The drums. The three drums. The three talking drums. The three talking drums conversing in the ancient language of the Yoruba kingdom. In the centre of the room, a man is leading a warm-up to the syncopated rhythm of these three African drums. His students adopt various positions under his careful gaze. To the untrained eye they are standard dance poses. However, to a keener observer, these exercises are as rooted in tradition as the drums to whose rhythm they are being performed. Only that the tradition wasn't brought on a slave ship from Africa, but it belongs to a different country in a different continent. These movements are the property of the nation that gave us Ganesha and Kali.
Daylight robbery has never felt this good before. The above scene took place some weeks ago at The Place, the venue that is synonymous with dance in London. The teacher was yours truly and the class was part of the on-going programme of the Cuban School of Arts, a company aimed at promoting Cuban culture (and specifically dance) in the UK. I was the guest tutor and thief-in-chief. Why the latter title, you perhaps are wondering? Because I was using yoga, or more specifically, asanas, as part of my warm-up.
Recently yoga has been in the news for reasons that have less to do with its ancient origins and more to do with the styles that it has spawned, or should we say with trends that have used its name to justify the creation of new disciplines. An Indian government body has started filming hundreds of poses in the hope that people understand where the millennia-old physical and mental practice was born.
But will it have the desired effect? Can someone patent spirituality?
I touched upon this subject recently in a previous Sunday column (click here to read it) but whereas on that occasion I wrote about how religion, and in particular the Abrahamic faiths, has gained control of spirituality, today I am addressing the dichotomy of tradition vs modernity.
In principle, Dr Vinod Kumar Gupta, head of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library in Delhi, was right when he told The Guardian that: "People are claiming they are doing something different from the original yoga when they are not. Yoga originated in India. People cannot claim to invent a new yoga when they have not." Moreover, yoga is a complex system of Hindu philosophy advocating and prescribing a course of physical and mental disciplines whose aim is to promote control of body and mind. When I introduced the Downward Facing Dog and Cobra positions - amongst others - in my classes years ago, I did it because I was interested in the balance, strength and flexibility gained as a consequence of performing these exercises. The philosophical bit was left out. So, yes, I can see why Dr Gupta and co. are upset.
However, one side-effect of cultural exports is that traditions change and with the passing of time aspects of it are cast off. A few days ago I posted a review of a streetdance show, 'Insane in the Brain'. Streetdance is rooted in hip-hop, hip-hop is the synergy of four elements: MCing, DJing, dancing (as in break-dancing) and graffiti. Nowadays this symbiosis is no longer rigid. You can go to shows where there might be an MC or a DJ, but it's not necessary. However, the dance element is always present.
Same with yoga. From naked yoga to the yoga/pilates hybrid many fitness centres advertise, the mystical, spiritual aspect has been abandoned in favour of a more 'shed-a-few-pounds' approach. It is a shame, but it's the price many ancient cultures pay when their traditions are transported across the seas and land in gyms and dance studios. Despite the fact that the mention of 'yogic influences' was present in my promotional blurb when I first introduced the Hindulite practice to my students, I still got a few raised eyebrows everytime I began the warm-up. They were not hostile, mind, and they mainly came from people who did yoga in their spare time and were wondering what the heck I was doing. I think the confusion arose from the fact that Afro-Cuban dance and yoga might not be compatible. Well, not vis-à-vis. However, the presence of this spiritual discipline in dance goes back many decades. In fact one of the pioneers of modern dance in Cuba, Ramiro Guerra, influenced by the American choreographer Martha Graham, combined yoga and pilates successfully during his tenure with Cuba's Contemporary Dance Company.
The biggest threat yoga faces, according to its followers, is the myriad brands that have sprung up in recent years. Add to this marketing and publicity, and it's no wonder that studios from L.A. to London are bursting at the seams with people wanting a slice of 'Eastern philosophy', without the philosophical component. At the same time, it should be remembered that yoga means 'oneness and unity', that is unity with one's self and surroundings. It's important to understand this because the asanas are not the end, or even the means to the end. They are just a small part of a huge system, of which mantras and music are other elements. So, even if government departments in India wanted to patent this ancient discipline, they would only be addressing one side of the argument.
Which, in a way, lets 'thieves' like me off the hook. Because, believe you me, my dear readers, there's nothing like doing the Crane pose to the sound of the okónkolo, itótele and iyá. Those drums, those three drums, those three talking drums conversing in the ancient language of the Yoruba kingdom whilst shaking hands with Ganesha and Kali.
Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 20th July at 11:59pm (GMT)