Oh Good Lord! there’s a ‘preamble’! this one is going to be a long one! 🙂 There is so much to write about in Yoga, I often don’t know where to start. Bearing in mind I teach a ‘beginning’ Yoga class I well remember all the questions I had when I was new to Yoga and particularly trying to work out where I joined it on its evolutionary path.  This is another of my attempts to answer one of those questions for those lovely new Yogins joining us on our journey/path now. It is also my attempt to remove any misconceptions about the foundations of what we are practicing at YM (google to see mis‘origins’ abound) and help you locate yourself in the scheme of things. Of course it is not as ‘simple’ as this blog. This post is as broad as I can be whilst trying to be comprehensive 🙂 and of course I cannot qualify every statement herein as I am ‘TRY’ing 🙂 to keep this fairly short. {For edification purposes it may be worth reading this in conjunction with my older blog ‘A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME…’ as that may answer other questions that occur to you during/post the reading of this essay.}

Most of the planet has a broad idea of what Yoga is. However as it can have different meanings to different people the ‘word’ Yoga could be considered a homonym.

For example most westerners on hearing and using the word Yoga it will bring to mind ‘Asana’. For the rest it will mean the broadest sense of the word. Some (the more scholarly or all knowing) may prefer to ‘nit pick’ on this when they are talking with people who have the narrower view. I see absolutely no point in ‘picking the nits’ here 🙂 . I usually get a good sense of which ‘Yoga’ people mean without it being spelled out and I will answer accordingly. E.g. A common question I get asked is ‘how often do you practice Yoga’. 99% of people asking this will mean how often do I practice ‘Bikram’ Yogasana. They are not asking how often I practice Meditation, Kriyas, Pratyahara, Kundalini, Seva, Bandhas or indeed other forms of Asana. So, depending on who I am talking with I may have different answer.

For our purposes here, take it as a given that Asana IS the most promoted component of Yoga; but WHY HAS ASANA become so all pervading and become the synonym for Yoga itself in the West? And, more importantly, does it matter?

Yoga is thousands of years old. Right? Well yes and no. YES, where the word Yoga is used in the broadest sense of the word (the 4 paths and the 8 limbs). NO, where ‘Asana’ is a synonym for Yoga itself. WHAT? the postures havn’t been around, like, forEVER??? Well yes and no. 🙂 . Some of them have.  A lot of them havn’t. There you have it.

‘Posture’ Yoga was not necessarily at the forefront of ancient Indian Yoga tradition; it was just one element of another element of it (Hatha, which is a sub path of Raja). In the 18/19th century Hatha Yoga was on the decline in India, however in the past 100 or so years there has been a ‘Postural Uprising’; Asana today might not clearly resemble the asana Yoga form from which so many claim it derives. History might look back on this period (now) as a ‘great leap forward’ in Yogasana. Without exhausting all possible scenarios here is my quick take on what happened:

• the world was certainly opening up and there was a flow of ideas/influences back, forth and around between cultures and undoubtedly the curious world looked towards India and its wealth of ancient wisdom
• I imagine the British Raj will have had some influence on Indian physical cultural practices at that time
• some Hatha Yogins had been reduced to street performers to make a living
• the relatively new technology of photography was coming into its own
• possibly some obscure translator in India had their interest peaked by Hatha Yoga and chose to focus on Hatha/Asana (as opposed to some of the possibly more difficult to translate/grasp or photograph, culturally ‘different’ spiritual ideas)
• translations and photographs then popped up in the west and served to become representative of Exotic Eastern practice and also served to omit (if you like) the ‘rest’ of traditional Yoga
• these peaked western interest and westerners liked it! a ‘give them westerners more of the same’ attitude was born 🙂
• these visuals created certain conditions that dare I say may even have influenced the future trajectory of Yogasana in the west!)
• somewhere around that time (give or take a decade 🙂 ) the first Olympics and the first body building contests took place as modern western physical culture was born
• as cultures mixed elements of western physical culture were grafted onto hatha Yoga orthopraxy at that time and vice versa

During this period Asana underwent a radical transformation and much was open to interpretation. There is no doubt the western physical culture movement had influence in India; they were not shy to borrow/adapt and rework some of the techniques in use in the west. Of course it can be reasoned that ‘gymnastics’ was born out of a westward transfer of knowledge from India but it would be unfair not to mention that Europeans were ‘stretching for health’ long before ‘Yoga’ ever took hold here.

