Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lost in Translation

by Dennis Hunter

Yoga and meditation have taken American society by storm. Starting from a few transplanted Indian teachers and their ashrams, countless styles and schools of yoga have evolved to address every niche market and demographic: bootcamp-style hot power vinyasa classes; body-image oriented yoga for glutes and abs; traditional Bhakti devotional yoga done in front of murals and statues of Hindu deities with chanting and incense, wearing white clothing; corporate yoga done in front of computer screens or at office desks, wearing suits and dress socks; yoga for children; yoga for the elderly; yoga for overweight people; yoga for women; yoga for men; prenatal yoga; postnatal yoga; alignment-based yoga; Christian yoga; dance-based yoga; pilates-based yoga; yoga for sleep; yoga for sex; martial arts-based yoga; acro-yoga; aerial yoga; and, yes, even hot nude yoga.

In the realm of meditation, something similar is now taking place. Starting from a few Buddhist meditation centers established by teachers transplanted from various Asian countries, “mindfulness” (and a host of related practices) has grown into a cottage industry and a household word in mainstream society. Mindfulness is taught at Google and in Wall Street banks to help employees be less stressed and more productive; it’s taught in hospitals to help patients cope with pain and illness; it’s taught in classrooms to help students concentrate and perform better on tests; it’s taught in church basements to help addicts in recovery and in therapists’ offices to help patients regulate mood disorders; it’s taught in temples to help spiritual aspirants reach towards enlightenment and in boutique meditation centers to help busy urban professionals find a time to slow down and relax; it’s taught by the military to help soldiers cope with the stresses of warfare.

With yoga and meditation finding their way into so many corners of American society, and taking on so many new — and frequently materialistic — manifestations, it may be time to take a step back and assess whether something essential is being lost in the translation of these ancient Eastern traditions into American culture. 

A stool doesn’t stand up on one leg, or even two. It needs three legs to stand upright and be truly functional. The same is true in yoga and meditation. In Buddhism, meditation (Samadhi in Sanskrit) was never intended to be divorced from the other two legs of the stool, which are ethics (Sila) and wisdom (Prajna). In fact, traditionally speaking, ethics comes first. Once you get your everyday conduct and relationships in working alignment with your values, your life and your mind become more clear and open. From there, it becomes possible to cultivate wisdom and insight, and that wisdom and insight are what you carry into your meditation practice, where it all comes to full ripening.

The same is true in yoga. In Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga), there is a logical order to the eight limbs. First, you put your life in order through the practice of the Yamas and Niyamas, which are yoga’s equivalent of Buddhism’s Sila (ethics). Asana, the physical practice of putting the body into the familiar shapes we envision when we think of yoga, is the third limb. When your actions, speech and thoughts are in alignment with the principles of yoga, then you can engage in truly effective Asana practice. Without embodying the principles of the Yamas and Niyamas in your life and conduct, Asana is little more than a fitness routine, the sort of stretching and gymnastic tricks that a chimpanzee could learn by imitation.

Asana purifies the body and prepares it for deeper, more internal practices of Pranayama, the fourth limb of yoga. And Pranayama prepares the subtle body and mind for the next four limbs of yoga, which are all progressively deeper states of meditation.

What happens when you skip over — or forget about — the ethical principles in Buddhism’s Sila or yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas? You end up with teachers and students who might outwardly appear successful and even brilliant at what they do, but their conduct may be abhorrent. Anyone following the news in the yoga world these days knows that one very prominent “hot yoga” teacher is currently facing multiple charges of rape and sexual assault of female students; this same teacher reportedly owns a fleet of luxury vehicles and wears a jewel-encrusted Rolex watch, and his teacher trainings cost about five times the national average. And few could forget the scandal that nearly destroyed the once-venerable Anusara yoga tradition when its founder was charged with similar abuses. For such teachers, the Yama of Brahmacharya (restraining one’s sexual behavior in accordance with basic ethical principles) would seem to have been thrown out the window.

The same types of scandals have rocked the Buddhist meditation community repeatedly since Buddhism first landed on American shores. One could make a long list of the venerable Zen and Tibetan Buddhist teachers whose communities have been torn apart when information came to light about the teacher’s sexual abuse of students, drug addiction, or other behaviors that were clearly out of sync with Buddhist ethical values such as Ahimsa, or non-harming. Some communities recovered from these scandals; others dissolved as students fled from the teacher with deep-seated feelings of betrayal and anger.

If your life and conduct are not in accordance with the values that you preach, there’s a problem. Yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas, and Buddhism’s principles of Sila, are there to help students — and teachers — walk the talk. 

A building is only as solid and stable as its foundation. The same holds true for practitioners of yoga and meditation. Lay a strong ethical foundation, and your practices of yoga and meditation can really transform you. Fail to lay the proper foundation, and sooner or later the rotten core is going to show through.

Beyond ethics, there are other aspects of the yoga and meditation traditions that are being lost in translation. A lot of contemporary yoga has evolved to emphasize fitness and the body and body image, which is in keeping with America’s materialistic, body-obsessed culture. The esoteric and spiritual aspects of yoga — the other five of the eight limbs of yoga, after Asana — are explored only by a select few who have an inclination towards such things. But perhaps this was always the case. Not everyone is ready for awakening or interested in pursuing it; they use their practices of yoga and meditation to help them have a better dream. Is that a bad thing? Not objectively. But are they getting the whole enchilada? Not by a longshot.

Many Buddhists, too, are beginning to question whether the practice of “mindfulness” as it’s being applied in society at large has been stripped of too much of its essential context and purpose. Divorced from ethical precepts and from the wisdom tradition that reveals the deeper nature of consciousness and phenomena, mindfulness is being used by many people as a tool to help them feel better and more peaceful while they pursue largely materialistic lifestyles and goals. Is that a bad thing? Not objectively. But are they really experiencing the transformative and transcendental potential of meditation? Not even close.


Dennis Hunter is a writer and meditation/yoga teacher living in New York City. He is the author of You Are Buddha: A Guide to Becoming What You Are. He is a co-founder of Warrior Flow™ with his husband Adrian Molina.

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