Yoga in India is Not the Same as Yoga in the West

It's my opinion that the method of awakening for a classical Indian seeker is not the same for a Westerner.  And so as teachers in the West, it is critical that we translate the teachings of any method of illumination rooted in a cultural lineage different from our students.  Sticking to doing it "the way it's done in India" is a trap not only for the teacher, but more specifically for our students.  There's always an aspect to the teaching that is culture-specific, and as teachers of a method, we are also translators.  It's our job not only to impart the method, but also to distinguish the essence of the method from the cultural idiosyncrasies that that method is imbued with. I personally teach Ashtanga Yoga. I learned 'the practice' from my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  He was what I consider a classical Indian.  When I say classical Indian, I am actually making a distinction from that of the modern Indian. The classical Indian still exists today but is slowly getting lost in the shuffle of modernity as India grows economically.  One thing that distinguished my teacher's classical Indian's students from their Westerner counterparts primarily had to do with where they were identified.  The classical Indian student tended to be identified with his or her role in society, whereas the Westerner identified primarily with his personality, replete with likes and dislikes, confidence and insecurity.  Much of the work of disentangling conditioned existence-also known in Sanskrit as samsara- for us Westerners required and still to this day requires very different work.  It's clear to me that while the game is still the same--overcoming our conditioning to discover who we truly are--the path of yoga in India is very different from the path of yoga in the West.

Classical Indian Dharma versus the Western Path

In India, the sense of individuality and uniqueness is not valued in the same way it is valued in the West.  From a very young age, what is valued is one's relationship to one's role in society.  If you are a brahman, then, indeed, that's what you are.  That's the role you are to play out in society.  Relatively speaking, life tends to happen to people in India compared to the West.  It isn't chosen the way it's chosen here.  And while that is starting to change, now, the change is slow.  So, for example, it wasn't until recently and in certain very small pockets of Indian culture that one would even think to choose one's partner in marriage.  That was determined by the caste of the individuals, the parents, and often with the aid of a family astrologer.One's role is called dharma, or duty.  A major theme in The Bhagvad Gita, is performing one's duty to caste.  If that means fighting one's family members for the sake of upholding the universal law, or santana dharma, then it must be done, like it or not.  The essence of the training of the yogi in India is the elimination of likes and dislikes, of the overly identified sense of self, called asmita in the Yoga Sutras.  And, in turn, identifying and surrendering to the role the society has put upon him or her.  What we in the West think of as the creative faculty to be at choice in how we live our lives is completely eliminated.  Surrendering to one's role-be it one's role in society or in the family unit-is the transformational breakthrough that's asked of the aspirant.

As Westerners, we learn not to totally identify with our roles as brother, mother, teacher, or CEO.  While this is a form of our identity, it doesn't define us the way it does the classical Indian.  A large portion of our identity is formed on our relationship to our personality and personal preferences.  So, when a father asks his son, "Do you want to be a football player or baseball player," and the child responds, "I want to be a make up artist,"  then that child is exerting his separate identity through his or her wants and wishes.  The same is true when we choose our wives and husbands or even when we choose either to have or not to have children.  The faculty of making choices and choosing what makes us happy is what forms this persona we in the West identify as, "me."

So when a Western person--with a developed sense of ego--goes to an Indian guru--that's rooted in a classical Indian culture--and learns yoga, the guru does not and cannot totally recognize what he or she sees.  The Westerner's sense of self is strongly identified with his or her persona along with its various wants.  Additionally, us Westerners really struggle mightily with issues of confidence, feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing.  While I am sure that plenty of classical Indians struggle with the same issue, a confident, outgoing personality is not as valued as the fulfillment of one's responsibilities to society and family.  And because the "come from" is so different, often times, the method doesn't work in the same way.  This isn't to say that the method doesn't work.

Mistaking Cultural Maps for Spiritual Maps

I remember it used to baffle my guru that we'd keep showing up at the shala year after year, either unmarried, littered with more tattoos, and still experimenting with various illicit drugs.  I imagine that he would sometimes scratch his head wondering why the method wasn't working the way it ought to for some of his students.  He'd often say in his lectures to us that we needed to get married, to have children, essentially to surrender to our dharma.  I am sure that he saw that even though we came from comparatively wealthy places, we were equally spiritually lost.  And yet I wish to argue that, while the practice wasn't working based on his cultural maps of dharma, it was, in fact working on us.

It's my hunch that the path of illumination for us Westerners has less to do with surrendering to our roles in society and has more to do with having the courage to trust what authentically moves us.  And that's what we were doing when we were saving up all the money we earned as waiters or yoga teachers to go back to practice with our teacher.  That's what we were doing when we would show up on the mat day after day.  We weren't doing these things because society deemed them valuable or worthy.  On the contrary, most of my parents' friends thought I was a freak for waking up at 5 am to contort my body in odd shapes.  We were doing this because it moved us.  It resonated with something very individual within each of us.  We used the practice to help strip away all the nonsense our parents, teachers, and society had foisted upon us so that we could each find our own individual way in the world.

Mistaking 'Correct' for the Truth

And that's how I think the practice worked and continues to work on us Westerners differently.  So when I hear Ashtanga teachers insisting that their students practice exactly the way it's done in Mysore today; that they never vary the sequence to meet their student's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; that they alienate those that cannot practice six days per week, I can't help but think that this is laziness on the part of the teacher.  He or she is foisting a brahman interpretation of yoga onto Western students.  As Westerners our path is not necessarily to become more dutiful.  For some it is.  But for most of us, our work is to strip away what isn't true so that we can sense and choose life from our essence, the part of us that is authentic, awake, and deeply resonant.  And for each student, that's different.  Overlaying a system of "ought to's," of "right and wrong," of "correct and incorrect" is just another system our students will, at one point, need to throw off.