A Skeptic's Journey Through the Yoga Experience

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Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally known political analyst and author of books on race and politics. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. He has been a practitioner of yoga for years. He has learned, trained, and studied yoga practices, techniques and philosophy under four of Southern California’s leading yoga instructors at Body and Brain Studios in Los Angeles and West Los Angeles College. He has interviewed and discussed yoga practices and the yoga industry on his Pacifica Radio Show, The Hutchinson Report.


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A Skeptic’s Journey through the Yoga Experience takes a hard and personal look by one who once held deep skepticism about yoga at the history, the myths, the controversies, the practice, the philosophy, the growth, commercialism of, and impact of yoga. The book examines the racial and gender conceptions and controversies that confront yoga, as well as the controversy and debate over the physical hazards of yoga to men especially. 
A Skeptic’s Journey Through the Yoga Experience is a small primer that aims to give a skeptic’s impressions of some of the hot button issues and controversies in the yoga world-gender, race.physical hazards, men, and women, commercialism, and the future. It in no way pretends to be a comprehensive and definitive study of yoga. The author intersperses throughout the book the three years of notes in his journal that gives his reflections, insights, feelings, and thoughts about the various poses, movements, and mental and physical changes and benefits of yoga.

 
 
 


 

1
 

A Walk Through Yoga’s
Past

 

 

I had a mental freeze frame for years when I thought of yoga.
The image was one of young, slender, athletic looking women going through a
variety of gymnastic looking poses, with barely pronounceable, Hindu
names.  The view was superficial,
uniformed, and stereotypical. However, when I enrolled in my second yoga class
years later, I quickly found there was more, much more, to yoga than those
glamor, superficial commercial shots in magazines ads.

 

Yoga has a history, a very long and rich history. I vaguely knew
that a huge part of that history was its grounding in spiritualism and that its
origin was in India and Hinduism. This was only the start. To understand how
yoga originated and its true purpose, I had to familiarize myself with the
jargon of yoga.  The starting point was
the word itself. Yoga is a Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is the very oldest of old
languages of India. Yoga literally means to unite an individual with their
consciousness and awareness of the world. This is just vague and expansive
enough to permit individuals to give free reign to just how they see and
perceive the world around them. And how their thoughts and actions are deeply
influenced by that awareness. It’s strictly an individual thing.

 

The operative word I learned in yoga is the Veda. This is foundational to a knowledge and appreciation of the
principles and practices and end goal of yoga. Veda, in the Oxford Dictionary, is defined as
the most ancient Hindu
scriptures, written in early Sanskrit and containing hymns, philosophy, and
guidance on ritual for the priests of the Vedic
religion. It is believed to have been directly revealed to seers among the
early Aryans in India, and preserved by oral tradition. The four chief
collections are the Rig Veda, Sama Veda,
Yajur Veda
, and Atharva Veda.

I next discovered this was just the tip of the yoga iceberg.
There are sub Vedas and each of these
has a hierarchy of meaning and knowledge with labels such as upangas, and the upangas have their subs too.
They all have Sanskrit names and meanings. This wouldn’t be complete
without a book that brought this all together into some kind of working order.
The book is the Rigveda which was
around thousands of years before the Bible was written. That gives it the
distinction of being the oldest book of sacred verses in existence.

 

This is my third
semester in Melinda Smith’s yoga class. The first semester was an eye opening,
pure learning experience about yoga. I approached it with anxiety. My two great
fears were my age, and muscular inflexibility. Namely, that I might not be able
to keep up with the movements required, and that they were for younger persons.
That fear dissipated quickly. It dissipated partly through the structure, patience,
and insight of the instructor, and partly through my willingness to challenge
my body in ways that I hadn’t before. The flexibility concern was over the
stiffness and lack of muscular flexibility from years of running. I overcame
that through the willingness to push my body (and mind).

*****

 

The man who
is generally acknowledged to be the one who put the spiritual body to yoga is
Maharishi Patanjali. He put a code of practice to the sacred verses. He laid it
out in what he called the famed “eight limbs” of yoga that comprise a code of
conduct, personal ethics, consciousness of one’s self, as well as what and how
to focus the mind. The twin pillars of yoga, and are the ones that are the best
known and popular, and mark the yoga practice, are the poses, or postures, and
meditation. The poses are called asanas.
The textbook definition of an asana is
a
posture in which a practitioner sits. These are the traditional sitting
positions or more commonly “yoga positions.”
They are performed as physical exercises. The pictures of rows of
participants in yoga classes and sessions have become standard fare in the
promotion of yoga to American.

 

As with any big, sweeping religion and spiritual practice, itwasn’t long before others came along with their own versions andinterpretations of what yoga is and how it should be practiced. They also hadto have unique names to distinguish one from the other. Here are a few of them: Gyan yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, Hatha yoga, Raj yoga, Mantra
yoga, Shiva yoga, Naad yoga, Laya yoga
.  Needless to say, there are a lot more of
them.

