by Julian Walker
The opening chapter I was pleased to write for a book called 21st Century Yoga (2012, Kleio Books) discussed an idea of the American Yoga Experiment, and the tension between purist notions of authentic tradition, and the pervasive reality of an evolving cross-cultural process of influence, adaptation and innovation.
In my own experience practicing and studying mind-body disciplines for close to 30 years, and teaching since 1994, this evolving innovative process has led to my synthesis of yoga asana practice with modern Buddhist meditation, Tantric maps of mind-body experience, Somatic Psychology tools for healing trauma, and exciting growing edge information from neuroscience about how to both understand and engage the transformational alchemy of the brain.
This type of synthesis, born of both a deep curiosity about what it is to be human, and of an underlying intuition that mind-body practice is a worldwide phenomenon that, while showing itself in different cultural and philosophical clothing across different time frames, has one fundamental commonality: the interwoven human body and psyche.
For me, yoga, meditation, dance, martial arts, bodywork, breath-work, psychology, and even the altered states evoked via sacramental plants and their derivatives, are all part of one evolving story about how humans seek to grow, heal, engage our inner lives, and develop skills which celebrate our creative, rational, emotional and embodied potentials.
My primary yoga teacher, Ana Forrest, is herself an innovator. I found her to be fascinated with how the intensely focused aesthetic she cultivated in in her classes could engender a kind of warrior-esque resilience and ability to face our deepest pain and fear and thereby find freedom and empowerment. In service of this process-orientation, she drew on various ideas derived from Native American ceremony, early forms of what would become somatic psychology, and new age hands-on energy healing.
As it happens, Ana was part of group of teachers who pioneered the model of what would become both the widespread Western yoga studio with different “styles” of class taught by a staff of teachers throughout the day, as well as the yoga retreat center.
She was very involved with Ganga White and the first such studio, Center for Yoga in Larchmont, LA, and also The White Lotus Foundation retreat center in Santa Barbara.
Ganga White innovated something he called “The Flow Series”, which would end up being further iterated in the now ubiquitous power yoga, vinyasa, and flow yoga classes that dominate the prime time slots in yoga studios around the world.
Ana and Ganga, along with others like Chuck and Mati Ezrati (who founded YogaWorks and who, incidentally, trained Hala) Richard Freeman, Tim Miller, Erich Schiffmann, David Swenson, Richard Rosen, essentially created the explosion of interest in yoga we saw through the 80’s and 90’s in the USA.
These folks brought back what they practiced and taught from trips to Mysore and Pune, India, (mostly starting in 1970’s) where they predominately studied asana with K.Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar .
It is via the differing emphases of Jois and Iyengar that we see the standard difference between the (Ashtanga-based) “flow class” and the “Iyengar class” —as well as the further innovations that grow from these different aesthetics.
It turns out that these two heavily influential Indian teachers were themselves students of Krishnamacharya, who is credited with starting the 1930’s Hatha Yoga revival in Mysore that revolutionizes the concept, image and practice of yoga asana in ways that have shaped the transnational phenomenon ever since.
Krishnamacharya is widely associated with the development of vinyasa, the linking of breath to movement in and out and between poses, as well as the now ubiquitous surya namaskar or sun salutation and various standing poses. Several of these elements are unique to his approach, and appear to have no direct precedent in Hatha Yoga asana.
But where did Kirshnamacharya source his approach to this practice?
How does it relate to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras?
Where do we situate ourselves today as yogis in what is often referred to as a 5,000 year old tradition?
What is the relationship between yoga practice and Tantra, Hinduism, or Buddhism?
Is there a pure tradition of yoga asana and meditation that links us today to ultimate spiritual truths via the correct way to practice the 8-fold path of moral virtue and restraint, advanced asana, pranayama, and deep meditation?
Finally: Is it legitimate to innovate, evolve and add to this practice as it moves through different cultures and times, or is this a dilution of the pure tradition?
Part 1: Threads of History, Politics, Religion and The Taboo
As a modern Westerner seeking to get a handle on the history of yoga, I have found this slippery topic defined by really interesting tensions.
These have to do with underlying questions and assumptions, definitions of words that change over time, as well as the complexities of cross-cultural intersection, significant philosophical divergence, historical context, and contradictory meanings.
Even within India (as it turns out) the word “asana” and the word “yoga” is used in different ways in different contexts and times to refer to different things.
There is, within what is often oversimplified by idealistic Westerners as one tradition, actually radical and diverse variation in philosophical stances and underlying ideas of the purpose of spiritual practice.
Any attempt to draw a straight line back 5,000 years, through the mists of time to an ancient Indian practice that shares structure, purpose, beliefs, and indeed core spiritual insights with the versions of “ yoga asana” as experienced by millions of modern practitioners is at best tenuous, and at worst a fabrication.
A more careful look, in which we get oriented to the historical, cultural and philosophical complexities, reveals a fascinating, evolving process that is contested, mythologized, political, commercial, and indeed, deeply human in its themes.
I think part of what is so tricky about this is that the further back we go in time, the less evidence we have and more mythologizing there is.
We also may want to consider the phenomenon that, as counter-culture postmodern Western seekers, we can have a tendency to romanticize both the ancient in general, and the Eastern in particular, and to then identify with these romantic stories, ideas and beliefs.
