Pure Yoga By Another Name–Chopra, Tolle, and Easwaran

Over on the “it’s all yoga, baby” blog we’re having a spirited in-depth debate about the commercialization of Yoga, and when it ceases to be Yoga.  It’s very similar to the great debates we’ve had right here on the same topic.

The immediate trigger for this debate was the sponsorship of Rainbeau Mars by adidas and the “adidas yoga” session at the Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, Colorado.

In the process of thinking about it, I came up with a startling idea. We are talking in this blog about the term “Yoga” being used where some people feel it doesn’t belong.

How do we deal with the huge movements that are almost pure Yoga philosophy, but which don’t choose to use the term “Yoga” to describe themselves?

I’ll give three examples here, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, and Eknath Easwaran, but there are many more.

I know Chopra pretty well, having read some of his books, seen his website, and watched his lectures on TV. Most of Chopra’s teachings come directly out of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

If you ignore his huge celebrity following and just look at his work, you could argue that Chopra is the modern sage of pure original Yoga, predating even asana and hatha. One of Chopra’s most recent books is a modern interpretation of reincarnation. And he wrote the book Rod Stryker uses in his teacher training for Ayurveda.

I’m less familiar with Tolle. He is certainly less engaging and convincing than Chopra as a speaker. But his teachings about nondualism also seem to also emanate directly out of the Upanishads and the Gita.

Easwaran was one of the world’s foremost translators of the Upanishads and the Gita. But he saw them as too universal to be restricted to the term Yoga, so to bring their message to the world he created a meditation center with little reference to Yoga, and he brought in meditation sources from a variety of religions. His web site doesn’t call itself a Yoga site, but his teachings and philosophy are pure pre-asana Yoga.

I don’t know what to do with this insight. What do you think? Here we have non-Yoga movements that are rapidly spreading Yogic meditation and spirituality with no association with asana at all, and very little explicit reference to Yoga!

I guess it makes me even less worried about the diversity of Yoga. Perhaps these movements and those like them will help offset the stretching of the definition of Yoga on the asana side of the spectrum.

~ by Bob Weisenberg on October 12, 2009.

5 Responses to “Pure Yoga By Another Name–Chopra, Tolle, and Easwaran”

  1. Your post reminds me of something that happened to me recently. I have a teacher who has periodically commented to me on my “yoga practice.” He has called it strong and even inspiring. While I know he was encouraging me, the comments struck me as odd, because I don’t think my practice is either of those things. I have only been practicing for a short while and on a good week I get two practices in. So I was puzzled by my teacher’s comments.

    Then last week, I was discussing how something in my life influenced my practice that day (and how my practice influence my life) with a different instructor. She commented about my strong practice and then followed by asking me how often I practice. A little embarrassed, I admitted to my one-to-two hour a week practice. She looked at me very confused and just said, “Really?”

    It dawned on me then that what these two teachers were noticing and commenting on was something other than what I consider my yoga practice to be. While I would love to deepen my practice, right now I just don’t have enough time or money to do it. But in addition to my yoga practice, I have a very rich spiritual life which includes attending worship services, at lest twenty minutes a day of contemplative prayer, regular spiritual direction, and ongoing education in my religious tradition.

    So my experience and your post beg the question, “What exactly is Yoga?” What components must be there to make yoga, yoga. Your post speaks of other spiritual leaders in their respective traditions who “point” to the same spiritual realities that Yoga promotes. In fact, there is a wide variety of traditions from all over the world that “point” to these same principles. It seems to me that what makes Yoga unique is not the philosophy, but the asana. I don’t know of another tradition that relies so heavily on physical activity to achieve mindfulness, peace, generosity, compassion, etc.

    I don’t believe that asana without any yogic philosophy is yoga, but I also don’t believe that the spiritual paths you describe are yoga either. They are all worthwhile, I just wouldn’t call them yoga. Maybe most or all of the eight limbs must be present?

    Just my thoughts…

  2. Thanks for writing, Angela.

    The quick and most accurate answer to your question “What exactly is Yoga?” is that the word “Yoga” has many different meanings. This has been true since the word was first appeared 3,000 years ago.

    So, it makes more sense to understand all the different meanings of Yoga rather than to try to rein in the word itself!

    Asana has only become a definition of Yoga in the last 60-70 years in the West. Through most of its history, Yoga has been mostly a spiritual and meditation art. Limited asana were only a way to prepare the body for higher consciousness.

    I suggest you ask your teacher exactly he means when he refers to your “practice”. I agree with you that something is not Yoga just because it’s Yoga-like. All the great spiritual traditions are very much alike in their basic morality and ethics.

    Chopra, Tolle, and Easwaran, however, were all deeply and directly influenced by the ancient Yoga texts–the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. And all their teachings reflect this influence. So that’s why I felt comfortable calling them “Pure Yoga by Another Name”.

    I would love to hear follow-up questions.

  3. Forgot to include this quote from my e-book above (in the chapter “Abundance of Joy”):

    “Yoga knows it doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of joy, of course. Yoga assumes itself to have discovered universal truths. If you look at almost any moment of pure joy it usually has this character of total absorption in the present moment, where all other concerns and preoccupations fade into insignificance.

    So it’s not surprising that one can come up with countless examples of Yoga-type present-focused joy in every aspect of human life. Yoga is just a powerful way of discovering and exploring this aspect of our existence. Yoga didn’t invent it.”

  4. Yoga, for me, can be found in many different places. Like Angela my practice is influenced by my religious/spiritual life. I enjoy making connections between the two and find the teaching of eternal truths a wonderful insight into life and the universe.

    What impressed me with Angela’s comment, and what I think her teachers are referring to, is her ability to take her ‘on the mat’ yoga and incorporate it into her ‘off the mat’ life: reflecting upon the insights and integrating her yoga “practice” into her daily living. This is the true definition of learning from an educators point of view. No longer is the student simply performing the assignment at the required time and in the required way. Instead the assignment (yoga in this case) has become part of the student, has changed how they view and interact with the world.

    I think there are many who take truths they have learned “repackaged” them for mass consumption and have become successful as a result. It’s an interesting exercise to always be watching for these “sages” and recognize what they are doing and how. Chopra and Tolle I’m familar with. Now I’ll have to do some research on Easwaran.

  5. Donna, thanks for your warm and insightful comments above.

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