I recently read an article in the New York Times about a controversy rocking the yoga world. In an essay posted on the website of the Hindu-American Foundation, Dr. Aseem Shukla laments what he perceives as a disconnect between the modern yoga culture and its Hindu roots. The author didn’t ask that yoga practitioners become Hindu or even learn more about Hinduism. He only wanted the community to acknowledge its Hindu roots. This occasioned a passionate outcry from yoga practitioners across the country who cried fowl. “Nobody owns yoga,” they said. And even Deepak Chopra helped the argument go viral by weighing in that the roots of yoga go deeper than any particular religion.
Whew. If you want to start a controversy, just bring up religion. I’m not a yoga practitioner and have no idea who’s right in this argument. But there is a larger issue here that I feel very strongly about. And that is the separation of ancient mind/body practices from their cultural and spiritual roots. Yoga has become big business. Though I’m sure there are many deeply holistic practitioners who know the roots of this ancient art, there is also a huge number for whom yoga is nothing more than a stretching practice with a lot of trendy gear that you can buy, all driven by glitzy marketing.
The whole issue made me think, yet again, about my concern with the increasing popularization of qigong. On the one hand, I am happy to see this growing interest in an ancient and profound longevity practice. I’m a 30 year practitioner of Tai Chi as well as a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I also practice and teach qigong. I can’t help but be happy that more of my patients have at least heard of qigong, and many are interested in learning it.
On the other hand, in the modern quest for fitness and quick fixes, will qigong go the way of yoga and become another class offered at the gym? Even this would be fine, if the Taoist roots of this art could somehow be included in the teaching. But how do we do this with integrity? Given the American obsession with speed and “stuff”, how will qigong not become just another relaxation technique to be slotted in after the treadmill and weights?
The answer may be in learning something from the current yoga controversy. I understand that the roots of the word “yoga” have to do with the principle of “yoke”, as in “yoked to spirit.” Perhaps we in the qigong community need to remember the Taoist roots of our practice and “yoke” ourselves to it. Our teaching, of even the simplest routines, can be informed by the Taoist principles of Yin and Yang, the five elements, the great cycles of time, the techniques of holding the body’s spirits together to cultivate longevity, in short with living in accordance with the rhythms of the natural world. How many of us take this as our mandate? How many even live this way?
I know it’s easy to get students by drumming up short focus sound-byte qigong practices like “qigong for weight loss,” “qigong for back pain,”or even the more zesty “qigong sexual secrets.” I wince at all of these trendy presentations, not because they won’t work, but because they mislead the public about the true nature of qigong. Just as yoga is more than stretching, so qigong is more than waving your arms and visualizing white light. Perhaps it’s important to find easy avenues of introduction that get people in the door. But I hope in our enthusiasm to share this Taoist jewel, we don’t all find ourselves, 20 years down the road, having completely forgotten the roots of our own practice.