Yoga Students

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“Now time of year, too many foreign people they come to Rishikesh to study yoga,” Albert told us. “Local people, they are not interested in the yoga, but all the foreign people come. They want yoga certificate, only from Rishikesh.”

In recent decades, yoga has become a worldwide fashion, and Rishikesh the yoga capital of the world. I am not clever enough to detail precisely what social factors have led to this precipitous rise, nor discern precisely what this means. But all the same, it is fascinating to sit here and watch Israelis and Austrians, East Asians and Americans mingling in the mountain air, all looking for some sort of metaphysical sustentation from the ancient practices that find their modern expression in these ancient hills.

Yoga is a pretty strenuous activity for people who take it seriously: we don’t have a lot of opportunities to interact with the people who have come here to engage in hardcore yoga classes. One evening in the Internet Café, however, I did overhear a Skype conversation of a young woman nearing the end of a 200-hour yoga teachers training course. I was surprised to find that even a participant ascending to the highest echelons of yogic mastery could still possess all the stereotypical weaknesses of the vapid blonde.

“Today’s Sunday, and, like, we work pretty hard and Sunday is our only day off, and so I spent like the whole day shopping, and going around to different restaurants, and like, it was good to eat some different food because in the Ashram, they like feed us only this, what they call it a sattvic diet, so only like daal and rice, and it’s good food, don’t get me wrong, but it gets kind of b-o-ring! you know, and like…”

It occurs to me that in the West (and probably other places outside India as well) yoga is appreciated as a series of physical exercises divorced from their religious origin and spiritual function. To me this seems somewhat strange; even bizarre. It would be like an army of non-Christians suddenly descending on Christian monasteries in order learn Gregorian chant. (Then again, I suppose Gregorian chant has been equally hacked up and commoditized, if in a somewhat different way.)

Granted, I don’t know much about how yoga is practiced and communicated in the West. It seems we extract what we like from it, and we leave the rest for eccentric saffron-robed monastics. Then the elements of yoga that catch on in the West shape how it is practiced in the East, as the existing spiritual infrastructure adapts in order to resonate with the desires of wealthy spiritual tourists. This seems a little abusive to me.

I believe this conversation should be happening at a deeper level; that it should look more like cross-fertilization, and less like well-meaning plagiarism. I appreciate the way that yoga emphasizes the physicality of prayer. This is a feature of the expression of the spiritual life that has been largely ignored in the West in a post-enlightenment milieu. Having encountered it, I am inclined, as a Christian, to return to the Scriptures and the Christian traditions to learn what elements of physical prayer exist in my own tradition. Only when I have done this do I think that I can enter into a fruitful conversation with the Hindu traditions, and intelligently and appropriately come to a Christian understanding of yoga.

I suppose, to some extent, these things are bound to happen automatically as the viral spread of yogic practices continues around the world. Once the practice is accepted, the underlying theory will be appropriately thought through and adapted to a new socio-religious setting. I am entering this discussion at a different place. Which is, I suppose, why I am in Rishikesh taking Hindi classes, not yoga.

Nevertheless, the conversation fascinates me, and I wish that I had a better sense for where and how to enter it. I suppose arranging this isn’t necessarily something that I can do on my own. If it is meant to happen, I am sure the appropriate doors will open. In the meantime, my work is loving Jesus, and keeping my eyes and ears open so that I can hear his call and to learn all that I can from this place he has sent me.

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