One of the reasons I think mind-body practice remains meaningful in the popular imagination, is that unlike dry and rigid authoritarian religious systems, experiential and embodied modes of self-discovery, self-care and shared meaning can be adopted by different cultures and further modified and developed to meet the needs of different people in different times.
So here’s what I have found:
“Yoga” has a complex history with many twists and turns. It has always been an adaptive, evolving process, continually redefined by innovators with their own ideas and beliefs.
There is no pure, authentic, authoritative and infallible version or lineage of the practice, postures, or ideas, only an adventurous tale of great variation, innovation, and differences in emphasis.
But the story of how we get to where we are today is well worth exploring. It starts with the Vedas.
The Vedas and the True Believers
As the name suggests, the Vedas are the ancient texts of Vedic culture. They are hymns, which were handed down first in an oral tradition and later written, dating possibly as far back as 1700 BCE. (Roughly 3700 years ago.)
Like many other mythic scriptures, the Vedas are described as being created by Brahman and therefore of superhuman or divine origin.
There is research and anthropological theory (most notably by R. Gordon Wasson) to suggest that the Vedas (especially the Rigveda) originated in the sacramental consumption of a drink using the amanita muscaria mushroom, and are expressions of the psychedelic insights, revelations and hallucinations attributed by those songs to the plant god Soma.
Yoga historian Georg Feuerstein suggests that the Aryan migration (or invasion, depending on who you ask) around 1500 BCE, pushed these early Vedic people out of the areas where the mushroom grew —and that this may have initiated the experimentation with other ways of accessing altered states..
Note: This radical or perhaps irreverent seeming hypothesis is evidenced as a possible ancient basis for several spiritual traditions from Vedic culture, to Ancient Greece, Judaism, the Mayan and other Southern and Meso-American culturess, Eastern Europe and Africa—each using different psychedelic plants as sacraments.
In later years, (during what historians call the “Hindu synthesis” around 300 BCE) following the Vedas and believing their core metaphysical claims, defines what will become the orthodox (or astika) schools of Hinduism.
Specifically, astika (meaning “exists”) refers to belief in the existence of atman, or the immortal soul, and in a world beyond the one we inhabit, as laid out in the Vedas.
On the other hand, the nastika (meaning “does not exist”) schools do not accept the Vedas, specifically the central claim regarding atman, and the existence of another world beyond this one.
Why does this matter for our purposes?
Well, there are six astika schools that make up orthodox Hindu philosophy/theology, and one of those six is called “Yoga”, from which we later get the teachings of Patanjali, who lived roughly 1700 years ago.
As an aside: another of these six astika schools, called Samkyha has significant influence on Patanjali’s formulation of “Yoga”, as does Buddhism —but more on this later.
By contrast, the nastika schools include Buddhism, Jainism, and as is the case throughout this diverse, evolving culture, some forms of Tantra and some forms of Vedanta, depending on whom you ask!
Significantly, several of these diverse schools use the word yoga to describe their practices, and call the seeker a yogi..
But back to the point at hand: there is a dividing line between what is considered Hindu orthodoxy and what is considered unorthodox.
This central difference between astika and nastika regarding religious orientation has direct implications on ideas and beliefs about why and how one would engage in spiritual practice and study.
In simplified terms, for the astika schools, the goal of spiritual practice and study, indeed of life itself, is to come to the direct understanding /experience of one’s true identity not as a mere mortal human but as an eternal soul (atman) who in essence is one with Brahman.
In this orthodox historical and philosophical context: Yoga refers specifically to the path of meditation, pursued so as to attain the above goal, and asana refers to the seated meditation posture itself.
These astika schools, like many other religious formulations, see our lives in this world as a kind of preparation for another world beyond —and they see meditation, ritual purification, animal sacrifices, chanting, puja, prayer etc all as a way to interact with, and come to realization both of this other world and of one’s true identity as atman separate from the body and the material world.
The emerging orthodox Hindu culture of the Brahmins branded any unorthodox thinkers as nastika, and in certain times and places this was an insult and a smear on one’s reputation and spiritual virtue or the legitimacy of certain teaching, texts or teachers.
As in most ancient religious traditions, orthodoxy was part of how power, wealth and authority were maintained, and the unorthodox (or heretics) were often looked down upon or oppressed.
Nonetheless, the irrepressible spirit of innovation and exploration that underlies this richly diverse expression of Eastern ideas and beliefs continued to elaborate itself through the centuries.
Varna (or Caste) System
I said before that the history we are exploring is also political. It is specifically useful in that regard to mention the caste system, which is an ancient form of organizing Indian society based on the religious belief that people born into specific ethnic groups were destined by karma to belong to one of four different hierarchical social classes:
Brahmins were the wealthiest and priestly class.
Kshatriya were the military rulers.
Vaishya were the farmers and later the merchants.
Shudra were the laborers and servants.
The fifth caste, Dalit or Untouchables, were considered the lowest and were often not even mentioned. Dalit’s were considered polluted and their corrupt energy was seen as contagious, such that someone from a higher caste should not consume food or drink with a Dalit in sight.
Essentially, the belief is that your past life karma dictates which of these castes or varnas you were born into, and if you were a good person in a lower caste, maybe in your next lifetime you could move up in status, wealth, and in very real terms, human rights and dignity.
