Who Owns Yoga?

Patent Gurus
illustration by Lydia Mann

 Who owns Yoga?

The Debate

With bragging rights to what has become a multi-billion dollar industry at stake, the debate over who authentically “owns” yoga has never been more hotly contested. In presenting my contribution to this dispute, it is not my intent to ignore or disrespect the many centuries of deeply nuanced inquiry concerning the origins, definition or practice of Yoga — that is not my focus here. Instead, I propose a single question that would inextricably link Yoga’s definition to what I consider to be its true origin.  And, the question is:

“Was Yoga invented, or discovered?”

If Yoga was invented, that means it didn’t exist on this planet prior to its development by ancient sages. Since those sages were Indian, their heirs could argue a claim to its authentic precepts, traditions and techniques — perhaps even rightful use of the word “Yoga” itself.

Many scholars, teachers and pundits assert this claim every time they cry out in the digital town square: “Yoga belongs to the Indian Vedic tradition!” This claim, of course, entitles them to proclaim everyone else to be stealing, corrupting, misinterpreting, misrepresenting, distorting, illicitly profiting from, or otherwise violating their sacred tradition.

I view this perspective to be fundamentally in error because Yoga was, in fact, discovered. I assert that Yoga could no more be invented or owned than electricity, gravity or respiration.

What the ancient sages discovered was: Yoga is an eternal, inherent attribute of nature that reveals itself as the tendency of living systems to seek equilibrium. The philosophy of Yoga seeks to understand that fundamental equilibrium, while its practice is the art of identifying and resolving any obstructions to this completely natural state.

Yoga, like gravity or electricity, is a force of nature which undeniably existed before we humans started recognizing or utilizing it for our betterment. My view has ample support in many traditional teachings, which I do not deny were codified by intrepid seekers dwelling on the ancient Indian subcontinent, and we should be forever grateful to and deeply respectful towards those pioneers who first delivered us Yoga’s potential.  But, to limit Yoga’s definition, application or availability based on the geographical location of its discoverers would be as ludicrous as the British claiming perpetual patent rights to gravity because Sir Isaac Newton happened to have been born in Lincolnshire.

Indian Givers

The “Vedic traditionalist” argument that Yoga has been misappropriated falls apart pretty quickly when viewed in the light of recent historical fact. The teachings of Yoga weren’t stolen from India by avaricious foreigners, they were given to the world by generous Indian masters.

My first Yoga teacher was Swami Vishnu Devananda — from Kerala by way of Rishikesh — whose guru Sivananda dispatched him from the ashram with specific instructions to spread Yoga to the entire world, which he did in his own charismatic, idiosyncratic, magnificent fashion.  My core teaching lineage is that of T. Krishnamacharya — no slouch when it came to Vedic scholarship — who declared Yoga to be India’s greatest gift to the world. Never having crossed the sea himself, Krishnamacharya – that most traditional of Vedic Brahmins – nevertheless lived to see that gift permeate every corner of the globe as his students unreservedly shared his highly adaptable teachings with anyone willing to simply show up, be still and try.

It’s important to note that upon exiting his teacher’s Tibetan cave 90 years ago, Krishnamacharya’s payment to his guru in exchange for the teachings was a promise to complete a life-long, arduous task: he was charged with becoming a householder, raising a family, and sharing what he had learned. For a high-born, deeply religious Brahmin scholar like himself, this was no small promise — in fact, it was the biggest promise he could possibly have made.  The India of 1925 had long rejected her own gift, and Yogis were held by most of society in the lowest esteem possible, associated with street beggars, fakirs, criminals and frauds.  The tireless work of Krishnamacharya and his contemporaries resurrected, in decades, what it took India centuries to discard.

The worldwide renaissance of Yoga could never have happened if those relentless, magnanimous, Indian masters had limited their teachings to the rarefied strata of the upper castes — the same Vedic banner-wavers who are now crowing so loudly about how misguided, unschooled thieves have absconded with their precious heritage.

Yoga, if it’s nothing else, is a living, breathing, adaptable lineage of learning — open to all.  It both transforms and is transformed by its practitioners. It belongs to everyone because it is part of how everyone’s living system operates. It would be the height of narrow-minded folly to think you can collect patent royalties on something that wasn’t invented in the first place. You don’t own Yoga. You can only own your Yoga.

Should you feel the need to admonish someone for not practicing or teaching a “true” Yoga, I urge you to reflect on your attitude and let it go — by offering it into the flame of Yoga — swaha. Why waste your energy obsessing about how anyone else — past or present — has chosen to interpret Yoga? It is quite literally none of your business. The dividend of this offering will be an enormous energy savings that can be re-invested into a far more profitable enterprise — uncovering your own true Yoga in the only place it’s ever been, within yourself.

……

The fire is hot, the water cold,
refreshing cool the breeze of morn;
By whom came this variety?
from their own nature was it born..

Brahmins have established their
splendid rituals for the dead;
but there are no souls in other worlds —
it’s just their means of livelihood. *

……

Leslie Kaminoff
Truro, MA
July 22, 2015
……

* Freely adapted and condensed from Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha by Madhava Acharya, translation by E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough

……
Note to commenters:

If you wish to offer feedback of any kind, please click here to get to the comments section of this post. Comments sent via e-mail will not be read.

If you wish to express a counterpoint, please note that a pull quote and a hyperlink do not constitute an argument of any kind, much less a convincing rebuttal. With the exception of the cited poetry, what you have just read is 100% original — it was typed straight from my brain through my fingers. I sincerely request that any commenters offering dissenting views respect the spirit of my efforts, and do the same.

If, however, you totally agree with me, feel free to post anything you want.  😉

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86 comments on “Who Owns Yoga?

  1. Well said, Leslie, well said! Can you post this on your fb page (if you have one) so I can share it? Sending you a hug:))

  2. Leslie – you make a couple of very nice points: no one invented Yoga, so how can it be claimed by anyone? Well, unfortunately, history is replete with people claiming things they didn’t invent – the European colonialists claimed much of the new world to be theirs, but assertions is not proof. Also your point that yoga is a part or a force of nature is cogent: who can claim authority over the way our hearts’ beat? The desire of certain drug manufacturers to patent genes represents the same flawed desire to own what nature has created. So, how can the Vedic heirs to India’s culture claim to own yoga?

