This thread features a piece called ARE WE STILL BELITTLING YOGA? by Georg Feuerstein in which he proposes a campaign to push for the captialization of the word “Yoga.”
My dissenting reply led to a lively discussion among list members.
Originally posted 6/27/00
From: Georg Feuerstein
In response to a query from Leslie, I would like to tender the following comments (a version of which was published in a recent issue of Yoga World newsletter published by YREC):
ARE WE STILL BELITTLING YOGA?
For many years now, I have been writing Yoga instead of yoga. My reason for doing so is that comparable traditions such as Samkhya and Vedanta are written with an initial capital letter. Surely Yoga deserves no less.
Most publications still use the lowercase yoga, which not only is inconsistent but also perhaps subtly suggests that yoga is not to be taken as seriously as the other traditions. Possibly this custom of spelling goes back to the popular confusion of Yoga with mere physical exercises. But Yoga is a spiritual tradition that should not be “belittled.”
I am calling for a letter-writing campaign to the major Yoga publications and publishers, as well as the publishers of dictionaries and encyclopedias, to educate them and encourage them to appropriately honor the depth of Yoga by using uppercase Y.
Leslie also wanted to know whether I thought there is ever an occasion for writing yoga? My answer is: only if we focus on the term itself or if it occurs in the context of a transliterated Sanskrit compound, such as yoga-anushasana (“exposition of Yoga”) or yoga-bhumi (“level of Yoga”).
While I admire and respect Georg’s scholarship and commitment to his principles, I feel the need to present an alternative view on this issue.
Although I completely understand the context of Georg’s desire to see Yoga capitalized, I fear that the result of his campaign would be an “us vs. them” climate in the yoga community, with the “capitalizers” viewing the “non-capitalizers” as disrespectful to India’s rich religious and cultural tradition. I believe that there is enough of this attitude in the yoga world already, and I also believe that there are better ways to determine someone’s level of respect for yoga than seeing whether or not they capitalize the word. How do they use the word?……..In what context do they place the concept of yoga?………What place does the practice hold in their lives?…..How do they treat other people who’s views may not agree with theirs? If one of the basic tenets of Yoga is tolerance, shouldn’t Yogis be able to tolerate a little “y” if the context calls for it?
In my life, yoga does not hold the place of a religion, and my use of the word reflects that fact. For me, always capitalizing would be hypocritical. For those who do view yoga as a religion, of course it makes sense for them to write “Yoga” in a way that reflects their beliefs.
What would we do if the Judeo-Christians insisted that we always capitalize the word “exodus” because it is one of the books of the Old Testament? The word exodus, like yoga, has come to have many different shades of meaning other than the original.
I have not consistently capitalized the word yoga in these paragraphs, but does that mean I’ve belittled Yoga? Notice how much more written nuance I’m able to communicate by switching between “Yoga” and “yoga”. I’d have a lot less freedom of thought if I felt constrained by political/religious correctness to use only the uppercase “Yoga”.
If we rigidly followed Georg’s advice, always capitalizing “yoga” could actually have the opposite of the intended effect; for example, the following sentence would read: “My friend, the aerobics instructor, decided to do a weekend Yoga certification.” Capitalizing the word in that sentence doesn’t do anything but belittle Yoga….it certainly doesn’t elevate the idea of a weekend training for aerobics instructors!
In summary: lower-case does not always belittle, and upper-case does not always elevate….what matters is the context of the usage, and the intent of the writer.
As always, I welcome comments.
From: Georg Feuerstein
Leslie’s remarks about my notice “Are We Still Belittling Yoga?” (submitted at his request) have magnified my thoughts beyond their original intent, perhaps in order to fuel discussion.
That Leslie does not practice Yoga as a spiritual discipline (he calls it “religion”) is of course his prerogative. That authentic Yoga is exactly a spiritual tradition is also beyond dispute.
Perhaps I may suggest–tongue-in-cheek–that we should continue to use “yoga” for all despiritualized (desacralized) pursuits that claim the name “yoga” and reserve “Yoga” for the kind of approach that coincides with what the originators of the yogic tradition had in mind. Ideally, I would like to see the word “yoga” or “Yoga” dropped from any approach that does not include the spiritual principles of the authentic yogic heritage.
Leslie expressed his concern that my suggestion would cause a split in the contemporary Yoga movement. Surely, surely it is obvious to everyone by now that there already exists a huge gap between the camp of traditional Yoga and the gymnastic variety. Should we attempt to bridge it? Of course. The question is how? From my perspective–and this is what I have in fact been endeavoring to accomplish for the past thirty years–we create a bridge by getting the gymnastic Yoga camp to consider the deeper aspects of the yogic tradition.
