The strong ascetic nature of Jainism has not prevented a growing movement within the religion from appealing to yoga-seeking Westerners with practices and teachings stressing a healthy mind and body, writes Andrea Jain in the journal Nova Religio (February).
The Jain religion has traditionally emphasized spiritual enlightenment through renunciation of the body and its senses, as well as withdrawal from society. A Jain reform movement, known as the Terepanth, has sought to recover a “lost” form of Jain yoga while adapting the religion to the modern world. The Terepanth’s main organization is the Jain Vishva Bharati (JVB), which has promoted this form of yoga, known as “preksa” in both Asia and the West.
Preksa represents a unique departure from the ascetic teachings of Jainism in that it involves an affirmation of the body and includes a plan of diet and exercise “aimed at worldly goals in regard to health.”In order to spread Jain yoga, the Terepanth introduced another innovation in the religion in the 1980s as it relaxed the monastic lifestyle for certain members, allowing them to skirt the traditional restrictions on travel and have closer relations with the laity. While the JVB centers in India may view yoga as a means of attaining a separation from the body, in the U.S. and the UK preksa caters to a “yoga market” concerned with health and emotional well-being. Preksa teachers in the West rarely address Jain teachings or even hold meditation classes.
These JVB centers show the shift from “ascetic body work for the sake of the body’s subordination to the soul … to body maintenance as a legitimate in itself.” JVB marketing strategies include using English in their literature, a new emphasis on teachers having master’s degrees from JBV University in India, and discarding traditional Jain monastic trappings such as the mouth shield. Jain concludes that this form of Jainism still upholds the principle of withdrawal from society and the limitation of bodily action for monastic members while including the “dual ideal” of the healthy body.
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