    I do find it ironic that the Vedic heirs to an ancient Indian culture are the ones to be claiming the rights of ownership over yoga. Mircea Eliade in his opus, Yoga, states that the pre-Dravidian populations (the people who resided in India before the coming of the Proto-Indo-Europeans – aka the Aryans) influenced the subsequent development of Indo-Aryan culture and religion. The PIE/Aryans migrated into Europe, Persia and India and with them went their pantheon of gods.The soldiers of Alexander the Great noticed, upon arriving at the banks of the Indus river, that their gods were similar to the Indian gods: Indra equated to Zeus, Agni was the same as Hermes, Vishwakarman was equivalent to Hephaestus, and so on. But nowhere in the European pantheons of the PIE gods do we find anyone similar to Shiva, Kali, or Vishnu. These were more ancient gods and goddess that the Aryans of India eventually, and slowly adopted into their own religion. Eliade also points out that the word “puja”, the practice of sacrifice that is so integral to Vedic life, is probably of Dravidian origin.

    Another Indian scholar, Heinrich Zimmer, also believed that Shakti was Dravidian in origin. The Vedic culture was fiercely patriarchal in nature but today the goddess Shakti is an important aspect of Hinduism. For this India owes thanks again to the Dravidians: Zimmer says, “Tantra may have its roots in the non-Aryan, pre-Aryan Dravidian soil”. Joseph Campbell, the editor of Zimmer’s book Philosophies of India noted, “Shiva [is] the supreme Lord of Yoga–which is a non-Vedic discipline”

    Clearly the Vedic masters of India were not the ones to have invented yoga: no one can invent a force of nature. But neither were they the first to discover yoga. That honour seems to go to the people who lived in India for millennia before the arrival of the Vedic bearing Proto-Indo-Europeans. The Vedic heirs to yoga clearly did develop Yoga and changed it into many different forms, but that is what people in the West continue to do today. Yoga continues to evolve without any central authority required to oversee its development. No one owns it. No one invented it. Everyone can use it.

        • When I first became interested in Yoga, I was already familiar with the basic outline of the Indo-European migrations of several waves into Europe and India, but then I discovered, through reading Georg Feuerstein’s books that this was not so. The origin of this great culture and language was in India. I saw that David Frawley had also researched this and agree with Feuerstein. For many years I accepted this, along with other Yoga dogma (ie: Hatha Yoga is a 5,000 years old practice.) But, even though I dove deeply into Yoga theory and practice, I never stopped reading other scientific texts and I constantly found other scientists, archeologists and historians continued to disagree with the “out of India” theory proposed by Yogic scholars. It seemed to me that only in the Yoga circles was the Out of India theory considered viable, but outside of Yoga, no one talks about it.

          For just one example, in the Feb/2015 Issue of Science Magazine (the most reputable journal in Science today), there is an article entitled “Mysterious Indo-European homeland may have been the steppes of Ukraine and Russia”. [http://news.sciencemag.org/archaeology/2015/02/mysterious-indo-european-homeland-may-have-been-steppes-ukraine-and-russia] There is definitely a debate in the science community over where the Indo-Europeans arose, but the debate is over Anatolia about 8,000 years ago or the Russian steppes 6,000 years. Nowhere in these debates is the Out of India theory considered. It seems to be a non-factor for anyone outside the Yoga community. The studies cited in science journals refer to archeology, linguistics and also genetics. I have had to reconsider my desire for Yoga to be an ancient source of so many things, and today, based on the science, I would have to suggest that India was not the homeland of the Vedas nor the Vedic culture. Rather, this culture did infiltrate in several waves the north-western reaches of India, Iran and Europe.

          In the link Mr Seth offered to an essay by Kazanas ,there are unsubstantiable claims such as “Not a single linguistic argument lends the slightest support to the [Aryan infiltration theory].” Clearly this is not true. In the Science article there are many linguistic arguments offered. The essay also claims, “Mainstream Chronologies [are] founded on fictions.” This is also demonstrably false: there are many facts that are background to the modern theories of Indo-European migration. When an article makes such strong emotional claims, one’s spidey senses start to tingle.

          Leslie – you use the emotive term “thoroughly discredited Aryan Invasion Theory.” That is putting a very strong bias in the minds of readers. The migration of the Indo-Europeans into India is hardly discredited at all in the Scientific community, let along “thoroughly” so. While I acknowledge that Feuerstein and Frawley firmly believe that the Indo-European migration did not happen, there are many scientists who do not agree with them, and evidence is continuing to accumulate that put the Out of India theory in grave doubt. One Indian archeologist bemoaned the fact that some of her countrymen were proposing the Out of India theory in the face of all evidence, which she felt was giving Indian historians a bad name for being reverse imperialists.

          I wanted to believe that India was the homeland for yoga. I still believe that, but I no longer believe that yoga originated in the Vedic culture. There is room for debate, but let’s let the debate be civil and not based on dogmatic assertions. I was concerned about this discrepancy of views when I was researching and writing my latest book, From the Gita to the Grail: Exploring Yoga Stories and Western Myths. I had to know what side of the debate I would present. I would be happy to copy a rather long footnote on this topic here if you like, or forward it to you via email. It provides more references and background to this topic than is appropriate in this forum. Cheers!

          • Hi Bernie.

            My mention of the theory being discredited wasn’t meant to imply I agreed with that view a hundred percent either way. The people pushing both sides of the question may have agendas that go beyond pure academic accuracy.

            The bottom line is, I don’t think the ultimate answer is terribly relevant as to the authenticity of any one individual’s yoga practice.

    • You know how I hate “argument by hyperlink,” Pankaj, but I’ll let this one thru just this once….

