Westerners and Indian Yoga, Part 1: Is It Possible For Westerns to Practice Yoga?

The question is frequently raised as to whether Westerners, with a background and culture grounded in materialism, the fulfillment of the vital ambitions and desires, and the development of the mental faculties, can truly enter into the spirit of yoga and obtain the fruits of the yogic practice in the same way as people who stem from the culture of India, with its long history of spiritual practice and cultural inclinations towards devotion and prayer. There are numerous questions that arise from such an inquiry and Sri Aurobindo takes them up systematically. If one disregards the differences of specific practices and names, one can see that in the mystical traditions of the West there are clearly practices and spiritual developments that very closely mirror the lines of yoga developed in the East. Just as in India, yoga is not for everyone, so also in the West, it has always been a few who have gravitated toward these spiritual pursuits and endeavours. Humanity is one, regardless of superficial differences and cultural variances. The basic capacities, drives, needs and evolutionary pressures are similar for all of humanity. In today’s world, as it becomes ever-more clear that the entire world is threatened with extinction unless a new evolutionary principle of consciousness can manifest and change the course of human civilisation, it is to be hoped, and expected, that all human beings, regardless of their cultural or national origin, will participate in the needed transitions.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The best way to answer your letter will be, I think, to take separately the questions implied in it. I will begin with the conclusion you have drawn of the impossibility of the yoga for a non-oriental nature.”

“I cannot see any ground for such a conclusion; it is contrary to all experience. Europeans throughout the centuries have practiced with success spiritual disciplines which were akin to oriental yoga and have followed, too, ways of the inner life which came to them from the East. Their non-oriental nature did not stand in their way. The approach and experiences of Plotinus and the European mystics who derived from him were identical, as has been shown recently, with the approach and experiences of one type of Indian yoga. Especially, since the introduction of Christianity, Europeans have followed its mystic disciplines which were one in essence with those of Asia, however much they may have differed in forms, names and symbols. If the question be of Indian yoga itself in its own characteristic forms, here too the supposed inability is contradicted by experience. In early times Greek and Scythians from the West as well as Chinese and Japanese and Cambodians from the East followed without difficulty Buddhist or Hindu disciplines; at the present day an increasing number of occidentals have taken to Vedantic or Vaishnava or other Indian spiritual practices and this objection of incapacity or unsuitableness has never been made either from the side of the disciples or from the side of the Masters. I do not see, either, why there should be any such unbridgeable gulf; for there is no essential difference between the spiritual life in the East and the spiritual life in the West; what difference there is has always been of names, forms and symbols or else of the emphasis laid on one special aim or another or on one side or another of psychological experience. Even here differences are often alleged which do not exist or else are not so great as they appear. I have seen it alleged by a Christian writer (who does not seem to share your friend Angus’ objection to these scholastic small distinctions) that Hindu spiritual thought and life acknowledged or followed after only the Transcendent and neglected the Immanent Divinity, while Christianity gave due place to both Aspects; but in point of fact, Indian spirituality, even if it laid the final stress on the Highest beyond form and name, yet gave ample recognition and place to the Divine immanent in the world and the Divine immanent in the human being. Indian spirituality has, it is true, a wider and more minute knowledge behind it; it has followed hundreds of different paths, admitted every kind of approach to the Divine and has thus been able to enter into fields which are outside the less ample scope of occidental practice; but that makes no difference to the essentials, and it is the essentials alone that matter.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Westerners and Indian Yoga, pp. 365-370

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