For what it’s worth, I tend to wholeheartedly agree with a recent statement by Swami Janakananda, who in a recent issue of the Dutch Yoga magazine Bindu, commented on “the current fashion to call gymnastics Yoga only because it sells better.” The title of his editorial reads “Call it something else! The yogis are turning in their graves.”
Yoga Research and Education Center
Yes, I have enlarged the topic in order to fuel discussion about a more fundamental issue: how we react to versions of yoga with which we disagree.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll complete Georg’s incomplete syllogism: “That Leslie does not practice Yoga as a spiritual discipline (he calls it “religion”) is of course his prerogative. That authentic Yoga is exactly a spiritual tradition is also beyond dispute.” The only possible conclusion is: “Therefore, Leslie does not practice authentic Yoga.”
In order to imply this conclusion, Georg must equivocate between “spiritual discipline” and “religion.” They are not the same thing. It is possible to practice yoga as a spiritual discipline, and not as a religion.
As to the question of whether my yoga is authentic or not; that is between me and reality. What anyone else has to say about it is, with due respect, irrelevant. I’d go further by saying that what anyone has to say about anyone else’s spiritual practice is irrelevant. In fact, anything I could say about my own spiritual practice is equally irrelevant if I can’t back it up with appropriate action. What kind of action? Let’s let Georg Feuerstein translate what Patanjali has to say about it:
(Y.S. I.33) “The projection of friendliness, compassion, gladness and equanimity towards objects–[be they] joyful, sorrowful, meritorious or demeritorious–[bring about] the pacification of consciousness.”
I also like Desikachar’s rendering of the same sutra:
“In daily life we see people around us who are happier than we are, and people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude towards such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate towards those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our minds will be very tranquil.”
My impulse to judge the authenticity of other people’s practice is the outcome of my human tendency to be attached to what I think I know — what has worked for me. I have found it useful, though, to ask myself how well my yoga has really been working if I keep finding fault with other people’s practices.
Authentic experience in yoga is not limited to those who view themselves as practitioners of an authentic Vedic heritage. How about a novice student in a health club who feels her lower back release for the very first time? Does it matter that she’s taking a yoga class from an aerobics teacher who’s had just a weekend of training? Does it matter that she or her teacher are unaware that yoga can be Yoga? If her health-club class was called something other than “yoga,” how could she eventually discover the link between her first experiences and the larger tradition?
Everyone has to start somewhere. I say, the more, the merrier! If that means that some long-dead yogis are spinning in their graves, let them — most of them were cremated anyway — so I’m taking a long, deep breath, and letting a few of their molecules rattle around in my trachea.
From: Eve Grzybowski
> In summary: lower-case does not always belittle, and upper-case does not
> always elevate….what matters is the context of the usage, and the intent of
> the writer.
Re: Should yoga be Yoga….
I’m with you on this one, Leslie.
Yoga has been in my life now more years than it hasn’t; and, even from the
time of the beginner’s yoga course I did in 1971, I knew I wanted yoga to be
a part of my life.
Yoga ebbs and flows through my life every day because, over time, I’ve woven
it in in so many ways: doing pranayama, thinking about issues of morality,
self-study, asana practice, teaching, understanding my mind, relating to
myself and others.
I’m still learning about aspects of yoga and practicing those aspects that
resonate with me. I have huge respect for yoga’s long and vast tradition.
However, for me it’s the everyday-ness of yoga that makes it meaningful. A
little thing like thinking of yoga as only upper case would make it seem a
little too special, a little remote and unattainable, and maybe even not my
Still, I’m all for choice.
From: David Frawley
I prefer to capitalize Yoga, though I have discovered that the common usage is in the lower case. I don’t know how consistent my books have been, but Georg has a good point.
Yoga is a system of philosophy, religion and spirituality like Samkhya and Vedanta, which are invariably capitalized. We have been belittling Yoga. Even to call Yoga not a religion can be belittling it.
Religion, like Yoga, means to unite. The concern of Yoga like that of religion is union with Divinity or gaining of immortality. Yoga is not a dogma or a church like most religion that we know, but it is a spiritual system worthy of respect.
From: Zo Newell
If the discussion about yoga and Yoga were being carried on in Devanagari
script, we wouldn’t have to worry about upper case and lower case….I’ll
no doubt regret getting into this but, as a Harvard-educated theologian
and the childhood disciple of a pretty traditional teacher, who finds
herself teaching asana under the supervision of aerobics departments, I
think about these things. Also, I serve as adjunct faculty to the
Southern Institute of Yoga Instructors’ teacher training program, and
it’s my role to break it tactfully to the students that there is more to
the field than physical culture.