      Here is the first chapter of SUNY Press “A survey of Hinduism” which also explains this very clearly… headline quote below…

      The modern archaeological record for South Asia indicates a cultural history of continuity rather than the earlier 18th through 20th century scholarly interpretation of discontinuity and South Asian dependence upon Western influences.
      —J. G. Shaffer and D. A. Lichtenstein, “Migration, Philology and South Asian Sociology”

      Link: http://www.sunypress.edu/pdf/61438.pdf

      • My original point was that yoga was not invented by the Vedic culture, but was discovered by the earlier Dravidian culture. It matters little which view of when or how the Aryans arrived into Indian (or were indeed always there – and we could a lovely debate on all that: see my earlier post above), if the history shows that it was in the Dravidian soil that yoga first arose. In the 1994 version of the book you cite, A Survey of Hinduism, the author writes (page 39) “Outside this structure [of Aryan society] there existed the indigenous, tribal population that became partly assimilated in the course of time. … Whereas brahmanic religion knew neither temple nor image, the religious tradition preserved in the epics and Puranas, with its … miracles and myths, became more popular, assimilating, transforming, and often replacing Vedic religion.” The image is one of a conquered people, the Dravidians, enslaved by the Vedic people (wherever they came from), being subjugated by the Vedic culture like flowers covered over by concrete, but in time the Dravidian culture (and its yoga) burst up through the tarmac to the sun again.

        As an aside, it is interesting to see the fervor with which some modern Yogis/Hindus claim the Europeans invented a story of Vedic incursions from abroad and instead hold to the idea that all of India, north and south, was always Vedic. And yet, some Dravidians in South India hold a injustice was done to them: that the Vedic-Aryans from the north made up the story that all of India was Vedic, and instead believe that their indigenous culture, the Dravidian culture, was pre-eminent and the source of much of what is admired in Hinduism today. (See page 295 of the same text.) The Dravidians of India feel just as victimized by the Vedic Aryans, as the Indian Hindus feel victimized by the West.

        • All good points Bernie.

          One thing I always found fascinating about Krishnamacharya is how he brought together the both Vedic and the South Indian lineages of the Alvars into the fold of yoga and it’s practice. After all, he was a direct descendant of Nathamuni who also held degrees in all six darsanas.

          • I am disappointed that people continue to get Krishnamacharya’s history in relation to yoga asana completely wrong. Krishnamacharya never studied with a “Tibetan Sage” in Nepal. Please refer to “The Yoga Sutra of Pantajali” by David Gordon White. Until Krishnamacharya’s history in relation to the yoga asana is understood, this debate will fail to gain any real traction.

          • You raise an interesting issue, and I’ve been corresponding with Dr. White about it.

            But, what does your comment have to do with my post?

  3. Hi Leslie!
    As always, you present such a well thought out and reasoned perspective. Since you and I discussed this question in the spring, it has resonated with me in how I weigh the debate points on this topic. I agree with your point that yoga was both discovered and was presented as a gift to the West. I think that the complication lies in the entanglement between yoga, the culture it developed in as its context, and the post-colonial appropriation and re-appropriation of that culture. Thus, while yoga belongs to everyone, there are many aspects of Indian culture that are being appropriated in the name of yoga. This is further complicated by the sanitization and editing of yoga’s history, philosophy, and standing as a comprehensive system as seen in much of Transnational Hatha Yoga practices today. I assert that yes, yoga was discovered. It is a universal practice that belongs to everyone. At the same time, there needs to be greater transparency, accuracy, and authenticity surrounding the yoga history and philosophy taught (and wouldn’t it be great to see more history and philosophy offered to students?!?) to clarify for the lay person the context that their practice is set in. Thus, yoga remains universal while still respecting the culture in which it was developed.

  4. Thoughtful and accurate.
    And I agree.

    Taking a view from the ‘other’ side, I can see some areas that may cause some form of discomfort. The sentence that indicates the loss of Yoga to the subcontinent— how was the practice ‘lost’ to ‘them’? It’s complicated, but colonial pressures are blamed. There is the never-ending shoe-pinch in these colonial doings. There is resentment and deep-seated anger in the hearts and minds of those who have the time and energy to devote to the feelings they have, and the thoughts they have, about the history of being oppressed and used.
    Certainly the facts may interfere, as perhaps it seems Yoga was waning and marginalized long before direct colonization.

    Yoga would have us ‘take’ what is useful, and use it. With respect.
    When we find ourselves feeling the other is ‘disrespecting’ (in our opinions) we have to find what else is there. The something –more– that is in the mix. Find what we -can- respect, and then do that. Educate in the areas that feel distorted, and educate ourselves in the process.

    Thank you.

    • “Certainly the facts may interfere, as perhaps it seems Yoga was waning and marginalized long before direct colonization.”

      The Islamic invasions of course did not help, but the British too did not help, going as far as closing down centres of traditional sanskrit learning. So its a double whammy for nearly 1000 years. Now, expect some noise! Thank you for beginning to listen.

  5. “The India of 1925 had long rejected her own gift, and Yogis were held by most of society in the lowest esteem possible, associated with street beggars, fakirs, criminals and frauds. ”

    Nice observation!

    India got its independence in 1944 after approximately 200 years of an unjust rule by the Raj that looted India of all its wealth and an unsuccessful attempt to suppress all its traditional belief systems. This timeframe and observation seems to serve the storyline fair justice.

    • Fair enough…So, what exactly do you suppose was happening in the Indian Yoga world of the 1400’s until 1745? Where are all the innovations and development that would have occurred had the practices been highly valued by society? Am I missing some key texts that were composed after the Medieval period? Was the suppression of Yoga the fault of the Mughals before the British?

      • Mathematics for example flourished before the Islamic invasions, but not during, for example. So yes, there was a huge effect overall in all sectors of society. I can bring references here, if you will allow. But its not a stretch to see this, I would think.

      • Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were probably a “figment of imagination”? It is well known the Christian efforts to make sure the converts treat traditional practices in India as “abominable devil worship” – this practice continues till this day in India!

        Why do we not talk about the essence of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras anywhere when generalizing Yoga as a “universal practice belonging to everyone”?

        • You are welcome to talk about what you consider to be the essence of the sutras.

          My definition of Yoga as a force of nature is best expressed thru YS 4:3

  6. absolutely agree with your pov … why is it that this debate continues to surround yoga and not other ancient energetic/healing traditions like qigong, or, more recently, tai chi …

    practically speaking, every yoga practioner “discovers” something “new” within themselves almost everytime they practice … there can’t be a patent or claim of ownership on that internal awareness since it belongs to the yogi of yogini who experienced it, and then incorporated that awareness into their own practice and passed that insight along to their students. This is just as it should be, honoring the yogic tradition of expanding the collective knowledge base and passing it along to the next generation of practioners and teachers … mm

  7. Leslie, I always enjoy your thoughtful perspectives. The bottom line these days is basically money. India wants to reclaim its supposed “heritage” to cash in on the enormous financial flood in the yoga market. I am not averse to them approaching this from this angle, although I feel it is misguided, because maybe with this new national endorsement, many Indians will once again discover their own yoga, after all!

