The American Yoga

by Amy Onorato

Walk into any yoga class offered at a gym or fitness center and you will be greeted with an odd assortment of individuals — the football jock wobbling unsteadily on one foot, trying to improve flexibility, the young mothers in tight spandex and contoured sports bras in fluorescent colors from Victoria’s Secret and the older crowd, sitting quietly with their eyes closed, thoughts lost somewhere else entirely – meditation, perhaps? For an hour, these people are united by a 15-set series of Hatha yoga poses done in an open, empty room, usually lined with mirrors, that also substitutes as a Pilates studio at 8:15 on Tuesday nights.

This is the type of yoga that is most common here in the United States today. However, the evolution, or in some cases, devolution, of yoga spans a history of thousands of years. What is known as “yoga” in America today is merely a derivation of asana, or “poses,” with spirituality, perhaps the most important and vital part of traditional yoga, lost in favor of physicality. The explosion of yoga as a commercial fitness fad also lends to the overall change in how it its practiced, blurring the lines of traditional yoga with other aspects of popular fitness trends.

Anti-Gravity yoga, one of the newer forms of “yoga” practice, was developed by Christopher Harrison in New York City in the 1990s. The practice, also referred to as “suspended fitness,” incorporates yoga-inspired poses, mixed with acrobatic and Pilates technique to create a new type of cardio fitness workout. Since the technique allows for the participant to be suspended off of the ground, it allows for zero compression inversions (like headstands and spinal bends), without putting additional pressure on the joints. The technique modifies more traditional yoga poses to incorporate the use of the cloth swing, creating a technique all its own. The fitness regime even comes complete with a special type of warning – it’s taught that you can’t engage in the upside-down activity if you’ve received a Botox treatment in the last 6 hours.

“It reverses the Botox. This fitness technique originated in the city, so maybe people were getting their 24-hour Botox there, I don’t know,” said Vanessa Cafiero, owner and yoga instructor at Emerge Yoga and Wellness in Bellmore. “…You want to always move into any fitness regimen knowing your fitness ability, knowing anything that could be exacerbated by it.”

But can this really be called yoga, complete with Botox warnings and suspended slings? Or is it just another derivation, a new installment on the path to commercializing a sacred art?

In a small room lit only by the early evening sunlight faded softly by a large, bohemian curtain, Danielle Tarantola, a yoga therapist at Mindful Turtle Yoga and Wellness Center in Stony Brook, breathes steadily. A faithful student, Tarantola has studied yoga for over a decade, both in India and the United States.

A steady inhale, followed by a long, outstretched exhale. A steady hum, the rhythmic pulse of an ancient chant flows out of her pursed lips – her focus inward, shutting the parameters of the tiny room out. It is as if she is lost within herself, if only for a minute. When she opens her eyes, she sees the world from a different perspective – it is a bit slower, a bit quieter than it was before.

“Originally yoga was developed because people undergo the same experience, which is suffering and yoga was developed to help alleviate suffering,” Tarantola said. Suffering needn’t just be at the physical level, that’s not why yoga was developed. If it was, then it would have collapsed…yoga was developed not just to address the body, but primarily the mind.”

While the exact origins of traditional yoga are unclear, yoga was practiced as a sacred art form in Asia and the Middle East for thousands of years. Vedic Yoga, perhaps one of the oldest yoga traditions, was developed through early Hindu scripture close to 3000 years ago. At this time, yoga was treated more like a spiritual guide to living a healthy and harmonious life by uniting the body with the mind.

Yoga styles are changed and developed through individual teachers, who modify the practice and teach it to their students. The students, then in turn, add their own modifications, further delineating from the traditional Indian style. With each new generation of teachers, the practice becomes increasingly less pure, as it moves away from its historical roots.

“I would say the further away you get from the Indian teacher, the more diluted the message and the practices are,” Tarantola said.  If we approach healing from a physical perspective only, then we’re doing a great disservice to our students. We’re also doing a disservice to yoga.”

It wasn’t all unintentional – some of the more modern yogi pioneers actually wanted to modify Eastern practice to suit the needs of a Western audience. In the early 20th century, several prominent yogis (Swami Vishnu-devananda and Pattahbi Jois, the creator of Astanga Yoga, for example) took interest in Western medicine and catered their practices to adhere to be more easily adopted by the physically-obsessed West. Hatha yoga, a breathing and movement-oriented practice that is thousands of years old, is one of the more commonly altered practices because of its focus on physicality and its easily-modified sequence.

So, in a world that is constantly traveling away from a traditional yoga practice, is there a way to find a balance? Maybe not, but finding the spirituality in yoga practice isn’t completely lost in the United States.

Amy Sellitti, a yoga instructor at Stony Brook University, caters her practice to the needs of her students, placing emphasis on the spiritual or the physical when her students request it. Sellitti gained her yoga certification through the Yoga Alliance, a fitness association that provided licensing to yoga instructors. While her training focused on movement, spirituality on a commercial level was also taught, though not nearly on the same level of intensity one would find in an ashram.

We’ve completely changed the whole practice. But yoga has, the movement of yoga comes from meditation,” Sellitti said. “…America has changed it to be more of a fitness craze, for sure. But I think we started off spiritual with yoga, we moved it to ‘wow, this changed my body,’ so it became a fitness craze, but I think it’s going back.”