It is interesting to mull over the contribution of photography at that time to where Yoga is today; this new ‘visual representation’ of Asana was necessary to propagate it and to make it accessible for emulation by all.

Those still alive who were children during that period and familial/related to some of the ‘greats’ might challenge how things came about. Consider this though – they may have a vested interest in having a ‘selective memory’ or ‘managing’ their memories or the acts of their forebears as they make declarations about what is/was authentic practice and what is the nature of Yoga.  Those mentioned in my short list of ‘lineages’ hereafter were, at that time, ‘radical’ Yogasana innovators, not afraid to invent, modify, adapt or draw from tradition in the hot moment.

Of course there is language/intended meaning/interpretation to deal with too. Weasel words abound in the Yoga world and when one starts to explore it they should keep a salt cellar to hand so they can take ‘a pinch’ as the need arises (until such time as they can expertly separate the wheat from the chaff 🙂 ). Interpretation can be a very individual experience and weirdly when interpreters are dead and gone their work can somehow get elevated and their reference becomes ‘almost godly’.  Even in India there will be conflict over interpretation from state to state.

Patanjali wasn’t the only Sage. He came along way after the original 7 sages and sort of ‘assimilated’ everything that may have been ‘wandering off’ on too many tangents and getting too convoluted for people to understand in any meaningful way and so he wrote his Sutras; but he wasn’t the only Indian who had this idea and wrote Sutras.  Yet why is he the one we have all heard about? Why is his the ‘must read’, elevated above all others? Maybe it is because his were easiest to interpret and get a general consensus on that interpretation. Maybe it is because he wrote the shortest Sutras? (when trying to read the cryptic old translations without commentary you can be grateful when they are shorter 🙂 ). I mention this only to highlight that in Yoga there is always a bigger picture. With more people now (than ever in all the past combined) interested in Yoga, many will now be searching deeper/further/wider for more more more information on ‘Yoga’ to shed some new light, to sell ‘new’ books on an old topic.  Of those who have made that effort, today some like to negatively contrast modern Yoga against what is presumably a more authentic older/classical form of Yoga.  Some students may like to contrast modern Yoga schools, they may like to distinguish their chosen school/Asana practice ‘from’ other forms e.g. ‘This is Yoga’/‘That is not Yoga’ i.e. their choice is ‘more’ Yoga than other peoples choice (yes! this does happen!).

The lines where old/modern converge/diverge are so blurred.  Some divergence may be errors in translation; and therefore there may be flaws that have taken root in modern Yoga practices. Those who have made that effort, those more scholarly people than me all around the world are debating the finer details of the divergences; I couldn’t keep up with them; nor do I want to. I know it will matter to those who take the ‘traditional’ moral high ground where they know a bit about the primary classical sources; they can give impression of knowing better and can be readily dismissive of ‘modern’ classical. They will arrive at their supposedly ‘debunking’ conclusion via ‘some sort’ of cartesian rationalism; they are much cleverer and more articulate than I so I can’t engage with them on their ground; I find myself unable to pit my limited human experience against their resistance and anyway, like I said, I don’t have the vocab, brain, nor time or energy.  I have to get on with trying to live my Yoga (‘wannabee Yogi’ that I am) because in my limited view it doesn’t matter.  Well not with what I am teaching and I am an instructor of a ‘beginning’ Yoga class.  So those who may try to impose a higher/superior view here, really it is a pointless exercise and for me those die hard views have no effect on what I do.

