Sunday, 21 June 2015

International Day of Yoga : INTERVIEWS

By JACQUELINE HARGREAVES




The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon has stated that:
By proclaiming 21 June as the International Day of Yoga, the General Assembly has recognised the holistic benefits of this timeless practice and its inherent compatibility with the principles and values of the United Nations.  
Yoga offers a simple, accessible and inclusive means to promote physical and spiritual health and well-being. It promotes respect for one’s fellow human beings and for the planet we share. And yoga does not discriminate; to varying degrees, all people can practice, regardless of their relative strength, age or ability.
I have asked a couple of the world's leading scholars of Yoga; Indologists who specialise in medieval (sanskritic) yoga traditions, to answer a few questions about the significance of this statement and their thoughts on the aims of this International Day of Yoga (IDY).


          JIM MALLINSON          
Lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical and Indian Studies at SOAS, University of London


1. What is the significance of the UN proclaiming an International Day of Yoga to you as an academic?

[Jim] As an academic who works on the history of yoga and its current practice amongst traditional ascetic communities rather than yoga’s modern manifestations, International Day of Yoga is not directly relevant to my work (I doubt many of my ascetics yogi friends in India will be paying it much attention) but it does underline the huge global popularity of yoga today and my work sheds light on the origins of some of modern globalised practices, so it confirms the relevance of my work.

2. Do you think the idea of using Yoga as an "accessible and inclusive means to promote physical and spiritual health and well-being" is valid?

[Jim] Yes.

3. Is the claim that Yoga "promotes respect for one’s fellow human beings and for the planet we share" reasonable? If so, why?

[Jim] Difficult one. It depends on how one understands yoga. If one takes it to include the ethical requirements deemed part of it in most texts on the subject and in most of the traditions which practise it, then the claim is reasonable, but I imagine it is quite possible for someone to practise certain aspects of yoga and not respect others or the planet.

4. Have either of these claims been reflected in history or have they only developed within the modern transnational Yoga movement?

[Jim] With regard to the history: respect for one’s fellow human beings (and animals), yes (as part of the ethical requirements of yoga practice); respect for the planet as a whole, no (environmental concerns are a modern phenomenon), although texts teach us that the yogi should practise in a clean natural environment.

5. The UN has also declared that its aim is to:

"Underscor[e] the fact that global health is a long-term development objective that requires closer international cooperation through the exchange of best practices aimed at building better individual lifestyles devoid of excesses of all kinds”
Do you think modern transnational Yoga may play a useful role toward achieving such an aim? If so, how?

[Jim] Yes: the avoidance of excesses is part of a yogic lifestyle, and yoga practice is fairly uniform across the world so it can work well as a medium for the exchange of ideas concerning health.


          JASON BIRCH          
Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Oriental Studies (Yoga and Ayurveda), University of Vienna

1. What is the significance of the UN proclaiming an International Day of Yoga to you as an academic?

[Jason] Academics are often asked (particularly by funding institutions) to justify the importance of their work in a broader social context. The UN's support of the holistic benefits of yoga in the community is helpful for academics because it acknowledges the growing importance of yoga in UN countries and the role it might play in future UN policies (in particular, those concerning preventive medicine). Much of the yoga taught globally is based on traditional knowledge (some of it quite modern) from India. Scholarship can help preserve that knowledge and assist other academics (in particular, scientists who want to test the efficacy of yoga techniques) and the broader community in understanding that knowledge and its complex history.

2. Do you think the idea of using Yoga as an "accessible and inclusive means to promote physical and spiritual health and well-being" is valid?

[Jason] Yes. However, there are major issues such as the regulation of the yoga market, training programs for teachers, the integration of yoga with mainstream medicine in a formal way and so on, which are yet to be adequately addressed by any country, as far as I know. Also, as I suggest in my answer to the previous question, further research in conjunction with the knowledge and efforts of those yoga teachers who are succeeding in adapting yoga to help a wide range of people, will further our collective knowledge on how best yoga can be used therapeutically and how it has been used in the past.

3. Is the claim that Yoga "promotes respect for one’s fellow human beings and for the planet we share" reasonable? If so, why?

[Jason] It is a reasonable claim and might seem obvious to many, but it is more complicated than it seems. Yoga techniques can develop capacities in people and these capacities can be used for the greater good or the very opposite. In other words, one might practice yoga to more effectively pursue immoral aims. This is more of an explicit issue for martial arts which trains people in dangerous fighting methods. I can't think of a yoga technique that might injure another person in the same way as a punch or kick, but I strongly suspect that some physical yoga techniques were incorporated into the training regimes of warrior ascetics in the late medieval period.

