There’s a lot of alarming things nowadays.
What alarms me the most at the moment is that our spiritual communities are rife with the same superficiality they seek to conquer.
This article tackles just one of these superficialities – the misconception of modern yoga, and even worse: ‘traditional yoga’.
*WAIT, before you think to yourself, “Yes, I know those silly new-age yogis have it all wrong, they don’t know the real yoga like I do,” I beg of you, please read on. Let’s check we’re on the same page.
When we lack depth and understanding, the practices we perform to heal and connect us, often produce results that are opposite to our intentions… In the worse but common cases, our spiritual practice slows down our progress, proliferates dogma and contributes to relational trauma.
Where the issue starts
Most people take it for granted that the way yoga is currently practised is a ‘version’ of an original or traditional practice.
We accept that, nowadays, yoga is performed to sculpt the physical body or to increase our worldly success in some ways.
But the postures, breath and philosophy are sacred, and have been handed down over millennia. Right?
We believe we are connecting to an ancient practice that has noble, powerful and magical roots.
*Some of us also believe our yoga teachers are Gods who have studied biology, physics, chiropractic, medicine, philosophy and theology.
People, what is disturbing is that in a billion-dollar industry with over 100 million practitioners worldwide, few people question the aims and methods of the modern-day practice. But even fewer question the traditional practice which they assume it’s built on. And most of these unquestioning people are ‘yoga teachers’ or at least in some way feel qualified to speak on the topic.
Yoga is not a thing
Pretty much everyone assumes that yoga is a thing – a certain one/definable thing.
Yoga postures, breathing and philosophy are a unified practice that came from India thousands of years ago. Patanjali was the father, and it persisted in its glory until the 20th century when Americans got their hands on it.
Let’s break it down
In our teacher training courses, it takes us a good four hours to unpack this myth. We move towards a depth approach, detailing the different periods and practices and why they evolved.
The countless faces and expressions of yoga, with wide-ranging and contradictory aims, evolved in connection to the history of the world, the people, the political and spiritual forces at the time.
When we find out why – we are in a way better position to be able to use and teach yoga in a way that is actually relevant and meaningful for us now.
I mean… if you’re into that?
1. Yoga postures are from the 20th century
Pretty much everything you experience in a yoga class, from the postures, to sun sals, ‘pranayama’, ‘Sanskrit’ names of postures, and the starting om, (or aum, Haummm, or meoooooowwwwmmmmm), are all iterations from the 20th century.
Some posture names may be extrapolated from some Hatha Yoga texts that were translated into English, but I’ll get into that in a second.
Modern yoga started in the 50s (people!) as a gymnastics based mix of performance/ competition postures, calisthenics and the medicalisation of Eastern ideas.
Over one generation this got exported to the West. In the West, no one checks out anything, and there’s a fascination with the East, so we just assumed ‘yoga’ is thousands of years old and just went with it. (Kind of like when Christopher Columbus arrived in North America looking for India, and just called the people there Indians. It was obvious pretty soon that it wasn’t India and they weren’t Indians.) But… what good ever came from questioning?
2. Hatha Yoga is not a thing
In the 15th century in India, we have what scholars call the Classical Hatha Yoga period. At this time, there was a huge proliferation of texts describing, each their own version, of something called Hatha Yoga.
(Before this period, there were a few mentions of “Hatha” and “Hatha Yoga” in texts that outlined a rudimentary system of ascetic techniques and ideas.)
15th century Hatha Yoga outlines an entirely new movement that emerged as a re-branding of crazy ascetic techniques that had been practiced alongside the mainstream yoga, tantra and Buddhist spirituality for centuries.
During this time, Hatha Yoga gurus described different postures, effects and frameworks, a lot of times using the same names to describe different techniques, and spoke super highly of their own system and how they couldn’t believe how appallingly stupid the other systems and teachers were*.