Of this there is no doubt. CURRENT posture Yoga might not be considered a ‘direct’ descendant of the original posture traditions but Modern Yoga cannot be written off because of some divergence from ‘traditional’ Yoga or simply because it is ‘late’ to the table 🙂 .

For example, how many Yogis would feel totally lost without their beautiful warm up ‘Surya Namaskar’, a cornerstone of many practices?  Now considered classic Yogasana in those olden days it would have fallen outside any definition of Yoga. There was no physical Surya Namaskar as we know it in ancient Indian tradition. It only become part of the ‘Yoga body of knowledge’ because of a particular trend in that period (1930s).  Where previously it may have been a symbol, an attitude, a collection of sacred text, in this period it turned into a physical arrangement, an exercise which then became infused with more spiritual meaning.

Modern Yoga has its own brief history and it has its lineages. I have no doubt that there will be ‘breakouts’ in this new era, that us ‘modern Yogi’s perhaps in future years will try to denounce, debunk, LOL 🙂 . If they stand the test of time that is. People aren’t stupid. If a physical activity is standing the test of time it is because it is working. If it doesn’t stand the test of time it will fall by the wayside as a ‘fad’. Whilst all exercise is beneficial and with all I have said before I do suggest to those seeking a Yoga path (in the broadest sense of the word) that have chosen to start with Asana, to please do research to find something reasonably ‘authentic’ to them personally so that as they open themselves up to the broader teachings of Yoga and travel further along their path they won’t end up confused/conflicted.  I would say if you are a beginner seeking a TTC or a Yoga school to practice at then seek one with a clear lineage.

If what I say about the founders is that they were innovators/ adaptors/ inventors of the first order, then WHY bother with a lineage? Why not go straight in looking for the latest most exciting innovation?  Well a lineage to me implies there has been an element of control over the evolution to the present class model. (Arriving at the current model from a direct source and not via a dozen spin offs). By control I mean staying close to the BEST of the original teachings/original intention whilst they refine their school practices in a controlled fashion maintaining quality.  {I set out after this blog a few lists/lineages to look at for those who have not fallen asleep by now 🙂 } .

WHY shouldn’t every Yoga teacher be an innovator? Well, take for example the lightbulb.  It could only be invented once. The rest of its so called innovation of the lightbulb is really ‘how can marketing re-package the ordinary lightbulb’ to make people think it is something new.  A lineage is as good a starting point as any {best}.  Then, when one is no longer a ‘beginner’ (good luck with that one 🙂 ) and one tires of their Yoga instructor’s ramblings and feels one has gleaned all one can from that experience/relationship, then if one wishes, one is IN A BETTER POSITION to more wisely/discerningly and with confidence choose some glossily marketed ‘self proclaimed innovating’ Yoga instructor to take one further along one’s Yoga path; maybe one will become the innovator; if one is true/authentic then others may follow one 🙂 . Me, I’ll stick to beginning to learn about what exists already; it is so BROAD – it will keep me busy for a lifetime! I may of course secretly also hope that I may spark the flame of Love of Yoga in one who may become a great master (every Yoga teacher’s dream perhaps?). I will also hope that when that student moves on and past us that they will look back kindly on where they chose to experience their beginning Yoga practice.

Ok, ok, maybe lightbulb isn’t the best analogy 🙂 Maybe take care to start with that the class you choose is NOT a Yoga fitness class (the latest innovated hybrid that incorporates Yoga moves), remember as with anything in life it is easy (and desirably by marketeers) to hijack /edit the word Yoga to sell what THEY believe people WILL BUY.  The result can be (in their desire to make it more palatable/acceptable THUS MORE ‘CONSUMED’) they take something that is potentially life changing and process it, watering it down with the effect of weakening its effect!

I suggest the elements that should be present in a well thought out/presented class include: steady pose, focus on breath, application of mindfulness, attention to form and alignment and proper resting.  The instructor should be able to guide you in practicing the less ‘tangible’ aspects of hatha Yoga tradition: Faith, Self Control, Determination, Concentration, Patience. For example, the Bikram method is a structured, foundational approach to bring the body and mind into balance and contains these elements. “We use the mind in practice to move the physical body and we use the physical body as a medium to access the subtle body to help us achieve Yoga.” Bikram 5 Qualities of Mind.

