Learning the Roots and Rise of Yoga

Instead of publishing my usual blog post, I'd like to talk a little bit about the research that I've been conducting this semester, and for the past two years while I’ve been at Yale Divinity School pursuing my master’s of arts in religion concentrating in Asian religions.

Particularly, my thesis was about the roots and the rise of yoga. What I find is really interesting about this is that, for me, I came to this as a practitioner. While I did choose to ultimately become a part of the academic community, I definitely started out as just any other person just wanting to practice yoga.

One of the things that you might be thinking of and one of the reasons why you might be here reading this is that you practice yoga too and may feel that yoga is spiritual or even religious. This practical idea is what I think is important about academia.

Academia and the public should exchange theory and practice to enhance a lived experience. That's what I believe. I think that there should not be anything like an ivory tower that separates what's happening in research from the public. I hope that one day all of this research that I have collected about Christian-based yoga practices, the way that Christians practice yoga, and really any religious person who practices yoga can find this research beneficial and find ways to incorporate it into their own lives.

Ultimately, I found that studying yoga in academia and specifically in religious studies requires interdisciplinary research. I arrived at this by tracing yoga from South Asia to America and then arguing for yoga’s necessity for the study of religion.

First, I begin with the history and evolution of yoga. I read of yoga within its origins in South Asia, specifically with sacred texts, a sample of which I’ve laid out here:

There are two important texts that we see that have come out of the South Asian tradition, that is, the Bhagavad-gītā and the Yoga-sūtra which I’ve written about previously. The Bhagavad-gītā is part of a larger epic Mahābhārata. This starts the first systematized versions of yoga. The Yoga-sūtra on the other hand is the compilation of yoga as a philosophy in the South Asian traditions, and specifically the Hindu traditions. This was written by the author (or authors) called Patañjali. It quickly became the how-to guide to practicing yogic philosophy. (Note that if you wish to consult these texts, I recommend seeking a translation and commentary by a Sanskritist.)

Rather than the prominence of sacred texts in South Asia, yoga was developed, influenced, and disseminated by people in America and Europe. The first example we have of yoga in America merged these two ideas. The Bhagavad Gita in particular was read by Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist and author. He is even quoted saying, "I myself may even be a yogi." One person who is important for those who practice yoga along with their own religious tradition is Ida Craddock who came later than Henry David Thoreau. She was one of the first people who merged tantra yoga or tantric yoga into her Christian domination of Unitarian Universalism.

These two began one group of people which I consider the American and European transmitters of yogic philosophy into the western world (a.k.a. America and Europe). Here is a sampling of those:

Alongside the transmitters, another group came about: the gurus in India. These individuals either disseminated their information by teaching and sending people to America and Europe or they came to America and Europe themselves. Here are a few examples:

One of the first people is Swami Vivekananda. He was a lecturer at the Chicago World's Fair and a lot of his ideas began to catch in American circles quickly. The second person, Krishnamacharya inspired Iyengar and Jois, two people who were influential in what we now know as modern postural yoga. Their different forms of yoga were Iyengar’s Iyengar Yoga and Jois’s Ashtanga Yoga, different from the ashtanga yoga that is known in the Yoga Sutras.

Whenever I traced this history, I concluded that yoga needs to be studied in religion and, specifically, it needs to be interdisciplinary. The three disciplines I assumed to be the most effective were Asian religions, American religions, and comparative theology. Obviously, it fits within studying Asian religion due to its origins of being within South Asian traditions. But also, it fits in American religions because now we see the popularization and consumer-based industry of yoga in this modern postural yoga sphere taking place in America, and that has also been sold back to India and South Asia as a form of globalization that's happening throughout the world.

Finally, we can evaluate yoga through comparative theology. One of the reasons you might be here is this feeling of spiritual or religious connection while practicing yoga. We know that yoga came from a South Asian religious tradition and so whenever we're thinking about those two philosophies, we're engaging in comparative theology. So what does that mean for us as practical comparative theologians on the ground, doing this sort of work and learning from yoga philosophy?

The interdisciplinary nature of yoga reflects this call to religious studies as a whole because religion doesn't happen in a vacuum. This is why I feel like yoga is best studied through religion, even though it can be studied through a myriad of different disciplines as well.

But there is always a catch.

I get this question a lot: “when does yoga become religious?” or "is yoga religious?" I've actually written about this on America media, but essentially I believe yoga becomes religious whenever, we the practitioners of yoga, make it religious.

The teachings of yoga predates religion because religion and the way it is studied is a western construct. The product of studying “Hinduism,” and studying yoga through a religious lens, is a result of British and largely Western colonization. (You can listen to a great podcast about this here.)

One of the ways religious studies scholars can break the traditional mold is to approach yoga with this idea in mind and hopefully this shift can slowly change what is happening within the field of religious studies.


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