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Schools of Modern Yoga

Many groups claim to be practicing or teaching yoga, but what exactly does that mean? Each group has their own unique interpretation and practice of yoga.

Typology of Modern Yoga, adapted from 'A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism' by Elizabeth De Michelis (click on image to zoom)

Typology of Modern Yoga, adapted from ‘A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism’ by Elizabeth De Michelis
(click on image to zoom)

An orientation by types of Modern Yoga can help us understand the practices emphasized by school or teacher and the level of commitment expected of followers.

For this typology, adapted from A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism by Elizabeth De Michelis, we included developments since the 1950s and English-speaking countries worldwide (including Indian Schools with locations outside of India). The formulation of Modern Yoga began in 1896 with Swami Vivekananda [see my Origins of Modern Yoga post for a historical timeline] who developed Raja Yoga as body-mind-spirit ‘training’: in this typology we call this Modern Psychosomatic Yoga. (By psychosomatic we mean, here, the interaction of mind and body).

Silhouette_yogaSeveral decades after Vivekananda’s introduction of Modern Yoga to the West, further specialization occurred when some schools placed greater emphasis on physical practices and others more on mental ones. Modern Postural Yoga developed a strong emphasis on performance of asana (physical yogic postures) and pranayama (yogic breathing or bodily energy control). Modern Meditational Yoga emphasized techniques of concentration and meditation.

Though the typologies discussed here are broadly applicable, Modern Yoga schools don’t fit entirely into neat little buckets or categories. Some schools may fit into more than one category. For instance, Postural and Meditational Yoga are complementary practices. In cases where schools might fit into more than one category, the main doctrine or practice most emphasized by the school determined where they were placed in this typology.

At Modern Yoga schools, “committed engagement in intellectual reflection and evaluation of their own heritage is not especially encouraged, and often lacking”, says De Michelis. “The general underlying assumption being that understanding will come through first-hand experience rather than from intellectual deliberation”.1 Experiential epistemology2 (that is personal experiences as the path to knowledge) tends to be valued and intellectual development often devalued. The “experiential” religio-philosophical approach is typical of New Age religion (though many Modern Yoga schools and practitioners will not self-identify as part of New Age). [Read my posts on New Age Religion].

“If more people were to study the history, roots and beliefs of Modern Yoga more carefully (that is, among other things, by trying to exercise more intellectual discrimination)” writes De Michelis, who strongly believes, “this could be of great benefit not only to practitioners of Modern Yoga, but also to academics and intellectuals in general”.3


1 De Michelis, Elizabeth. A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, Continuum NY:NY 2005. Print. p187-89. This book is a fascinating and carefully researched history of the roots and beliefs of Modern Yoga as taught and practiced today. Strongly recommended reading for everyone who is serious about yoga and meditation–whether as teacher, practitioner, or student of history. Why wouldn’t practitioners want to learn the history, roots and beliefs of yoga schools (from sources outside their schools)?

2 Epistemology, the study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. The term is derived from the Greek epistēmē (“knowledge”) and logos (“reason”), and accordingly the field is sometimes referred to as the theory of knowledge. See Epistemology, Encyclopedia Britannica. Modern Yoga schools teach and value experiential epistemology, that is knowledge gained through personal experience or personal observation, and devalue analytical or intellectual knowledge. As such, many modern yoga practitioners devalue the validity of objective, external knowledge and overvalue personal or subjective experience, that more often than not, is delusion–human deception, that denies and is devoid of serious intellectual development.

3 De Michelis, Elizabeth. A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, Continuum NY:NY 2005. Print. p5

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  1. I think the author doesn’t really understand TM or the TM organization very well.

    Maharishi Mahesh Yogi always insisted (at least since scientific research started, perhaps as far back as 1959) that enlightenment was a physiological state of consciousness, and that all practices that promoted enlightenment were doing so because they facilitated the creation of this physiological state in some way. Belief or faith was not required, or generally not even desirable.
    Even the puja dedicated to MMY’s teacher that all TM teachers are required to perform when they teach is explained in physiological terms and while teachers are expected to be sincere in their practice, they are allowed to be sincere in the same way that a method actor is sincere: as long as they could figure out a way to evoke the proper feelings at the proper point(s) in the ceremony, MMY didn’t care what the specific beliefs of the TM teacher were -they just needed to perform the ceremony in order to evoke the internal physiological response the ceremony was designed to evoke as preparation for teaching TM (this is gleaned by reading the “sooper sekret documents” found on the various anti-TM websites, and is NOT anything I learned from the TM organization).
    This is how you can have ordained Roman Catholic priests and Buddhist priests and nuns reconcile being TM teachers: the ceremony is meant to evoke a specific physical state conducive for teaching meditation and is NOT “religious” in any normally accepted sense of the word.
    The distinction between “early TM” and “late TM” appears to also be based on a misunderstanding.
    “Early TM” would be:TM, advanced TM techniques, TM-SIdhis, TM teacher training, which are now always taught in that order.
    “Late TM” would be the other Maharishi Ayurveda practices, of which there are many, many.