    • Let it be known that Yoga is more important to India and Indians than the almighty dollar. Your attitude is dismissive of just how important the knowledge is that Yoga aims at, or perhaps it doesn’t yet exist.

      • So, you refuse to accept payment for your professional services?

        It must be nice to be an independently wealthy commentator. Where do I apply for that position?

        • Nice way of diverting the conversation by pushing unintended words into someone’s mouth. I cannot for a moment believe that a person who wrote an ‘intelligent’ article responds with a comment like that!

          • I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific regarding which comment you’re referring to.

          • Oh, I see the thread now. About payment.

            Yes, my question stands, and you have not answered it. You condemn the dollar, so I wish to know if your landlord accepts good karma as payment.

        • Dear Leslie,

          I am prepared to teach you some things which you lack, pertaining to Yoga, without renumeration. For an example, you could look at your use of the term ‘force of nature’ below… you are spreading confusion and require correction.

          Signed,
          Someone willing to work without renumeration as long as it helps the spreading of Yoga in defensible ways (referring to debate).

          • How many times must I remind you that I am not, nor will I ever be interested in your “teachings.”

            Your repeated efforts to cast me as your student are incredibly disrespectful to me, my teachers, and my students.

            For someone who claims to represent the Vedic teachings, you exhibit a shocking lack of respect for my teaching lineage.

            Since this is at least the fourth time I have had to point this out to you, I will now have to ask you for an apology. If that is not forthcoming, I have no choice but to ban you from any further interaction with me.

            (NOTE: An apology from Pankaj was not forthcoming, and as a result, he has been banned from further access to this forum.)

        • Lesilie: I wonder what your Guru would think of what you are teaching now and if he would approve of you doing so.

          Now, if he were to disapprove and you were to teach the way you were taught by your Guru, would that mean less money for you? hmmmm.

          • It was my teacher (not guru) who insisted, above all else, that I trust my own experience, and follow my own path. And yes, that has led me to hold views he would most likely not agree with.

            And, to answer your snarky question about money: what would really hurt my income would be putting out phony ideas in which I did not believe only because I thought it might make me more popular.

  8. I may be about to transgress both sides of this debate, pleasing none, but I hope to just widen the scope a bit. Both Kaminoff and his critics seem to agree that Yoga is a natural phenomenon that was discovered. He discusses it as if it were a law of nature.

    “Yoga is an eternal, inherent attribute of nature that reveals itself as the tendency of living systems to seek equilibrium….

    Yoga, like gravity or electricity, is a force of nature which undeniably existed before we humans started recognizing or utilizing it for our betterment. “

    Whether or not this is true, we cannot separate the natural phenomena from the social and cultural expressions of it. It is certain that up until very recently, the expression of Yoga was uniquely Indian. When we speak of Yoga’s discovery, it is important to distinguish the ways that we use that term. As used by Kaminoff, discovery seems to be used in an empirical, scientific manner in line with modern western ideas of how the universe works, whereas the opposition seems to integrate ideas of revelation in their definition of discovery in line with Indian tradition.

    This ultimately sounds like an argument over who gets to determine meaning in Yoga. Meaning is not determined on an individual basis. Any arguments that place the individual as the primary producer of meaning is misguided. Meaning is negotiated amongst members of social units. The illusion of a monolithic Yoga tradition that does not respond to social shifts is simplistic at best.

    The fact is that the meaning of Yoga was seriously impacted by colonialization and South Asian voices have largely been muted in the mostly western, modern, yoga renaissance. I don’t think its possible to simply “go deeper” so that “we are not disturbed by what other people do in the name of Yoga.” None of us operates in a vacuum and when we collectively gather to practice Yoga there are social phenomena that govern our experience. Why are the demographics of Yoga practitioners so narrow? Is it just coincidence that Yoga spaces tend towards homogeneity? What values get passed along under the guise of Yoga? Are there social pressures to conform to specific ways of practicing based on these values? Is Yoga practiced in a way that is liberating or does it simply condition us further?

    If we find that Yoga can simply act as a vehicle to pass on social conditioning, then the exclusion of S. Asian voices is simply an act of cultural appropriation that is being used to prop up western social systems. The recognition of Yoga’s Indian roots and the inclusion of S. Asian voices in the conversation of what Yoga means is not simply about transferring authority or a dispute about who gets to generate meaning, but rather a recognition that Indians may have a way of understanding the practice that we as westerners either don’t have access to, or that changes us in the act of trying to grasp it.

    Universalizing Yoga is only useful if it builds bridges and not if it uncouples Yoga from its roots so that we can sit safely in our own value system as consumers of Yoga without having to open ourselves to other perspectives.

    • Greg, I think you make great points. I can’t agree with Mr. Kaminoff – even the idea that science is “discovered” not “invented” is philosophically debatable* – except his suggestion to let go of any impulse to correct other’s definition of yoga.

      *note: I’m highly susceptible to engaging in semantic arguments; my “true” yoga is not doing so. 🙂

  9. The methodology of Yoga is quite simple really. As Patanjali notes, it is just to become absolutely still, and then something happens. Self-experience changes. Now how is this to be framed? That is the contribution of the Seers and thinkers of ancient India, and passed down for generations.

    This unique framing is what has not been given anywhere else. There are and have been many ways of framing the human condition. These are the various world views which have existed and continue to exist. Today in the world, three main worldviews exist… they are Materialism, Monotheism and Consciousness-first. India has forwarded the latter, forever. This is the unique contribution of the Indian civilization. The methods of Yoga lead one to see this for oneself.

    Monotheism and Materialism have been contributions of other cultures, their framing of the human condition. Today we are watching a rejection of monotheism worldwide, and we are in a position to evaluate the veracity of the two views left of the three I have mentioned… Materialism and Consciousness-first. Our sciences, particularly physics and increasingly neuroscience indicate that Materialism is untenable and goes against the evidence gained, as consciousness is irreducible. This has finally vindicated what India has said all along, and is the thrust of Yoga.

