commercialization of spirituality

The theft of yoga

Aseem Shukla (co-founder, Hindu American Foundation), Washington Post: Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste — the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of “Om,” the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respirations as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned “mantra of the month,” taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of yoga in today’s western world.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists they may be, but they partake in the spiritual heritage of a faith tradition with a vigor often unmatched by even among the two-and-a half-million Hindu Americans here. The Yoga Journal found that the industry generates more than $6 billion each year and continues on an incredible trajectory of popularity. It would seem that yoga’s mother tradition, Hinduism, would be shining in the brilliant glow of dedicated disciples seeking more from the very font of their passion.

Yet the reality is very different. Hinduism in common parlance is identified more with holy cows than Gomukhasana, the notoriously arduous twisting posture; with millions of warring gods rather than the unity of divinity of Hindu tradition–that God may manifest and be worshiped in infinite ways; as a tradition of colorful and harrowing wandering ascetics more than the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali, the second century BCE commentator and composer of the Yoga Sutras, that form the philosophical basis of Yoga practice today.

Why is yoga severed in America’s collective consciousness from Hinduism? Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic natural healing, self-realization–they are today’s syntax for New Age, Eastern, mystical, even Buddhist, but nary an appreciation of their Hindu origins.

It is not surprising, then, that Hindu schoolchildren complain that Hinduism is conflated only with caste, cows, exoticism and polytheism–the salutary contributions and philosophical underpinnings lost and ignored. The severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride.

Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under whose tutelage the Beatles steadied their mind and made sense of their insane fame, packaged the wonders of meditation as Transcendental Meditation (TM) just as an entrepreneur from here in Minneapolis applied the principles of Ayurveda to drive a commercial enterprise he coined as Aveda. TM and Aveda are trademarked brands–a protection not available to the originator of their brand–Hinduism itself. And certainly these masters benefited millions with their contributions, but in agreeing to ditch Hinduism as the source, they left these gifts orphaned and unanchored.

The Los Angeles Times last week chronicled this steady disembodying of yoga from Hinduism. “Christ is my guru. Yoga is a spiritual discipline much like prayer, meditation and fasting [and] no one religion can claim ownership,” says a vocal proponent of “Christian themed” yoga practices. Some Jews practice Torah yoga, Kabbalah yoga and aleph bet yoga, and even some Muslims are joining the act. They are appropriating the collective wisdom of millenia of yogis without a whisper of acknowledgment of yoga’s spiritual roots.

Not surprisingly, the most popular yoga journals and magazines are also in the act. Once yoga was no longer intertwined with its Hindu roots, it became up for grabs and easy to sell. These journals abundantly refer to yoga as “ancient Indian,” “Eastern” or “Sanskritic,” but seem to assiduously avoid the term “Hindu” out of fear, we can only assume, that ascribing honestly the origins of their passion would spell disaster for what has become a lucrative commercial enterprise. The American Yoga Association, on its Web site, completes this delinking of yoga from Hinduism thusly:

“The common belief that Yoga derives from Hinduism is a misconception. Yoga actually predates Hinduism by many centuries…The techniques of Yoga have been adopted by Hinduism as well as by other world religions.”

So Hinduism, the religion that has no known origins or beginnings is now younger than yoga? What a ludicrous contention when the Yoga Sutras weren’t even composed until the 2nd Century BCE. These deniers seem to posit that Hinduism appropriated yoga so other religions may as well too! Hindus can only sadly shake their heads, as by this measure, soon we will read as to how karma, dharma and reincarnation–the very foundations of Hindu philosophy–are only ancient precepts that early Hindus of some era made their own.

The Hindu American Foundation (Disclosure: I sit on the Foundation’s Board) released a position paper on this issue earlier this year. The brief condemns yoga’s appropriation, but also argues that yoga today is wholly misunderstood. Yoga is identified today only with Hatha Yoga, the aspect of yoga focused on postures and breathing techniques. But this is only one part of the practice of Raja Yoga that is actually an eightfold path designed to lead the practitioner to moksha, or salvation. Indeed, yogis believe that to focus on the physicality of yoga without the spirituality is utterly rudimentary and deficient. Sure, practicing postures alone with a focus on breathing techniques will quiet the mind, tone the body, increase flexibility–even help children with Attention Deficit Disorder–but will miss the mark on holistic healing and wellness.

All of this is not to contend, of course, that yoga is only for Hindus. Yoga is Hinduism’s gift to humanity to follow, practice and experience. No one can ever be asked to leave their own religion or reject their own theologies or to convert to a pluralistic tradition such as Hinduism. Yoga asks only that one follow the path of yoga for it will necessarily lead one to become a better Hindu, Christian, Jew or Muslim. Yoga, like its Hindu origins, does not offer ways to believe in God; it offer ways to know God.

