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Who Owns Yoga? Thoughts on an Endless Question

Who Owns Yoga?
Thoughts on an endless question.
By Leslie Hendry

“No one owns Yoga,” said Sharath Rangaswamy, the grandson of the late Ashtanga Yoga guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

Sharath paused comfortably, sanguinely sitting in lotus. He looked around the room, and then continued, “You don’t own it. I don’t own it. No one owns it.”
We had gathered at Ashtanga Yoga New York and Sri Ganesha Temple in New York City last May during Sharath’s world tour. During the silence that followed this pronouncement I glanced at a fellow Yoga practitioner, who earlier that morning was elaborating on her apartment in Mysore, India, the city where Ashtanga Yoga practitioners go to practice for months at a time. This acquaintance commented on her balcony furniture, her new ceiling fan, her oven, her volunteering, her recent training at the yogashala, her relationship to the yogashala, her friends there, her tuk tuk driver. All was hers. The result of the conversation seemed less of an exchange of experience and more of a list that eclipsed my own experience of India. I surely didn’t have all the coveted things that this person had when I was there. Mulling Sharath’s statement around in my head, I wondered if this type of dominion was what he meant.

The habit of claiming mine to something in which we are intimately involved is part of our lovely friend “Ego.” Strong attachments can lead to wanting to own and covet more of what we love. We identify with those things we love and the attachment deepens. We fall in love with Yoga because it makes us feel good, stretches us, relaxes us, distresses us. We buy into the accoutrements of Yoga: the mat, the rug, the clothes, the trips, the workshops, the experiences. We identify as yogis and yoginis. But wait.

“We are not yogis or yoginis,” Sharath said, to a ripple of giggles at this gentle Indian’s speaking of the word yogini.

Now I was further confused. What was he saying?

Sharath’s entire life has been about Yoga in one way or another. He grew up in a Yoga lineage. His grandfather studied under Sri T. Krishnamacharya, whose students include many of today’s most influential teachers: B.K.S. Iyengar, the late Indra Devi, Srivatsa Ramaswami, A.G. Mohan, and Krishnamacharya’s sons T.K. Srinivasan, T.K.V. Desikachar and T.K. Sribhashyam, along with the late Pattabhi Jois. Sharath’s mother, Saraswati, and uncle, Manju, are longtime Ashtanga Yoga teachers, having learned from their father. This family’s life is imbued in Yoga. I sensed this wasn’t about dominion the way my Western mind thought of it; there must be something more.

I recalled the copyright debate regarding the Bikram style of Yoga. In 2003, Bikram Choudhury, an Indian-born Yoga entrepreneur, whose following includes celebrities, star athletes and supermodels, obtained a copyright on a sequence of 26 Yoga postures, also known as hot Yoga, practiced at a room temperature of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. How unyogic, people cried. Yoga has been around for 5,000 years, and has been shared with the rest of the world. How can anyone claim ownership? Yet it is our Western system, the U.S. to be exact, where Bikram obtained the copyright to protect the commercial value of his registered property. In 2005, a group called Open Source Yoga challenged Bikram’s copyright ultimately settling the case, but not settling the question.
When I spoke with Bikram he recalled a conversation with one of his students, Janet Reno, the former White House Counsel under the Clinton Administration, who said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Yet with the U.S. case, the Indian government awoke to a usurping of a cultural treasure. Asana, or Yoga poses, have been around for thousands of years, they cried. To copyright something that has been in the public trust of another country seemed completely unfounded. India has now galvanized to better protect Yoga poses and other national treasures. But if Bikram Choudhury can trademark Yoga and is, therefore, protected from others teaching, and therefore profiting from, Bikram Yoga, how can we say no one owns Yoga?

