White-coated Yoga? – Dr. Rose Mary Busto

This article was written by Dr. Rose Mary Busto for the 4th issue of Amrita Magazine.

What do you imagine when you think of Yoga therapy? Is it men in white coats? Or maybe you see yourself on a couch pouring out your worries to a sympathetic ear.

In fact, the International Association of Yoga Therapists defines it as “the application of Yogic principles to a particular person with the objective of achieving a particular spiritual, psychological, or physiological goal.”  And everyone who experiences it has a different expectation and result from it. 

The word “therapy” comes from the Greek therapeia: “curing” or “healing.” But it only came into common usage in 1846, a period when great advances in sanitation, medication and hospitalisation were taking place in Victorian England. It is, therefore, a relatively recent phenomenon in modern times

So how did therapeia become entwined with Yoga? Some of the earliest prescriptions for good health come from the Carakasaṃhitā (400-200 BCE): “The use of good food is one cause of the growth of a person, and the use of bad food is a cause of diseases” (1.1.15, 33-34).

Ayurvedic principles have always been part and parcel of Yogic culture and philosophy, and they are accepted by most practitioners as part of their lifestyle. Yet, by the beginning of the twentieth century, advances in nutrition, medication and sanitation meant that such ideas were regarded as unscientific. Coupled with a deep-rooted Western distrust of “the yogi of the woods and wilds, whose dirt accumulates with his sanctity,”  this meant that “alternative” methods were marginalised and practised only by a few “eccentrics.”

With Swami Vivekanada’s arrival at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, Yoga experienced something of a renaissance. But even he was aware of the inherent prejudice again Yogic practices- so much so that he dismissed the bodily practices of hāṭha yoga as “mere physical…and queer breathing exercises.  The sanitised version of rāja yoga which he presented to his largely female, middle-class audience was far removed from its origins in ritual copulation between a man and a willing (often Outcaste) woman. His was “the science of religion, the rationale of all worship, all prayers, forms, ceremonies and miracles” and, as such, could only be reached by “the discipline of the mind.” [my italics].

In 1924, Swami Kulvayananda founded his Kaivalyadhama Yoga Ashram, a centre for the treatment of ailments. His intention was to align the therapeutic application of Yoga with modern, rational, scientific principles, thus hopefully  paving the way for its widespread acceptance. The shift from Yoga as a tool for liberation to a forum for physiological, anatomical and therapeutic study worried even its most prominent advocates. Frequently photographed in his white coat, wearing a stethoscope while barefoot, Swami Śivananda, who had trained as a doctor himself, embodied the perfect synthesis of East and West that the new scientific Yoga stood for. Yet even he was alarmed at the way it was developing. As the kriyās of the Haṭhapradīpikā were reduced to a regime of water enemas, eye washes and nasal flushes, something was being lost. Students who dedicated themselves to the medical application of Yoga were losing their faith and “neglect[ing] Dharma”  “under the influence of Science.” 

The net effect, to quote Yoga scholar Joseph Alter, was to strip Yoga of “all things esoteric, mystical and magical.”  In the quest for universal acceptance, Yoga was gradually being divested of its philosophical, cultural and religious roots. The esoteric techniques developed by every ascetic tradition in a never-ending quest for transformation were being ignored in favour of rational, scientifically-validated therapies.

“The net effect, to quote Yoga scholar Joseph Alter, was to strip Yoga of “all things esoteric, mystical and magical”

The strategy worked. Yoga therapy is now an integral part of our $27 billion industry. Routinely medicalised and subject to clinical trials in many parts of the world, it is now rolled out in schools, hospitals, prisons and the workplace. It is now directly linked to distinctly modern ideas about health and “wellness,” exceeding even Kuvalyananda’s expectations.

Today, one of the main attractions of Yoga is its association with health and its strong correlation with a positive self-image through weight loss, muscle toning, flexibility and its ability to reduce stress. People use it to transform their minds and bodies, conquering addiction, coping with anxiety, gaining fitness, improving breathing and decreasing rage in the process.

Hardly anyone, however, would think of it as a means for escaping saṃsara, attaining immortality or even, like the Tantric practitioners of old, self-deification.

There is no doubt that we have gained much as a society by the medical application of Yoga. Who among us does not know someone whose life has to have been changed, physically, mentally or emotionally, through practising Yoga? The therapeutic applications of Yoga have gained mainstream acceptance and provided huge revenue streams for our industry.  And that is all to the good.

And yet…In the process of rationalising and medicalising Yoga, we have lost sight of the ideological and theological framework within which it emerged. Yoga has been transformed from a soteriological tool designed to bring liberation, whether in this life or the next, into a utilitarian one in which the outcomes are firmly rooted in this life and this body. 

‘Hardly anyone, however, would think of it as a means for escaping saṃsara, attaining immortality or even, like the Tantric practitioners of old, self-deification’

Like the ladies who sat at Vivekanada’s feet, we are not comfortable with magic, alchemy and sex. In the process of sanitising Yoga, much of its strangeness, its esotericism, its mystery -those parts that can’t be explained by reason or science- has been lost. By medicalising it, by turning it into a science, we are in danger, as Śivananda realised, of forgetting the original purpose of Yoga.

Dr. Rose Mary Busto

Rose is a Senior Yoga Teacher, teaching for over 30 years and has been practicing Yoga since she was a teenager.  In 2015 she was awarded a MA with Distinction in the Traditions of Yoga and Meditation by SOAS.  She is currently enrolled on a doctoral programme researching the legacy and impact of ancient Indic religious practices on modern Postural Yoga.  She is running teacher training in 2019 and runs workshops and retreats.


1 https://www.iayt.org

2 A.P. Sinnett, The Occult World, London: Tr̈ubner, 1881, p.26

3 Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (1907). Vol. 6, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama (1997), pp..233, 165

4 Strauss, Sarah, ” ’Adjust, Adapt, Accommodate’: The Production of Yoga in a Transnational World” in Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives, Mark Singleton, and Jean Byrne, (eds.), Oxford: Routledge, (2008), p.50

5 Alter, Joseph S.  , “Modern Medical Yoga: Struggling with a History of Magic, Alchemy and Sex”, AsIan Medicine (2005), p.119

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