The ethical problems which arise in yoga communities do not seem to result from the practice of yoga but from the power a teacher gains over students. We have seen yoga gurus exploit students and it is often more insidious than, say, the misuse of martial arts, because it can be cloaked in spiritual deception. An example that comes to mind are the sexual rituals which involve gurus molesting or having sex with their students who agree to subject themselves to it because they believe the ritual is supposed to be for their spiritual advancement. Some of these gurus appear to have even convinced themselves that such "rituals" benefit their students, but they need to be judged according to social norms on these matters and not according to their own spiritual conventions which can easily become amoral, particularly if they propound non-dual philosophical teachings. In other words, the spiritual teachings of some yoga gurus can undermine good ethical standards. The more pressing ethical issue in modern postural yoga is inappropriate postural adjustments in which a yoga teacher touches a student in a sexual way.

There have been medieval traditions of yoga which did not stipulate social and personal moral codes (i.e., yama and niyama), probably because they offered their teachings to a broad spectrum of people (i.e., Brahmins, ascetics, Jains, Buddhists, Kāpālikas, etc.) who had different beliefs. In this case, one must assume that, for example, a Brahmin practising Haṭhayoga would follow the Brahmanical ethical code. Also, it is conceivable (though I know of no evidence for this) that a Kāpālika (i.e., a Śaiva cremation ground ascetic) might ritually perform human sacrifice, eat some of the flesh and practice Haṭhayoga to improve his digestion. These yoga traditions seem more morally neutral in the sense that they rely on the ethics of other traditions.

Nonetheless, there is a late medieval yoga text, the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, which contains quite a lengthy discussion of the yama and niyama and says its teachings are even for those who commit egregious acts. The text doesn't state that its aim was to reform miscreants, but perhaps, the author knew that the practice of yoga combined with an ethical code could help in this regard by promoting non-violence, honesty, etc. which is comparable with 'respect for one's fellow human beings'.

Recent efforts to teach yoga in prisons have yielded some good results, but I know of one instance in which the result was not so good. So, the way yoga is taught in such circumstances is very important. The incorrect or inappropriate teaching of yoga techniques can harm people and make matters worse. This is why teachers need to be well-educated and experienced in the practice before they start teaching. Also, cultures of conformity can lead to unhealthy habits in the practice of yoga even in schools which aim to improve the wellbeing of their students. Matthew Remski is looking closely at this and I look forward to reading the results of his research.

As for caring for the planet, I know of no historical precedent in medieval India, but am aware of the 'green yoga movement', etc. in the States and India, which appears to be an extension of ahimsā (non-harming) and, perhaps, a modern reinterpretation of purification (śauca).

4. Have either of these claims been reflected in history or have they only developed within the modern transnational Yoga movement?

[Jason] Respect for one's fellow humans is reflected in medieval teachings on ahimsā, which derive from a moral view of karma (the law of action). Respect for the planet is a modern development in regard to yoga.

5. The UN has also declared that its aim is to:
"Underscor[e] the fact that global health is a long-term development objective that requires closer international cooperation through the exchange of best practices aimed at building better individual lifestyles devoid of excesses of all kinds”
Do you think modern transnational Yoga may play a useful role toward achieving such an aim? If so, how?

[Jason] Yes, generally speaking, modern postural yoga was largely founded on the desire for better physical and mental health. Indian gurus such as Kṛṣṇamācārya and Swāmī Kuvalayānanda used yoga to make young people fit and healthy and to cure the illnesses of older people. At this time there was at least one Mahārāja (i.e., the Rāj of Aundh) who saw the benefit for his community in introducing yoga at schools.

The curative effects of yoga are prominent in medieval sources, as well as specific interventions which were used when a yoga practitioner was ill. The medieval thinking behind this was that illness was an obstacle to the practice of yoga and thus, the attainment of its soteriological goal (i.e., liberation from the worldly life and the suffering it entailed). There were also teachings on the type of diet (in particular, moderate eating) which was required for one who had adopted a rigorous āsana and prāṇāyāma practice. In fact, the serious practice of Haṭhayogic mudrās (which include headstand and muscular locks) and the breathing exercises (prāṇāyāma) at the prescribed times of the day and night would certainly have imposed a strict regime on the practitioner.

In 20th-century India, physical yoga became integral to some efforts to develop indigenous healing modalities that could compete with European ones. It also became part of the nationalist movement to create strong and healthy Indians fit for independence, so to speak. Modern transnational yoga has inherited much of the āsana practice developed in India in the early 20th century for greater strength and fitness and it has also been inspired by the texts of past traditions of yoga.


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