to share my experience and what I’ve learned from my teachers and the texts I’ve read.
Should I stop trying to understand the difference between dharana and dhyana? Should I stop trying to understand anything originally written in Sanskrit?
I hope not. By that logic, I’d have to stop trying to understand a lot of things.
I’ve been told “meditation” is the closest we can get to translating dhyana, but what we usually mean by meditation is not exactly what Pantanjali meant.
What Pantanjali meant isn’t clear, but I think it had something to do with connection to source or my true nature—my goal when I practice yoga.
I know I can’t practice Patanjali’s yoga authentically. My culture is different, I live in a different time, and I learn with my Western mind. My practice is my attempt to seek union with something greater than myself.
So, can we practice yoga in the West? I say yes. As a result of our yoga practice, many of us are trying to live ethically, move and breathe properly, and connect with a higher power. But it’s good to be aware that we’re not practicing what the ancient sages practiced. We don’t, and probably can’t, understand what they understood.
Yoga in a Capitalist Culture
Yoga is big business in the West, which troubles many who revere its spiritual roots. For example, the idea of certifications and credentials for yoga teachers is an oddity in India. They don’t market and trademark types of yoga and sell expensive clothing, jewelry, mats, and accessories. (Well some do, but apparently to Westerners and basically with the intention of fraud, my sources say.)
The men I heard from online told me that in the East, true yogis simply do the hard work of going inward and reaching upward. They usually do this under the direct guidance of a guru or teacher. Yoga Alliance does not certify gurus, and the gurus don’t accept every student who asks for instruction.
I know many yogis who are trying to avoid distortion as much as possible. We know we can never truly understand yoga as the ancient sages experienced it. Still, we’re trying to practice something as close to authentic yoga as we can get.
Modern Yoga in the West (and East)
Yoga teacher trainer Ramesh Bjonnes explains that modern hatha yoga is less than 100 years old. It originated in India with Krishnamacharya, who developed the practice in Mysore, India in the early 1900s.
Krishnamacharya’s yoga was certainly steeped in tradition and deeply spiritual. It was yoga with a modern twist that evolved and eventually appeared in the West later in 1900s.
So, are we practicing yoga in the West? I suppose it depends on what we mean by yoga.
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Hi, I’m Maria. I created Yoga Circles for you if you want to delve more deeply into the philosophy, practice, and life-changing effects of yoga. I’m also a writer and editor who helps small business owners, wellness professionals, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and connect with readers, clients, and students. Visit my website (link below) for more about that. I’d love to hear from you!