    Both “early” and “late” practices are meant to help facilitate the growth towards the physiological state(s) that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi called “enlightenment,” but aside from the “early TM” stuff that must be learned in a set order, people can mix and match any and all practices from “late TM” and there is no requirement to learn TM in order to partake of any “Late TM” practice or product or treatment.. You can be a medical doctor and get continuing medical education credit (CME) for learning various aspects of “Maharishi Ayurveda” without learning TM, although it is highly recommended that you do.
    Likewise, at least if you are a nurse in the USA, you can get CME for learning TM.

    At no time are you required to believe in any practice or practices that you choose to partake in or choose not to partake in. Everything is ultimately physical, from MMY’s perspective (or ultimately “mind-stuff” depending on which direction you are looking from).

    I know people who learn TM simply because their boyfriend or girlfriend does it. According to MMY, they will get exactly the same benefits as someone who does TM because they believe in its “spiritual” nature, and possibly they will get more benefit (i.e. will grow towards enlightenment faster) as they won’t be expecting anything from the practice and therefore will be more “innocent in their practice” than someone who believes.

    There’s even a proposed physiological explanation for THAT.

  2. @saijanai: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on “Early” and “Late” TM.

    To return some questions I posed to you, posted under Claims for Meditation’s Benefits Overreach, what’s the point you exactly are trying to make? You do offer lots of interesting factoids about TM and Maharishi. Yet, we are looking for ways we can agree on how to assess the claims and efficacy of any meditation, yogic practice (versus sleep or whatever control we want to compare meditation to).

    Some people prefer apples, some like better the taste of oranges. Evaluating the “effectiveness” of meditation teachings and practices seems to boil down to personal preference. That is, without agreed upon standards, terms, and objective criteria for judging and evaluating meditation it’s Brahms to one and Brahma to another, or Beatles or Beethoven (subjective experiences and personal preferences).

  3. My point is simply that the author makes assumptions about TM that are not true. There’s no “early-TM” and “late-TM” where there is meditation vs denominational practice or something. There’s a TM track and a non-TM-track for the services offered through the “Global Country of World Peace” and one can go as far as one likes on one track without ever partaking of any aspect of the other track. In fact, both TM and non-TM “tracks” fit squarely into the psychosomatic yoga division in that there are NO behavioral requirements to participate in any aspect of either track (except for professional standards of conduct for TM teachers) and all aspects of both tracks are assumed to be conducive towards creating the purely physiological state(s) that Maharishi calls “enlightenment.”

    Of course, people who become involved with the “TM track” to the point of becoming TM teachers likely have an inclination to heavily participate in the non-TM-track services, but even so, that’s not a denominational thing, but just a psychological fact.

    Both Father Gabriel, a Roman Catholic Priest and Acharn Yai, a Buddhist nun, are heavily invested in their own projects and use the TM-track in their own projects, even to the point of having children learn the TM-Sidhis. They also both have committed to implementing as much of the curriculum used at the TM boarding school in Iowa as they can in their own projects on the assumption that these practices and procedures will further the aims of their own projects.

    But neither has become a TM devotee in any traditional sense of the world.

    Father Mejia continues to conduct mass as a priest in good standing with his religion:

    Acharn Yai has adopted TM and TM-Sidhis as the primary meditation practices at her school, but all other aspects of student’s life are completely in-line with the Buddhist tradition that she comes from:

    Both Father Mejia and Acharn Yai allow their use of TM to be exploited for marketing purposes by the TM organization. Both sides see it as a win-win. Not only does the TM organization get positive PR, but more importantly, the group practice of TM and the TM-Sidhis by the students fulfills the mandate of the TM organization to establish large “coherence creating groups” engaged in group meditation for world peace in every country. This in turn allows the orphanages and schools to become recipients of donations by wealthy TM patrons interested in establishing such groups.

    In the USA, such a group costs about $700 per month per person to maintain. In Thailand, the website says that $50/month will sponsor a girl for the entire month, including room, board, and all educational expenses and Acharn Yai has committed that all older girls (age 10+) will be practicing TM + TM-Sidhis in a large group as the facilities allow. And so, wealthy TM patrons donate to build such facilities for the school. Similar deals exist for Father Mejia and his Hogares Claret Foundation orphanages and other deals are in the offing on Indian reservations and with rural schools, etc., throughout South America, and are starting to appear in Africa as well.

    As I said, the author you cite doesn’t understand the purpose and structure of the TM and related organizations at all.

  4. @saijanai: The author of the topology nor I are making claims about the “purpose and structure” of any of these organizations or yoga schools. The typology is to examine the general practices emphasized by school or teacher and the level of commitment expected of followers. Perhaps you are making assumptions and ought to consider reading the work cited before jumping to further conclusions.