The following is an interview with Joshua Greene conducted by Shu-Chuan Chen, Professor of Sociology at Fo Guang University (Taiwan), taped at Jivamukti Yoga School on October 25, 2011.
Shu-Chuan: I have been researching urban yoga in Taiwan and wondering if yoga practice is developing into a kind of new religion. I am hoping you will share your own experiences in yoga practice. What was your first encounter with yoga?
JG: I was nineteen years old and a student in Paris at the Sorbonne. That was 1969, a time of radical transformation, a time of rejecting authority, particularly religious authority. The Vietnam War was raging, and there was a growing curiosity about peaceful cultures.
SC: At that time did you participate in any kind of social movement for peace?
JG: Before going to Paris I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, which had a large anti-war community, but the tactics of the protesters made me uncomfortable. As an editor for the student newspaper I got to sit in on organizers’ meetings, and frankly their motives struck me as disingenuous. I took my junior year abroad and in December 1969 I visited London. The Krishna temple was near the British Museum, and the people there were wonderful, bright, funny, dedicated. The temple atmosphere was beautiful and peaceful: flowers and paintings and incense and delicious vegetarian food. Krishna yoga is Bhakti, the yoga of devotion, and the temple reflected that principle of making everything a gesture of love. So that was my first encounter with yoga.
SC: You lived in Krishna temples?
JG: Yes, from 1969 to 1982, about thirteen years. One year was in India, the rest was divided between London, Germany, Paris, and primarily New York. By 1982, the time had come for me to return to secular life.
SC: Was there a specific reason for that?
JG: The Krishna movement had grown dramatically, there were dozens of temples, thousands of students, and I missed the more intimate environment of those early days in London. I’ve never been particularly comfortable in institutional settings.
SC: Why is that?
JG: There’s an old joke. God says to the devil, “I have a good idea. I’m going to call it religion.” The devil thinks for a minute and says to God, “Sounds great. Let me organize it for you.” As soon as something becomes institutionalized, it has to be financed, staffed, defended—I’m not qualified for that kind of administration. So I came back to New York to live what I had been studying.
SC: Do you still participate in temple life?
JG: Oh yes. Temple ceremonies, prasadam (vegetarian food), group chanting—that sangha or good company is critical for staying spiritually healthy. What challenged me—and I think this speaks to the theme of your research—was how Bhakti applies to a very distressed twenty-first century world. Bhakti is not a calcified library: it is an organic, ever expanding experience of union with Krishna or the Supreme Person through love; and our job, those of us who are dedicated to the yoga path, is to develop a language of devotion appropriate for that world. To do that, I needed to go back to New York.
SC: To influence others and to have more people…
JG: Not so much to influence but to be of practical service. My teacher Prabhupada conducted this huge experiment by bringing Krishna Bhakti to America in 1965. He established temples because practitioners need a place to worship, but his interest was global healing. One of the reasons I love teaching at Jivamukti Yoga School is that the founders Sharon Gannon and David Life are committed to that larger agenda. Their approach to yoga is unabashedly devotional—not religious, but devotional. There is nothing “Hindu” or “Indian” about their approach.
SC: I have visited Krishna temples and met many Hindus there.
JG: That’s understandable. Krishna temples are like homes-away-from-home for Hindus in America. The ceremonies and the vegetarian menu are of the highest order, and people who come from India appreciate that. At Jivamukti we do follow some ceremonies in our weekly Bhagavad Gita gatherings, but the emphasis is on study and discussion. What does the Bhagavad Gita have to say about the subconscious, about world events, climate change, poverty, armed conflict, the rights of women and children? That engagement with social issues is crucial if devotion is going to make a difference in the world.
SC: So are you teaching your own interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita?
JG: In out weekly class we conduct a shared inquiry into the Gita’s relevance. What did the words of the text mean five thousand years ago and do they mean the same thing today? In Vedic times “genocide” did not exist, for example. Ecology, genetics, DNA—these terms didn’t exist and some interpretation is required. But there is a difference between interpretation and invention. If you look around you see a lot of liberties being taken in the yoga world, where instructors too often set aside the traditional teachings to make room for their own inventions.
SC: Could that be interpreted as a kind of de-traditionalizing of yoga?
JG: I think it’s something more insidious than that. The presumption these instructors make is that they can appropriate yoga for their own purposes, and that’s wrong. Teach whatever you want, but don’t call it yoga. We Americans suffer from an Enlightenment prejudice, an egoism that says we have our own version of things. That’s dangerous when it comes to yoga.
SC: Dangerous in which way?