But be forewarned. Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one’s cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization–that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths–that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven’s gate–since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation.

Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage–not sell out for the expediency of winning more clients for the yoga studio down the street.

Original article no longer available…

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From bookshelves to boardroom, ‘mindfulness’ is hot spiritual trend (Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, Indiana)

Psychologist Henry Grayson says his book, “Mindful Loving,” might not have been a bestseller if his publisher had stuck to a title he’d suggested: “The New Physics of Love.”

Three months ago, Body & Soul magazine added the phrase, “The Natural Guide to Mindful Living” to its cover. Mindfulness — living consciously in the moment — has become “just that significant” in American culture, said editor-in-chief Seth Bauer.

Mindfulness books and tapes are frequent bestsellers. Mindfulness training is a staple at seminars, retreats and spas. Hospitals and psychologists are teaching mindfulness as a means to handle everything from chronic illness and addiction to stress and depression.

“There’s a sense that what is missing in our lives is a real connection to what we do, what we think, how we relate to people and how we take care of ourselves,” said Bauer. “Mindfulness brings all of those things together.”

Even corporate America is on board. Some businesses now offer mindfulness workshops to improve concentration, employee relations and ethics. Last year, Spirituality & Health magazine featured an article titled, “Lessons from Mindful Corporations.”

Spiritual trend watchers say mindfulness has become to the 2000s what angels were to the 1990s. Maybe bigger, though there may never be a TV show called “Touched by a Mindful Person.”

“Most of the time, we’re just going, going, going — operating on autopilot,” said Gary Stuard of Dallas, a former Buddhist monk who teaches mindfulness meditation at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration.

“Mindfulness is about paying attention so you don’t go about life absentmindedly,” he said.

Experts say mindfulness is cultivated. The most common way is by sitting in quiet meditation and observing one’s breath. Some people count breaths as they inhale and exhale. Others follow the rising and falling of the breath or some other variation.

“The point of mindfulness meditation is not to zone out but to tune in,” Stuard said.

The challenge comes when the mind drifts. Each time that happens, people are told to take notice, then return to their breath without judging their thoughts and emotions.

“Your breath draws you into the here and now,” said Grayson, the Mindful Loving author. “People are realizing that they spend so much of their lives worrying about the past or thinking about the future that they miss out on the present.”

The point is to bring awareness to all aspects of life.

Whether practiced for spiritual, health or other reasons, mindfulness is all about conscious living. (If you’ve ever mindlessly stuffed yourself while watching TV, you know something about unconscious living.)

Bonnie Arkus, executive director of the Women’s Heart Foundation in West Trenton, N.J., said she dropped 10 pounds in a month by combining the South Beach diet with “mindfulness eating.”

“You’re not just watching what goes into your mouth,” she said. “You actually taste the food because you stop to enjoy it. You’re not just inhaling it on the run, so you tend to eat less.”

Mindfulness is integral to Buddhism, an ancient religion that has enjoyed waves of popularity in America.

In the 1960s, the influence of the Beat writers, such as Allen Ginsberg, became widespread.

The 1970s celebrated Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

In the 1990s, Hollywood stepped forward with “Kundun” and “Seven Years in Tibet.”

And now, whenever the Dalai Lama visits, he’s greeted by crowds befitting a rock star.

Many say the seeds for the current mindfulness craze were largely planted by the 1975 book, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk once nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.

“Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves,” wrote the monk, who lives in France.

Some Buddhists are troubled that mindfulness in the American mainstream is being commercialized in ways that have nothing to do with spirituality.

“It’s not just mental training or a self-improvement technique,” said Sharon Salzberg, a well-known Buddhist teacher, author of spiritual books and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.

For Buddhists, mindfulness is embedded in ethics and compassion.

In spiritual circles, mindfulness is a path to inner awakening. In the medical community, it’s seen as a path to better health.

More than 200 U.S. hospitals and clinics use mindfulness training to promote mental and physical health.

Austin family physician Paul Keinarth, on the verge of burnout, turned to mindfulness meditation four years ago. Racing thoughts, worries and stress plagued him. He had difficulty sleeping. He was emotionally distant from his family.

“The change has been dramatic,” said Keinarth, who now teaches mindfulness courses. “I’m living my own life as it unfolds now instead of living a lot of stories about what happened to me or to other people. My relationships to my family and to my patients have vastly improved.”

Dr. James Ruiz, a radiologist from Baton Rouge, La., said his interest in mindfulness began when his 6-year-old son was an infant. When the baby would cry in the middle of the night, he would hold him while doing a walking mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness has changed the way he parents, he said.

“Being up in the middle of the night with a child in distress is not what drives you to madness,” he said. “What drives you crazy is that you want to be back in bed. Mindfulness is letting go of that, accepting the reality and attending to what’s in front of you.”

