When East Meets West: Frontiers in Yoga

Some of the greatest living Indian yogis attribute the West with ‘saving yoga’ – quite a statement when one thinks of overpriced, name-brand leggings and studios with advertisements that promote rock-hard bodies instead of spiritual enlightenment. Nonetheless, in some senses, these spiritual yogis are right: the West did ‘save yoga,’ insofar as bringing it into a cultural mainstream and making it more accessible to a variety of people who otherwise would have never been exposed to this 5000-year-old philosophy that incorporates practices of mind, body and spirit. Yet, the difference between the life of an Indian yogi (usually men who have been trained since boyhood in this ancient tradition) compared to the life of a western yoga teacher (usually women who have embarked on a second career) are vast. Yogis in India can spend their entire lives ‘training,’ while in the west, yogis can take part in an intensive month-long course to become a certified, bonafide (and insured) yoga teacher. While yoga is a way of life for many aspiring yogis in India, it tends to be a weekly 90-minute class for most yoga students in the West. Some may question if the two can even be called the same thing. (The savvy yogi or yogini might remark that yoga in the West is based on the asana practice—or the physical practice of yoga—whereas there are actually eight limbs to the philosophy in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras—the asanas only being one of them.)

Even within the western yoga community, there are fusions and dichotomies, as well as dogmas to be debated, adhered to or broken. Being a teacher of both a more traditional style of yoga, as well as of a fusion style known as aerial yoga, I have experienced the criticism of definition. A local Ashtanga teacher (who I saw smoking marijuana and drinking vodka one Friday night—not exactly aligning to yogic precept of saucha or purity) said to me that she ‘just didn’t see aerial as real yoga.’ Another local Iyengar teacher said to one of my aerial students that I probably wasn’t even a ‘real yoga teacher.’ Of course, their incredulousness begs the questions: What is real yoga and what is a real yoga teacher? And possibly even more important: Can we define it and does it even matter?

My personal yoga journey began over ten years ago when at the age of nineteen, I was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, which had metastasised to the majority of the lymph nodes in my neck, as well as destroyed my thyroid and parathyroid glands. This came after five years of managing Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and living on a typically poor Midwestern American diet. Recovering from surgery received at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, I was advised by my small-town GP in northern Michigan to consume milkshakes laden with sugar and candy bars after I stopped eating due to the nausea of the pain (as I refused to take the painkillers themselves as they induced even worse bouts of nausea). During the post-surgery treatment phase, while being advised to consume these high-fat, high-sugar foods, I was disallowed any thyroid medications. This potent combination left my already overweight body ballooning to the heaviest weight it had ever been. The lethargy and tiredness I’d experienced for much of my teenage life from the Hashimoto’s Disease increased exponentially and I longed for the days in which a walk didn’t leave me breathless and fatigued.

Despite the previous lethargy and overweight physique, prior to the cancer, I was part of my college’s diving team and regularly participated in morning ‘land practices’ and daily afternoon pool practices. At the time of my treatments though, the idea of even swimming a lap caused fear of drowning due to my exhausted body’s complete inability to cope. I felt trapped and frustrated… and then one evening, at ten o’clock at night, lamenting my woes to my best friend, I asked her if she had ever done yoga. Neither of us had; we’d only heard of it – and in northern Michigan at the time, there certainly were no yoga studios, and yoga was still seen as ‘dangerous’ by local Christian groups, as if it were a gateway sport into Indian voodoo and other cult-like perils. Always having been a night owl (which I’ve learned is a kapha tendency according to Indian Ayurvedic medicine), I dragged Ashley, my friend, to the local Meijer—a Michigan version of Asda or Tesco Extra—and went to the fitness DVD section. It was here that I picked out a DVD entitled, Denise Austin’s Fat-Blasting Yoga! For this DVD, all I needed was myself and an exercise ball (which I pilfered from my mother’s collection and ironically have never seen used as a yoga prop since). We arrived home at nearly 11pm, and Ashley, being a dedicated friend, agreed to try the DVD with me. By the tenth minute of the hour-long session, we were both panting and cursing the petite, blonde Texan woman on the screen. Despite being ready to collapse onto my bedroom floor, we persevered after hitting pause on the remote several times and taking many water breaks. It was well past midnight by the time we finished, but something in this strange, incredibly fitness-oriented, mainstream DVD, hooked me. Ashley came nearly every day for the summer of my recovery to support me in my efforts to acquire some basic level of fitness again. We stopped cursing poor Denise after the third week.

During my yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Centre for Yoga and Ayurveda, one of the interns led us aspiring teachers in a brief metta meditation, asking us to send gratitude to the first person who brought yoga into our lives. I giggled as I said my own little yogic prayer for the woman who eventually became a core member of George W. Bush’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. At no point have I ever cared if Denise Austin can really be called ‘a yoga teacher.’ She was my first regardless of definition or spiritual qualifications, and for that, I will always be grateful.

It is in this same vein of gratitude that I have learned to be open—to approach matters within the yoga community, as well as matters within the wider community, including that of the western medical establishment, without rigidity. In my career as a patient, as well as my career as a graduate student in Literature and Medicine, I have met many medics who have tried to unhelpfully define me (vegan, yoga teacher, alternative researcher) and I have also met many would-be patients who tried to unhelpfully define western medics (dogmatic, pigheaded, narrow), forgetting that these same medics could save their lives. Had I ever known to be so narrow within the yoga context, I never would have found it. Had I blindly followed some of the medics who treated me, I also never would have found a diet that supports me and sustains me most effectively in both body and spirit. Likewise, without western surgical techniques, I could quite easily be dead or left without the voice for which I seem to be known when I teach my yoga classes. I am eternally grateful to the surgeon who left a large J-shaped scar on my neck, as it represents not a disfigurement, but a triumph—a triumph of medicine, of this surgeon and his career, and of the burgeoning yogini waiting to be let out.

This is not an article about the benefits of yoga (though there are innumerable benefits, and encouragingly, information about yoga and many of those benefits can be found on the NHS Choices website), but this is more an article about how we navigate our world. The beauty of yoga’s current global position is that it is so changeable—so difficult to define in any one sense. To even have an ‘east,’ one must have a ‘west,’ and vice versa—and yet on a round globe, those boundaries are always changing too. Much like the Chinese yin-yang symbol exists yoga’s relationship to the modern world. Beyond other laudable yogic ideals (acceptance, compassion, balance, etc.), the way in which yoga is situated in such undefinable terms lends itself to living better—to defying definition, to exploring and experiencing those things that serve you regardless of what others may say. There is no one path to living a yogic life, much as there is no one path to any life. It is simply in the living, the traveling in this body, that we can cross over boundaries, or rewrite or dismiss maps entirely. As the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön says, ‘Start where you are.’

© Julie Bolitho. “When East Meets West: Frontiers in Yoga,” Article. Oxford Medical School Gazette. University of Oxford: January 2015, pgs. 63-65.

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© Julie Bolitho 2018