Updated: Jun 5
One of the things that always makes me chuckle in a yoga class is when an instructor claims that yoga is thousands of years old while leading practitioners through an asana practice. I don't find this humorous because I think the instructor is wrong per se. It's really more a matter of how the word "yoga" is employed. While it is certainly true that yoga as a philosophy is quite old, let's be honest, that is not the context used by the vast majority of people who mention or practice it today.
It’s a common trope, and although I understand the rational for why "thousands of years" is often touted, I thought today we’d put on our yoga-nerd caps and dive down the rabbit hole that is yoga's evolution.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking, "Isn't yoga that ancient Indian discipline dating back to those old Hindu scriptures, the Vedas?" That's a common thread, but take a closer look and you'll see a lot of loose ends that don't all tie up. Although the Vedas have been kicking around since 1500 BCE, they barely whisper the word "yoga", and when they do, it's not quite the chaturanga you're picturing. It's more about yoking or joining, not so much down-dogging. The Vedas were more about learning sacrifice and rituals for aspirants hoping to butter up the gods and get on their good side.
Texts that followed, like the Brahmanas, mention ascetics practicing austerity, but we come up empty when looking for sun salutations. The Katha Upanishad has Yama, the God of Death, touting yoga as a way to transcend the trifles of life and even death, but doesn't even hint at a warrior pose. The Svetasvaatara Upanishad suggests a seated posture for mind control through breath regulation, but it's not exactly a detailed blueprint for a yoga class.
How 'bout the Bhagavad Gita? While it is my favorite book for spiritual insight, there is not a single yoga pose in sight. The Gita is essentially an addendum to the epic tale The Mahabharata, and while it offers many paths of yoga, a killer hip opening sequence is not found among them.
Fast forward to medieval times, and we see the emergence of hatha yoga. The Goraksa Sataka, Siva Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and Gheranda Samhita texts all talk about transforming the body into a permanent Airbnb for immortality through purification practices. While a few asanas made their debut, don't expect to find your favorite standing poses in these texts either. Padmāsana and siddhāsana (basically sitting and meditating) were the name of the game, showing that the yoga of yesteryears wasn't exactly a pulse pounding sweat-fest. The real star of this era is pranayama, or breath control. And trust me, the yoga of this period would look like a foreign language to your average Lululemon-clad yoga lover.
Enter Patañjali and the Yoga Sutras. Many modern hatha schools see Patañjali as their poster boy, and although asanas are mentioned as one of eight aspects of the practice, again we find no enumeration of specific yoga poses. If you're looking for the flowing postures of your vinyasa class, you would again find yourself kicking rocks. Patañjali's Yoga Sutras and your Tuesday night yoga flow have as much in common as chalk and cheese.
The 18th century found the British putting a damper on Indian society when they took issue with yogins controlling trade routes. As a result, they started regulating and banning yogic practices. This in turn lead to a period of yogic showmanship bordering on the vaudevillian, where yoga demonstrations took a decidedly contortionistic twist (pardon the pun) and self-mortification considered an act of spiritual superiority. This theatre of the grotesque was met with more than a little side-eye from Hindu society which began to perceive yoga as a sinister and unclean practice performed by beggars and magicians. Ironically, yoga (even for India) had fallen out of favor. To reclaim it, India had to change it. And as it just so happens, that change came in the form of gymnastics and body building.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a period of huge political and social change in India, and many of these changes had an impact on the re-emergence of yoga with physical culture.
While Gandhi was busy rallying a nation to action by promoted non-violent resistance as a way to gain independence for India, a decidedly different movement was also growing in the country. Many Indian nationalists saw Gandhi's approach as weak and ineffective, adopting the attitude that physical strength was a crucial component of self-respect and national pride. The British rule had often portrayed Indians as weak and effeminate, and this was seen as one way to counter those stereotypes.
By merging traditional yoga practice with aspects of bodybuilding and gymnastics, many believed that it could help create a stronger, healthier Indian population. In the broader context, the push toward physical strength wasn't just about flexing in the face of the British. It was about seeking better health and wellbeing, embracing discipline, and adapting to changing social and economic conditions too. And this at last dear reader, is where modern postural yoga entires the story.
In my not so humble opinion, Krishnamacharya and Swami Yogendra were the punk rockers of the yoga history, refusing to stick to the script (or scriptures). They saw yoga not just as a means to spiritual enlightenment, but as a practice that could offer physical health benefits too. They weren't afraid to take a few pages from the books of gymnastics and physical culture. In fact, they saw tremendous value in these foreign disciplines - the strength, the balance, the athletic conditioning. By incorporate these elements into their teachings, they added an element of physical challenge that would insure yoga's worldwide acceptance in the 21st century.
Krishnamacharya receives much deserved recognition as a great yoga innovator. Despite his spiritual and philosophical yoga roots, he was not afraid to pursue and incorporate new ideas. While at the helm of the famous Jaganmohan Palace, he and his students incorporated gymnastics and various Western sports and games into their daily routines. While Krishnamacharya's new, modern approach was a far cry from the yoga of old, it's wider acceptance was slowed by the fact that yoga teaching was still hidden in ashrams palaces, and private schools, practiced by mostly young boys and an exclusive few.
While far less known that Krishnamacharya, Shri Yogendra's impact on modern postural yoga is arguably greater. He was a true yoga visionary, looking beyond not only yoga's traditional boundaries, but the walls that contained it. In 1918, he founded The Yoga Institute in Mumbai, a place where yoga's doors were thrown open wide, offering yoga classes to the Indian middle class, to foreigners, and anyone else who wanted to learn how to craft a healthier body for the enhancement of life itself. He believed that yoga, particularly in this new secular and physical form was meant for anyone seeking it's profound benefits, stating - "Yoga is the only culture that is not limited to any sex, race, nationality, religion, or creed. Whatever one happens to be or styles himself, he can still follow yoga and receive the fullest benefit. Further, the yoga technique is applicable to all grades of aspirants so that the sick and the healthy, the good and the bad, the intelligent and the ignorant, the believer and the non-believer can profit equally by it's practice."
Trust me, at the time, that was some gangster sh*t. Perhaps too, it helped explain yoga's burgeoning global acceptance as societies and cultures around the world began looking for solutions for bodily decay and mal-adaption. Best of all, despite the profound influence of the west on what yoga would become, it still felt exotic and novel. A twentieth century lovechild of fitness, discipline, and spirituality was born of numerous health approaches, sired by the cultures of many nations.
So here we find ourselves dear punks. Practitioners of a yoga method with many mothers and fathers, but truly only decades old, not centuries or millennia. I know it feels romantic, timeless, and stretchier than thou to imagine ourselves like the yogis of old. But if we wish to be the truth seekers that they were, let's start by being honest about our yoga practice. It's a relatively new thing, and that's okay. As I've said many time in class, yoga doesn't have to be mystical to be magical.