The Brahmins or priestly class, who defined religious orthodoxy and were the wealthiest, were also called “twice-born” meaning they had a special karmic status. By evidence of their birth, (conveniently) further along in their spiritual realization than the other castes.
In the Bhagavad Gita (roughly 300 BCE), we find that each chapter is named after different aspects of “yoga” as devotion and surrender to God. All of these uses of the word refer not to the asanas of Hatha Yoga, but to various religious instructions on how to think, believe and act, in a fusion of devotional religion with the dualist Samkhya school of thought that will later influence Patanjali.
Most notably its central narrative is of the Prince Arjuna being instructed by Krishna to follow his dharma (or duty), which is defined by his karma of having been born into the warrior caste. In the story, Arjuna is deeply distressed and conflicted about having to go into battle against his friends, cousins and mentors. Krishna explains that he is spiritually required to enact his dharma by waging war against these loved ones, but that since the world of appearances is illusory, and everyone is in reality an immortal soul or atman, there is no need to hesitate on doing as he is told.
Personally, I think the political implications of this explicit metaphysics are manifold, and create a conundrum for us, in that it runs counter to modern liberal values and the forms of spirituality they inspire.
But here’s where it gets interesting: within this orthodox and theocratic social structure, there were (and still are) individuals who chose to dedicate themselves solely to spiritual practice and live on the edges of the society, renouncing social status, possessions, work, family, sex etc.
These are the Sadhus, and theirs is an ascetic path of renunciation, poverty, and intense spiritual practice.
In fact the sadhus or sramanas existed in all their multiple philosophical variations before the Baghavad Gita completed what is historically referred to as the “Hindu synthesis “of beliefs into what would become orthodoxy around 300 BCE (2300 years ago).
These sramanas had a multitude of differing beliefs regarding philosophy and meditation, many of which rejected the Vedas and some of which were explicitly atheist, or rejecting of any notion of God, soul or reincarnation —seeing meditation only as a path to self-knowledge.
It is with these wild and austere characters that the next phase of our evolving history of asana and meanings of yoga belongs.
But be warned, the path of the sadhu is not for the faint of heart, it is fierce and brutal, self-denying and even self-mutilating. It has almost nothing in common with more familiar modern ideas of yoga as a gentle path of self-care, inner peace, and balanced health!
There are many sects and sub-sects for sadhus, but whichever path they follow, sadhus exist outside of (and even pre-date) the conventions of Hindu society and caste.
Sadhus typically grow their matted hair and beards long. Most partake very regularly of cannabis, which is seen as a way to commune with the god Shiva.
Some sadhus live in cemeteries, some in large shared ashrams, others in caves or forests. Many cover their bodies in the ashes of the dead burned in funeral pyres to show their lack of attachment to their physical bodies, and their conviction in their identity as pure atman.
Some sadhus live completely naked (the “sky-clad”), and as part of the austerities and renunciation of the material world, and many perform ritual practices that damage the genitals to prevent sexual function and desire. Some sadhus also eat and drink only from cleaned out human skulls.
Some particularly extreme tantric sadhus (the Aghori) even cannibalistically consume the rotting flesh of dead bodies as well as human urine and feces, so as to show their conviction that everything is divine.
As you might imagine, these yogis are clearly not the picture of physical health, balance, compassionate self-care and inner peace that we associate with yoga culture today!
Though in the orthodox Hindu tradition, it is considered virtuous to become a sadhu in the last stage of life, after having participated in conventional family and work pursuits, most sadhus enter this way of life much earlier, and are not held in high regard.
Sadhus generally beg for food and rely on donations to survive, and they are often seen as having supernatural powers by common people (some sadhus learn how to perform impressive magic tricks to perpetuate this belief) who pay them to cast spells, ward of evil spirits and the like.
Some sadhus perform extreme practices like standing on one leg without moving for an entire year, or vowing to never speak, some will perform various ascetic acts like reclining on beds of nails, dragging objects with hooks sunk into their flesh, or piercing their faces, tongues, and other areas with skewers or knives.
Gautama Buddha (born roughly 500 BCE) was a kind of sadhu, he lived as a sramana ascetic, almost starving himself to death, before coming to his own unique realizations. The Buddha was never completely satisfied with the teachings he encountered and the practices he mastered.
Over time, he charted a “middle way” between asceticism and sense pleasures, informed by a much more psychological interest in how to become free of human suffering, which of course ended up becoming Buddhism —one of those nastika, or unorthodox schools that denies the existence of atman, and is non-theistic (ie: no god) in its metaphysics.
The Buddha was also opposed to the caste system, and opened his community to members of all castes, including the Dalit.
But back to the sadhus now: For the higher caste in Hindu society, the sadhu and his extreme practices was often seen as repugnant and an embarrassment, especially in the humiliating light of British colonization (from 1858 to 1947) and cultural supremacy/bigotry.
Nonetheless, Hatha Yoga and the beginnings of “asana” as we think of it today originated with these sadhus.
Part 2: Yoga, “Asana,” and First Texts
Written by the author who would become the central figure in the astika school of Hindu philosophy called “Yoga”, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are dated around the 4th century, (roughly 1700 years old) and use the term “asana” to designate the seated posture for meditation.
