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Some thoughts on “modern yoga”.

Introduction

(these are my note for the talk I gave during the workshop on Sunday 19th January 2020)

When we think about yoga, we have the idea that it is something incredibly ancient. We also associate yoga with mastery of various postures requiring considerable flexibility. These ideas of yoga are both right and wrong.

In one sense the origin of yoga can be traced as far back as 2500 BC to the discovery of various artefacts from the Indus Valley showing images of figures (perhaps an early version of Siva) seated in Yoga posture. There are also the various surviving core texts of yoga that we have, such as:

• the BHAGAVAD GITA (2nd-century BC),

• the YOGA SUTRAS (4th-century AD),

• and the HATHA YOGA PRADIPIKA (15th-century AD).

What these core texts give us are descriptions of some of the yoga postures (e.g. lotus position etc… are in the HYP) that we commonly associate with yoga (HYP), as well as an epic philosophy of yoga (BG) and (YS) a detailed analytical approach to yoga which consists of a programme of eight stages (including postures, then breathing exercises, then meditation and so on).

However, a they also include (particularly in the case of the HYP) a lot of crap! Naturally when yoga was developing there was only available medieval science, thus the HYP contains ideas similar to the theory of humours (black bile – earth, yellow bile – fire, blood -air, phlegm – water). More than this there are large sections of the HYP that then go off into a tangent on topics that we would today think of various types of sex-magic (and from there things get only worse – at one point it recommends that the practitioner should drink his own pee and it only gets more bonkers from there!).

However, I don’t want to seem to be bashing the HYP – it contains a lot of useful material. Just to give you an idea of some of the stuff it includes:

“Whether young, old or too old, sick or lean, one who discards laziness, gets success if he practices Yoga.”

AND

“Success comes to him who is engaged in the practice. How can one get success without practice; for by merely reading books on Yoga, one can never get success”.

AND

“Success cannot be attained by adopting a particular dress (Vesa). It cannot be gained by telling tales. Practice alone is the means to success. This is true, there is no doubt.”

So that is encouraging.

Also, one must remember that our own western science had very similar origins and was mixed up in all kinds of medieval thought. So, for example at the time of Johannes Kepler (17th-century, known for the laws of planetary motion) there was no distinction between astronomy and astrology.

And even more remarkable was the case of Isaac Newton (famous mathematician known for being the co-developer of calculus). Like many learned-men of his age Newton was obsessed with alchemy. After his death Newton left behind a huge library of his papers and these were both scientific and theological (rejection of the trinity) in nature. This collection of papers was passed down through generations of his wider family. The scientific portion of these papers were eventually donated to Cambridge University. But the non-scientific part was held onto by the family and not released because they were essentially terrified of what would happen to the image of the great Isaac Newton if it became known that he had been a heretic. It was only when the economist John Maynard Keynes managed to get a hold of a large number of these papers after an auction at Sotheby’s that a true image of Newton emerged. In fact, Keynes said of Newton (1942): “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians”.

So that is an interesting tangent, but it is worth telling since it bears at least a passing resemblance to the story of modern yoga. Up to the late 19th-century – yoga and those who practised it had become an embarrassment to the majority of Hindu intellectuals of India. It had become associated with all sorts of ascetic practices (holding up your hand until it withers, lying on a bed of nails … etc…) as well as some of the bonkers sex-magic described in the HYP. And as such what yoga there was bears very little resemblance to the yoga we see around us today.

However, an interesting thing happened around the turn of the 20th-century. During this time (for reasons I don’t fully understand) the nations of the world become obsessed with producing better (what does that mean?) and healthier people. This was the time when you have national programmes devoted to callisthenic exercises, this is the age of the strong men (Sandow – e.g. lifting dumbbells with people sitting on them), men with Olympian physiques and also the age of eugenics.

Indeed, there seemed to a race on between the various nations (U.K., Germany, Sweden) before the time of the first world war to produce the ultimate man (so to speak!). This race seems very similar to say for example to the race for the moon in the 1960s. And somehow in this process physical vitality was equated with intellectual and moral superiority.

And of course – what was the state of India during this time? India was ruled by the British. And under oppression Indians were made to feel like inferiors. Naturally due to the prevailing thinking of the day they also believed that the only way to prove they were not inferior was by showing how physically developed they could become. It was in this manner that the Indian went looking for something uniquely Indian that they could use to show their physical superiority. Thus it was that the ancient practices of yoga were rescued from obscurity. These practices were combined with elements borrowed from Swedish gymnastics.

Indeed, while many of the postures that we see in yoga today have an ancient origin the method of linking them together into flowing movements was developed during these time (Krishnamacharya) by borrowing elements from Swedish (Ling) gymnastics: what we today call Vinyasa yoga. A consequence of this is that modern yoga is a direct descendant of Krishnamacharya’s yoga which emphasised postural practice. This was the element that was reinvented and reinvigorated to solve the problems of Indians at the time. However, what was lost was the other two major elements of yoga: breathing practise and meditation (which we don’t see these days in yoga as it practised in gyms).

Thus, the aim of this sort of workshop is to give us time and space in which to reintroduce some of these missing elements in a manner that is useful to a modern practitioner. Further reading & references:-

Further reading and references

The secret history of yoga. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07flbst

Singleton, Mark. Yoga body: The origins of modern posture practice. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dry, Sarah. The Newton papers: the strange and true odyssey of Isaac Newton’s manuscripts. Oxford University Press, 2014.