top of page
  • Laura Dunn

Modern Yoga and the Cultivation of Discrimination

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Prior to my journey into the scholarly world of Hinduism, I taught Ashtanga yoga in Hawaii for about fifteen years. While I enjoyed teaching āsana and the occasional session of pranāyama, over time I experienced a kind of professional and spiritual malaise that stemmed from what I deemed to be a superficial involvement in yoga. These feelings spawned a long, ongoing, and arduous journey into the academic study of yoga theory and praxis. I have observed that in both lay and academic sectors, individuals on both sides are highly critical of the other. Lay practitioners of modern yoga criticize academics as over-intellectualizing a practice that defies the intellect. Academics critique lay-people for shallow knowledge and for misunderstanding the fundamental tenets of yoga darśana. Both sides are right, and each side has much to learn from the other.

In this particular essay I argue that in order to cultivate a holistic yoga practice, lay-practitioners and teachers of modern yoga need to actively engage the intellectual study of yoga philosophy, the basic history of Hinduism, and perhaps a little Sanskrit. Another purpose of this essay is to promote a three-part series of upcoming lectures on The Roots of Yoga at Open Space Yoga in Chinatown, Honolulu. (In a forthcoming essay, I will address the need for religious scholars to immerse themselves in a given practice for a period of time so as to disrupt the intellectual veil that often conceals correct perception of religious traditions.)

In my fifteen years of teaching hatha yoga, people often asked, “Why bother learning Sanskrit? Why can’t you use English terms to describe āsana and other modalities?” Or they would say, “Yoga philosophies don’t relate to me and my life. It’s just a bunch of ancient theory and too intellectual. I prefer to practice only.” Thankfully, times have changed, and the yoga practitioner of today is becoming increasingly sophisticated in her knowledge and understanding of yoga in the modern world. Yet, the question remains: why should a modern yoga practitioner study philosophy and history? The answer to this question could fill volumes, but there are two simple answers which occupy opposite ends of the spectrum: Yoga philosophical education helps develop: (1) socio-cultural awareness; and (2) spiritual self-understanding.

Socio-Cultural Awareness

First, as the world becomes increasingly more interconnected through the world wide web and social media, today’s modern yoga practitioner can no longer engage yoga in the echo chamber of the Western world. Sadly, as yoga becomes commonplace, so do myriad controversies that span the ethical and political spectrum. Education regarding yoga’s Indic origins, original aims, and lineages (including some understanding of basic Sanskrit terminology) helps one to decipher the many messages propagated in today’s world-wide yoga milieu. With some basic knowledge of various yoga traditions, such as the Classical yoga of Patanjali, Vedānta (otherwise known as Jñāna Yoga), Tantra, Hatha, Kundalinī, and Bhakti yoga-s, one is better able to discern truth from falsehood and choose their teachers and their path wisely.

Secondly, if we understand yoga as a practice that liberates not only our own individual consciousness, but universal consciousness, then we must be mindful of the ways in which we disseminate information about yoga to the broader world. This is especially important for those of us who are responsible for teaching meditation and postural yoga to everyday people — many of whom know little about yoga and its intricate history. As our words, actions, and social media posts circulate upon the world stage, we not only participate in discourse, we also participate in the writing and re-writing of history. Studying the history of yoga and its complicated relationship with the Western world affords one the opportunity to not only learn about yoga's history, but Western history as well. The outcome of this is not always pleasant. Coming to terms with the precarious and difficult history of Western yoga means coming to terms with our own implicit biases (if we are Western, that is) and the ways in which modern postural yoga is a product of and perpetuates neo-colonialism, neoliberalism,[1] racism, classism, and body dysmorphia.

This is not to say that Western yoga has no inherent value. Trauma informed yoga, many styles of hatha yoga, and many other forms of yoga that emerged in the West are evidenced to aid in the rehabilitation of physiological and psychological maladies. Personal stories of yoga-fueled transformation abound, and there is no reason that one cannot share deeply profound and inspiring personal truths that arise in one’s own practice. When viewed in accordance with yoga’s own epistemology, which is steeped not only in personal experience, but tradition and philosophy, one is able to discern whether their experience is truly yogic revelation, imagination, endorphins, or an admixture of all three.

