Yoga: Once Exotic, Now Ecstatic

The American twist on yoga

Everybody knows what yoga is. It's so common that it's difficult to remember it has only saturated the American consciousness in the last 30 or 40 years. Prior to that time, yoga was an exotic practice limited to very few practitioners.

It may be that Maharishi was responsible for our awakening to this way of moving our bodies. Certainly the Beatles' infatuation with meditation brought him to American attention in the 1960s. But Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga and greeter at Woodstock arrived here in 1966 and was also very influential in creating yoga awareness.

Early yoga practice in the west was all hatha (and pretty much still is) and, despite Maharishi's exhortation to the contrary, it was perceived as something structured—almost ascetic—until quite recently. You put on your serious face and definitely did not have anything approaching fun. The guru had been pretty emphatic that the path of yoga and meditation did not require renouncing worldly pleasures, but not everybody got the memo. I still remember one of my first yoga classes in which a strapping young guy asked the yoga teacher what to do about his lower chakra impulses, and was literally advised to take a cold shower.

I can only hope that dude stayed with yoga long enough to go to today's yoga festivals. Far from being serious affairs, they are joyous expressions of spirit. And the yoga? There's still plenty of traditional yoga being practiced, but the new yoga has a decidedly American twist.

If I had to point to one common element in the yoga classes I took at Bhakti Fest, a gathering of about 2,000 people in the Joshua Tree high desert near Los Angeles last weekend, it would be the inclusion of the lower chakras. And why not? If yoga means oneness, what better way to express it than by involving the entire body. The rock stars of the weekend—Shiva Rea, Saul David Raye and Mark Whitwell—were very clear that this was no ascetic endeavor. In fact Rea's ecstatic yoga—which may or may not be her typical class—was more modern dance than asanas, and she unabashedly referred to nearly having an orgasm on another such occasion.

There was steady kirtan from a procession of musicians throughout the weekend, from the bone baking heat of the afternoon through the cool relief of night, and if most of the tunes and lyrics were pretty much the same, it didn't stop the audience from greeting each new act with enthusiasm and more dancing.

This was my first yoga festival, so I surely can't speak for all of them, but one way to describe it is as the love child of raves and the Whole Life Expo. Okay fine, make it a ménage and throw in Woodstock. But hold the drugs. Other than perhaps a little herb, this event was high on chi.

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