We don’t walk out our door, Yoga mat in hand, to buy Yoga at a store as if it were a consumer good. We pay for a class, a transaction that compensates the teacher–someone who has dedicated his or her life to Yoga–for their time and knowledge. Was owning Yoga a question of legalities? Profit? I sensed Sharath’s cautionary words were directed towards a modern interpretation of Yoga. He was trying to tell us something, but to contemplate this I had to delve deeper.
Traditionally, Yoga in India was practiced by renunciates, generally men, who eschewed the life of a householder, a householder being someone who would marry and support his family and in many cases extended family, in order to study Yoga. Yoga in this form was to inherit or adopt a lifestyle or path involving the spiritual study of Yoga philosophy. These Yogis studied the Vedas in religious fashion in an attempt to cease the life/death/life cycle. In fact, in the Vedas, instruction on the physical elements of Yoga is minute compared to the voluminous historical texts written on Yoga as the path to enlightenment.

Westerners, on the other hand, have gravitated to the physical practice of Yoga like wildfire. Every day a new yogashala, or studio, opens somewhere in the U.S., gym memberships have the advantage of Yoga classes and Yoga is a billion dollar industry. As a culture who values physical appearance and empirical evidence, we are lured by the results of Yoga, how it makes us feel and look. Most of our Yoga introductions are through a class performing consecutive postures. Some people look at Yoga for a work out substitute, some add Yoga to their regimen to stretch, others begin in an effort to reduce stress. Few are introduced to Yoga in a Vedic theory class.

So our Yoga path begins.

Pattabhi Jois said, “Practice, practice and all things coming.”
The founder of the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, Pattabhi Jois, left his house as a young man after a Yoga demonstration he saw in Hassan, Karnataka, in 1927. He was immediately drawn to the teachings of his guru Krishnamacharya. In unconventional fashion of the times, he was not renouncing life as a householder but embarking on a study that would endure throughout his life. Through Norman Allen, the first Westerner to travel to India to study with him, Pattabhi Jois introduced his own guru’s teachings of physical asana practice to the West. Over the years, he made many trips back, teaching Ashtanga to rooms packed with devotees. Yet during his lifetime, Pattabhi Jois did not book lecture tours on the subject, he did not focus on the exact, precise alignment of every posture in class, instead, he focused on the practice: the continuous flow of breath and movement, and most importantly, devotion.
“Practice is the foundation for the actual understanding of philosophy. Unless things become practical and we can come to experience it, for what use is it? Yoga hinam katham moksam bhavati druvam (which means, without practical experience how can the pursuit of liberation ever be possible?)” [From an interview of Pattahbi Jois in Namarupa Magazine titled “3 Gurus,” Autumn, 2004.]
Whether intentional or not, Pattabhi Jois and many of his contemporaries bridged East and West not by theory but through practical, physical asana. Yet, Pattabhi Jois insisted “Yoga is not physical, very wrong.” It is not the “ultimate benefit of Yoga.” [Namarupa Magazine, 2004]

It’s hard to deny that Yoga isn’t physical. What is then, the ultimate benefit and how do we understand it? As though searching for the Holy Grail, I ventured to one of the most physically challenging well-known Yoga schools in Los Angeles to see for myself if there was anything beyond sweating.

“I was the first to bring Hatha Yoga into the states for medical purposes,” Bikram told me after sweating through his entertaining class. As the only Yoga teacher to be accredited by the State of California Board of Secondary Education, and with his charismatic teaching approach, imbued in cursing and irreverence, I witnessed his unique approach to packing “Bikram’s torture chamber,” as he described it through his Brittany Spears-style headset. He had just returned from a trip to Hawaii to speak to the members of the Pentagon about Yoga and world peace. Not to mention that Bikram Yoga is featured in the January 2010 issue of O Magazine, the mother of all marketing.

Seeing svelte bodies abound Bikram’s school, some practicing in bathing suits, gearing up for an hour and a half of intense sweaty heat, I felt I was part of an NFL summer training camp. Trying to introduce my knee to my forehead in dandayamana-janushirasana, Bikram called out to the class of one hundred students, “Leslie, what are you doing?” “I don’t know,” I thought, as my quivering standing leg fought my will not to lose the posture. I’d been introduced to him before class, so my name was fresh, but others were tested with monikers such as, “Blue Shirt” or “Hey Chinese.” Anyone on the street would’ve thought those were fighting words, but no one stormed out of the room, egos unchecked.