The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School uses many techniques to teach mindfulness. One exercise involves taking 20 minutes to eat two raisins. Participants notice how the raisins look and smell. They feel the texture. And finally, they taste.

Mindfulness isn’t alternative medicine, but complements traditional medicine, said Saki Santorelli, the center’s director.

“This approach which used mindfulness was pretty radical when the program started,” he said. “But we showed the medical community that it wasn’t taking advantage of its greatest ally — the patients themselves.

The link to Buddhism isn’t emphasized, he said.

“People who come to our clinic don’t care about Buddhism or any -ism,” he said. “They’re suffering and want relief. Mindfulness helps them tap inner resources.”

But some in the medical community say more scientific studies are needed.

“Given the potential benefits and increasing popularity of mindfulness training, it seems critically important,” Ruth Baer of the University of Kentucky’s psychology department, wrote last year in a scholarly paper.

Being disciplined about meditating is the hardest challenge, many people say.

At the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas, people gather every day to meditate. Executive Director Helen Cortes said 200 students may pass through in a year, but only a few will stick with it.

“Not everybody likes sitting still for 25 minutes or an hour,” she said. “But there are other choices. People need to follow their own temperament to develop mindfulness.”

She said sweeping the floor, mowing the lawn, washing dishes and even cleaning toilets can serve as mindfulness meditations.

“We remind people you wash dishes not in order to get them clean, but rather to simply wash the dishes,” she said. “You feel the water, smell the soap, be aware of your body when you put the dishes away.”

Scholars say concepts similar to mindfulness are found in other religions — the daily cycle of prayers said by Christian monks, Orthodox Jews and Muslims. These observances are ways of paying attention to the presence of God in all things.

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Mystic’s burial site at commune is reincarnated as posh resort (San Francisco Chronicle)

Mike McPhate, San Francisco Chronicle: As a softly lit classroom of fellow devotees of the late Indian mystic Osho try to enliven their sex centers — whirling to the music of Madonna, howling like macaques and blowing hysterically through their nostrils, Prem Dita sits alone in her maroon robe at a nearby vegetarian cafe. “If you are at a higher level, it’s boring,” Dita says of the class as she nibbles at a croissant.

Like the whirling devotees, Dita, a long-faced, graying German woman who says her birth name is Weintraub, came to this city in western India in search of bliss.

That was 26 years ago, back when Osho was giving 50-cent sermons to flocks of hippies, who built a colony of bamboo huts to be near him, and she’s never left, she says.

Three years later — in 1981 — Osho, the slender, white-bearded son of a cloth merchant who is better known to Americans by his previous name, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, went to Oregon with thousands of followers hoping to build a New Age utopia. He returned to Pune in 1987.

But Dita never left Pune, an industrial center 100 miles east of Bombay. With no family in Germany, she has nothing to return to. The city of the Bhagwan’s resting place is her home now.

More than a decade after the mystic’s death in 1990, the commune that houses his ashes has been reincarnated as the luxurious Osho Meditation Resort, complete with tennis courts, lagoon-style swimming pool, high-speed Internet cafe and cappuccino bar that serves vodka in the evenings…

The old days were “really fantastic,” says Dita, who refuses to enter the new complex. “It’s terrible now. It’s like a Holiday Inn.”

Dispute over Osho’s legacy

The preaching grounds in Pune where Osho offered a mish-mash of pop psychology and ancient Indian wisdom have become the site of a fierce dispute over his legacy.

The battle is being waged between a group of mainly foreign disciples in control of the resort, and an Indian-led faction that feels the guru’s memory is being cheapened.

“Those who were prominent practitioners don’t even visit the ashram anymore,” says S.E. Bhelke, a philosophy professor at Pune University and an admirer of the late guru. Greed, he says, is the problem.

Behind the commune’s makeover are five Osho disciples — a Canadian, a Briton, two Germans and an Indian — who in the years after his death, seized control of the Inner Circle, the secretive group the guru entrusted with continuing his work.

In addition to the property, they control a multimillion-dollar trove of Osho’s assets, including 7,000 hours of recorded lectures, which have been published in more than 600 books in 53 languages.

The renaming of the commune as a resort, the doubling of entrance fees and the razing of one of Osho’s lecture halls have particularly upset the old-time Indian devotees.

An influential faction broke away from the commune four years ago in protest. Denouncing what they saw as the commercialization of the mystic’s legacy by foreign opportunists, they set up a rival camp called Osho World in New Delhi, with its own meditation hall, gallery and magazine.

“The (Pune) commune has become a club for the select few,” says defector Chaitanya Keerti, one of the guru’s original disciples and the editor of the Osho World magazine. “The emphasis now is on entertainment, relaxation, Jacuzzi, sauna.”

