Yoga and the Art of (Cultural) Transformation

by / 0 Comments / 235 View / June 5, 2014

After visiting the Yoga: The Art of Transformation exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in October, 2013 and exploring the religious artifacts displayed therein, I was struck by two concerns, one immediate and one slightly delayed. The first was that, despite being the son of an Indian immigrant who had been raised in a Hindu household, I was not very well versed at all in the cultural significance of many Hindu religious practices, including yoga. Following this conclusion, I surmised that this was likely due to my distance from the religious tradition, both geographic and spiritual (I’ve always lived in the United States, and in my childhood I was not exposed to Hinduism as a faith necessary to follow). However, my own distance from Hinduism brought about my latter, farther-reaching concern: even the most renowned Western scholars of Hinduism still share with me some level of cultural separateness. Fundamentally, they lack the ability to understand the faith as intrinsic to the fabric of their culture.  Such discrepancies, as well as intrigue brought about by specific exhibits I enjoyed at the Smithsonian, caused me to question not only how Hindu practices such as yoga have developed in Western society over the past century, but also what factors continue to influence contemporary Western understandings of Hinduism. However, it is quite clear from the exhibition and from further research that practices such as yoga have been tremendously influential in developing Western society’s overall perspective of Hinduism and Indian society.

While touring the Yoga: The Art of Transformation exhibition, two particularly fascinating items—two videos—helped shed light on Western understanding of Hinduism in the early part of the twentieth century. The first video, entitled Hindoo Fakir, produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1902 and heralded as the “first-ever film on ‘India,'” displays an acting fakir performing spiritual acts of magic and intrigue for a woman. The second, a 1941 taped musical act performed by Orrin Tucker and his Orchestra entitled “The Yogi Who Lost His Willpower,” recounts the humorous tale of a distracted yogi, who falls in love but soon learns that his romance is not to be. Interestingly enough, both videos reflect Western perceptions of Hinduism and the practice of yoga that developed in the late 1800s, during Britain’s occupation of India. Since all films are theoretical documentaries given they reflect the biases and prejudices of time that they were created in, Hindoo Fakir focuses on the aura of mysticism surrounding the romanticized yogi and his ability to perform magical rituals; meanwhile, “The Yogi Who Lost His Willpower” pays particular attention to visual aspects of yoga that Western audiences enjoy (the use of a crystal ball, the meditative retractable bed of nails, and the ‘Indian rope trick’ finale). These video accounts choose to emphasize the more visual facets of yoga, primarily because Western audiences had already developed similar perspectives on Indian religion and culture. However, before examining the significance of this focus, it is imperative to consider the historical context of Western biases in examining Hinduism. In his essay entitled “Christians as Believers,” Malcolm Ruel warns of several “shadow fallacies” in the analysis of different world religions. One such fallacy is the idea that belief is as central to other religions as it is to Christianity, as he finds that many Western scholars do not realize “just how rooted the concept is in our own cultural tradition.” An instance in which these shadow fallacies are quite blatantly disregarded is in Henry S. Olcott’s “The Buddhist Catechism,” which manages to compartmentalize and explain the Buddhist faith in a way that Christian audiences can easily understand (the fact that Olcott calls it the Buddhist Catechism is indicative of this point). In some ways, it can be said that the entire concept of Hinduism is based too heavily on Christian presuppositions about religion. The fact that different religious practices across the Indian subcontinent with their origin in the Vedas were coalesced into one unifying faith of Hinduism belies the more subtle intricacies of the practices and indicates that the uniformity expressed by a single religion is often fabricated.

However, in returning to the two  yoga videos, it seems as though they both distort the actual meaning of the Hindu practice in favor of a Western interpretation. In this case, it is not because this stylized interpretation of yoga reflects similarities to Christianity as a faith; rather, it serves to meet the Western fascination with occult practices and magic by highlighting the iconography found in India. Without a doubt, general understanding of yoga in contemporary Western society has evolved significantly from that in the early 1900s, as the fascination with the mystique of the Orient has considerably diminished. However, “Western” yoga of today still focuses on certain notions that are not necessarily essential to the traditional Hindu form of yoga. David Gordon White posits in “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea” that “yoga has morphed into a mass cultural phenomenon” in the United States, as it “has become a commodity…[such] that about 16 million Americans practice yoga every year.” In particular, the Western world today has emphasized the importance of physical over mental fortitude in yoga, in stark contrast to the general tenets set forth by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. While it is certain that Western perspectives on the practice of yoga have changed significantly over the past century, it is nonetheless questionable whether or not these Western versions of yoga can truly be considered yoga in the traditional Hindu sense. However, given the societal complexity of the original development of yoga in India and the validity of the notion that all social practices naturally adapt to their cultural contexts, the yoga present in Western society is certainly justifiable.

The development of yoga in Western society since the production of Hindoo Fakir in 1901 has been astonishing. With the practice increasingly being incorporated into the cultural mainstream, it is clear that my initial concerns after visiting the Smithsonian Institution should not be worrisome; they should be uplifting. While Western scholars and I may not have the cultural background to understand yoga in the context of Indian society, the evolution of the practice over the past century allows us to understand it fully from our own societal context. In fact, yoga can even be seen as a microcosm of the phenomenon of globalization that has changed our world over the past several decades. Above all, the practice’s prevalence in Western society today displays the significance and the importance of continued cross-cultural interaction in shaping cultural perspectives and values.


Works Cited

Hindoo Fakir. Prod. Thomas Edison. Edison Manufacturing Company, 1902. Museum      Exhibition Film.

Olcott, Henry S. “The Buddhist Catechism.” London: Theosophical Publishing Society,    1903. Print.

Ruel, Malcolm. “Christians as Believers.” Religious Organization and Religious      Experience, Ed. John Davis. London: Academic Press, 1982. Print.

The Yogi Who Lost His Will Power. Perf. Orrin Tucker. 1941. Museum Exhibition Film.

White, David Gordon. “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea.” Princeton University Press.         Print.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation. 19 Oct. 2013. Museum Exhibition. Sackler Gallery,        Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
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