Some have speculated that the sutras may be from as early as 500 BCE, but the consensus among scholars dates them somewhere between the 4th and 5th century CE. (Exactly where the sutras fall in this 1000 year period does not actually affect our story too much..)
The Yoga Sutras are primarily a manual on concentration meditation as a way to realize/experience “yoga” (or union) per the Vedic metaphysical belief in atman, and to attain union with Brahman.
They contain no description or reference to any kind of yoga posture besides that used for seated meditation.
Patanjali does lay out an eightfold path (ashtanga) in his quite short text, one aspect of which is asana, but the use of the word “Ashtanga” to designate flowing sequences of postures doesn’t emerge for quite some time in our story!
Study of the sutras reveals that these eight steps (or more precisely, stages) of yoga are as follows:
Yamas: Ethical rules per Hinduism (the 5 “don’ts”: non-violence, not lying, not stealing, chastity, not being greedy.)
Niyamas: Virtuous behaviors (the 5 “do’s”: purity, contentment, persistence, study of the Vedas, belief in God.)
Asana: A description of steady and still seated meditation posture.
Pranayama: Breathing techniques.
Pratyahara: Turning attention inward and away from external distractions, as part of concentration meditation.
Dharana: Intensified single-pointed concentration skill.
Dhyana: A stage of deeply absorbed meditative contemplation.
Samadhi: Oneness with the object of meditation, such that the sense of a separate self disappears.
These sutras are heavily influenced, as mentioned before, by the Samkyha school and its dualist formulation of reality as divided into two aspects: Purusha (pure consciousness) and Prakriti (nature.)
The meditation practiced as “yoga” in this form is seen as a way to disentangle oneself from nature and realize one’s identity as pure consciousness.
In keeping with a more ascetic and dualist sensibility, part of this disentangling process involves becoming dis-identified with the body, which is seen explicitly as impure.
Curiously, Samkhya philosophy does not include a personal God in the way that the Yoga philosophy does —Patanjali adds this inflection to the Samkhya model.
Included in the sutras are several colorful claims about levitation, controlling the minds of others, and coming to perfect knowledge of reality, including the nature of the heavens, movements of the planets etc. all via this meditation technique.
Scholars say the sutras are a combination of ideas from various schools and the stages of Samadhi, or deep meditative absorption that Patanjali describes appear to have been influenced by the Buddha as well.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras actually fell into obscurity between the 12th and late 19th century, before Swami Vivikenanda re-popularized them as part of his efforts with the Theosophical Society to create a worldwide interfaith religious movement. (Vivekananda inspired many Westerners with his famous 1893 address to the Parliament of World Religions.)
While various forms of meditation and religious beliefs referred to as “yoga” existed for several hundred years BCE, the use of “asana” as a term referring to something other than a seated meditation posture likely emerges amongst the tantric sadhus who are evolving their own ways of practicing yoga, possibly as early as the 5th century (between 1500 and 1600 years ago).
But even then “yoga” refers to mudras, bandhas, and pranayama, rather than what would later become the variety of yoga postures.
Something worth noting, is that tantric philosophy is quite different from the dualism of Patanjali and Samkyha as described above.
Tantric metaphysics emphasize a non-dual perspective in which rather than the (dualistic) split between divine pure consciousness and impure nature, instead the divine consciousness is seen as interpenetrating every aspect of existence.
This is a powerful and far-reaching distinction.
For the tantrika, the spiritual path is one of embracing all things as divine. This often includes breaking the more orthodox taboos, including those around purity, sexuality etc. —and in its extreme versions we see some of the more transgressive and disturbing customs described earlier.
The point here is that attempts to link the asanas being practiced by (likely nastika) Tantric sadhus, and Jain and Buddhist sramanas to Patanjali’s sutras is tricky, given not only the long historical gap, but also the significantly different metaphysical beliefs and ideas about why one would be practicing in the first place.
Nonetheless, in the diverse unfolding of this rich process, different schools of thought do influence and cross-pollinate one another.
These earliest mentions of “yoga asana” have to do with mudras (making shapes with the hands and fingers), ways of placing the legs and feet when sitting, and ways of placing the tongue during meditation.
Again, the word “yoga,” and the word “asana” have shifting meanings: the original meaning of asana is “seat”, and then over time it comes to also denote different ways of placing body parts while in that seat.
As with Patanjali, the sadhus who likely started innovating in ways that would lead to practices we would recognize as the beginnings of Hatha Yoga, also claimed that their practices would enable the attainment of immortality and development of siddhis or magical powers.
We find the earliest written references to Hatha Yoga (notably the Tantric khecari mudra, which properly involves placing the tongue behind the soft palate and up into the nasal cavity) in Buddhist texts in the 8th century.
The Dattatreyayogasashtra from around the 13th century teaches 10 different yoga practices, but still these are all mudras, bandhas, mantras and pranayama breathing techniques —again as part of an now further evolving iteration of “yoga” as the meditative practice of union with Brahman.
The practice has at this point expanded to include more activities, but is not yet showing any evidence of the postures that would come next!
It is not until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in the 15th century that “asana” in the sense we now use the word is described, and there are 15 asanas, all of which are on the floor.