In Bikram’s book, Bikram Yoga, he explains that through Yoga, unhappy societies, like the U.S., can learn from the failures of older cultures, like India, by focusing priorities on “humanity, Spirutalism, and love…we can seek to promote the continued evolution of all life. The ultimate destination of human life is mental happiness and peace through the realization of love.”

Although I heard nothing like this stated in his class, I did see the attraction many had to his tough love approach. The unassailable fact is that most Yoga in the West is physical, some schools to the nth degree, yet people return to practice and sweat out their demons.

Through the physical practice, muscles are strengthened and limbs are stretched, but as Yoga practitioners become devoted to the physical practice their relationship with Yoga inevitably grows in tandem and takes on incremental meaning and effect. The practice becomes far from simply physical. What Pattabhi Jois and other gurus have known, is that through the practice the mind is opening, the mind is balancing, the mind is calming. A union forms, a dedication, a devotion to make space for Yoga takes place. It is believed as asana practice develops we purify internally. “When Yoga is performed in the right way, over a long period of time, the nervous system is purified, and so is the mind.” [Pattabhi Jois, Namarupa Magazine, 2004]. Jois continues, “pratyahara, dharana and dhyana naturally becomes more established and then greater clarity of mind and increased receptivity of self is brought about.”

As Yoga helps our minds to calm and our bodies to strengthen, the benefits become more and more patent; the dedication deepens and a devotion to an inner calmness widens. In Ashtanga and other forms of Yoga, practitioners follow their dristi, breathe ujjaya breath, suck up the bandhas, sweat and stretch. Our relationship to Yoga grows, and hence the union between the small self (who we are) and the big self, (how we transcend) develops. We stretch internally through our minds and our soul. We adjust to this practice, our eating habits change, sleep patterns change, our health changes, we approach life with a greater receptivity to something more internally profound. We venture off the mat and read and inquire into this Yoga that adds so much to our lives.

So our Yoga path progresses.

Inside Bikram’s office, photographs filled with family, his guru, and a restaurant wall of celebrities, he sat back with his legs resting on top of his desk like an oilman, still in his teaching attire, a small black sash of shorts. As one of the most well-known Yoga teachers in the country, I asked Bikram what he thought his role was in defining Yoga. “I get them on the right track, mind and body. They learn. People go off into different directions in life; I get them back on the right track.”

Bikram started practicing Yoga at the age of four with Bishnu Charan Ghosh, brother of Paramahansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles). At the age of thirteen, he won the National India Yoga Competition and was undefeated for three years. It is true he has benefited enormously creating Bikram Yoga, which he claims is simply Hatha Yoga done under his creative sequence. But when asked, now that you franchised Bikram Yoga, can you tell me, “Who owns Yoga,” he furrowed his brow and blasted a response, “Who owns Yoga? No one owns Yoga. Yoga is everything, air, God, love.”

“Do your teachers teach this?” I asked.

“Of course, everyday.”

The Sanskrit root of Yoga is yug = to join, harness, yoke, junction, connection. Some believe Yoga is a union within our selves, a union to the higher self, a higher power, some say, to God, and, to which, is universal. It is part of a collective public domain accessible by all individuals around the world and capable of being shared by all, at any time.  Everyone has the ability to tap into the higher self, whether it be through Yoga, church, community work, helping others, love, or reverence towards mankind. “Self realization is your birthright, in this lifetime,” said James Butkevich, long-time student of Pattabhi Jois and teacher of Ashtanga Yoga. “No one owns that. With enthusiastic hard work, sweat, self-discipline, and the love of everything that’s good. It is possible.”

Claiming rights to a physical set of asana or postures might be possible, but owning the path to liberation is a much different proposition.