    To place Yoga within the context of Materialism/Objectivism is simply a huge case of Epistemic violence to its founders and givers, and a falsehood which injures the very integrity of Yoga. So, no, one is not free to interpret Yoga as one likes. Veracity is not optional. Veracity is not secondary to one’s opinion. Yoga is not reducible to techniques and methods but also includes the aims within the particular framing given in India since ancient times.

    This is India’s unique contribution to the human quest for self-knowledge. And while anyone is welcome to it, it is not given in so arbitrary a fashion that one may injure this most important knowledge base and know how to the point of changing its aims away from self-discovery as framed in India a long time ago. Yoga is not what anyone would like to distort it to, but is as forwarded since ancient times in India.

  10. Yoga isn’t some free-for-all without ownership. So who owns Yoga then? The owners of Yoga are the authentic practitioners and teachers of Yoga. Those who aren’t interested in practicing or teaching Yoga authentically do not have any moral, philosophical, or ideological claim. They are to be viewed with suspicion.

      • It is not a question about “who gets to determine what is authentic Yoga.” That question is already answered with the plethora of ancient traditions that exist today which have been passed on from student to teacher through millennia. These traditions are what are authentic, and naturally they are to be adapted for the times, but if the deviations are so great as to strip them of their core philosophical basis, then what is left is not authentic and is to be rejected.

        • Good points, mostly.

          BUT, when you say that the “traditions are what are authentic,” it’s important to remember that traditions are nothing more or less than the sum of what individual human beings have contributed. It is only an individual who can be authentic — not a tradition as such.

          I’m sure there are certain individuals in your “tradition” you’d rather not be associated with — there certainly are in mine.

          • Yes, and the metaphysics and philosophy of these individuals must be examined. So, as far as Yoga is concerned, if Consciousness is not rooted at the center of the metaphysical and philosophical teachings, then it is not Yoga. Without Consciousness, it is Anti-Yoga, non-Yoga yoga, or whatever else you want to call it.

          • When you capitalize the word “Consciousness” in your comment, I can only assume you give it Primacy, a view I reject.

            As far as I can tell, the most basic distinction re: consciousness is whether it is primary — as opposed to existence being primary. Meaning: does the universe emerge from some kind of eternal, primal consciousness, or is it the universe itself which is primal and eternal? Giving primacy to existence would mean that consciousness is an *attribute* of certain entities, which cannot exist independently of those entities that possess it.

            I subscribe to the latter view – the primacy of existence – which is what makes me, in Sanskrit terminology, a Nastik – one who rejects the supernatural origin, and thus the ultimate authority, of the Vedas. While I do not dispute the fact that great wisdom can be found in Vedic teachings, I reject the idea that they were “heard” by sages who were in mystical communion with some other dimension – for the simple fact that I reject the existence of that other dimension. This view actually attributes great respect and wisdom to the rishis, for it holds their insight and intelligence in high esteem as the *authors* of the Vedas – as opposed to being some sort of passive human dictaphone for the divine.

            Holding these beliefs has not in any way hampered my ability to teach Yoga. It has, in fact, greatly enhanced that ability by freeing me from the burden of accepting at face value centuries of mystical, unfounded assumptions about the core teachings.

            I hope this clarifies where I’m coming from. Thank you for your contribution to this dialogue.

  11. Sorry Leslie, I wrote my first two comments on FB prior to reading your essay. I too learned yoga with Swami Vishnu Devananda a long time ago and more recently with teachers like yourself, François Raoul, Judith Lasater and others who are filled with the desire to share yoga as a transformative tool, as a path, as an alchemy recipe that brings the individual under the universal. That’s close to a definition of yoga isn’t?
    And in this whole debate, I feel we often loose sight of this.
    Now about this whole Indian thing. Whether or not yoga was invented or discovered in India, I personally don’t give a pooh! I don’t want to be disrespectful but anybody who knows enough yoga, knows that yoga is a tradition with thousands of different practices and reasons to practice, and thousands of different beliefs and school of thoughts. That being said, isn’t it still the case today? Isn’t there one yoga for everyone of us that’s practicing it?

    • Daniel, without Moksha as aim, is it still Yoga? Of course there are diverse ways towards that aim, but the aim itself is not done without. Of course one may derive many benefits towards health and well being, but that is not the point. Your statements of the sort “thousands of…” say nothing specific yet manage to dilute the one thing (enlightenment, liberation, self-knowledge) that Yoga is always about throughout its history in India. Your statements make it sound like that anything and everything can be Yoga, anything and everything can the aim of Yoga. Could you be more precise?

      • Pankaj, thank you for your comment. For me yoga is both the path and the goal. But at the same time, talking about a goal to yoga is to deny what’s already here now. From This perspective, nothing needs to be done, life doesn’t need improvements. Also from this perspective, yes! everything is yoga, even this little chat. From Leslie’s perspective, I really like the idea of yoga having been discovered rather then invented. I think the “who” discovered it, is irrelevant. It could have been anybody. It just happened to be human beings! Regards and be well.

  12. Shiva adinath give knowledge to parvati, matsyendranath har and bring it to humans, and them gorakshanath make yoga acessible to the masses , if today yoga are in the mouth of many people we shouldalso consider mentioning shiva adinath matsyendranath and the mahayogi guru gorakshanath .

  13. Sir/Ma’am,
    Yoga belongs to nobody. Similarly, countries belong to nobody. America too was discovered. How then it belongs to People who call themselves American. 🙂
    This argument pinches , right :P.
    Things belong to those who gave their blood, energy and time to safe guard it for the larger mankind. If tomorrow , USA could give its everything for KarmaYoga, Bhakti Yoga and Jnan Yoga , it will definitely belong it . So , learn to belong not snatch !

  14. I have frequently taught and still do in very diverse settings culturally. I always mention that I believe every culture has its own way to move breathe and express that is similar to yoga. This version is just from Indian culture. Thanks for always burning the flame of your dedication to yoga Leslie. I don’t see you but what I learned is still with me. Maybe someday I will be around more but for now I am around by being here wherever I am. Love and Namaste. Inga

    • “I believe every culture has its own way to move breathe and express that is similar to yoga. This version is just from the Indian culture.”

      But Yoga is not reducible to the above. It sounds like Leslie has taught you methods but the aims remains yet to be taught, as you have not even mentioned that. How the Indian culture has framed the human condition is required to know in order to know what is being aimed at. Otherwise, it remains about breathing, moving etc.