This practice appears to be via a Tantric lineage through Goraksa and his teacher Matseyendra, but references multiple teachers and is a synthesis of these floor asanas with ideas and instructions about breath, mudras, bandhas, the chakras, kundalini phenomena, and other topics.
This seminal text containing the first known series of this now newly defined concept of yoga asanas features no standing poses, no sun salutation, no downward dog, and no inversions.
The Pashupati Seal & the “5,000 year old Tradition”
In modern yoga circles it is common to say that the asana practice we are doing is 5,000 years old, but how do we reconcile this with the above story so far?
Yes, we can perhaps say that Vedic culture goes back 5,000 years, but the popular idea that yoga asana practice dates this far back is based on a single archeological discovery, the Pashupati Seal, (dated at roughly 2300 BCE —or 4300 years ago) found in 1928 in the Indus Valley region (Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India) which depicts a man seated in what could be interpreted as a seated yoga pose, surrounded by animals, and wearing either a horned head-dress or having three heads.
This type of mythic figure may be the earliest representation of Shiva, but is also very similar to another Mediterranean/Middle Eastern figure called the Master of Animals, as well as a figure seen on a Danish piece called the Gundestrip Cauldron.
The last 90 years (since 1928) have yielded no connections so far between this one carving and asana practice this far back in history, and representations of human figures engaged in various forms and postures of ritual worship, or of mythical deities themselves, is common to many cultures of this and other times and regions.
Let’s summarize the journey so far via the chronology of these rough dates:
Pashupati Seal —4300 years ago
Vedas —3700 years ago.
Bhagavad Gita/“Hindu Synthesis” —2300 years ago
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras —1700 years ago.
Earliest textual references to Hatha Yoga —happen to be in Buddhist texts 1300 years ago.
First elaborated Hatha Yoga text —800 years ago.
First text of now recognizable yoga asana floor poses: Hatha Yoga Pradipika —600 years ago.
So, a clear path to a history of yoga asana has been complex and difficult to trace, and while various teachers and schools will often claim that they hold the one true, ancient lineage, the ideas, beliefs and practices are diverse, contested, and infused with cultural, religious and political tensions.
But what I do think we see more than anything else is an evolving process of innovation, exploration and adaptation.
Which brings us now to the 2oth century.
Part 3: Krishnamacharya, The 1930’s Hatha Yoga Revival, &Transnational Posture Practice
We have followed the threads from the Vedas to the Gita, from the sadhus, Tantra and Buddhism, to Patanjali, to the emergence of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (around 600 years ago) containing the first series of postures on the floor.
But asana practice as we now know it in the West traces definitively back to Mysore and the teachings of Krishnamacharya, born in 1888.
Here another blossoming in the evolutionary process is expressed in ways that will spread around the world, and generate fame, reverence and wealth for three very significant figures in the modern revival and evolving adaptation of yoga asana.
Krishnamacharya’s students include BKS Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, each of whom popularized very widely practiced sequences and asanas.
Krishnamacharya is widely associated with developing the concept of vinyasa, or combining breath with movement, he also was of the persuasion that asana practice should be adapted to the needs of individual students.
In 2010, yoga scholar and practitioner, Mark Singleton completed groundbreaking work on an extensive research project in which he sought out ancient and heretofore lost and/or un-translated texts in difficult to access libraries, and conducted interviews of the last remaining (quite old) students of Krishnamacharya.
Singleton was attempting to trace the historical origins of what would become transnational posture practice —and what is now generally referred to in popular culture around the world as “yoga.”
As published in his book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Postural Practice, (Oxford University Press) he found that there was a complex set of circumstances and influences that created the Hatha Yoga revival of the 1930’s, and the ensuing popularizing of asana practice across the world.
This included reactions to colonialism and British stereotypes of Indian men as effeminate, as well as of Indian culture as primitive.
A popular cultural movement at the time around fitness, bodybuilding and gymnastics, linked up with this drive to showcase an aspect of Indian physical culture as disciplined, technical, physically fit, practiced (for the first time) on gymnasium-like floors with specifically defined standing postures performed not unlike ballet’s positions.
This new iteration of yoga claimed a lineage and connection with the respectable philosophical orthodox Hindu school called “Yoga” rather than those embarrassing sadhus and scandalous tantrikas.
Singelton shows how the newly invented camera, and the combination of these cultural, colonial and nationalist movements combined to find Krishnamacharya teaching the princes at the Mysore palace.
This happened in a special room with gymnastics equipment, and led to the images and ideas of asana practice becoming more widespread, even as this latest evolution of the physical practice involved Hatha Yoga being influenced by Scandanavian gymnastics, British and European fitness routines, and a new emphasis on physical health and strength.
At this juncture there is a further new emphasis, via the camera and the image of the yogi, on yoga asana practice as connected to ideals of physical beauty, athleticism, poise and balance.
These images are of healthy, clean, impressive bodies, enjoying their abilities. We enter a new realm that is no longer that of the severe ascetic self-denying sadhu transcending the body, but rather a celebration of physicality as symbolic of spiritual discipline and supreme health.
This, as it turned out, would later be very appealing to the Western sensibility.
The innovative Krishnamacharya and his student Pattabhi Jois developed the surya namaskar or sun salutation sequence that has become ubiquitously associated with asana practice ever since.