If one defines Yoga as a means to discovering this inner light, then copyright is irrelevant. Yoga transcends commercial boundaries because the practice is not simply an asana sequence or a business. Everyday, Yoga teachers around the globe use various postures to assist their students on their own Yoga path. In many schools of Yoga, teachers create and teach, a sequence learned from their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers. They place their thumbprint on any given class. Under their tutelage, the student will learn, experience, and ultimately benefit from the practice of Yoga. At each step, the practice, perhaps starting out physical, becomes far from quantifying.

So our Yoga practice deepens.

As it deepens, more questions arise and we search for answers. Sometimes the questions spring unexpectedly from our teachers, like Sharath’s statement, which cause us to dig deeper into our own understandings. The answers found might be varied and depend on where one is on their own Yoga path. Yet how we learn and interpret Yoga’s heritage, and hence the visceral potential of Yoga, will depend largely on the lineage of each given teacher and/or school.
The ineluctable draw of Yoga continues to become more and more mainstream. How will teachers and therefore students learn about their Yoga heritage? How will our culture continue to make it our own? What spin, modifications, trends, and changes will we make? Will the legal system become more involved and will legislative trends appearing in different states continue to increase? Will courts and laws define Yoga as a sport or religion or something else? Will we have a governing Yoga body that is more tha a voluntary registry? Will Yoga become qualified for the Olympics as the USA Yoga Federation is striving to accomomplish? Changes are inevitable, but perhaps as the hundreds of people around the world flocking to Yoga increases, so will a truer understanding of the nature and tradition of Yoga passed down through the Vedas and ancient texts. This is in the hands our teachers, and therefore in all of us. For Yoga is not something to be owned, but something to be loved and shared, interpreted and taught as in the original intentions written in the Vedas.

Roughly 150 teachers are authorized in the Ashtanga method taught by Pattabhi Jois. There is no set structure in how Jois gave authorization, but generally speaking, a person must present himself to practice in Mysore over a period of time for a number of years. After practice develops and the aspirant demonstrates an appropriate attitude, devotion towards the practice, and a respect for the tradition of parampara, the succession of teacher and disciple, Jois would then give the authorization. Yet there are more than 1,000 teachers around the world teaching his method. When asked about this, Jois responded, “Let other teacher be there, but I hope their students finally one day get what they deserve.” Just as Jois learned from his guru, he wished for students to learn the lineage from their teachers.

Sharath has now taken the helm of the Ashtanga Yoga tradition. When Sharath spoke in New York it was just weeks before his beloved grandfather died. Reflecting on the statement “No one owns Yoga,” a statement his grandfather often made, it appears timely and also timeless. As we strive to become Yogis and Yoginis, Yoga has taken, and will continue to take, different interpretations as it travels globally into the future. The shepherd of one school of Yoga, Sharath offers clarity. If we cling to Yoga and attach ourselves, or make it someone’s chattel, then we are nowhere near to Yoga’s ultimate benefit. We become less capable of understanding and therefore, experiencing, Yoga’s heritage and therefore its richness, derived not through ownership but through liberation.
A few days ago, I thought about my acquaintance in Mysore who sparked my questioning of Sharath’s statement. Looking on her Facebook page I felt a better understanding of compassion. As Yoga philosophy teacher, Narasimhan, said one day in Mysore, we as Yoga students the world over are yearning to learn something more than what our Western culture affords us. I realized through the process, that I now had more compassion for my fellow Yoga practitioner, but moreover, I found some for myself. For who knows where my friend’s ego stood in her statements, and who was I to jump to conclusions?

The next day on the mat, I placed my hands together and chanted the morning prayer. I thanked my teachers, the ones I knew, never knew or whom I have yet to meet, and I thanked especially my fellow students who also show us the way. I reached into the transforming sky, jumped back and moved forward.

All is coming.

{author credit} Leslie Hendry is an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner who is working on her second book about two friends who reunite after years of building seperate and distinct lives.

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  1. Shalomji says:

    This is a great subject. Knowing one’s lineage is the gift of humility. A dedicated Bikram practitioner learns through self realization. That is true liberation. There’s a Tibetan saying, “liberate even the antidote”. I will add…and remain devotional. Bikram’s series is self liberating.

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