Professor India Plough's transculturation course broadens RCAH student perspectives on the globalization of yoga

February 27, 2017

This semester, students in Dr. India Plough’s RCAH 203: Transculturation Course -- The Globalization of Yoga have been exploring yoga from its origins 5,000 years ago in India through the commercialization of yoga that exists today in the United States. Through readings, media, and discussion, students have been evaluating both the social and historical contexts of yoga practices in order to address questions such as: What commonalities exist between 'modern' and 'classical' yoga? How has yoga changed since its introduction to populations outside of India? How does the 'same' yoga differ based on where it is practiced? Is there an 'authentic' or 'pure' yoga?

Plough credits her inspiration for the course subject to practicing yoga for more than ten years, taking a yearlong yoga intensive program with Ruth Fisk, founder and owner of the Center for Yoga in East Lansing, and learning more about Indra Devi, who helped bring yoga to the West and taught Hollywood stars like Gloria Swanson.

While developing the course, Plough had to search for credible literature discussing the foundations of yoga that was also readable for students. Much of what she found was dense material, which included the Sanskrit for yogic terminology.

Plough supports her students by providing reading questions for each piece with which she opens class. Not even one month into the semester, students were able to discuss difficult philosophical topics based on prior information about the yoga culture in the U.S. and new information about the origins of yoga practice in India. Students watched a documentary, “Origins of Yoga: Quest for the Spiritual” which portrayed the goal of yoga as achieving union with the Transcendental Self and attaining inner peace. They discussed how most modern practices of yoga focus on physical fitness, eliminating the spiritual element of yoga that is essential to the traditional practice. Students then discussed the difficult question: “Should Western practices still be called yoga?”

Plough commented that her students are engaged in the course material which makes the course much more interesting for everyone. “They are engaged in the material which means better discussions,” she said. “We are working towards setting aside judgments and developing informed opinions.”

RCAH sophomore, Zach Kovan, enrolled in this course due to a general interest in learning more about yoga. “I have been surprised about how interesting the discussions have been. I originally thought we would just be learning about the history of yoga and the poses but it has turned out to be much more than that,” he said.

Kovan added, “We have had some very in-depth discussions about spirituality and our perceptions of ourselves and our world. It has been incredibly interesting.” These discussions have further interested Kovan in learning more about different people’s views of spirituality and how people perceive their place in the world.

RCAH junior, Courtney Wood admits that she did not know a lot about yoga in general, but has enjoyed exploring the different types of yoga in this course. She said, “Each form of yoga has different paths and holds different views or values, which I also appreciated because it makes the class open to all beliefs.” Wood was also interested in learning about transcendence and different views about what occurs after death while exploring her own viewpoint and way of life.

Plough said that although students were working on understanding the origins of yoga as a foundation for the rest of the semester, she could tell that they are excited to talk about yoga in the U.S. today.

Overall, Plough hopes to broaden perspectives of students and guide them in forming “appreciation for other ways of being and other ways of knowing,” which is an important piece of the RCAH curriculum.

Story by RCAH alumna Christina Igl. Photos by RCAH communications assistant Kristin Phillips.