This spring, I have been earning a Yoga Teacher Certification. I am enamored by this training because it not only focuses on ease, but it also covers all the bases of Yoga. We spend lots of time on meditation, Kundalini, yoga history, the kosha model, energy work, anatomy, savasana, pranayama, and even the business of yoga! My teacher, Robin D Bruce, recommended I sit in on a lecture from Dr. Ellen Stansell, PhD of Indian Philosophy who lectures at Texas Universities. I was so blown away by her inspiration and my further research that I had to share it with the world!
MOST YOGA STUDIO POSES ARE LESS THAN 100 YEARS OLD!
Nowadays, Western Yoga class is based on a branch of yoga called “Hatha Yoga.” Almost all of the classes at the gym fall under this category: Yin, Vinyasa, Flow, Bikram, Kundalini, Forrest, etc… All are branches of Hatha, and all are based on bending our body into different positions (called Asanas) anywhere from a pretzel to a log. People are considered ‘good’ at yoga if they are flexible enough to reach the craziest position, and many are discouraged by yoga because of the limited flexibility of their body. To you, I say, fret not! This is only a modern phenomenon, and it is actually only a small part of Yoga! History shows that doing all of these crazy poses is less than 100 years old! Let me repeat: MOST POSES IN YOGA STUDIOS ARE LESS THAN 100 YEARS OLD! Yes, I was blown away by this fact as well. Let’s start at the beginning though, to give you context of how we got here.
THE EARLIEST MENTION OF THE WORD “YOGA”
Just as we thought, Yoga goes back a long way. The earliest written references to the word “Yoga” come from ancient Indian texts written in Sanskrit. During the Bronze Age, a text called Rigveda mentions the word. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until about the 5th century BCE with the Upanishads, where we began to get a clearer picture of what Yoga is all about. In this text, Yoga is a word used to describe “meditation practice.” Later, The Bhagavad Gita gives a little more meat. In this fantasmic story about Prince Arjuna and his spirit guide, Krishna, we learn about Raja Yoga, the foundation of Hinduism. By this point, Yoga has come to not only incorporate meditation practice, but also the teachings of having a personal relationship with the universe. Nevertheless, there’s still no Asana.
YOGA SUTRA INTRODUCES THE FIRST ASANA: SIT
Between 200-400AD, someone put together a book called Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It takes the idea from the early texts and solidifies the concepts of Raja Yoga. The book outlines eight limbs of Yoga. One of the eight limbs is called ‘Asana.’ The word is directly translated into ‘seat.’ The idea is to find a posture suitable for meditation that is stable and comfortable. Your spine should be erect, balanced, and neutral to allow you to meditate in the forest anywhere from 12 to 20 hours per day! Some feel that this is the origin of lotus pose, where we sit cross-legged on the floor. Actually, early yogic art shows us that Asana is not quite at lotus, but a more comfortable position where the knees are elevated. Often, a strap is used to hold the body upright and together. Lotus position is a newer asana than the original.
ASANAS TO OPEN ENERGETIC PATHWAYS
Around 1500, Hatha Yoga Pradipika introduced a few more asanas as it discussed other elements of yoga. These asanas put you in a position to open energetic pathways in the body and stimulate ‘shaktipat’ – the opening of Kundalini serpent force in all of us. Many are under the impression that asanas were invented to “prepare the body for meditation,” but signs are unclear if this was the original intention. Though pranayama and asana can make your body more suitable to sit still, none of the early asanas help your body to sit because, in most of them, you are already sitting! They have a different purpose entirely — awaken kundalini.
Also, there is a theory that “Asanas were invented by someone spontaneously going into them during meditation.” Though, I’m sure this has happened, most of the yoga asanas we use today come from a different, less mystical source.
MODERN YOGA IS BASED ON 19TH CENTURY BRITISH GYMNASTICS!
In the 1800s, the British colonized India and decided that fitness would be a good thing to teach Indians. Groups like the YMCA came to the country and brought gymnastics as a form of exercise. They drew on asanas from Hutta Yoga Pradipika to develop many of the modern postures we use today. From there, things exploded through the 20th century. A later classic called “Light On Yoga” formally introduced a series of Yoga Asanas in 1966, but today many of these aren’t practiced as they are deemed ‘too hard’ by modern teachers. All along, more and more asanas were invented. Even in the last 10 years, new asanas continue to be invented! Although people give them Sanskrit names, many came from the good ole USA in the 21st century! So, the key factor for the advent of Hatha Yoga is Western Cultural dominance, not ancient tradition! Who knew? Mark Singleton wrote a book about it.
WITHOUT THE INNER DIMENSIONS, YOGA IS JUST PHYSICAL EXERCISE!