Spiritual Self-Understanding

Spiritual self-understanding is one of the top reasons people start and continue to practice yoga. The Upanishads outlined a path that would help aspirants achieve liberation (mukti) by working through the imprint of past actions (karma) that resulted in an endless cycle of suffering (samsāra). While many postural yoga-s do not enjoin such theories, to a certain extent postural yoga still helps people allay physical, psychological, and emotional suffering. For instance, an āsana practice can help one feel more deeply into the present moment of the body – its aches, pains, fears, joys, and peace. Regular āsana practice ideally helps to develop a kind of resiliency around impermanence as we witness our bodies and mental state change from year-to-year, day-to-day, and sometimes even minute-to-minute. It may also cultivate discipline as we engage a daily practice despite the vagaries of human existence. These embodied perceptions, when rightly internalized into one’s overall experience, can become a bridge toward developing compassion and empathy. There are countless stories of people who suddenly feel compelled to eat less meat or become vegetarian, or of people who feel pangs of universal love for humanity, animals, and the planet. Such instances are not coincidental and over the last two-thousand years (at least) yoga has evolved and developed in ways so as to cultivate these very experiences. Sadly, such experiences when situated within a modern yogic milieu must contend with and against the aforementioned trappings of the neoliberal experience, which oftentimes contradict the ethical underpinnings of traditional forms of Hatha, Tantra, Bhakti, and Jñāna yoga-s.

Decades of cross-fertilization, misinformation, misappropriation, and commodification have contributed to yoga’s polyvalence of meaning. In the early 20th century, Western esoteric groups conflated yoga with other forms of mysticism, such as channeling, seances, and magic. Soon thereafter, no doubt reeling from the Western esoteric movement’s presentation of yoga, Christian groups admonished yoga as a form of devil worship. Yoga reached new heights in the 60s and 70s as Baby Boomers took up yoga as gurus from the East, such as Paramahansa Yogananda and Maharishi Mahesh, taught ‘new’ forms of spirituality that challenged the outdated, too-restrictive religious mores of the American middle-class landscape. The 80s brought with it a focus on the self, and yoga was eagerly appropriated into self-help ideologies that fit into the Me-Generation’s aims of personal achievement and individualism.

Modern, Millennial-era yoga is the heir of these various yoga-s and cannot be pigeon-holed into any one neat category. Today, one finds bhakti yoga classes which focus on mantra and devotion in the same studio space as hot flow classes that focus exclusively on physical fitness. Adding to confusion is the transposability of terminology. For instance Bhakti Flow classes have little in common with Bhakti devotional practices across India and around the world.

A general education on yoga philosophy provides a framework for understanding the many shades of yoga – traditional and modern. By studying core teachings of the primary schools (darśana-s) of Indic yoga, such as Jñāna, Bhakti, Tantra, and Hatha, one begins to cultivate discrimination (viveka). This discrimination develops as one disciplines the mind to take on intellectual study and as one becomes more conversant in yoga’s ever-evolving history and philosophy. Such an education also bestows real agency upon the student, who can no longer be sold yoga products or idealized states of being. Importantly, the more conversant one is in the basic philosophical language of yoga, the less likely they are to fall prey to various abuses,[2] which have become commonplace in today’s modern yoga milieu. Truly, yoga is an individual and universal practice that helps one move beyond the limitations of self-centeredness and dependency on outward forms of affirmation. This is but one small example of freedom (mukti) According to the Classical yoga literature of Patanjali, attaining ultimate liberation can take lifetimes, while medieval Tantric literature on yoga argues that liberation is possible while embodied in a single life (jivanmukti). Across traditions, the fruits of yoga indeed can be tasted if one is able to develop the discipline of regular practice and the discernment to identify a true guru and teaching that will show the way toward liberation.

Please join me this spring as we enjoin lively conversations around yoga's long history and practice. This series of three lectures aims to bring deeper awareness to the millenniums-old practice of yoga so that you might find new questions inside yourself that will reinspire your search and your practice. Our first session takes place on March 15, 2020 at Open Space Yoga in Chinatown. Our first module is on the Classical Yoga of Patanjali and Sāṃkhya Philosophy. Modules two and three will explore (2) Tantric Śaivism and Śāktism, and (3) Hatha Yoga and Asceticism. Please visit for registration information.

I look forward to seeing you!

Jai Mā,

[1] Following Christopher Miller in “Yoga Bodies and Bodies of Water,” in Climate and Culture: Solutions for Climate Change in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), I use Robert McChensney’s definition of neoliberalism: "Neoliberalism is the defining political economic paradigm of our time—it refers to the politics and processes whereby a relative handful or private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit." {See, Robert W. McChesney, “Introduction,” in Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (New York: Seven Stories, 1999)}

[2] The #metoo movement has brought to the fore countless instances of the sexual misconduct of many proclaimed guru-s. For more history and sociological analyses of these abuses, see Amanda Lucia, “Guru Sex: Charisma, Proxemic Desire, and the Haptics Logics of the Guru-Disciple Relationship,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 86, no. 4 (n.d.): 953–88.

298 views0 comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page