There is no evidence of the sun salutation existing as part of Hatha Yoga prior to the 20th century.
Singelton also shows how Iyengar’s later hugely popular book, Light On Yoga can be compared page by page with an earlier book of Danish gymnastics.
In my correspondence with Mark Singleton he has directed anyone interested in more context regarding this period to look at the most recent revised introduction to his book Yoga Body, published online here.
He continues his research and writing, and directs us for further clarity to his forthcoming book (available in April, 2017) with James Mallinson, Roots of Yoga.
In 2013, a colleague of Singleton’s and part of his Modern Yoga Research project, Jason Birch, published an article about his recent discovery of a manuscript from the 17th century that he believes indicates a significantly greater number of asanas (84) than was previously known as being taught in that period.
These asanas involved breath control, repetitive movement, and the use of a rope for inversions, similar to what we see in Iyengar yoga.
They establish a larger number, specifically of seated and inverted postures, going back perhaps 400 years, than were previously listed. There is also appears to be the first descriptions which include repetitive movement in and out of postures.
But, significantly: still none of the familiar standing postures or sun salutation associated with the modern transnational practice.
“the similarity of modern standing poses to exercises in European calisthenics and gymnastics leaves little doubt in my mind to their origins, but we now know that Indian gurus may have viewed them as extensions of older standing poses… Indeed I suspect these gurus were able to so effectively integrate postures from outside yoga simply because there were antecedents in earlier forms of Hatha Yoga…”
Cross-cultural influence and innovation is the rule as yoga continues to evolve.
I asked Singleton for comment on whether or not this more recent discovery revises his thesis laid out in Yoga Body. I’ll quote his response directly from our last email exchange, which I was grateful to receive from him in the midst of his current research trip to India:
“According to Desikachar, Krishnamacharya was constantly experimenting with new postures. Some of what he taught was ‘old’, some of what he taught was his spin on old forms, and some of what he taught appears to be brand new in the history of yoga. The challenge is to see how these overlapping approaches work together.
The forms taught in Mysore in the 1930s appear to be without direct precedent. But even if an ancient text describing the sequences of ‘Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga’ were discovered tomorrow, that would not change the point I’m making in the book: that adaptation is the rule, and that modern yoga always shows varying degrees of adaptation. The point of historical research is to try to untangle some of this.
It is very simplistic to think that Jason’s article somehow obviates the need for this kind of work.
I work with Jason Birch every day on these texts, and on these broader issues. We are collaborating on an eighteenth century text, which appears to be the first to teach groups of postures and possibly sequences. Yesterday, here in Pune, I found six previously unknown manuscripts on the practice of āsana. However, none of this obviates the need to consider how yoga has been shaped by modernity, nor does it change my thesis that yoga underwent enormous change in the modern period. ”
Note: Desikachar, mentioned above, was Krishnamacharya’s son, and a further influential innovator of asana in his own right.
Deepening American Interest in Eastern Practices: 1960’s & 70’s
In the essay I wrote as the first chapter of the 2012 book, 21st Century Yoga, I explored the later historical trends, ideas and cross-pollination that happened with yoga as it intersected with Western culture.
My central observation is that yoga asana practice (as well pranayama and various forms of meditation) becomes powerfully appealing to the West during our time of counterculture upheaval in the 1960’s.
The youth of this time were rebelling against not only the Vietnam war, rigid gender roles, social conformity, and sexual repression, but also against the conventions of their own inherited dualist/puritanical Judaeo-Christian religion.
These rebels were discovering Eastern spirituality and experiential practices as a way of liberating their relationships to their bodies, psyches, sexuality and sense of meaning. Not unlike their earlier Indian counterparts, they were also expanding consciousness with psychedelics and cannabis.
This period in the West is also rich with new developments in psychology that found interesting common cause with ideas of introspection, self-awareness, embodied aliveness, and an existential sense of authenticity that transcended conventional societal repressions.
To this counterculture, an updated Tantric sense of sacred sexuality, a world infused with divine energy, and the possibilities of an experience of enlightened revelation beyond authoritarian religion and political power were all very appealing.
This becomes expressed in the blossoming of meccas like the Esalen Institute and its emphasis on “human potential” using massage, psychological encounter groups, consensual nudity in the luxurious hot springs and a kind of back-to-nature sense of spiritual community.
For many modern Westerners, on first contact with yoga, the assumption is that this inflection of body-positive, sex-positive, psychologically compassionate, egalitarian values (as well as many other New Age positive thinking ideas) is inherent to the ancient tradition, when in fact it is more of a recently co-created context for this evolving practice.
My sense is that this contemporary movement actually has spiritual/philosophical roots in the 19th century New England Transcendentalists: Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson and their renegade marriage of nature spirituality, celebration of the body and sexuality, to a fascination with Eastern mysticism.
The Late 20th Century Innovations, & “Yoga” Explosion in The West.
What happens next in the story of yoga’s evolving form and expression?
Well, in the 70’s and 80’s there was a young group of uniquely curious and earnest counter-culture influenced Americans who headed East as committed seekers.
