I had an interesting yet unsettling experience recently. I posted a question online asking yoga teachers and practitioners to help me tease out the difference between the sixth and seventh limbs of yoga. One of the teachers who responded led me to the question: Can Westerners practice yoga?
Obviously we can, or at least we think we can. Yoga is big business in the West.
But back to my question about yoga’s limbs. If you’re not familiar with the eight limbs of yoga, they were first described by the Sage Pantajali in Sanksrit many years ago. The sixth limb is called dharana and the seventh is called dhyana.
According to most of the translations I’ve read, dharana is “one-pointed focus” and dhyana is a form of meditation. But the difference is very subtle, so I asked for some help understanding these two terms.
I received a few helpful answers to my question, but one—actually, the first one—stands out. This answer led me to wonder, can Westerners practice yoga in the traditional sense?
A man who seemed to hold an important status in the Hindu and yoga communities in India clearly scolded for even attempting to understand the concepts of dhyana and dhrana, especially in English. This man basically accused me of being part of an insidious industry in the West that is attempting to divorce the yoga sutras from their original cultural and religious context.
I promise, this is not my intent! But I did consider his words carefully.
Later in the thread, though he was no longer specifically addressing me, this person bemoaned what he called the commonplace actions of “the most unqualified neophytes to dictate, distort and define the science of self-realization and in so doing become obstacles in their own progress and indeed to the progress of others.”
Writing, Reading, Speaking, Learning: Can Westerners Practice Yoga?
Another man jumped in to explain the Eastern way of learning. It is by listening and repetition, he said. He suggested that Westerners who write anything about yoga they have learned from reading Sanskrit translations do so misguidedly. “Do not speak like you know or you have found something when in fact you have not,” he warned.
I was sad for an entire day thinking about all of this!
Of course I was not trying to perpetrate any kind of deception. I was trying to understand the ancient roots of a practice that has transformed my life—yes, my English-speaking life in the Western hemisphere, so probably not the kind of transformation the original yogis experienced or sought, but a transformation nonetheless.
Until recently, it never occurred to me to ask the question, can Westerners practice yoga?
As I read the responses scolding me for the audacity to “practice yoga,” I was not offended, and I did not get defensive (although those were my first instincts). Both men are right, though perhaps they could be kinder or more welcoming of those genuinely interested in understanding yoga’s roots.
We do approach learning differently in the West, and our language is much more limited than Sanskrit. (English has only 270,000 words versus more than 350,000 in Sanskrit, according to one source I read.) But is one way of learning inherently better than another? Does listening to a guru guarantee a student will understand what is taught? And most importantly in this context, isn’t “learning” subjective when the subject is spirituality?
If I’m a better, more peaceful, more loving person as a result of practicing what I, as a Westerner, call “yoga,” isn’t that a very good thing?
Yoga in the West: It’s Not Really Pantanjali’s Yoga
I don’t know anything with 100% certainty. I write about yoga to share my experience and what I’ve learned from my own teachers and the carefully selected texts I read. Should I stop trying to understand the difference between dharana and dhyana? Should I stop trying to understand anything originally written in Sanskrit?
I hope not.
Some of the other people who responded to my question told me “meditation” is the closest we can get to translating dhyana, but what we mean by meditation is not really what Pantanjali meant. What Pantanjali meant isn’t clear, but I’m convinced it has something to do with connection to a higher power—my goal when I practice yoga.
The fact that I can’t practice what Pantanjali practiced is unavoidable due to differences in time, culture, and other things beyond my control. I mean no disrespect to the master in attempting to practice something called yoga. It is simply my humble attempt to seek union with something greater than myself.
So, can Westerners practice yoga? I say yes. As a result of our yoga practice, many of us are trying to live ethically, move and breathe properly, and connect with a higher power. But we should be aware that we are not practicing what the ancient sages practiced, and we don’t understand what they understood.
Yoga in a Capitalist Market
Yoga is big business in the West, which troubles many who revere yoga’s spiritual roots. For example, that the idea of certifications and credentials for yoga teachers is unheard of India. They do not “market” and “trademark” various types of yoga and sell expensive clothing, jewelry, mats, and accessories. (Well some do, but apparently to Westerners and basically with the intention of fraud, I was told.)
The men I heard from told me that in the East, true yogis simply do the hard work of going inward and reaching upward. They usually do this under the direct guidance of a guru or teacher. Yoga Alliance does not certify the teacher, and that student does not necessarily accept every student who asks for instruction.
I know many yogis who are trying to avoid distortion as much as possible. We know we can never truly understand yoga as the ancient sages experienced it. We’re trying to practice something as close to authentic yoga as we can get. That’s why I asked my original question and why I’ll continue to seek answers to similar questions.
Modern Yoga: Can Westerners Practice Yoga in the West?
Yoga teacher trainer Ramesh Bjonnes explains that modern hatha yoga is less than 100 years old. It originated in India with Krishnamacharya, who developed the practice in Mysore, India in the early 1900s. Krishnamacharya’s yoga was certainly steeped in tradition and deeply spiritual. It was also yoga with a modern twist that evolved and eventually appeared in the West later in the century.
So, can Westerners ever really practice yoga? I suppose it depends on what we mean by yoga.