Imitation can be an effective learning method. Dance is a good example. We watch someone dance and we try and move “the same way”. It is also useful in sports, for example, a beginning tennis player may acquire a forehand stroke that does a good job at his level by simply imitating a pro.
We see imitation in other walks of life. Business literature is littered with strategies that urge us to imitate successful people. We are told that successful CEOs or fund managers do these 5 things and that if we do the same 5 things, we could be as successful as them. Of course, the people who did those 5 things and did not make it are harder to find and hence ignored from the calculus. This is an example of survivorship bias or what is less charitably known as “proof by example”.
Imitation is an effective (or at least harmless) method if we understand the what’s and why’s of the thing we do by imitation. In the tennis example, if the beginner simply grabbed the racquet and swung it just like Roger Federer does without understanding the fundamentals that are embodied in the particular, stylised version of Federer’s production of forehand (a thing of poetic beauty, by the way!), he is setting himself up for not only failure, but also developing habits that would impede his development. In fact, there is a common set of fundamentals behind seemingly different forehands of pros (Nadal and Federer forehands may look miles apart to an untrained eye). In this case, it is best to spend some time understanding these fundamentals and then build a style (or perhaps just imitate Federer like Grigor Dimitrov has done!).
As far back as early 20th century, the Austrian Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, the father of the analytical school of psychology, considered the Western (mainly European at that time) practice of Yoga as imitation. In Psychology and Religion published in 1940, he delivers a stinging rebuke:
“What is the use of imitating yoga if your dark side remains as good a medieval Christian as ever? If you can afford to seat yourself on a gazelle skin under a Bo-tree or in the cell of a gompa for the rest of your life without being troubled by politics or the collapse of your securities, I will look favorably upon your case. But yoga in Mayfair or Fifth Avenue, or in which is on the telephone, is a spiritual fake.”
His point was that Yoga is a philosophical system and that the many practices that make up the system fit into a whole. There are complex and far reaching ideas behind the philosophical system. Merely doing the practices of what a bearded frail looking man does in the Himalayas in India amounts to imitation. One sees this in the form of almost religious emphasis on techniques, methods, rituals and lineages in the modern Yoga scene. For example, people would go through a elaborate system of manipulating their breathing mechanics without really understanding its relevance to the big picture of Yoga philosophy.
Although Dr Jung uses the adjective “Western” or “European” to identify the people he is talking about, I think, this is no longer a geography dependent socio-cultural category. There is a sort of homogenisation of modes of analysis and views of the world among a class of intelligentsia. This group is spread across the world that relies exclusively on Scientific method of enquiry with consequences as preference for things “objective”, materialism and a strong sense of individualism. Therefore there are many “Western” people native to India as well! I shall use it in this broader sense henceforth.
The Western preference is to dissect everything to “understandable” parts and turn everything into a technique perfecting the parts. One sees this in the modern sports industry. For example, the American way of teaching tennis used to be famous for painting foot marks on the tennis court to drill the player into moving exactly in a certain pattern. It industrialises production of experts of a certain skill level. It probably helps the beginner improve to a “functioning” level quickly.
It certainly creates many jobs for “experts”. For example, any Cricket team worth its name has a fielding coach, a batting coach, a bowling coach, a fitness coach, a physiotherapist, a psychologist and a manager. It has created a professional class of Yoga teachers who make a living teaching various bits of the Yoga system (unprecedented in the history of Yoga!).
To quote Dr Jung further:
“Therefore, any religious or philosophical practice amounts to a psychological discipline; in other words, it is a method of psychic hygiene. The numerous purely physical procedures of yoga are a physiological hygiene as well, which is far superior to ordinary gymnastics or breathing exercises in that it is not merely mechanistic and scientific but, at the same time, philosophical. …
…Yoga practice is unthinkable, and would also be ineffectual, without the ideas on which it is based. It works the physical and the spiritual into one another in an extraordinarily complete way.
Since Western man can turn everything into a technique, it is true in principle that everything that looks like a method is either dangerous or condemned to futility. In so far as yoga is a form of hygiene, it is as useful to him as any other system.”
What does this mean for the present day Yoga practitioners?
As Jung says, as a purely physiological hygiene, the modern postural practices are quite beneficial to the practitioners at a basic level.
The importance of the practices that form part of the psychic hygiene comes from understanding the ideas behind the system of Yoga philosophy. Without a full complement of psychic hygiene, the big picture is likely to remain elusive.
Spiritual aspirants i.e. people, who are looking to harness the full power of Yoga, have more work to do in the form of self study to understand the ideas underpinning the system of Yoga philosophy. They need to understand what they do, why they do what they do and, from these, how they should do what they do. As Chāndogya Upaniṣad states: “That which is done with proper knowledge, with devotion and conformity with the scriptures becomes more forceful.”
A good place to start is at the very source of the Yoga philosophy – The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. I highly recommend spending some time understanding the text. While I write about it in bits and pieces stripping unnecessary technical words, Āranya’s book is the gold standard of commentaries on Yoga Sutras. That is a must have for any serious practitioner of Yoga.
Otherwise, they might be setting themselves up for more misery. Mere imitating of the rituals (and getting very good at it) may not liberate them and produce the bliss they are seeking. They are likely to go on a Yoga shopping spree, which is not light on the wallet these days!