There is no doubt that there are numerous mental, emotional, and physical benefits that come with practicing yoga.
So I was surprised to notice a lot of articles circulating around the internet about hardcore devotees of yoga abandoning it for various reasons.
Some are saying that in the west, it has become less spiritual and more mystical and new agey.
Others are saying that the west is taking over the practice through corporations in yet another example of cultural appropriation to twist and distort the tradition to suit western needs.
Although I’ve gone to a yoga class here and there, I’ve never been very committed to yoga. I guess it just never resonated with me very much. However, I do like to practice Qi Gong when I feel I need to slow myself down.
Nevertheless, as a an Asian westerner, I find the tensions that have developed in the yoga culture to be very interesting.
Especially since, over time, many books and articles I’ve read revealed that many others have spoken about the implications and consequences of eastern practices being taken on by those in the west and vice versa.
There are some fascinating points that have come up that I think are interesting.
WESTERN VIEWS, EASTERN PRACTICES
Even though we are more culturally integrated today than ever before, can we fully experience the spiritual benefits intended through practices that have originated from another culture?
Paul Tilich doesn’t think so. He says the following about this:
“Eastern mystism is not for western man. It is an evasion of the courage to be. It prevents the absorption of maximum meaninglessness into oneself. Mysticism lacks skepticism which is necessary for confronting meaninglessness.”
Here Tilich touches upon the western views of the rational and the irrational and says that the western man prevents himself from achieving the “courage to be” by covering up ultimate meaninglessness with eastern mysticism.
This need to experience meaninglessness in the west could stem from the differences in the views of nothingness between the east and the west, with the west avoiding nothingness like the plague.
As I mention in this post, the west tends to view nothingness as a void, whereas it is traditionally viewed as a sacred and essential part of life in the east. Rather than viewing non-being as non-existence or nothingness, in Indian Vedic tradition, non-being is actually considered to be the non-manifested state of an individual. Quite different from the west.
So perhaps in the west, in order for true meaningfulness to emerge, extreme meaninglessness needs to be embraced as this is the crux for westerners when trying to sort out life.
Another reason why adopting the spiritual practices of another culture may be ineffective is because by doing this, we are perpetuating the belief that spirituality is something fundamentally outside of the self. In other words, that spirituality is something you do, rather than something you are.
Although there are clearly commonalities between different religious and spiritual texts, geography, the way of life, and other culturally specific factors influence how the ideas are expressed and what rituals and practices are suggested for increased spiritual awareness.
So can we really “do” the spirituality that arose through a specific time and place that isn’t our own? Will we really benefit from them? If so, maybe we shouldn’t view what Lee Irwin calls the multispiritual pluralism of today as the east interpreting and changing western religions to suit their way of life and vice versa.
Instead, maybe we can view today’s mixing of spiritual traditions as completely new ways of being spiritual that arose as a result of the current zeitgeist and the different spiritual needs that come from living within it.
There are many who have have recognized the inter-dependence of culture and biology, but culture, physiology, and spiritual practices are inter-dependant as well.
In Myths to Live by, Joseph Campbell writes about his experience of a Japanese tea ceremony saying he felt like a “bull in the china shop” because of how big and awkward he felt in the tiny teahouse. He says that the foreigner in Japan is “not quite right” because “the forms have not been bred into his bones; even his body is the wrong shape.”
Also, in Higher Creativity, Harman and Rheingold talk about the importance of “sitting comfortably” during meditation in order to allow insights to flow. They state that “in Asia, the full-lotus position is comfortable because people are used to sitting that way. In America and Europe, people are used to sitting in chairs.”
Undoubtedly, the idea of “sitting comfortably” is different in both cultures, which makes one question what the “proper” way for a westerner to sit is when we want to experience the same benefits from meditation.
As someone who grew up in Canada with Korean parents, I think about the different ways both cultures have influenced my own way of thinking and being. I’m pretty sure because I have been educated in the west and more immersed in the culture that my worldview does tend more towards the west. Ultimately, I think that all cultures provide valuable spiritual insights that, today, we have the privilege of learning and knowing.
Alan Watts said,
“it was Jung who helped to reminded me that I was by upbringing and by tradition, always a westerner. That I couldn’t escape from my own cultural conditioning, and that this inability to escape was not not a kind of prison, but was the endowment of one’s being with certain capacities….which could always be used constructively.”
Perhaps the awareness of the different influences in our own lives can help us to look within and help us to know what spiritual path is best for us.