Yoga, what’s the deal? Well there must be something to it considering that 15 million Americans are spending $27 billion a year on “yoga” products alone. So what is this yoga anyway?
The first mention of the word Yoga can be found in the Rig Veda. This ancient Hindu text comprised of Hymns and written somewhere between 1700-1100 B.C. mentions Yoga as being the experience of “yoking” the individual consciousness with that of the universal consciousness or communion with god.
The Bhagavad Gita which was written somewhere between the fifth and second century B.C.E. expounds mainly on Karma Yoga or the path to enlightenment through selfless service and devotion to God. Finally we have Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras written between 100 B.C.E. and 500 C.E. which seems to be giving instruction as to how to practice yoga in a thick and rich collection of aphorisms.
He explains that yoga has eight “limbs” or steps that allow the practitioner to quiet one’s mind and achieve kaivalya or enlightenment. These eight limbs include social and moral ethics, breathing techniques, as well as multiple stages of consciousness that can be experienced by way of meditation. One of these steps is asana. So, here we go right? This is surely where all these bendy twisty contortionistic poses come from… Nope not yet.
Patanjali simply mentions that it is important for ones posture (asana) in meditation to be comfortable. Hmm, so where do these poses come from? Fast forward about 1,500 years and we find the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This book differentiates Hatha Yoga from all the other forms of Yoga. Again, yoga meaning communion with god. This book takes on a tantric philosophy; that one can attain communion with god or “enlightenment” while still existing in and actually using the physical body as a vehicle to achieve this not so small feat. We do find the advent of a handful of postures in this book, however there is little mention of sequencing or linking together poses with the breath.
The main goal of practicing asana according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is to free the body of all disease and stagnation of prana or “energy” so that higher-states of consciousness may be achieved through meditation. As so, there are a myriad of pranayama techniques presented as well as ways to purify the body. Fast-forward another 400 years or so and we find Krishnamacharya (and Peirre Bernard — stay tuned for an article on just this dude, swimming in controversy and sensationalism in the U.S.).
Now we’re getting somewhere. Known to many as the “father of modern Yoga,” Krishnamacharya grew up studying and practicing various forms of Yoga and aryuvedic medicine. He expounded upon the Hatha Yoga pradipika by adding many postures that were linked together with the breath. Some argue that he was inspired by the strength of the British athletes and acrobats in his country and wanted to “pump-up” the Indian physique. Thus creating a more vigorous style of Asana practice. Like all the great teachers, he spent many years studying the Eight Limbs of Yoga adding what we now perceive to be the modern asana practice. Two of his students who most likely began practicing with him in the 50’s handed America its first dose of Hatha Yoga. BKS Iyengar, Krishnamacharya’s brother in law and Pattabhi Jois. Iyengar’s approach focused heavily on pranayama and specific physical alignment of postures as a way to rid the body of disease and prepare for higher states of consciousness through the practice of meditation. Pattabhi Jois offered a slightly more fluid style of practice. He created a specific series of postures. He designated that eight breaths be taken in each pose.
This was shortened to five breaths in each pose when it was packaged and shipped to America which cut the length of the practice from three hours to about two-and-a-half. With the evolution of our fast paced existence and ever increasing desire for growth it is not surprising that we have tailored the practice into sometimes not even one full breath. When asked by westerners what style of yoga do you teach, Pattabhi responded, “astanga” which is the name for the Eight Limbed Path set forth by Patanjali over 2,000 years ago. I believe that this is why in the west we attach the term “Yoga” to what is actually in many cases an asana practice, an aspect of Hatha Yoga, which is an umbrella term for yoga practices that use the body as a vehicle for transformation and purification.
Now the question is, what does asana, if chiseled out from the entire form of Hatha Yoga really have to offer us? In order for us to follow asana’s ephemeral threads back and forth, honoring both lineage and true evolution, it is our responsibility as the carriers of this practice to slow down. Take a few more breaths in each posture. Ask questions about the body, the mind and the experience we are personally having in the practice. We become scientists and skeptics. We form a new path that is as old as the human body. The Body becomes metaphor for the entire web of creation.
Brent Miller and Marriah Berquist are the owners of 36 South Yoga Collective dedicated to the therapeutic aspects of Hatha Yoga and the healing arts.