Music In Modern Yoga Culture


August 23, 2020 • Posted By Veronica

Jain remarks that, “the Christian yogaphobic position and the Hindu origins position both posit essentialist definitions of yoga and warnings against its embrace (at least in its popularized forms). They do so without apparent awareness that such definitions and warnings betray Orientalist strategies, and they fail to recognize that the legitimate historical task is not to search for an authentic form of yoga. In fact, an authentic form of yoga does not exist (Jain 2015, 132).”

If there can be more than one form of classical Indian music, and several different forms of classical Indian dance (Kathak, Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, & Sattriya), then why can’t there be more than one form of classic Indian yoga? If we can take a perspective of yoga that includes the view of all the arts, cultures, languages, religions, geo-political & socio-economic factors that comprise India as a whole then we can begin to respect and honor the practice of yoga without culturally appropriating it.

Christopher Wallis, a Sanskrit scholar with a PhD from UC Berkeley, in an article addressing the intellectual dishonesty of the author of the Radiance Sutras that have become popular in yoga culture, while addressing the incorrect translations offered—also speaks to the problems within modern yoga culture. “The American yoga and kīrtan scene is of course rife with cultural appropriation that implies insensitivity to traditional Indian culture. . . exemplified by privileged white “kīrtan artists” that mispronounce, mistranslate, and even fabricate mantras.” (Wallis 2016, 2). I agree with this statement to a certain extent, and I would add that while the aim is to honor cultural roots, just because a behavior or practice is “traditional” doesn’t mean that it’s beyond critical review. Innovation is linked to creativity and there will always be innovation in creative and artistic endeavors. The questions I don’t know the answers to are: where does one draw the line between artistic license and cultural appropriation? Is innovation acceptable only when the intention and the relationship to “tradition” is clearly explained? Is it only acceptable if the innovation comes from someone of that heritage?

In his 2012 publication Tantra Illuminated Wallis includes a foreword for scholars and academics, defending the concept of the “scholar-practitioner” that in the academic world of religious studies is slowly becoming a more acceptable stance than attempting complete objectivity. Wallis writes that, for him “the process of coalescence did not arise within the academic context, in which the only good religious scholar is a dis-integrated religious scholar, but within a very different context to which I was initially driven by financial need: freelance teaching in yoga studios. This environment, derided by some academics as being anti- intellectual and woefully ignorant of “real yoga,” not only welcomed the process of sustained and engaged reflection on the philosophy and practice of yoga but pushed me to reflect in more productive ways on the material I had studied (Wallis 2012, 17).” Juxtapose this lack of credibility for the “scholar-practitioner” in the world of religious studies, to the opposite view of the “scholar-performer” in the world of music and dance. In the world of performing arts, it’s considered essential that a scholar in such disciplines also be actively engaged in performing. Some might also offer the argument that spiritual practices are not meant to be performances, yet there is an abundance of artistic work in Eastern and Western traditions that exist solely to be performed as part of religious or spiritual ceremony.

Within my experiences of kīrtan, in conjunction with my own understanding of Bhakti Yoga discussed earlier, I would add the cultural appropriation that occurs in American yoga and kīrtan mostly stem from a lack of holistic education about the art and culture they come from. Mispronunciations and misinterpretations of an ancient language are bound to occur—and few yoga teachers, even if they have the desire to formally study Sanskrit at the university level, do not have financial access to advanced university education, let alone a university education that offers studies in Sanskrit. This goes back to the discussion from earlier about the distinction between folk art and fine art. Is art only valid if conducted by someone with an art degree?

That being said, I have also experienced and lamented the trend of “relativism (all views of reality are equally valid) that masks a kind of nihilism (since all views can be equally valid only if they are all equally false, leading us to the conclusion that nothing is really true). . .Both anti-intellectualism and relativism are abundantly on display in the modern yoga scene (Wallis 2016, 13).” He reports that his students often receive scorn from fellow practitioners regarding the amount of time they spend studying, versus experiencing. There is a certain amount of disregard for education that extends beyond the sphere of the yoga community. When I went back to school and began this project, while there was some excitement from my peers, there was also a dismissal from several of my colleagues as though I was wasting my time and that my continued education did nothing to serve the yoga community I was part of.

When I began this project, a friend and yoga practitioner used the words, “culture wars,” to describe people’s reactions over something as small as music preferences in a yoga class. In modern, Western yoga culture I’ve witnessed many people engage in a competition of sorts, trying to prove themselves as the most knowledgeable, or the most spiritual regarding yogic traditions while dismissing or scorning other practitioners or other studios, for not promoting ‘authentic’ yoga based on their own understanding of what ‘authentic’ means.

Swami Vivekananda, while his attitude toward hatha yoga has been noted previously as well as his statements about Hindu supremacy that may have sparked the Hindutva movement that exists today, I find the following quote at the end of the preface for his book on Raja Yoga to reflect the point. “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”

In Mallika Sarabhai’s Ted talk, referenced earlier, she declares, “what I need to say to the planners of the world, the governments, the strategists is—you have treated the arts as the cherry on the cake, it needs to be the yeast.” I would include anyone who considers themselves to be a serious student of yoga in this assertion. By studying modern yoga culture through music and art one can see that yoga, like Indian music and Indian dance, is an embodied, living practice and is not an unchanged or unchanging artifact of antiquity that can be placed on the shelves lining walls of museums around the world. Calls for ‘authentic’ yoga teaching with ‘traditional’ yoga music from white, Western practitioners—while intended to be more sensitive to the origins of the practice—are often simultaneously culturally tone-deaf to the vast complexities of the socio- economic, political, and religious factors that have shaped the modern practice. This also sets the stage for individuals (like myself at one point in my career) with limited cultural knowledge to be hailed as experts simply for incorporating props of Indian culture (like a sari and a harmonium) while facilitating lectures on the history and philosophy of yoga. On the other hand, the trends of anti-intellectualism and spiritual by-passing (ignoring or avoiding anything “negative” to appear spiritually enlightened) often accompany white Western practitioners’ views and prioritize individual experience and freedom of expression, with little knowledge or regard for the culture and people the practice originates from. Thus, reinforcing the notion from both sides of the argument that yoga in the West isn’t “real” yoga.

Repeatedly while writing this paper I’ve heard and read references to the heart chakra and how music affects it. In Christopher Wallis’s book Tantra Illuminated, he identifies the Heart as the Ultimate Principle in nondual Śaiva Tantra, “this Heart, this Vibration, this Essence, is the light by which all things are illuminated, the reality by which all things are real.” (Wallis 2012, 149). Similarly, Drăgulin and Eniu write that, “sacred sounds are considered to have descended with the help of the wise men from the subtle land of Anahata.” (Drăgulin and Eniu 2015, 111). Anahata, in addition to meaning sound without cause as mentioned at the beginning of this paper, is also the Sanskrit term often used to refer to the Heart chakra. To quote Mallika Sarabhai once more, this time from her January Sarmaya Talks interview, “I am more and more convinced of the power of the arts to reach the heart, then percolate to the intellect, and then percolate into the changing of attitudes and behavior.” My hope is that by using music as the lens to study yoga culture, the effect is the same.

Lokah samastah sukino bhavantu

May all beings in all the worlds be happy and free.