        • My judgements are judgements of previous judgements. My comments are not special in that they are judgements while the comments I am commenting to are not judgements. Is that clear? What gives you the right to comment to me, or about Yoga is not different than what allows me to speak as well. Freedom is worth having, don’t you think? Freedom to criticize can be criticized, and you have done that too. Its all flowing Leslie, why single me out?

          • When you address a student of mine as if you have knowledge of what I have or have not taught them, you cross a line, sir.

            Restrict your judgements to topics of which you can claim some actual knowledge.

            My statements about Vedic thought, etc. come from a place of knowledge, whether you agree with me or not.

            Your statements about what I teach are as uninformed as those who judged Desikachar’s knowledge of Patanjali from reading his brief treatment of the sutras in “Heart of Yoga.”

          • Dear Leslie,

            To correct someone who reduces Yoga to a methodology is to render a service.

            Signed,
            Someone who knows

          • Dear someone who knows:

            You don’t seem to know what you don’t know.

            What you don’t know is what I teach or don’t teach to my students, and I will thank you to not comment upon that subject – especially when addressing a student of mine. If you have disagreements with what you do know of my views, direct them at me.

        • Dear Leslie,

          How do you reconcile your belief in objectivism with Yoga? Do you think that Yoga is compatible with Objectivism? You have said already elsewhere that you identify with being a Charvakan, so how could you be actually teaching what Yoga points to?

          Signed,
          someone puzzled but curious

          • That is actually the topic of the book I’m currently writing.

            I’m afraid you’ll have wait for the full answer along with everyone else.

            In brief, I agree with the Nastik Atheist stand of Carvaka, but not its skepticism or hedonism. And yes, there is indeed a place for Yoga within that view.

        • But ‘nature’ is a concept which you have left undefined, but in using that term you are going towards a dualism.

          You might say instead that Yoga is a process within consciousness (which is not a concept, but directly known as such) which seeks to know itself.

          • I am not prepared to debate my position by conceding any of your premises.

            I will be happy to send you a review copy of the book when it is completed, so you can pick apart my argument once it is complete.

            I assure you that argument will not be made in the comments section of my blog, so save your breath.

  15. Leslie Kaminoff will do well to understand the concept of “digestion” as applied to encounter of civilisations and cultures – an analogy brilliantly devised by Rajiv Malhotra (http://rajivmalhotra.com/big-ideas-2/miscellaneous/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjhoC4rprm0). The piecemeal selective adoption and adhikaar-less adaptation (=distortion. Like replacing Om with Allah or Jesus) of Yoga (or other Hindu/Dharmic techniques, systems and concepts) and then making it THE MAINSTREAM VERSION (by virtue of the huge imbalance of power the West wields) means huge disservice to the original/authentic version. For instance, while restricting Yoga to just physical exercises and mainstreaming only this reductionist version of the grand system seems innocent and harmless, it in effect means that the root of the original system with all its infinite spiritual possibilities are dried up in time. What a grand loss!! It is – as Rajiv Varma once pointed in a different context – akin to using the pages of Ramayana as a pattal (a makeshift plate/bowl to eat from). Of course that may be a harmless/legitimate use, but a grossly reductionist one. And then if that use of Ramayana becomes mainstream, the other aspects which are far greater in their scope (spiritual code, dharma teachings, poetry, rasa, moral code, etc.) shall perish in time. Leslie Kaminoff’s analysis of this phenomenon is thus superficial and simplistic.

    • My own teacher Desikachar was accused of a superficial and simplistic approach in his translation of Patanjali. This, of course, came from people who had never actually studied with him.

  16. I’m afraid your argument falters on two accounts:

    First, while you claim that ‘yoga’ was ‘discovered’ not ‘invented,’ you don’t even come close to specifying or defining what you mean by ‘yoga.’ Gravity was ‘discovered,’ and it is quite clear what gravity ‘is.’ Same for all other discoveries. But given that there are many definitions to yoga — contrast yoga as ‘skill in action’ in the Bhagavad-Gita (in which Krishna argues against Samkhya (Patanjali’s) ‘inaction’ — just as one of many possible examples — and you get a sense of the problem.

    So what EXACTLY do you mean by ‘yoga’ such that it is a ‘force of nature’ that is subject to being discovered? Especially when yoga is so often thought of as a practice rather than a ‘thing.’

    Second, you still reflexively accept the argument that yoga is ‘Vedic’ and proceed to argue on that ground. One does not need to argue with the thesis that the Vedas were introduced into India by the Aryans (by whatever means); instead, a simple awareness of the evolution of the practice of yoga has to acknowledge the influence of non-Vedic traditions — the Sramana tradition in particular (which is at the root of the early version of Samkhya as well as Buddhism and Jainism) — to recognize that even the more ‘Vedic’ versions of yoga presented in the Upanishads were influenced by the concerns and concepts of these movements. And that there is yoga ‘outside’ of the Vedic context from early onwards, and this influences the kinds of debate we find in the Bhagavad-Gita, for instance. You also have nothing to say on the influences upon the Hatha Yoga tradition, or the place that it holds in the overall yoga tradition (especially since we assume and use so many of the terms and practices from that tradition in our ‘yoga’ today, while still reflexively genuflecting to the supremacy of Patanjali — with the implicit assumption that he too is somehow ‘Vedic.’ Not.)

    The contemporary narrative about Patanjali as well as the ‘Vedic’ origin of yoga is a 19th century invention of the neo-Vedanta movement, in conjunction with influences from the West. The history of the development of this narrative is clear in a number of recent works, including Stefanie Syman, David White, Philip Goldberg, James Mallinson, Mark Singleton, and many many more. You are accepting the premise of an historical fiction and arguing from there.

    If you are going to make an argument against the fallacy of Vedic ‘ownership’ of yoga, then at least make a good one. The one you offer here is lazy, operates on unfounded assumptions, and is too smug by half. There are better arguments to be made.

    • My definition of Yoga is quite clear in the piece I wrote. If you don’t agree with my statement , fine. Just don’t deny that I have made it.

