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Chariots of Fire: A Conflict on the Battlefield of American Yoga Culture

If we want to keep the American yoga chariot we're riding from crashing and burning in its own funeral pyre, we must respect the spiritual wisdom from which it was born. Perhaps it's time to put our desires aside and allow Arjuna, with the help of Krishna, take back the reins.
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The inner conflicts that occur within the mind of the modern American yogi are, not surprisingly, similar to those portrayed in The Bhagavad Gita. After all, the Gita is one of the most influential books on yogic philosophy in the world.

The Gita, illustrated in the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic, depicts a war that takes place on the battlefield of life. The two main characters, Arjuna and Lord Krishna, set out to fight and conquer their challengers, only to discover that a real war is taking place within the mind. Arjuna proceeds with the guidance of Lord Krishna, represented as his higher self. He learns how to navigate the feud between his desires, his ego, and his mind, to walk the path of a yogi.

A verse in the Gita, as translated by Eknath Easwaran, states:

Free from self-will, aggressiveness, arrogance, anger, and the lust to possess people or things, they are at peace with themselves and others, and enter into the unitive state.

The unitive state referred to here is the peaceful yogic state of mind, a state undisturbed by gain or loss.

It does not seem as though the spiritual aspects of yoga are taking root in America. Time and time again we have witnessed yoga teachers desirous of fame or fortune get crushed on the spiritual battlefield, and as a result, inevitably ruin their reputations as upstanding yogis.

Since the fall of John Friend and the resulting restructuring of Anusara Yoga, many keen yoga practitioners are starting to question the intention of modern yoga innovators. Is their hard work and devotion motivated by the love of yoga, or by the love of money?

Yoga in the West is an enigma. Just recently, the Central District of California ended a long and drawn out litigation between Bikram Yoga founder, Bikram Choudhury, and several teachers and studios who were teaching Bikram's series of 26 poses in more than 100-degree temperatures without Bikram's consent.

Bikram, millionaire yoga franchiser, had been fighting for quite some time to copyright his series of yoga poses, claiming that practicing them in a particular order, in a heated room, delivers unique health benefits and alleviates certain symptoms and diseases.

However, according to the court ruling, yoga poses that are practiced in a classroom setting are not copyrightable. The multitude of benefits people gain from practicing Bikram Yoga are not, as ruled by the court, determining factors for Bikram to be rewarded with copyright protection. The only way a series of yoga poses could be protected under copyright law is if they are performed on stage, in front of a live audience.

This could create a whole new element in the bubble of American yoga. With yoga trends budding nearly every time someone blinks, it seems as if the next step for a determined businessman would be to start selling tickets to live hot yoga performances in order to legally own his series of 26 yoga poses.

We all know yoga in America is a multibillion dollar affair. Will we see a day when yoga dominates the stage and rules the world of show business? After all, yoga competitions are making headlines, and yoga has even tried to nose in and qualify as an Olympic sport.

All we need now is for yoga to make its debut on Broadway. According to Bikram, as published in Yoga Journal, yoga teachers are all just clowns anyway. Perhaps Bikram can lead a yoga circus. He would have no resistance from the courts then, and people would come from miles away to see his 26 poses played out like one big carnival act.

For the seeker of happiness via yoga, this all is very disheartening. In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that no man can experience happiness without first being at peace. True yogis of old sought peace through acts of selfless service and by detaching from worldly gains. If money didn't buy happiness then, why do we fight tooth and nail for it today?

Bikram has helped millions of people, and he is, without a doubt, a successful businessman who deserves a spot on the cover of Fortune magazine. He says, "There is nothing wrong with having material things as long as you don't lie, cheat, and steal." In that sense, he's right; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, many argue that his desire to copyright yoga is a poor representation of the yogic lifestyle.

Deep in his Calcuttan soul, he must be experiencing a war on the battlefield. Does he ever stop to ponder how much the court ruling is like the advice of Krishna, which conveys to Arjuna that in order to be a successful yogi, he must not seek reward for the fruits of his action?

A verse in the Gita on wisdom in action suggests, "Nothing in this world purifies like spiritual wisdom. It is the perfection achieved in time through the path of yoga, the path which leads to the Self within."

Bikram Choudhury, John Friend, and other reward-seeking yogis may never renounce their desires in favor of the sacred teachings of yoga, and that is nobody else's business but theirs. But, if we want to keep the American yoga chariot we're riding from crashing and burning in its own funeral pyre, we must respect the spiritual wisdom from which it was born. Perhaps it's time to put our desires aside and allow Arjuna, with the help of Krishna, take back the reins.

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