A knowledge and understanding of the history and philosophy of yoga is an essential part of the Yoga Alliance 200 Hour Teacher Training Course. For many trainee yoga teachers, this is the part of the course that they most look forward to, as they may have little knowledge the subject at the start the course.
Although there is generally an acceptance that students are initially attracted to yoga for physical reasons and to experience mental clarity (confirmed by Yoga Journal’s research , which highlights the perceived benefits and attributes of regular participants) there has also been a growth in interest in the history of yoga, with courses such as those offered by the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies becoming increasingly popular, attracting teachers and students who seek greater understanding of the traditions and roots of yoga.
Yoga has drifted away from its historic roots in India and inevitably lost some of the connections that were intrinsic to earlier practices. There is continued discussion on what is seen as authentic, how yoga should be practised and its authenticity in the west. Practitioners have not only adapted and developed their interests, based on the classical teachings, but also added or removed what is seen as no longer useful, enjoyable, or understood by today’s students.
Elizabeth De Michelis has formulated a framework divided into three categories, as a way of understanding how yoga is commonly practised in the West. Briefly, these are; Hatha yoga (including asana and pranayama); meditation; and yogic philosophy. Although she accepts that there will inevitably be fluidity between what is included and omitted in this framework, De Michelis’s description of yoga as ‘a range of techniques and approaches to spirituality’ brings some clarity into the discussion on what yoga is in the 21st century.
If we take these categories as a framework, aimed at helping us to understand what is generally accepted as yoga today, we can see that there is more emphasis on the physical and mental activities of the practice and less (if any) mention on the purpose of the ‘doing’. It may also be noted that although the word ‘spiritual’ is included, this is often understood as being something that can be achieved through physical performance. Mark Singleton ‘ has studied the growth of yoga around the world and challenges the origins of modern, asana focussed practice (postural yoga), suggesting that other influences – more recent Indian political movements and the growth of interest in body building and gymnastics in the West have creating a new, modern yoga.
‘Today, the yoga body has become the centrepiece of a transnational tableau of personalised well-being and quotidian redemption, relentlessly embellished on the pages of glossy publications like Yoga Journal. The locus of yoga is no longer at the center of an invisible ground of being, hidden from the gaze of all but the elite initiate or the mystic; instead, the lucent skin of the yoga model becomes the ubiquitous signifier of spiritual possibility, the secular projection screen of characteristically modern and democratic religious aspirations. In the yoga body – sold back to a million consumer-practitioners as an irresistible commodity of the holistic, perfectible self – surface and anatomical structure promise ineffable depth and the dream of incarnate transcendence.’
From the study of the history and philosophy of these earlier times, we move forward to the present day and ask ourselves if the roots and traditions of yoga, have any relevance for today’s yoga practitioner.
The influence of figures such as BKS Iyengar and Pattabi Jois has ensured that their rigorous training and knowledge have been passed down and continue to inspire yogis throughout the world. Training programmes in ‘styles’ of yoga can have a strong hold over many students who stay committed to a particular teacher. Breakout teachers, such as the now discredited Bikram Chowdrey and the growth of styles such as Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga and Power Yoga are mainstream. The question of influences in these styles may be tenuous as the physical aspects are the foremost purpose of the class. Is this a Tantric connection – the transformation of the body? Or is this merely postural yoga that has lost all connection to the Tantric teachings.
Michael Birley writes that Hatha yoga is ‘firmly rooted in the tantric tradition, and the primary textual sources of hatha yoga can themselves be classed as tantric documents.’ But, this form of practice bares only a faint resemblance to that which is expounded in the tantric sources.
There have been numerous examples of yoga being adapted to fit in with the Christian religion, with reports of yoga teachers being banned from using Church halls in the UK and the growth of alternative yoga schools, such as Holy Yoga and Praise moves in the US. Little is left, apart from the physical postures and the breathing practices and it may be asked, why use the term yoga at all when the history, philosophy and other aspects have been removed or replaced?
Yoga is rarely handed down through families, or traditional teachings between student and guru. The growth of yoga studios and teacher trainings now provide the major entry point into yoga. Potential students may initially access yoga classes though the Internet and are encouraged to engage with a number of styles and teachers, rather than developing a relationship with one teacher.
Dr Suzanne Newcombe has looked at the legacy of BKS Iyengar and Yogini Sunita on modern yoga concluding that, ‘it is unlikely that Modern Yoga could have become a global phenomenon on the strength of interpersonal, charismatic interactions alone.’
The classical and Tantric teachings still influence many yoga practitioners, but there are also some who consider these to be of no relevance to their own experience How academics and others view this is open to continuing discussion. Some may say that the growth and interest in yoga today continues to bring the benefits of yoga to a greater number of people. Others will say that the lack of depth and knowledge of the history, culture, beliefs and practices from which yoga has grown, means that the practice is diminished and does not represent an authentic religious practice.
There is little doubt that yoga will continue to be practised in the west and the discussion on ‘Who Owns Yoga?’ and where and how it originated, will keep us all fascinated and in deep discussion for many years to come.
Flood. G. The Tantric Body. The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion. (2006) L B Tauris
Oxford Centre of Hindu Studies. Understanding Hinduism, Yoga, Caste and Gender.(2015)
Singleton.M (2010) Yoga Body. The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press
Singleton M. Byrne J. Yoga in the Modern World (2008) Routledge.
Singleton M. Goldberg B. Gurus of Modern Yoga (2014) Oxford University Press