      • Dear Leslie,
        Is there an error in comparing ‘gravity’ with ‘Yoga’ ? Has gravity been understood by scientists? Are the laws of gravity sacrosanct or even ‘sutras’ that can take us to the truth. Yes gravity exists but why , this is still a mystery. The laws of gravity are hypothesis after hypothesis and applies to gross mass that too not universally. This is where your assumptions and erroneous camparisons with science of Yoga , may need correction. Thank you.

      • You can’t be serious. At no point in the essay — anywhere — do you specify what you mean by yoga; what practices you include within yoga, or even what ‘yoga’ is as an experience, other than a ‘force.’ It’s not clear from your vague reference to ‘force’ whether it was ‘yoga’ that was discovered, or endorphins.

        You pride yourself in rational argumentation, but you do not define your terms sufficiently — and simply brush off anyone who points that out with a version of ‘go find the needle in the haystack.’ You certainly do not initiate the discussion with any kind of specification of the meaning of your terms. ‘Yoga’ is not as self-evident as you assume ‘it’ to be — as if it were a ‘thing.’

        Moreover, you accept a false premise. Anyone with more than a superficial knowledge of the evolution of yoga knows that yoga is not ‘Vedic’ in any exclusive or proprietary sense. One need not argue with the idea (of Vedic ownership), but rather simply demonstrate it to be false. There are plenty of resources for doing so.

        I repeat: as a ‘rational argument,’ yours falls woefully short and adds little to the conversation. It is a soufflé, puffed up and defended with bluster. I know — that’s your ‘brand.’

        We agree that the ‘Vedas’ do not ‘own’ yoga.

        Now please come up with a better — and more factually/historically supported — argument (which really isn’t so hard to do), rather than rely on facile analogies to natural ‘forces’ like gravity. Don’t act like a pigeon who lands on a chessboard, knocks over all the pieces and then struts about like he’s won.

        PS If you insist that you have adequately defined yoga, then please explain — based on your definition — how yoga is anything like the ‘force’ of gravity.

        Gravity as a force operates independently of human action or will. Gravity ‘works’ whether you want it to or not.

        Yoga on the other hand has to be practiced for it to ‘work.’ It relies upon will, intention, action and [discriminative] understanding.

        Unlike gravity, yoga doesn’t ‘happen’ when no one is doing it.

        In other words, gravity doesn’t have to be ‘practiced’ — yoga does…Unless you have a different definition of ‘yoga’ that doesn’t involve people, in which case you need to be more clear.

        How does yoga in any way resemble gravity, such that you can rest your argument on the analogy?

        • “…At no point in the essay — anywhere — do you specify what you mean by yoga…”

          Other than here, of course:
          Yoga is an eternal, inherent attribute of nature that reveals itself as the tendency of living systems to seek equilibrium. The philosophy of Yoga seeks to understand that fundamental equilibrium, while its practice is the art of identifying and resolving any obstructions to this completely natural state.”

          — did you miss the fact that I used bold, italic type?…

          A fuller explanation will be forthcoming in the book I’m currently writing, but you can find ample support for this view in the Yoga Sutras — specifically in the second chapter’s treatment of the kleshas. My use of the term “obstructions” was intended to link directly to that part of the teachings. Additionally, a major hint is contained in the fourth chapter’s third sutra, wherein transformation is described as being possible only when we remove certain obstacles that prevent the “natural intelligence” of nature from asserting itself.

          BTW, I didn’t say that Yoga WAS gravity, I said it was a natural force LIKE gravity. Asana practice can be viewed as a process of aligning ourselves and our actions with forces that are already present, rather than thinking there is something essential that is missing, or needs to be added.

          I can rest my argument on these views because in my 36 years of teaching Yoga, I have found them to be true, practical and effective.

  17. What a foolish argument.Yoga is like law of Gravity !!!!Yoga is learned by Indian sages by observing Animals.It is not a Law. It is a practice, it needs a teacher your intolerance of India is obvious.

  18. This topic reminded me something about BKS iyengar
    When BKS Iyengar was asked why he does not apply a patent for the design of props, he said, “I designed props so people can benefit. Thousands are benefitting and will continue to benefit from them. Does God ever file a patent for his creation? Then what right do I, a mortal, have to do so?”

    So i think to know the history of things is important, but in my opinion the yoga has a fundamental principle: Yoga is to share it, thats all. ( Sorry for my english)

  19. who owns yoga is an important topic
    many want to copyright it and commercialise it
    as you mention.
    it sad that a philosophy science practice spiritual life is treated as such
    much so in the “west” which does not have the ashram system much
    (and from adverts its commercialised in India too, now)
    where most things are commercialised and valued in money
    even the water we drink and air we breath
    keep yoga free and non commercial for everyone to benefit

  20. yes it is not invented but discovered but in India and this is a simple fact not the matter of ownership because the people who discovered it, were definitely never wore the the idea to own it. it is for humanity. it is for one consciousness. In your blog you mentioned that some time it was totally ignored or belonged to fakirs, beggars. People did not practice Asana
    because of so many contemporary reasons but Yoga as a philosophy was always alive and in whole India’s freedom movement it worked immensely as a guiding factor. A new thought is yoga is an extension or evolved version of Sanatan dharma also seems true. because the people discovered it belonged to the Sanatana philosophy and were looking for some better purpose of life , some ways to live life better, to achieve real happiness and that is how they left every thing and just kept one thing in mind, the purity of soul and discovered a new thing – Yoga. it jins whole world. Please don’t claim it for any bodys ownership keeping in the mind that it was discovered in India for the whole humanity.

  21. The primary reason yoga is so hotly debated at present is because of the popularization of yoga asana. If in fact, as Dr. White suggests, that asana was constructed not more than 100 years ago by Krishnamacharya, then there is little debate around its origins. In your article you used the fictional history Krishnamacharya presented to authenticate his style of exercise/gymnastics he created to teach his students in Mysore. According to Dr. White this has nothing to do with yoga. If we want to talk about philosophy, meditation etc… then I am in full agreement with the thesis of your article, but you lost me when you brought Krishnamacharya in to the debate.

    “It’s important to note that upon exiting his teacher’s Tibetan cave 90 years ago, Krishnamacharya’s payment to his guru in exchange for the teachings was a promise to complete a life-long, arduous task: he was charged with becoming a householder, raising a family, and sharing what he had learned. For a high-born, deeply religious Brahmin scholar like himself, this was no small promise — in fact, it was the biggest promise he could possibly have made. The India of 1925 had long rejected her own gift, and Yogis were held by most of society in the lowest esteem possible, associated with street beggars, fakirs, criminals and frauds. The tireless work of Krishnamacharya and his contemporaries resurrected, in decades, what it took India centuries to discard.”