The resort, which draws 200,000 visitors a year, is lovely. After 12 days of muggy monsoon rain, the unpaved roads, where beggars have been relegated away from the park gates, have turned into an excrement-scented muck, but the grounds remain a sparkling oasis.

The 40-acre campus undulates with jasmine-scented bamboo groves, peacocks, silky waterfalls and wide white marble paths.

In expression of their harmony, all the guests, known as beloveds, wear robes that cost $3 on the street or $7 at the “nonprofit” Osho boutique — maroon in the daytime and white in the evening.

On a recent morning, several sat in silent, yogic poses by a brook. Others checked e-mail behind the Internet cafe’s blue-tinted windows or sipped white wine by the pool. One Indian woman twirled like a ballerina, her eyes shut in bliss, along the marble floor of Buddha Grove.

“There’s just some gorgeous things about Osho,” said Ananda Das, Sanskrit for “seeker of bliss,” sipping Earl Grey tea by the resort’s black marble pyramid complex. “He’s wild, you know? He is an invitation to grow in consciousness.”

Guests work for meditations

Das, a gray-bearded house painter from Australia who used to be named Russell Gardner, said he lives partly on an inheritance. He was participating in the resort’s Work as Meditation program, in which guests work 42 hours per week for the privilege of attending meditations.

“Meditation is a luxury,” said Das, dismissing the suggestion that Osho followers should reach out to the poor. “Buddha had this big, compassionate heart,” he said. “I’m not so compassionate. I’m interested in me personally.”

Most beloveds are harried foreigners; Americans make up the largest group. In Osho’s day, disciples came for months and years, but resort-goers now do short stays like the popular Wellness Weekend Getaway — $120 for two nights at the posh, on-site guesthouse — a steep rate in a country known among backpackers for its dirt-cheap prices.

“The demographics here are so high,” said park administrator Yogendra, or “the god of yoga,” a Canadian lawyer whose name used to be D’Arcy O’Byrne. “They have Ph.D.s, double Ph.D.s, law degrees. So many doctors, so many psychologists, psychiatrists are here.

“They have everything in the world that is supposed to make them happy. And they’re not happy.”

The meat and potatoes of the resort are the meditations. A new menu — Craniosacral Balancing, Primal Deconditioning, Secret of the Golden Flower — is offered every day.

But many of the beloveds, whose average age is 32, appear to come for the revelry: There are bikini parties by the pool, costume parties, lunchtime disco parties, as well as nightly parties at the cappuccino bar. The preferred soundtrack is techno.

Men from Bombay, having heard the tales of tantric orgies and drug-induced raves at the commune, are known to arrive with high hopes. The resort staff warns all new guests, who must clear an HIV test before being admitted, that they must respect female beloveds’ right not to be hugged and that Western women sometimes prefer to dance alone.

The festive atmosphere is inspired by Osho himself, who acquired notoriety for his radical views on sex. Dubbed the “sex guru” in the Indian press, he preached that monogamy is foolhardy, marriage is a prison for women, and young boys and girls should explore each other’s bodies.

Critics say that resort leaders, who have taken down nearly all of the hundreds of portraits of Osho that once decorated the property, have gone too far, substituting entertainment for spiritual quest.

The Indian faction has aroused a patriotic backlash in the country, drawing wide support for their cause among the Indian press.

While many Indians originally rejected Osho’s eccentric ideas on sex, he is today considered a national treasure, with admirers including India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sikh writer Khushwant Singh.

Indians oppose copyrights

The Indians have loudly criticized the Westerners for seeking copyrights with the U.S. Library of Congress on Osho’s name, words and even meditations, opening up corporate offices in New York and Zurich to monitor violations.

“I could understand Americans trying to grab patent rights over basmati rice and neem products — where they mercifully failed — but how can anyone patent thought and meditation?” Singh wrote in the Chandigarh paper the Tribune, describing the attempt as “preposterous.”

Defector Keerti calls the foreigners’ actions evil.

“When they come to this country, they are tourists,” he says. “The whole of India resents them.”

Resort administrator Yogendra, whose elusive older brother, Jayesh, is said to be the most powerful member of the Inner Circle, said seeking copyrights in the United States, where they are more strictly enforced, is just common sense. “Those people from India,” he said, “don’t really understand copyrights.”

Yogendra, 50, who has a lilting voice and a shaved scalp, suggests that the Indian critics just aren’t meditating enough.

“You know the press likes to talk about the trademarks and the copyrights and all the problems,” he says from his cool resort office, “but really, the fundamental, underlying thing, everybody will tell you, is it’s about meditation.

“It’s like this place is the manifestation of Osho’s vision,” he adds. “It’s just heaven.”

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