JG: Well, first of all from a physical perspective you can hurt people. I’ve taken classes around the country and I don’t know where some of these teachers were trained but I’ve seen people faint in class. I’ve seen people fracture a toe and throw their back out because the teachers were not properly trained. From a spiritual perspective it’s equally risky, since yoga philosophy is about reestablishing spiritual identity. People with little training are attempting to teach complex, sophisticated ideas. I listen to their classes and I don’t know what they are saying.
SC: So in your opinion should the yoga business be inspected or controlled by some outside agency?
JG: That’s a difficult question. On the one hand, there has to be standards. Without standards you have chaos. On the other hand, who has the right to say what real yoga is? Who gets to set that standard?
SC: Yoga Alliance has been playing a kind of overseer role.
JG: But who is overseeing the overseers? It is easy to get it wrong. I get it wrong all the time. I’ll try to contemporize a concept such as karma by equating it with childhood trauma or genetic predisposition or some other immediate cause. That doesn’t always work, and I have to be prepared to take responsibility when it goes wrong. We do still need a guru-parampara succession, a conservative lineage of teachers. That control is necessary to keep liberals like me from detouring too far. But some adaptation is also required.
SC: Do you think that it is a kind of invention, the teacher training that is available now?
JG: No, we shouldn’t be that jaded. Jivamukti, Integral Yoga, Iyengar—there are some outstanding yoga schools. But for many people yoga is a business. I asked an instructor out by me on Long Island why he had opened his studio. He said, “I did the math.” In a consumer culture, you make a product and you sell it. In Vedic times yoga was not that kind of mass market commodity. A student would live in the ashram of the guru and would learn firsthand every day from the teacher. By virtue of that daily contact the guru understood the psychology of the student and could make recommendations about service and practices, about partnering and future vocation. And after many years the teacher would say “You are ready, you can go teach.” Not today. Anyone who attends 200 hours of classes gets a piece of paper and opens a yoga center. Students have to assume responsibility for choosing a school wisely.
SC: How did yoga go from an esoteric practice to a commodity?
JG: It started in the 1965 when the U.S. government repealed immigration restrictions in effect since 1904. Once the door was open all these teachers began arriving from India and Japan and China, with their many styles of yoga.
SC: Today in Taipei there are several large yoga centers, and they combine different kinds of yoga traditions.
JG: So it is a business there, too, and the students have to be careful about who they take for a teacher. You were asking before if yoga was becoming a religion. My impression is that some people do go to yoga school the way some people used to go to a place of worship. Yoga studios have the advantage of being non-theistic. This place, Jivamukti, is unique in that regard. Sharon and David have no hesitation bringing out the devotional side of yoga. People start out coming for the asana classes, and then they end up asking, “Oh, what is that OM you chant in the beginning of class?” Next thing you know, they are in the Bhagavad Gita group.
SC: So then they want to know more. Can you define Bhakti more clearly?
JG: Bhakti means devotion to the personal Supreme Being. In the context of this discussion one of its most important meanings is good company, sanga, coming to a place where you can share realizations, chant together, study together.
SC: Is there a missionary dimension to it?
JG: Not for me. When I was younger that was important, but I’m sixty-one now and know better. If we are going to be of service to one another, we can’t be forcing ideas down each other’s throats. Best thing is to try to be a good example, make yourself available for discussion, and when you speak, speak truthfully. In our discussion group we’ll read an article from the New York Times, or we’ll talk about what’s happening in the Middle East or in the world of science. We’ll talk about something that happened in our own personal life this past week and look at it through the lens of the Gita. Ultimately everything around us can serve as an inspiration for love of Krishna. If we have the eyes to see it, then we are in Krishna’s presence twenty-four hours a day. “For those who see Me in everything and see everything in Me,” Krishna tells Arjuna, “I am never lost to them and they are never lost to Me.”
SC: Is that the sense of Oneness? Everyone being a part of the Whole?
JG: That’s the idea, but we need to be define “oneness” carefully. There is a misperception in Western yoga circles that oneness means we are all the same without any distinction. That’s what most people hear when they come to yoga schools. From the first day they are told, “When you reach Samadhi, when you attain the perfection of yoga, your ego dissolves, your individuality drops away, and you become one with everything.” And that is indeed the description in the Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy. But Advaita Vedanta is not the only school, and there is another very important part of the picture, which is the Bhakti contribution. The Bhagavad Gita agrees that we are qualitatively one with everything, in that everything is composed of energy, brahman. So you don’t have to work at that. You are by nature brahman, a spiritual being. What you have to work at is mending a broken heart.
SC: Why? Why a broken heart?
JG: Because for so many lives we have tried to give love and get love, and every time our heart has been broken. There may be a few fortunate souls who have known some very pure love in their life. But they are the exception. We are not just undifferentiated energy, we are loving beings, individual souls yearning to reunite with the Supreme Soul in a personal relationship of devotion. At least that is the Gita’s description of the human condition. If everything is uniquely and exclusively one, where’s the possibility for love? Love means two: the lover and beloved.