    To conflate yoga with asana is problematic at best. In response to this statement slightly more educated people will quote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the lesser educated will go so far as to regurgitate the current and popular myth of the Yoga Sutras. While the Yoga Sutra argument is ridiculous and not worth discussion, the later texts could be misconstrued by the novel reader. If one reads those texts with a clear understanding of “Hatha” or the history of the Nath sects, then there should be no confusion.

    • Speaking as a student of Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikachar, I can say that in my experience, asana can be a valuable tool of Yoga. Asana and Yoga are not the same thing, but they are completely compatible, and mutually illuminating. I can say this with assurance from a purely rational and anatomical perspective, irregardless of whether the teachings I received came out of a cave or not.

      Regarding Dr. White’s deconstruction of Krishnamacharya’s timeline, it’s interesting to point out some information he did not have access to. First, Krishnamacharya was apparently teaching sutras in Mysore, contrary to Dr. White’s conclusion that he only turned his attention to Patanjali after his move to Madras. We have recorded testimony of Pattabhi Jois that he learned the Yoga Sutra from Prof. K. during a period of 7 years in Mysore. Additionally, during that time, KPJ was told that his teacher’s guru Rama Mohana Bramachari lived in the forest outside of Benares, which undercuts Dr. White’s contention that the geographical logistics behind the story of the Tibetan (or Napalese) cave are simply untenable. Why Krishnamacharya chose to change the location of the “cave” on subsequent re-tellings of his story is a question about which we can only speculate.

      Now, could all of this be just another fabrication or misremembering? Sure. But, my point is that it’s not quite as cut and dried as the case made out in Dr. White’s book. It’s simply a matter of which story you choose to believe, and which story you choose to challenge. It’s all stories in the end.

      None of the stories really matter as far as the authenticity of the teachings are concerned. What makes them authentic is not geography, antiquity, pedantry, or anything else that adds up to an external appeal to authority. Authenticity comes from embodiment, trail and error, and concretizing the principles in real life. That’s what I’ve been taking a stand for all these years.

  22. Namaste
    So if recipe of chicken tandoori was discovered in india and is liked worldwide, people opening restaurants and serving chicken tandoori in Indian restaurants worldwide, getting money, nothing is wrong in it.
    But we would mind if anyone does not know what chicken tandoori is basically and if you are selling “bat ” tandoori using your own ingredients like orange zest and chocolate,cheeze , if it tastes aweful and if nothing really is common with original recipe but people are buying it just because YOU ARE SELLING IT UNDER BRAND NAME of Chicken tandoori, you are indirectly making the person who discovered this recipe feel shameful with that businessman’s BS things like using bat and some strange ingredients. And at that time he will say ” you are not delivering it properly to people, first come and learn it from me and then sell it to people under the name of recipe I discovered “. But your ego hurts when people try to tell you that you are adding completely irrelevant and negative things to yoga.
    What Indians are telling you about yoga is not different, You are selling so different things under the name of Yoga, so it is making the authentic people (no matter indian or western white guy yogi) feel bad …you just make all authentic people feel shameful by adding irrelevant things like Ayn Rand and what not!

    • If people are truly authentic, how can anything I say make them feel shameful?

      There is no such thing as a right to not be offended.

  23. Thank you for posting this. I agree that yoga is a living, breathing set of disciplines that is owned by no one, that the only part of yoga one can own is one’s own unique practice of yoga. I further thank you for saying that “Should you feel the need to admonish someone for not practicing or teaching a “true” Yoga, I urge you to reflect on your attitude and let it go — by offering it into the flame of Yoga — swaha.” I have seen too much of the arrogant attitude that one particular lineage is the “only” way to practice, and that others are inferior.

  24. Your question “invented or discovered” is right on. The problem is that we have created a dichotomy between science, which supposedly discovers, and arts, which supposedly invents. But many people in recent decades have been showing how science also invents and arts also discover. Yoga is a practice that, like many others, involves both invention and discovery. In fact, in any real process of research, no distinction can be made between the two. If readers of this blog are interested in pursuing this question further, I’ve written about yoga as research in my recent book, “What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research” (Routledge 2015).

  25. Very nicely said. Patanjali Yoga Sutra were not invented. In the same vein yoga does not belong to India however one has to acknowledge that going on a teacher training in India reveals a lot mor of its deep spiritual roots and traditional ways than taking a course with someone who never put feet in India.
    personnaly i just return from a 500 hrs course in Rishikesh and i feel humbled to have taken that step and lived through the indian masters practice. somehow it gives my practice some authentic touch. Your book by the way is in over 100 copies in the yog peeth’ library! I wish one day i cant attend one of your courses… Namaste

  26. Leslie, I like your question, and truly enjoy the answer. Your brain transmits wonderfully, your fingers typed rightly, and your guts, they exude strength 🙂

  27. Hello, since i came accross this post, i would like to leave a couple of words.

    Well some said that like a natural force (e.g gravity) a “natural-force yoga” is not invented by anyone, simply discovered and as a result of that, no one can claim that this is sth “we” invented/evolved/produced. Leaving aside the fact that even natural forces may become at some point (while not being there before, for example in a universal evolution what would be called gravity emerged AFTER some other processes took place, in this sense it was NOT discovered), this claim is still WRONG.

    Let me explain, first of all what one would call “natural force” is NOT yoga per se, but “prana” (“life-energy”) of which yoga constitutes a set of methods to deal with. And NO-ONE claimed to have invented prana or limit its use (unlike what some do with, hmm.. nuclear energy). Second, yoga, as a set of methods has a distinctive historico-culturo-geographical part which is of course and undisputable INDIAN (whether dravidian, aryan, pre-aryan or whatever is not of the essence at this point). Yoga as has been formulated traditionaly (and not only) is a product of Hindu civilisation and its distinct historical, cultural and geographical features. As such, of course yoga is Indian and no-one can claim otherwise, while at the same time leaving the meaning of yoga the same.

    Nikos M. (a wannabe, wannabe student of the world)

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