I keep wondering whether I actually truly practice yoga or not. Why do I keep thinking this? Well, it’s that wonderful thing call Social Media. So many of the yoga accounts that I follow, including some magazines and journals are full of scantily clad nubile young things contorting themselves into positions that really don’t look natural. There are also often videos showing them doing this and telling me to “Yoga Shred my body in 21 days” so I can look better. There might also be two people working together like acrobats doing ‘Acro yoga’.
That’s all well and good, but is it really yoga? It looks more like acrobatics and gymnastics taken to a circus contortionist level. Is that yoga? Where does my bodily aware approach, that is inspired by Vanda Scaravelli, fit in with this? I invite you to take a moment to consider what image comes to mind when you think of Yoga.
Most people when asked to describe yoga will probably think first of the postures, probably a variation of tree or headstand or shoulderstand. These are example of the postures, known as asanas, and are part of the Hatha (movement) yoga tradition. There will also be a group of people that will mention the meditation side of yoga, which is the learning, studying and self-awareness side of the yoga that is known as the Raja (King) yoga tradition. There is also the Bakhti yoga that is about actions and karma. I am grossly simplifying things here for some sort of clarity.
One of the things that is frequently said is that Yoga is a practice that can trace it’s heritage back thousands of years. Well, not really that’s completely true. The first recorded use of the word Yoga is within the Upanishads. These are a collection of philosophical tales by unknown authors that are part of the Vedas (ancient Sanskrit texts) and can be dated to about the 6th to 5th century BCE. They mainly discuss the concept of Brahman, which is the universal ultimate reality and consciousness. We each have a spark of that, which is called the Atman, which is individual to us but also still part of the larger Brahman. Yoga is mentioned as a way to unify the mind and body in which to appreciate the unity of Atman and Brahman with no mention of postures. Which fits better as Yoga being the Raja style mentioned above, there is also discussions of Karma in the philosophical yoga texts, which again suggests that style can be considered “yoga”. There are many other yoga philosophical texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Sutras of Patanjali, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP), but these seem to have a more recent authorship than the Upanishads.
So most of the awareness people have about Yoga is the posture based Hatha yoga and this is where things get interesting. People will say that the HYP mentions 84 postures, which is true if you count the numerous ways of sitting, breathing and meditation practices that it includes as asanas, but not the myriad of postures that you are likely to see in a typical Western yoga class.
I have just read Mark Singleton’s book “Yoga Body: The origins of Modern Posture Practice” which is a study by an academician into the development of modern transnational/Western yoga. He starts his look at yoga in the mid 1800s, where is says that the first recent texts of Yoga only discuss Raja Yoga (Meditation) and are very dismissive of the Hatha Yoga. At the time the practitioners of Hatha Yoga were vagrants who were also stirring up trouble against British Imperial rule, and were dismissed as being essentially circus freaks. “Real” yoga was about developing the mind through study of religious texts and meditation, never through contortions and postures.
Western culture and the rise of “Masculine Christianity”, which has a belief that a strong and pure body reflects a pure mind, had a profound influence on the Indian nations image of what constitutes a healthy person. There are also influences through various bodybuilding and self improvement correspondence courses. All of which was blended together in the social melting pot. The book shows that the famous Sun salute sequence (Surya Namaskar) that many Yoga classes use is very similar to many routines used by Western bodybuilding approaches, and he wonders if this is where it came from.
In the early half of the 20th Century, Indian rulers wanted to start promoting indigenous ways of exercise and this is where Tirumalai Krishnamacharya plays a prominent role. He was a practitioner of Hatha Yoga, and was employed at the Mysore Palace to teach an Indian exercise format, which (apparently) was still not called yoga. He ran classes alongside an Indian run bodybuilding club.
Krishnamacharya taught asana classes to K. Pattahbi Jois (of the Ashtanga style), BKS Iyengar (of Light of Yoga fame), TKV Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son) and Indra Devi (who was one of the first to take yoga to the Americas). Apparently, he taught each of these people differently, which would explain why they all have subtly different views on what constitutes Yoga. It is interesting to note that to generate interest and awareness of Yoga to a wider group, Krishnamacharya used to do displays of yoga where a group of young men would all do the same routines in sync with each other. These displays would also include certain more experienced people doing more advanced poses. This seems to replicate the format of many of the current yoga classes: large groups of people moving in unison. Also the idea that there is a root of a routine for demonstration purposes makes sense of the more impressive and acrobatic asanas as they are undoubtedly impressive to look at.
Mark Singleton does also discusses the sudden appearance of an ancient text that Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois discovered. This text contains the exact sequence of the Mysore Ashtanga series, and is claimed to be thousands of years old. The author does state that there is an issue with this in that there are no other ancient sources that even hint at these routines, and there is some issue as to whether the book even exists. But, I have not done more research than reading this book, so I can claim no validity on either part.
So, where does this leave me and my approach to yoga? Well it makes me feel a bit better on many levels:
- I am not desecrating something ancient nor appropriating something deeply cultural. There has been some discussion about cultural appropriation of Yoga, and I want to be sensitive to that, but if the elements of the asana practice (that has become known as Yoga) took on ideas from Western exercise regimens that seems less likely.
- It also supports the idea that meditation and a journey of self discovery is the key and building an awareness of how my body feels in any position and movement seems to fit this approach.
- It also takes the pressure off trying to achieve a position, if I am learning more about myself.
This seems to be an appropriate time to repeat one of my favourite yoga quotes:
Yoga is not about touching your toes, it is about what you learn on the way down.
Variously ascribed to Judith Hanson Lasseter or Jigar Gor
So I will continue to practice and teach a style of movement that is influenced by the asanas of Hatha Yoga, but the focus will be on the inner feeling about how things are.
It’s a slight shame that this style of yoga doesn’t photograph well or look as pretty in the pictures I use for social media. Oh, and just for the record I am not likely to be parading myself around in just my boxers anytime soon*…
I should also mention, that the little green men in the photo I used for this blog are my Yoga Joes, which can be purchased from YogaJoes.com.
Thanks for reading this, my lovely Interonauts (and hopefully you understand a bit more about why I call us that)
*The way I currently feel about stripping off and exposing my body to the general public, it is still very unlikely that this will ever happen. However, I don’t want to say never, as if that felt appropriate at the time I might, but not really.