Monday, 23 February 2015

History of Yoga: And Yoga Cats!

Part of a serious practice is corpse pose. Feel the ahhhhhh.

Yoga is the answer for a lot of my pain, mentally and physically. A good workout or a deep yoga nidra and I'm less likely to try and chew off my own arm, or someone else. But I'm not crazy and think it's going to cure all: not once have I heard a real teacher say, "Screw modern meds for your cancer of the eyelash, just do yoga." Recently I'm reading a lot of crap on line where they claim just that. I call bullshit.

I went to a class to get some help with my alignment (because if you do it wrong, it's all sorts of bad). There I asked my teacher what his understanding of the history of yoga. He said that while many people try to say it's ancient, and that's partly true. However, the modern form with all these funky town moves were invented in the 1960s. We had a great chat, and this article came out of our discussion. His basic points, and what texts I've been reading are pretty clear: it's not about the clothes, the props, the hip inner city studios, or putting your foot behind your head. But it is fun, there's cats!

Cat yoga: buddha cat
Cookie the Buddha Cat in the beginnings of a forward fold.

You Keep Using That Word...

...but I don't know if you know what it means. Yoga is a Sanskrit term, the language of ancient India. In A History of Indian Philosophy, commentators on the ancient Sanskrit texts like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, can't quite agree on its original meaning. The root yuj samādhau derived from either of two roots, yujir yoga (to yoke) or yuj samādhau (concentrate, concentration).

The term "yoga" has been applied to a variety of practices and methods. The majority are based in the Hindu schools of thought:  Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Laya Yoga, Hatha Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga (also called Raja Yoga.). I'm not going into all of them or you'll wonder if I'm a little yoga nuts, but all you need to know is that it's closely associated with the meditative practices in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and yoga is viewed differently by each of these schools of Hindu philosophy. The earliest signs of yoga appear in ancient India. Evidence of yoga postures were found on artifacts that date back to 3000 B.C. Evidence of yoga is found in the oldest-existing text, Rig-Veda. Rig-Veda is a composition of hymns. Topics of the Rig-Veda include prayer, divine harmony, and greater being. But for me, the quote that sums it all up:

"The traditional purpose of Yoga, however, has always been to bring about a profound transformation in the person through the transcendence of the ego," (Feuerstein 3)

Yoga and Independence

To get an overall idea, my teacher directed me to the excellent material by Mark Singleton online and books. He writes that the modern practice is a branch of the giant tree of yoga. In India, the practice was focused less on the physical and more on Pranayama (expansion of the vital energy by means of breath), dharana (focus, or placement of the mental faculty), and nada (sound). At the end of the 19th century, yoga was introduced to Europe and North America by English educated Indians as a practice of meditation, breath and positive thinking. A lack of interest in poses was a high case, low caste issue, as the only ones who practiced them were mendicants who performed severe and rigorous postures for money, and partly to the centuries of hostility and ridicule by Western colonialists, journalists, and scholars.

Singleton believes that the fusion of poses and the mental came together in India as part of the struggle for national independence. By building better bodies, the leaders believed it would make for a better nation and improve the chances of success in the event "of a violent struggle against the colonizers". They used a wide variety of exercise systems melding Western areobatics with traditional Indian practices like wrestling. The name given to these strength-building regimes was “yoga.”

One nationalist physical culture reformist Manick Rao, blended European gymnastics and weight-resistance exercises with revived Indian techniques for combat and strength. Rao’s most famous student was Swami Kuvalayananda (1883-1966). During the 1920s, Kuvalayananda, along with his rival and gurubhai (“guru brother”) Sri Yogendra (1897-1989), blended asanas and indigenous Indian physical culture systems with the latest European techniques of gymnastics and naturopathy.The other highly influential figure in the development of modern asana practice in 20th-century India was, of course, T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), who studied at Kuvalayananda’s institute in the early 1930s and went on to teach some of the most influential global yoga teachers of the 20th century, like B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and T.K.V. Desikachar.

I agree with Singleton 100 percent when he speaks on the purpose of knowing yoga's history:
Beyond mere history for history’s sake, learning about yoga’s recent past gives us a necessary and powerful lens for seeing our relationship with tradition, ancient and modern. At its best, modern yoga scholarship is an expression of today’s most urgently needed yogic virtue, viveka (“discernment” or “right judgment”). Understanding yoga’s history and tangled, ancient roots brings us that much closer to true, clear seeing. It may also help to move us to a more mature phase of yoga practice for the 21st century.
On the note of maturity...

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