SC: Yes. But then why is this idea of oneness so popular?
JG: Because two as we know it in this world is difficult. Two is painful. Suffering comes from others: why would anyone want to commit to relationships across eternity? It’s counterintuitive. Krishna goes to great lengths in the Gita to resolve that, by promising that he doesn’t break hearts and that a spiritual relationship with him is not like the temporary problematic relationships in this world. The other reason for the popularity of oneness is that most yoga teachers have been trained in that South Indian Advaita tradition, founded by Shankara in the late eighth century. Shankara’s mission was to reestablish the authority of the Vedic texts, which had been marginalized by the Buddha. The Vedic prescription for animal sacrifice had become a pretext for opening slaughterhouses. Out of his compassion for the animals, Buddha taught ahimsa, non-violence, and urged followers to set aside the Vedas. Shankara comes and says, “You can be non-violent without having to reject the Vedas.”
SC: So he brings back the Vedas.
JG: But to reestablish their authority he puts an impersonal spin on them, proposing that our individuality is an illusion, maya, brought on by embodied life. When you achieve enlightenment, he said, you realize your oneness with all creation. The example is given that if you take a drop of water and put it into the ocean it becomes one with the ocean.
SC: It becomes the ocean.
JG: That was the argument, but a drop of water is still a drop of water.
SC: But it combines with the ocean.
JG: Still, the quantity of water in a drop never equals the quantity of water in the ocean. Yet that is what yoga students have heard from the outset: that you achieve enlightenment and your individuality disappears and a drop becomes an ocean. You are no longer a distinct entity. Your uniqueness evaporates. If I don’t have to deal with you anymore, if I don’t have to deal with responsibility and people, then all of my headaches go away. But what a price to pay! Personally, I cannot think of anything more horrifying than the idea that I disappear and no longer exist. That is why a precise vocabulary is so critical. What disappears is the material ego, the problematic self. The true, loving self can then emerge.
SC: So oneness is a kind of excuse to avoid relationships.
JG: Yes, like saying this patient has a fever, so let’s kill the patient. Don’t do that. Cure the patient and she can go back to a healthy happy life. The Gita is pointing to healthy spiritual personality based not on the mind-body but on the soul. Not only is this mistaken idea of oneness incomplete philosophically, but it has harmful repercussions in this world. Look at the environment in India, why is it so terrible? Some scholars like Lance Nelson and David Haberman have argued that it can attributed to Shankarite philosophy. If this world is an illusion, then why should I bother to clean up the environment? If I just want to get out of this world of shape and form and personality, then why bother committing to it? Shankara describe the world as an ocean full of sharks and horrible creatures. Just get out of it.
SC: So if people just have this kind of idea, then…
JG: Then why bother being responsible? I have no commitment to this world. This world is maya, illusion, I’m illusion, you’re illusion, why should I bother? Let me go practice my yoga and become one with brahman. So it’s a dangerous idea. The Gita says no, this world is also the kingdom of God, this world is divine, this world is your field for becoming realized. Here is where you can see the Divine all around you. The Bhakti yoga tradition compels you to become more involved, not less.
SC: I don’t think many people in the yoga world see things in this way.
JG: No, they never get this. And frankly I’m very cautious about how I explain it. I don’t say Advaita Vedanta is wrong. Who am I to criticize the great Shankara? But on the strength of Bhagavad Gita I do have the right to say that his picture is only part of the picture.
SC: Coming back to the concept of yoga, in your opinion, what is yoga? Do you have your own definition of yoga? And what is the nature or what is the spirit of yoga?
JG: I’m I reminded of the great filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. When Kurosawa received his honorary Academy Award maybe twenty years ago, he was eighty years old and nearly blind. In his acceptance speech he said that he still had a lot to learn about cinema and promised to continue to be an attentive student of filmmaking. Imagine this master, this giant of the industry saying he was still a student. That to my mind is a great filmmaker, a great director. So when you ask me what is yoga what can I say to you? I mean, I’m trying to understand it. I know perhaps better what yoga is not. Yoga is not consumerism. Yoga is not egotism. Yoga is not accumulation. Yoga is not exploitation of the environment. Yoga is not aggressive. Yoga is not political. Yoga is the natural condition of the eternal self in transcendence. Yoga is the nature of the soul before the material conditions of the body and mind arise. Yoga is who we are in our previous lives, who we are now, and who we will be in future lifetimes, unencumbered by our pathologies, by neurosis, by the conditioning of being born into a physical body with imperfect parents and imperfect culture, what we are after all of the things we have been told all our life have been removed—that is the subject of Yoga.
