I had an interesting though 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 think in more depth about yoga in the West.
If you’re not familiar with the eight limbs of yoga, the Sage Pantajali first described them 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 and led me to wonder if yoga in the West is truly yoga.
A man who seemed to hold an important status in the Hindu and yoga communities in India clearly scolded me for even attempting to understand the 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.
Yikes. 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, and Learning Yoga in the West
Another man jumped in to explain the Eastern way of learning. He suggested Westerners who learn about yoga from Sanskrit translations and then write about it 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 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, I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering if yoga in the West is authentic yoga.
As I read the responses scolding me for the audacity to practice yoga, I wasn’t offended, though I was tempted to respond defensively. Both men were right, though they could be kinder or more welcoming of Westerners with a genuine interest 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 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 because I practice what I, as a Westerner, call yoga, isn’t that a very good thing?
Yoga in the West May Not Be Pantanjali’s Yoga
I don’t know anything with 100 percent 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.
Other respondents 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 think it had something to do with connection to a higher power—my goal when I practice yoga.
I know I can’t practice Patanjali’s yoga authentically. My culture is different, I live in a different time, and I learn with my Western mind. I mean no disrespect to the masters by attempting to practice something called yoga. My practice is my attempt to seek union with something greater than myself.
So, can we practice yoga in the West? 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 it’s good to be aware that we’re 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 its spiritual roots. For example, the idea of certifications and credentials for yoga teachers is an oddity in India. They don’t 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, my sources told me.)
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 these gurus, and the gurus don’t 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. Still, we’re trying to practice something as close to authentic yoga as we can get.
Modern Yoga in the West (and East)
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, are we practicing yoga in the West? I suppose it depends on what we mean by yoga.
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I’m Maria, devoted yogini and author of Yoga Circles. I’m a writer, editor, and content marketing creator. I help small businesses, wellness brands, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and communicate effectively in writing. Visit my website (link below) to learn how I can help you connect with more readers, clients, and students!