Communications are accelerated, distances are shortened, oceans and continents are crossed, and the world becomes smaller. In this landscape of constant transformation, cities become cultural mosaics combining fragments from all over the world at every corner. Among this range of colours, probably the tones of the Far East are the most widespread ones. Besides gastronomy and bargain items, art, philosophy and ancient practices from rising sun countries infiltrate Western streets and life. Yoga, meditation, tai chi, acupuncture... are welcomed with open arms on the other side of the globe, attracting more and more followers. Perhaps this warm reception is due to mere curiosity, to test alternative medicine and healing, to gain body fitness and mindfulness, to search a spiritual path, or maybe it is simply a way of getting closer to the balance that the opposite poles strive for.
The duality: East Vs West
As in the relationship between love and hate, hot and cold, birth and death, yin and yang, as in life, extremes can be destructive by themselves. At the same time, however, these opposites are the polar points which create the balance of existence. Separated by an imaginary line, both poles complement and feed each other to survive. This interdependence based on mutual exchange creates diversity. As we move through the sliding scale, we are transformed in infinite combinations as a result of the fusion of opposites. This dichotomy can be applied to all states of the nature and to existing concepts.
The West and the East of our world illustrate this duality. In simple terms, the West, from the Latin occidens, “sunset”, geographically encompasses the occident of the planet, Europe and America. East, oriens, “sunrise”, includes the Eastern part of the globe which is divided in the Middle and Far East. While an overview and comparisons are inaccurate and tedious, there are numerous studies that establish the differences between these opposites from a philosophical and cultural perspective. Thus, Western civilization and culture is based on the precepts of the Judeo-Christian legacy, and on rational and scientific schools. The Eastern culture, on the other hand, is grounded on philosophical and religious doctrines such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Islam.
These differing approaches draw two varied types of societies and lifestyles. Western culture is led by a pragmatic, logical and analytical mentality; the truth needs to be demonstrated through evidence. This Western culture is focused on the individual and on a goal-oriented materialism to achieve possessions, success and recognition in the present moment. The individual controls his destiny through a linear time frame with a beginning and an end. From the Eastern point of view, however, the individual is only one piece of the community and belong to a universal order; the truth is accepted and questioned. The spiritual search and the discovery of the `true ego´ through contemplation and meditation is the internal goal to accomplish. One's destiny is determined by an eternal cyclical motion, there is no beginning or end but an evolution of the spirit through reincarnation.
The Loss of Balance
As in the theory of opposites, East and West have always been in constant communication and interaction. From the 2nd century BC, a route known as the Silk Road linked the Western and Eastern worlds. The journey began in China and crossed over the Middle East reaching Europe via Turkey. For more than fourteen centuries, caravans transported and spread not only silk and goods, but also all kinds of scientific and cultural knowledge, languages, religious beliefs and artistic influences. Along the road emerged oasis-cities, enclaves where caravans stopped to refuel and trade. These cities became large cosmopolitan centres where all cultures and religions coexisted. The Silk Road was vital for international trade, knowledge exchange, and cultural and religious expansion.
At the end of the 15th century, the discovery of America and the maritime development opened new routes connecting the world through the sea. But it also started the colonizacion period which lasted until the first half of the 20th century. Colonization involved land and resources appropriation from the invaded countries, and the native people's subjugation to the conquering Government. The invaders argued that colonialism was necessary in order to evangelize and civilize wild lands and individuals, and initiate the belief of racial and cultural superiority. The first colonial wave was led by the Spanish and Portuguese who primarily invaded South America. Later, at the end of the 19th century, other European countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Belgium conquered other continents, such as parts of the Middle East, China and India.
Through the colonialism, the Industrial Revolution, and the development of a capitalist system, cultural Occidentalitation spread all over the world. The conquered societies were, in many cases, forced to assimilate Western customs and language to facilitate the colonial rule. Some Asian countries such as China and South Korea tried to defend themselves against this threat adopting protective and isolationist policies. During the 20th century, the process of decolonization and the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union disbandment implied the emergence of Neocolonialism and the advancement of a global capitalist system. Western political and cultural imperialism, initially imposed by military force, was then replaced with prowess by an economic domain. Former colonies, even after their democratisation, remained economically dependent on their conquering empires. Thus, financial markets, and with them political and military structures, became strategic points for the expansion of Western global capitalism. At the same time, a new version of the cultural Occidentalism based on individualism and consumerism spread around the globe. In some cases, as in Japan, this new lifestyle is welcomed and encouraged, and the so-called "hybridism" or "semi-western" states start to appear.
