Yoga Isn’t Timeless: It’s Changing to Meet Contemporary Needs
By Jeremy David Engels
On June 21, on International Yoga Day, people will take out their yoga mats and practice sun salutations or sit in meditation. Yoga may have originated in ancient India, but today is practiced all over the world.
In the U.S., it was philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who first engaged with the philosophy of yoga in the 1830s. Yoga gained a wider American audience only in the late 1800s.
Today, part of yoga's appeal is that it continues to be seen as a mystical, ancient tradition. However, as I've discovered in my research, the practice of yoga has gone through some profound shifts. Here are four.
1. Yoga for Health and Happiness
It was a Hindu reformer, Swami Vivekananda, who first introduced yoga to a larger audience. Vivekananda originally came to the U.S. to seek funds to relieve poverty in India. Several electrifying addresses he delivered at the World's Parliament of Religions, the world's first global interfaith dialogue held in 1893 in Chicago, brought him instant fame. He then traveled around the U.S. for the next several years, giving lectures and teaching yoga.
Vivekananda revived the tradition of an ancient Indian sage, Patanjali, that had been almost forgotten. Patanjali likely lived in India somewhere between the first century B.C. or the fourth century A.D. He claimed that the goal of yoga was isolation from existence and freedom from the bonds of mortal life.
According to Patanjali, to overcome suffering, individuals needed to renounce the very comforts and attachments that seem to make life worth living for many today. As the journalist Michelle Goldberg, author of The Goddess Pose, puts it, Patanjali's yoga "is a tool of self-obliteration rather than self-actualization."
No one today is likely to see yoga as a way to renounce their existence. Most people are drawn to yoga to find happiness, health and compassion in everyday life.
2. Value of Physical Exercise
Most people today associate yoga closely with physical exercise and postures, known as asanas, designed to strengthen and stretch the body. There is more to yoga, however, than the physical. Yoga also encompasses devotion, contemplation and meditation. In fact, the primary focus on the body would surprise both Patanjali and Vivekananda, who prioritized mental over physical exercise.
Patanjali treated the body with disdain, believing it to be a prison. He was emphatic that we are not our bodies, and that any attachment to our bodies is an impediment to yoga. Vivekananda echoed these thoughts. He treated asanas with scorn. Vivekananda argued that an obsessive focus on the body distracts from the true practice of yoga: meditation.
Asanas, or exercise poses, are central to today's practice of yoga. Anna Sunderland Engels / CC BY 4.0
In contrast, contemporary practitioners embrace asana as central to yoga. Contemporary yogis recognize that the mind, and the soul, is embodied. By "getting smart in their yoga," contemporary yogis attend to their bodies, and also to their emotions, because the health of the body impacts the ability to see clearly and act deliberately.
3. Focusing on the Self
Today, svadhyaya has come to mean the study of oneself. People often take up the practice of yoga to lead happier, less stressed and more compassionate lives. Yoga involves, as I argue in my book The Art of Gratitude, paying attention to one's habits. Only by first noticing one's habitual patterns does it become possible to change them.
Sacred texts, broadly understood, can help this practice of self-study, as they encourage reflection on deep and difficult questions that do not have easy answers. For today's practitioners, these questions include: What is the purpose of life? How can I live an ethical life? And, what would truly make me happy?
Ultimately, self-study resides at the heart of a healthy yoga practice. It allows yogis to recognize their deep connection to others and the world around them. This recognition of interdependence and interbeing is central to today's yoga.
4. Ethics of a Yoga Guru
In ancient practice, the relationship between a guru and a student was crucial. Today, the guru-student model is going through a shift. Yogis no longer train for years in their guru's home, as was the practice in ancient India. Yogis instead practice in studios, in parks, at fitness centers, or at home on their own.
Still, many contemporary yoga teachers claim the title of "guru."
However, some practitioners of yoga are calling for an end to the guru model, given that it comes with an inherent power, which opens the door to abuse. There are many examples of such abuse, with a more recent one being the case of Bikram Choudhury, the 73-year-old founder of Bikram yoga, who fled the country to avoid an arrest warrant in California in 2017 after being accused of sexual assault.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement in the U.S. and India, many yoga practitioners have initiated important conversations about the ethics of being a yoga teacher. At the heart of these conversations is how yoga teachers must, above all else, treat their students, who are often deeply vulnerable, with dignity and respect.
Ancient, But Not Timeless
International Yoga Day in London's Trafalgar Square, 2017. Anna Sunderland Engels / CC BY 4.0
Indeed, there is great power, and great mystique, in just how old yoga is.
But as a professor of communication, I observe that one of the most common errors people make in daily conversation is to appeal to antiquity—what scholars call the "argumentum ad antiquitatem" fallacy—which says that something is good simply because it is old, and because it has always been done this way.
Yoga is ancient, but it is not timeless. By stopping for a moment to consider yoga's past, we can recognize the crucial role that all of us can and must play in shaping its future.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit a new record in 2019 and have continued climbing this year, despite lockdowns and other measures to curb the pandemic, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Monday, citing preliminary data.
- 13 Must-Read Climate Change Reports for 2020 - EcoWatch ›
- Large Methane Leaks Soar 32% Despite Lockdowns and Green ... ›
These black-and-white lizards could be the punchline of a joke, except the situation is no laughing matter.
By Isabella Garcia
September in Portland, Oregon, usually brings a slight chill to the air and an orange tinge to the leaves. This year, it brought smoke so thick it burned your throat and made your eyes strain to see more than 20 feet in front of you.
- 16 Essential Books About Environmental Justice, Racism and Activism ›
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- Several West Coast Cities Have the World's Worst Air - EcoWatch ›
- Extremely Rare Leopard Cubs Born in Connecticut Zoo - EcoWatch ›
- Small Wild Cats Face Big Threats Including Lack of Conservation ... ›
- 5 Species Bouncing Back From the Brink of Extinction - EcoWatch ›