Are Yoga Poses Ancient History?

Reposted with permission from Jill Miller’s Yoga Tune Up (link)

A couple of months ago I picked up yoga scholar Mark Singleton’s new book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. The book details the modern history of asana with Singleton painstakingly chronicling how yoga’s physical postures are not actually drawn from antiquity but rather beginning at the dawn of the 20th century.

Without going into too much detail, he outlines how these “poses” were derived during an environment of Indian neo-nationalism and infused with doses of European gymnastics, bodybuilding and the Christian agendas of the YMCA. Basically, what his research concludes is that the 5,000-year-old practice we all believed to be the origin of asana got its start less than 200 years ago, and that the foundation of asana was created by gymnasts and bodybuilders and as physical training for some militia.

Yikes! Have four years of research upended a global myth? Now yogis and yoginis around the world are facing the possible unraveling of the ultimate bait and switch — are the yoga postures so many of us have practiced for years not actually the ancient, sacred forms that many of us believed they were? Well, his research is rather compelling and I recommend you give it a read.

Change of any sort can be hard to absorb and accept, and this new perspective forces us to take a collective look at the beliefs and meaning behind our own practice. Yoga postures can inspire faith and well-being in the many who practice them, and losing the connection to the story of the tradition can be a difficult psychological loss.

Shaking the foundation

As a yoga student for 27 years, and a yoga teacher for the past 18, I had been operating under the assumption that I was indeed practicing an ancient meditative tradition. But all along, something did not feel quite right to me about that “assumption.” Sixteen years ago, I remember showing poses to my boyfriend, a gifted martial artist, and he would often comment that the poses were just a small gesture away from being some of the same moves he did in sparring, fighting, etc. I wondered back then if the yoga poses I practiced were not really about becoming calm, peaceful and “at one” with the universe. Might the Warrior Pose actually have been a pose to train real warriors and fighters?

“It should also be noted that militant yogins of all lineages engaged in exercise regimes designed to inure their bodies to the harsh physical conditions of the itinerant life and to prepare them for combat.” p. 40, Yoga Body

This may be heretical to say, but for a while now I’ve been feeling that most “classical” asana were profoundly out of touch with the needs of my all-ages contemporary students who sit facing computers all day, drive in cars and do not fully use their bodies for their livelihood. Did classic postures truly speak to their needs, their bodies, and to the stresses that faced them?

A break from tradition: The yoga police

My own inner conflict peaked about 10 years ago when I could no longer justify teaching a set sequence of postures. These postures were supposed to be healing my students, but I could see that they were in denial of certain injuries it was causing as they kept pushing themselves in order to keep “doing yoga.” The gymnastic-like flows were putting them in a perpetual state of dysfunction, so I completely broke from the “traditions” I was taught and began to work with my students in new therapeutic ways, using biomechanically sound variations that would help their bodies, rather than hurt.

Even though I knew I was doing right by my students and helping those who had been sidelined by the practice they loved, I was also constantly looking over my shoulder for the “yoga police.” Of course there is no “yoga police,” but I could hear murmurs every now and again that what I was teaching was not “authentic yoga.”

A new definition of “authentic yoga”

Singleton’s research has me contemplating, “What is authentic yoga?” He provokes the even more powerful question: “Why do we do yoga, and what is its purpose in our lives?” What I’ve come up with is that the practice, regardless of its origins, illuminates authentic parts of ourselves and our nature so that we can know ourselves better, both physically and mentally, and ultimately, feel better in our body, mind and spirit.

One of the precepts of yoga is aparigraha, or non-attachment. Yoga encourages us to not be so attached to physical or mental constructs of ourselves. What Singleton has now unearthed is the possibility of letting go of the historical construct of yoga postures. This construct was once a long mirror illuminating a tradition tracking back through the millennia. But now that mirror has hurtled forward towards modern times and we must look into its reflection and be open to letting go of an “idea” of the genesis of the practice. We must be willing to even let go of yoga in order to find the truth behind our own practice.

Singleton offers further food for thought in this excellent interview with Susan Maier-Moul in The Magazine of Yoga. He also pens an article in the November 2010 issue of Yoga Journal.