These are just names to most people.
But to those who are interested in knowing more about the origins of yoga, the
big problem is that most people often don’t get much further along in
understanding the point of yoga than identifying yoga with those twisting,
gymnastic looking physical postures that characterize yoga in the popular mind
and culture.

 

What’s missed is that the postures tied
to the yoga philosophy are not the end in themselves. They are the means to
lead an individual to a higher awareness of his or her self. Skilled yoga
instructors constantly talk about the importance of breathing, focus, and
clearing the mind of the day-to-day clutter and baggage of worries, problems,
and negative thoughts while going through those postures.

 

There is an entire literature that
talks about the importance of getting into the proper “mind set” while doing
the varied yoga postures. The idea is to use the postures to induce a calm,
relaxed, reflective state of mind and well-being. It’s similar to an athlete
finding his or her zone when competing to attain their maximum best on the field
or court. The difference is that the individual isn’t competing with anyone
else. Nor is he or she competing with themselves. It’s a means to find a
peaceful moment of well-being. One of the better known and more popular of yoga
practices is Hatha yoga.

 

I heard of Hatha yoga long
before I started taking yoga classes.  I
read a book titled Raja Yoga or Mental Development: A Series of Lessons.
It
talked about the asanas. However, it also detailed the Hindu philosophy of life. At the
time, they were just words, and had little meaning for me. They reinforced the
thought that this was really exotic stuff, best to be put aside for another day
or forgotten.

 

*****

 

There was something else at the time
that intrigued me and fired my curiosity about yoga. That was just how this
foreign, almost alien, practice, had all of sudden become the rage in the U.S.

I thought it was just another one of
the fads of the 1960s, immortalized in pop culture by Woodstock, San
Francisco’s Haight Ashbury District, the love ins, and the counter-culture
stuff of the times.

 

Not so, yoga was introduced to the U.S.
in the 19th century. The great philosophical rebels of that era,
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were infatuated with Hindu
religious verses and practices. Thoreau read the Hindu classics, adopted a
spartan diet, that included fasting, and meditated for hours on the great problems
of the day. At the close of the century, one of India’s leading Swami’s made a
whirlwind tour of the U.S. to raise money to aid India’s impoverished masses.

 

The Swami stopped off at the World
Parliament of Religion in 1893. He brought the house down with his stem winding
speeches on Hindu philosophy, religion, and practices. One of which was the practice
of yoga. Apart from a few ascetics, outlier spiritualists, herbalists, naturopaths,
assorted mystics, and just plain quacks, for the most part, yoga remained an
obscure, esoteric and largely forgotten practice for the next six decades.  That changed in the 1960s when several of
India’s leading Swamis, riding the crest of the counter culture boom of the day,
trekked to this country. They drew wildly adoring crowds to their talks,
lectures, mass meditation, yoga posture sessions and demonstrations throughout
the country.

 

*****

 

Some stayed around for extended periods
to set up a string of retreats and “spiritual centers” throughout the country.
For a hefty fee, the curious, and the spiritual wisdom seekers could hang their
hats for days on end at them sitting in rapt attention listening to assorted Swami’s
and yoga teachers and practitioners dispense their pearls of philosophical
wisdom and then be taken through the ropes on yoga principles and practices.

 

Yoga had finally come out of the
shadows in the 1960s and become a respected and much practiced movement to
promote mental and spiritual well-being. Its added by-product was that it could
be a means to enhance one’s muscle flexibility and muscle tone. The importance
of the health benefit can’t be over stated.

Yoga would not have drawn me to it if
there were no promise of it helping wring the stiffness out of my aging muscles
and joints. Many others who have written and discussed their motivation for taking
up yoga have said the same. They primarily see yoga as a good physical workout
and a way to improve their flexibility.

 

In fact, in the half century since yoga
exploded on the scene in the U.S. it has totally undergone a transformation. It
is regarded as one of the best
natural therapies. Some go further and ascribe to it almostmystical powers to cure almost all physical and emotional ills and woes.

Many yoga enthusiasts
endlessly cite the passage in the Bhagavad
Gita
, where Lord Krishna says, “Samatvam Yoga Uchyate”– equanimity in the
mind is a sign of yoga. The claim is that the practice can keep one “centered”
in any and every adverse situation. Yoga pros are careful not to claim that
yoga is the passport to the happy life. However, the notion that it can dangles
heavily in the air whenever yoga enthusiasts cite the virtues of yoga. 

The claim of the power
to heal physical and emotional ailments has always been a major fascination and
selling point of yoga. Yet, this is not what made the sale for me. The years of
studying and practicing it, has been its own reward for me. In that sense, I
can say, that yoga has fulfilled its promise of providing moments of calm and
inner peace in troubling situations. Equally important, it has done what
brought me to it initially, and that’s restore a degree of flexibility to the
muscles in the old body.

 

 
 
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Earl Ofari Hutchinson

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