What is Real
What is Unreal
Modern Western Culture
Mind-Independent (physical reality)
Mind-Dependent (not physical)
What is Eternal
What is not eternal
This differentiation about how modern culture views reality versus the ancients is key to understanding the difference in yogic philosophy.
The modern view of reality is based on shared perception of physical reality. As such, except for occasional telepathy or other strange phenomenon, we are limited to physical objects that everyone can perceive. The ancient view is open to individual experience. In this paradigm, the only thing eternal is consciousness; the physical world is transient. Therefore, meditation, introspection, and interpretation are key experiences. When you look at it this way, the two belief systems are almost mutually exclusive! By the ancient view, the things that are deemed as ‘real’ from a modern perspective are actually the things that fool us to miss what is actually real. The only thing real is your eternal true self. The rest is just transient layers.
Asana is the physical limb of yoga, but there are seven more limbs!
YAMA & NIYAMA: THE ETHICAL AND RELIGIOUS LIMBS
The Yogasutra dedicates one limb to Asana, but two limbs to concepts that I’d call ethics and religious practice. These limbs are called Yama and Niyama. Needless to say, there’s a lot to discuss on the topic of religion and ethics, so I’m saving them for a separate blog, which I will post later. I’m already getting controversial enough in this one by saying that asana is a only a very small part of yoga, so I don’t want to lose anyone here…
PRANAYAMA: THE LIMB OF BREATH EXTENSION
Pranayama is the limb of yoga dedicated to breathing. Yoga instructors put a lot of weight into the concept of breathing, but there are countless ways to make breathing itself into a yoga practice without asana. The simplest is to watch your breath as an observer. Other breathing exercises include “breath of fire” and breathing in and out of one nostril to balance prana. Pranayama is a whole field of yoga in and of itself! Based on the fact that the yogasutra dedicated a full limb to pranayama, it appears to be no less important than asana!
PRATYAHARA: THE LIMB OF WITHDRAWAL
This is all about discipline of senses. In the West, we consider the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. The Upanishads define 10 senses, these five plus five more “powers” of walking, grasping, excreting, speech, and sexual intercourse. While the West defines the senses as passive receivers of incoming stimuli, the ancient Indians declared that the senses are active and outgoing. So, the next time your housemate is keeping you up with bellicose laughter as he watches television and you are trying to sleep, always remember that you control how you react to your senses; they do not control you. You have the ability to disregard this stimulation entirely, and you also have the ability to acknowledge it but not judge it, such as in Sat Nam Rasayan. The choice is yours, and this is a huge concept of yogic practice that is sometimes overlooked.
THE THREE LIMBS OF MEDITATION
Meditation is so important in yoga that it comprises three of the eight limbs! Each of these limbs is a different level of meditation. What exactly is meditation, you ask? It is simply a “sustained awareness on an object of your choice.” That’s all! It’s no magical mystery! It really is that simple. These are the three limbs of meditation.
Dharana (holding, concentration): maintaining awareness on the object of meditation through application of effort
Dhyana (meditation): effortless stability of awareness on the object of meditation
Samadhi (putting together): experience of oneness with the object of meditation
The best way I can illustrate is through learning a new musical work. When I first sit down to learn a new song for my Jamiroquai tribute band, I am in dharana. It takes me a while to focus on the shifting chord progressions and the notes. Sometimes, my attention drifts and I mess up and drop the rhythm or hit wrong notes. I must concentrate to learn the song. Eventually, I reach dhyana, where I no longer need the sheet music, and I just ‘know’ the parts. They are committed to muscle memory and I can reproduce them every time. It becomes effortless eventually. Finally, I reach samadhi with the song. At this point, I am totally immersed in it. It is no longer a Jamiroquai song; it is my song. In fact, it is me! I can effortlessly improvise within the structure, and it is totally unconscious. Dhyana and samadhi cannot be forced; they arrive spontaneously through meditation practice.
ASANA IS STILL AWESOME! (AND IT’S PRONOUNCED AWE-SANA)
Although asana is only one of the 8 limbs of yoga, and today’s Hatha Yoga is more European than Indian, it still has its place in the yoga world. Though meditation is the only thing that can deeply transform your mind, asana can deeply transform your body. Have you seen how fit most yoga instructors are? Nevertheless, it is important to bring meditation into your asana practice. As you move, focus your attention on your movement and on your position. You can make a meditation practice out of Hatha yoga with a sustained awareness on your body. As a yoga teacher, always have your students focus on something during the movement! Tell them what to focus on! Also, it is important for us to break the idea that you must sit in a specific posture to properly meditate. You can just as easily maintain your awareness on the object of your choice while sitting on the couch or lying in savasana. Now you know the history of yoga and the eight limbs! Go practice!