Amongst this re-branding of ascetic techniques… Wait – first let me clarify what ‘ascetic’ techniques are. Alongside the caste system of India, there have always been people called ‘ascetics’ that live outside of society and explore their own rogue, world-renouncing practices and philosophies around liberation and spirituality. These practices DO NOT fit into a normal worldly life. They are not for improving the digestion, flexibility, or anything that has to do with being a functional human being. They are most commonly about burning the body and neglecting the world as paths to liberation.
So the 15th century Hatha Yoga (Hat- means ~force) that is for ‘everyone’, that makes you spiritual, enlightened, intelligent, healthy and an amazing human, is a re-branding of mysterious ascetic practices that were never intended for those aims. If you actually try techniques in a Hatha Yoga text, you might quickly see that the techniques are kind of a mishmash of old things with new intentions.
ALSO, each book explains different things.
This means that all the modern yogis that have their practice rooted in ‘real’ Hatha Yoga are rooted in something that never really made sense to begin with. IMO.
3. It’s yoga’s fault, not yours
All the modern yogis that have their practice rooted in ‘real’ Hatha Yoga are doing the exact same things that all the real “Hatha Yogis” did. They claim their practice is rooted in ‘ancient’ techniques. It is the trend of yoga to try to validate itself on the shoulders of the ‘tradition’ of the past, without that being very coherent.
4. All yoga isn’t posture yoga
Yoga is a word used to describe literally endless different things inside of India and now globally. Maybe a similar word is something like ‘practice’ in English. Yoga is used to describe systems of singing, chanting, reading, sex, abstinence, cleaning your bum out with water and weird things too like black magic. In Sanskrit texts, yoga can also be a word to describe the goal – so not a verb, but the outcome, which, of course, varied greatly from system to system.
5. Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras” had nothing to do with postures
Just in case you didn’t know this one: there is not one posture outlined in that text. Outlines of postures for ascetic purposes, or in other words ‘to burn the body’ are scantily mentioned in the literature (not yoga sutras) before the Hatha Yoga moment in 15th century. Also Patanjali’s ‘yoga sutras’ isn’t actually a real thing. The latest, leading scholarly research agrees that the ‘sutras’ were written with their ‘bhasya’ or commentary. Meaning the sutras on their own don’t make sense without their original explanation that was written alongside the sutras or ‘lines’.
6. The chakras system is a modern invention
Centres of energy have been spoken about in many cultures before, alongside and within yoga systems. The modern 6+1 chakra system that we use now in yoga, chakra healing and soooo many other new age modalities are a new, arbitrary iteration of a chakra system. Basically, a 16th century version of an energy map that got translated to English and then proliferated through various cultural forces. Now people believe they are a ‘real’ thing that you can do surgery on. However they traditionally have been meditation tools that get installed onto the body as areas of focus, energy and experience.
7. The 5 bodies have nothing to do with yoga
Koshas. This article needs to end somewhere so not going to explain this one. Sorry.
8. Heaps of other statements
I had to make a start somewhere but the scope of this myth is far reaching and I’m super impressed if you even made it this far.
9. Human beings are stupid
Ok this one I’ll explain! I like to make racey statements. We are not stupid. But human beings are designed to listen to authority. For a majority of our human development, people in authority actually knew the most. So it served us to listen and absorb without too much energy wasted in questioning.
Now though, your yoga teacher is a 22 year old who did a three-month training in Thailand with a random perverted guru who read some texts and made up a divine system. Well, that was your teacher if you came to my workshops in India in the summer of 2011…
I digress. But seriously, we’ll listen to anyone. And thanks to the internet, more and more people can spread their unsourced teachings, bolstering their intention of creating a business to try to get ahead of the rat-race that we are born into.
We are hardwired to listen without asking questions. If we ask questions all the time, it would be a waste of energy right? Not anymore. Now, asking questions saves us energy. There is so much information, paths and practices out there. If you ask a question you can align with the most powerful energy available to you, refine your intention and get to your path quicker.
10. This is not all bad news
The only issue is the lack of awareness. Where you are right now is where you need to be and your journey will always evolve. This is an invitation to remember to keep bringing more awareness to your practice and seek refinement.
For more on this topic, listen to the podcasts on Yoga.