SC: Then this world is not yoga.
JG: No, no, this isn’t to put down the world around us at all. There is a tendency to say, “Material: bad. Spiritual: good.” But that’s not the Bhagavad Gita’s version. The Gita’s version is “Material engaged for service: spiritual.”
SC: Meaning we can cultivate our spiritual self in the material world.
JG: Precisely. There is much good going on pilgrimage to the Himalayas or some other sacred place, to get away for a while, to get inspired. But you should come back because this is the active arena for yoga. Yoga does not teach us to go away from problems, Yoga teaches us to confront problems more efficiently, more effectively. Yoga provides the tools of self-awareness for dealing with the life we have.
SC: You lived in India. Do you think yoga in the West is different from yoga in India?
JG: I do not know if I am the best person to answer that question. I do not know all of the yoga in India, or in the United States either. But I do know you can find some schools that teach the same in Brooklyn as in Rishikesh.
SC: How about Krishna temples? Are the activities in Krishna temples in India the same as in the U.S.?
JG: Yes, very much so. When Bhaktivedan Swami Prabhupada, my teacher, came to America in 1965 he did a marvelous thing establishing temple practices very much along the highest standards of temple practices in India. Everything is done very much according to the tradition, according to the scriptural standards.
SC: There is a research finding that the over 87% of Taiwanese regard yoga as a physical exercise. What do you think of this kind of impression?
JG: I wonder if it is necessary to call physical exercise yoga. Why not just call it exercise? Yoga is about deep, deep realization that requires study, meditation, and a change of behavior. You cannot separate yoga from behavior. People who call themselves yogis but endorse animal slaughter or take drugs or do not try to control their other appetites, that is not a yoga teacher according to the tradition. Read Patanjali: the very first two stages of his eightfold system are about character, yama and niyama.
SC: Do you regard Hare Krishna as your religion?
JG: The institution you are talking about is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON. I lived in ISKCON temples for many years and still go to worship the deity there and have the company of my Godbrothers and Godsisters. I wouldn’t ever want to give that up. And because I’m one of the older devotees the temple residents are very respectful towards me. It is my spiritual master’s movement. Why would I not support it?
SC: So, you support it by giving lectures. . . .
JG: Sometimes by counseling people. It is a very big challenge for someone to make their life a full-time life of devotion. Counseling can be useful.
SC: But it is not a religion for you.
JG: I was born Jewish. I have my religion from birth. Bhakti is my practice. On a certain level they are the same. Religion comes from the Latin religere, which means “to reconnect,” which is the same word as “yoga,” meaning “to reunite.” Unfortunately, religion has been misused for so long. It is understandable that an intelligent, thinking person would not want to have anything to do with religion. There are exceptions, of course. I am privileged to know some very important, wonderful, wise religious leaders. There are not enough of them. But then, we could say the same thing about science. Science has also been misrepresented by people with too much ego. Science is also a tool for understanding creation. And there are as many misled people in science as there are in religion. Ultimately, it comes down to the integrity of the individual. Whatever your topic is, if you are a medical doctor, go deep inside medicine. If you are a yoga teacher, go deep inside your yoga. Why do anything superficially? You will hurt yourself and end up hurting others as well.
SC: Do you have any suggestions for improving the training, for improving the quality of being a yoga teacher?
JG: That is a good question. To become a certified yoga teacher you should probably take courses in art history, psychology, ethics, some physics, some comparative religion. To be a good yoga teacher you have to be a well-rounded individual—and you have to stop using the language of yoga as clichés. Study and know the meaning of these concepts and how they migrate into the rest of the world.
SC: In your opinion, what is the future of the yoga in the world?
JG: Television was first invented in the 1940’s—that was a good idea, too, and the vision for it was as a vehicle for learning, for education, for culture and art. Now it is, basically, an excuse for advertising. We can expect the same thing for yoga. This is, after all, an American consumer civilization. Yoga will continue to be commodified and preempted by people looking to build their own business. Then there will be some individuals who will take it seriously, and they will be sought after as the true teacher. Just as in anything, there is room for a “finest” category, a “best of” category. In yoga, there will always be room for realized teachers, and the people looking for a true understanding of yoga will find them. My hope would be that the application of yoga will multiply. We can hope to see yoga in healthcare, in special needs children’s care, agriculture, environment, wildlife conservation, diet, government. As people mature in their own understanding of yoga, they can make a greater contribution to the world around them. If you are a doctor, bring yoga into your practice. If you are a teacher, bring yoga into your classroom. You can bring your own mature vision of yoga back to Taiwan. Is that okay?
SC: Yes. Okay. Thank you.