Some, like Kornfield, Sharon Salzburg, Joseph Goldstein, Stephen and Ondrea Levine, and several others went in search of Buddhist teachings —these folks came back and started the first American Buddhist meditation centers, wrote books for a wider audience, and became deeply engaged with attempting an East/West psycho-spiritual synthesis.
Some, like the earlier-mentioned Richard Freeman, Ana Forrest, Chuck and Mati Ezrati, Larry Payne, Erich Schiffmann, Tim Miller, David Swenson, Richard Rosen, Ganga White and others found their way to Mysore —perhaps to study with an aging Krishnamacharya (he died in 1989, aged 101), but more likely with his student Pattabhi Jois.
Krishnamacharya is seen as developing the idea of vinyasa: linking breath to movement in, out, and between postures. But it was Jois who called the sequences he was developing “Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga” to create the implied link to Patanjali who (as we saw) describes his yoga as having eight-limbs —or Ashtanga.
It appears that Jois made this strategic move to cement his authority and legitimacy as the primary modern exponent of the ancient lineage, and it worked like a charm!
An incessant flow of American students packed his yoga classes in Mysore until his death in 2009.
The widespread idea in the small yoga communities that these American pioneers came back and fostered, was that Ashtanga Yoga was the real deal, and what serious yogis practiced. With its multiple progressing series of ever more difficult acrobatic moves and extreme flexibility —this practice came for a while to be the gold standard of how “advanced” a legitimate yogi was.
Many of these young students and seminal teachers of what would become the yoga explosion in the USA, also sought out BKS Iyengar, Krishnamacharya’s other senior student, who after moving to Pune had developed and innovated a quite different sequence and emphasis than Jois —and had sought to medicalize his claims about the benefits of the postures.
Iyengar also starts to emphasize a more technical sense of what becomes known as “alignment” —photos of his teacher’s postures (especially in triangle and extended angle pose) clearly show he did not get this idea from Krishnamacharya. It was a further new innovation.
As described earlier, Center for Yoga in Larchmont, LA, is the seminal studio in what would become the West Coast yoga movement. Forrest, White, Payne, the Ezrati’s and South African Yogi Alan Finger are all on staff.
Eventually, Chuck and Mati Ezrati and Alan Finger end up moving across town to the Westside to start YogaWorks. Finger later goes to New York and stars Yoga Zone. Ana Forrest also ends up joining the YogaWorks teaching staff.
Through the 80’s and 90’s the popularity of yoga in the USA kept growing exponentially, and soon these likewise innovative American teachers started offering their own teacher trainings.
Which is where myself and my Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind teacher training colleagues enter the story!
Hala Khouri did her teacher training with Mati Ezrati. I did mine with Ana Forrest. Jay Fields did her training and study in the Iyengar method via Julie Gudmestad, Patricia Walden, and Kofi Busia.
Along with young teachers in our generation like Seane Corn, Saul David Raye, Shiva Rea, Brian Kest, Max Strom, Jill Miller, Micheline Berry, Vinnie Marino and many others, we became part of this evolving lineage of the exploration of yoga practice.
As usually happens in competitive marketplaces, whether in India or Los Angeles, there were rifts between studios and approaches with certain teachers claiming the true lineage and saying that others didn’t know what they were doing.
Teaching flow instead of pure Ashtanga or Iyengar, not having been to Mysore, using music, not teaching breath in specific ways, creating new sequences, teaching differing forms of meditation —all are examples of the types of reasons that the new orthodoxy could criticize as being unorthodox —nastika!
Here in LA there were also some heated territory feuds and even legal battles, as teachers like Kest, Steve Ross, Forrest, and Strom each left YogaWorks to start their own studios in what was becoming the worldwide mecca for asana practice —LA’s Westside.
Part of this feuding included jockeying for position on who had studied with which teacher for how long, who had been (and how many times) to Mysore, who had been to Pune to study with Iyengar.
As an aside: In addition to Ana Forrest’s philosophical innovations around the purpose and psychological process of yoga practice, she also became fascinated with injuries, safety and yoga as a tool for physical healing. When I trained and taught at her studio from 1993 to 2004, she had developed her own modifications to many poses, especially regarding neck, shoulder and pelvis position —as well as being one the earliest adopters of incorporating core work for low back stability. These of course were seen (along with making space for emotions and sounds) as the “wrong” way by those claiming orthodox authority, literally across the street at YogaWorks —but make no mistake, Forrest had her own criticisms of their approach!
The phenomenon of ever larger yoga teacher trainings open to a greater number of students emerged in the mid 90’s, and really emphasized their prestigious lineage. As part of creating that sense of prestige, many emphasized (sincerely, I believe) the ancientness of the 5,000 year-old tradition, and their direct connection to the “real” yoga, as taught by Krishnamacharya, Jois and Iyengar, and what they had claimed was its basis in the teachings of the great sage Patanjali.
In an interesting chapter, as the popular innovation called “Power Yoga” propagated by Beryl Birch Bender and Brian Kest was fusing Ganga White’s Ashtanga influenced “Flow Yoga” with a more accessible fitness-oriented exercise mentality, Patthabi Jois actually wrote a letter in 1995 that was published in Yoga Journal condemning this new approach!
“It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out the essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations.
The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with ‘power yoga’ or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga shastras (scriptures). It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant body building.”