I have faith that the discerning practitioners (as they discover their joy, strength, stability, adaptability, energy, peace and grace) will judge this modern Yoga on its own merits. I suspect most haven’t even delved in this far; that for them it really doesn’t matter. So with all that I have said I will leave this post open ended with questions, your answers to which may conflict with all I have just said (Aha! Gotcha! That’s Yoga folks! 🙂 

Should there be a war of words for the purposes of what we are practicing? In your mind would it add to or take away from what you are doing in your beginning Yoga class? Is there a bottom line for you? Should the questions simply be ‘how does your Yoga practice make you feel in the world you live in’? Does it help you be better at being you? Isn’t the answer to this all you need?

Namaste ~ Trisha x

September 2016

POST SCRIPT ~ Here are a just few names, some you will recognize, that were all part of the modern Yoga revolution; these people may be considered Yoga Masters, Saints and/or Self Realised Persons. I have tried to ‘list’ them to given an indication of a lineage for the modern Yoga schools that you may have heard of; I hope I haven’t missed anything important. During the period I mentioned in my post those named hereafter that were alive, definitely crossed paths, blessed each other, advised each other and no doubt influenced each other. It’s all Yoga folks!

~ Lahiri Mahasya 1827-1895 / Sri Yukteswar 1855-1936/ Paramahansa Yogananda {SELF REALISATION FELLOWSHIP} / Bishnu Ghosh (PY’s brother) (College of Physical Education Calcutta) / BIKRAM Choudhury (BG’s student) {TODAYS: BIKRAM METHOD / CLASSIC HOT 90 MINUTES / HOT 26/2/ THE ORIGINAL HOT YOGA}

~ {VIVEKENANDA has also went to the same school as Paramahansa Yogananda (prior to PY)}
~ Shankara C.AD 800 an original thinker whose writings form the basis of VEDANTIC teachings) / Swami SIVANANDA Saraswati 1887-1963 {DIVINE LIFE SOCIETY} / Swami Vishnu Devananda {TODAYS: SIVANANDA Yoga} / Swami Satchaidananda {TODAYS: INTEGRAL Yoga}
~ Shankara C.AD 800 / Maharishi Mahesh Yogi {TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION}
~ KV Iyer (interestingly! Better known for bodybuilding, was friends with and shared same patron as Krishnamacharya AND he advised Swami Sivananda) / Yogacharya Sundaram (Tamil Nadu/Therapeutic Yoga) / Asana Andiappan {TODAYS: THIRUMOOLAR’S ASHTANGA Yoga}
~ Sri Ramamolan Brahmachari (Tibet) / Tirumalai KRISHNAMACHARYA 1891-1989 (often referred to as the father of modern Yoga) / Indra Devi (K’s first western student and FEMALE!)/ TKV Desikachar (K’s Son) {TODAYS: VINIYOGA} /BKS IYENGAR (K’s Brother In Law) {TODAYS: IYENGAR Yoga}/ Pattabhi Jois {TODAYS: ASHTANGA VINYASA Yoga}
~ Swami Kripavanji 1913-1983 (Kundalini Yoga proponant) / Swami Kripavanji / Amrit Desai {KRIPALU}
~ Guru Nanak (died 1539) 1st Sikh leader / Yogi Bhajan (Pakistan) / Gurmukh {TODAYS: KUNDALINI Yoga}


I credit a source which I reffed to double check and ensure accuracy when writing parts of this piece: Mark Singleton’s ‘Yoga Body’ . Mostly this piece has been in the offing for YEARS. I have been making notes in my little book for what feels like ‘forever’ every time I found a little tidbit that help me understand a bit more about where I was in the bigger picture; this was important to me (the way my brain works, I like order) but is not necessarily important or essential to know 🙂