The Arrival of the East
Despite this supposed global Western cultural hegemony, Eastern traditions and philosophy have managed to still prevail. Spiritual and religious doctrines from the Middle and Far East such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, have always been alive. From a reverse perspective, the implementation of these philosophies and practices in the West has been more subtle and prolonged over time. During the period of colonialism, ideas and lifestyles from the East, along with goods and people, were arriving in the West. However, their practice and circulation was silenced by the predominant society. Later, in the 19th century, an intellectual and artistic movement known as "Orientalism" arose. Although various studies and written works about Eastern cultures were taking place and being published, the majority of such material was subject to a pro-European vision where the East was seen as something exotic and wild. It was not until the 60s, with the Hippy movement born in the United States, those Eastern philosophies and practices were popularized.
The Hippy movement was a countercultural, pacifist and naturalist trend opposed to consumerism and capitalist materialism. In the search of a more spiritual alternative lifestyle in harmony with nature, it turned its sights to the Eastern teachings, which offered a differing concept of the individual. Meditation, yoga and other mystical arts became regular practices among the young people of the movement. The British philosopher Alan Watts was one of the spokespersons who spread these profound new unveiling Eastern philosophies for Western society. His books and essays addressed topics such as the personal identity, the true nature of reality or the consciousness elevation. In these writings, he linked and related Taoism or Hinduism with scientific knowledge or Christianity.
After the decline of the hippy movement, Eastern philosophies were partially forgotten by Western society. During recent years, however, these practices have been gaining great popularity. Increasingly there seem to appear more followers and centers dedicated to Eastern alternative medicine and teachings such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation or tai chi, Buddhism or Tao... than ever before. This boom could be interpreted as a momentary trend that attracts an audience hungry for new and exotic experiences. Others may visit these centers in search of alternative therapies that guarantee healing, health improvement, or body fitness. Or perhaps, the blossoming of these trends is due to western society’s need to fill what it lacks in his value system belief and lifestyle. Exacerbated consumerism, competition, individualism, and the relentless pressure to obtain material goals, work success and social recognition provoke negative effects provoke negative effects such as stress, frustration, inferiority complexes or existential emptiness. It could be the yearning to recover the balance and peace of mind which explains this social phenomenon of adopting and learning from the East.
Yoga, an Emerging Phenomenon
One of the most popular and widespread Eastern practices in Western societies is yoga. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit and means "union" or "effort". Its origin dates back to time immemorial, more than 5 thousand years in India. The legend says that there were gods who revealed this wisdom to ascetics men. Yoga is based on sacred Sanskrit texts from circa 2,500 BC known as Vedas. Around 500 BC, two important epic poems appeared; they included a text called Bhagavad Gita in which relevant aspects of yoga were studied. Two centuries later, Pantanjali gathered all knowledge of this tradition in the Yoga Sutras. From these texts Raja Yoga was defined, the most practiced yoga school in the West. However, there is great diversity within yoga forms, schools of thought and practices.
Two different interpretations of yoga can be distinguished. On the one hand, there is the traditional discipline and practice based on the original Hindu philosophy. The individual must seek the spiritual awareness development required in order to integrate his/her soul with the absolute. According to this tradition, the soul is the fundamental part of the human form and existence and is trapped within the body. This yoga practice allows for finding the necessary balance between the physical, mental and spiritual parts of the individual in order to achieve spiritual perfection and union with God, the absolute. On the other hand, yoga is also understood as a mere physical exercise which helps to correct the body’s posture, alignment and flexibility as well as improve mental concentration capacity.
Is it just a fashion or a social consciousness change?
This last physical interpretation of yoga is the most practiced in Western societies. Even though this practice offers a multitude of benefits particularly for the body, such as flexibility increase and muscle strengthening, natural immunological defense reinforcement, toxin expulsion, or improvement of breath control; it has also been somehow distorted from its original purpose and form. The social success and popularisation of this Eastern discipline has generated its commercialization in the health & fitness markets and therefore been hugely exploited economically. Thus, yoga is becoming a more and more “trendy” product for the consumer public. Marketing and advertising has somewhat managed to present this ancient spiritual practice as another alternative to achieve the physical ideal beauty according to the Western aesthetic canons. In this way, through the manipulation of the yogic principles, competitiveness and paying homage to the cult of the body image is promoted, contributing to the economic ambitions driven by markets.
On the other hand, the popularization of this age-old tradition could mean a social consciousness change. The consequences of extremist capitalism and its market logic are starting to wreak havoc at global and individual level. the appropriation and destruction of natural resources, the subjugation of nations to the multinationals and their economic interests, the labor exploitation in third world countries, the rise of social inequality, the mass production of low cost products, the upsurge of fast food harmful to health (say fast food), the lifestyle imbalance due to consumerism and materialism, the loss of human value and even life are evidence that our current system is out of alignment.
Faced with this reality, perhaps the Western inclination, even in its infancy, toward the search for spirituality and the meeting of inner peace, along with other emerging phenomena such as alternative medicine and diet, organic food development and fair trade ethics, represents the beginning of a global social transformation. A change aimed to redress the balance and combat the very real threat of one extreme being destroyed by the other. Perhaps the beginning of a new era where the balance in between the necessary polarity allows us not only to survive, but to live and evolve as a species as a Humankind.