Regardless, terms like power yoga, flow yoga, and vinyasa yoga, all became top performing class descriptions at studios across the country from the late 90’s on.
In fact with each new innovation, there have always been detractors who say that this new way is not “real yoga.” But the innovations kept on coming, and as more people took teacher trainings, there were more innovators interested in the relationships between:
Yoga and fitness, psychology and yoga, Buddhist meditation and healing trauma, Hatha yoga and the chakra system, yoga and dance, yoga and kirtan-style devotional chanting, how to reach underserved populations with yoga, as well as how to look at yoga through an anatomical lens, how to understand injuries and the relationships between yoga and physical therapy, yoga and bodywork, even yoga and social justice etc.
One of the more recent asana innovations has been the development of “Yin Yoga” and its popular derivation, the Slow Deep Stretch class.
Yoga Today & Our AHEM Teacher Training Influences & Innovations
The Western sensibility and evolving cultural zeitgeist described earlier around how to relate to the body and psyche results in the emergence of somatic psychology and its overlap with various forms of bodywork.
This connects then to ideas that practices like asana and meditation can be integrated with certain psychological concepts and ways of working with deep feelings, trauma, healing and ultimately living more fully to your human potential.
I have utilized the Tantric chakra system as a way to explore this type of embodied inner work, and in fact there are fascinating threads of connection between Western approaches to freeing up mind-body tension patterns and the “energetic” experiences this creates and certain tantric techniques and metaphors.
This was the focus of many years for me, and resulted not only in how I sequence and hold space in yoga classes, workshops and retreats, but also in my Open Sky Bodywork technique, that I have shared with hundreds of clients in a busy practice for almost 20 years.
Evolving forms of Buddhist philosophy and practice, which emphasize psychological awareness, as well as its cultivation, via vipassana mediation, of enhanced bodily awareness and mind-body process also shares significant overlap with these developments —and fits really well with the Somatic Experiencing method in particular.
Hala is a Somatic Experiencing counselor, and I have done some training and much personal study in this and other approaches to mind-body psychology. We both incorporate it into our work in the private one-on-one setting, and as yoga teachers, and teacher trainers. We have been early-adopters and pioneers of the idea that yoga practice should include making space for working with the trauma that is held and lived in our bodies.
Jay has also done much study in the Somatic Experiencing method and incorporates it into her teaching and her coaching practice. Hala is pursuing a Phd. that explores the intersection between yoga and social justice, and Jay has an undergraduate degree in psychosocial health and human movement that included self-directed studies in religion, psychology, physiology and kinesiology, and an MA in Integral Education.
In addition to this intersection with yoga with somatic psychology, the non-theistic tone of Buddhist meditation and the ways in which it can be studied as a psychological tool, as well as a neurobiological process, makes “mindfulness” a widespread modern approach with multiple applications that can be taught without requiring reference to any specific religious traditions or claims. With the advent of fMRI imaging it also became possible to study what meditation was doing, in real time, to the human brain.
These developments lead to the writing of integrative books like those we study together:
Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart integrates Buddhist practice and Western psychology
Rick Hanson’s Buddha’s Brain integrates (his teacher’s) Kornfield-style Buddhism with neuroscience
Peter Levine’s In An Unspoken Voice integrates neurobiology with trauma psychology and embodied practices.
Likewise, ways of practicing asana can be studied in terms of their effects on the nervous system, brain and psychological wellbeing, as well as other biomechanical benefits.
For me personally these further aspects of how mind-body practices have evolved, to now include overlaps with psychology and science, as well as liberal and progressive modern values with regard to the body, sexuality, emotions and equality, have all heavily influenced how I shape, share and talk about the practices I teach.
I see mind-body practice as a shared global process of discovering how to keep growing, healing, integrating, expressing, exploring and embracing the full spectrum of what it is to be human.
As such, over time I began including poetry and music from around the world in my classes, something that very few people were doing 20 years ago —and which is perhaps one of the unique innovations in our generation of teachers!
I teach my classes with reference to an inquiry-based philosophy, psychology, mythology, and anatomy. My path has been one of synthesizing and evolving ways of engaging in these embodied awareness practices that have at their center the intention of creating an experience for people that invites deep self-acceptance, emotional honesty, embodied liberation, and compassion for self and others.
This includes fostering an openness to sublime and beneficial altered brain states, community connection, moments of healing and intuitive insight, and training in awareness skills that are practical and helpful for relationships, work, creativity, self-understanding, and being of service to our world.
Far from either renouncing the world, mortifying the flesh, and bypassing the psyche, or pledging allegiance to any orthodox religiosity, I am passionate about an integrated, liberated, existentially honest and compassionately empowered journey of inner work that acknowledges the sacred in the present moment of lived experience.
That’s what I have come to over the last 30 years (over 15 of which have been in collaboration with Hala) to include in my definition of the term “yoga.” Breath, movement, stillness, awareness, psyche, touch, process, expression, aliveness.
Along with my esteemed colleagues, I am both delighted and honored to share this evolving vision, experience and approach with you at this early point in your journey —and look forward to the inspired innovations that you will no doubt add to this living tradition…
I want to extend special thanks to Zara Bennett and Erin Shachory, who read an earlier version of this document and gave me invaluable feedback, edits, and suggestions!