I think I’ve solved the yoga/Yoga issue in my own mind by using “asana”
whenever possible, rather than “yoga”, since what’s being taught in
health clubs and Y’s throughout the country tends to be an eighth of the
discipline at best. Capital-Y Yoga is one of the six philosophical
systems of India. If we capitalize Samkhya and Vedanta, it follows that
we capitalize Yoga. This does not amount to deifying it. Yoga is not a
religion, it’s a philosophy which includes the spiritual dimension. I
would define religion as being about God, and philosophy as being about
getting out of suffering. It’s true that Patanjali – like Bill W. of AA -
holds that our efforts are more fruitful when they are supported by
faith in a higher power, but he doesn’t presume to dictate what that
ought to be.
I’m in agreement with Georg Feuerstein in hoping to bridge the gap
between the asana-only or “gymnast” folks and the traditional/ holistic
party by introducing them to the deeper aspects of Yoga. I find that
when I do this in a sensitive and non-threatening way, students almost
always respond positively, even here in the “Buckle on the Bible Belt”.
(We just had a huge Billy Graham crusade here in town, y’all; in fact, to
illustrate just how popular Yoga has become, he preached against it as
part of his publicity campaign.)
I’d like to quote R.S. Mishra’s take on YS I:33: “By cultivating
feelings of friendship and fellowship toward those who are happy, by
great compassion and love toward those who are unhappy and suffering, by
joy and entertainment toward those who are meritorious and virtuous, by
neutrality and indifference toward those who are demeritorious and
evil-natured, a yogin should attain undisturbed peace and happiness of
mindstuff, chittam.” I guess if people find joy in small-y yoga, the
most it’s appropriate for me to do is offer to share my Yoga toys, and if
they don’t want to play, let it alone.
Namaste, Zo Newell
From: Gilli Harouvi (Ashtanga Yoga-The Israeli Center)
Well friends, Being born a Jew, I have a simple offer: in Hebrew there are NO
capital letters. end of story. convert to jUdAiSm, you infidels!! and by the way,
which other languages do the same?
((LK: How about Sanskrit?))
and seriously- (as I usually get told off regarding my tendency to teach stand-up
Yoga)- Writing “Yoga ” seems good and appropriate, as I love it so much. I usually use
UPPER CASE when I write in english, And George Feuerstein is right in my opinion
about writing it like that, as Yoga is an equal member of the “six classical
And on the other hand…. (of course! I’m a jew, and a Libra)- was
it not Patanjali that wrote: (1-39) “Or (restriction is achieved) through meditative absorption as desired.” Was Patanjali a jew in disguise?
Thanks to all our teachers, thank you Georg for the translation, thank you leslie
for the e-project.
((LK: How come Georg gets a capital “G’, and I get stuck with a small “l”???? ))
From: Baxter Williams
I am with Georg 100% on this one. Those who treat Yoga
as less than the full & complete darshana that it is
should take pause when they consider their
relationship with it. I think a more apt analogy is
Judaism or Islam. Would one ever not capitalize these
words? I think not.
Way to go Georg.
Regards & Namaste’,
From: Leslie Kaminoff
I want to make it clear that I agree that it is entirely proper to capitalize “Yoga” when it is being referred to as one of the six classical systems of Indian philosophy, or in a religious, mystical or Hindu context.
My point was that it is too rigid to have a blanket rule to capitalize the word under all circumstances, regardless of the context of usage.
Other than that, the Yoga/Religion issue becomes one of semantic usage, and there are arguments on both sides for viewing the terms synonymously, or as distinctly different.
From: Al Bingham
I am loving the discussion of this thread and don’t want to do anything to get in
the way of it. But in the back of my mind I seem to recall hearing about a story
of the yogis whose job it was to go around and get all of the other swamis on the
same page teaching-wise. They come across some guy on a remote island and correct
the way he is doing asana or pranayama or some such thing. Their job “finished
here”, these folks hop on their boat and row off. A few miles later the guy they
were correcting, having run on the water after them, finally catches up to them
and says “Wait! Was that yoga with a capital or a lower case ‘y’ that you were
just teaching me?”
All due respect,
From: Georg Feuerstein
I appreciate all the thoughtful responses to my remarks about “belittling Yoga.” I wholeheartedly agree that we should keep all doors open so that everyone can discover and benefit from Yoga at whatever level. This also has been my teaching practice. I particularly like the idea of speaking of asanas rather than yoga (with lower case initial).
AUM TAT SAT