We have all had teachers who recount the long tradition of Yoga. “Yoga has been practiced for 5,000 years.” While this may have truth, this would be like saying: Medicine has been practiced for 5,000 years; In other words, how and what was practiced those many years ago looks quite different from what is practiced, particularly in the west, today. Among the numerous schools of ancient Yogas we have Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga, the Yoga of Samadhi the balance of mind and soul) which some devotes link to Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras and many reject the practices or Philosophies of Hinduism. Hatha Yoga, which has possibly become completely devoid of its original definition (as most spiritual traditions eventual do), has come to be known as the Physical Practice of Yoga.
Today we think of Hatha Yoga as a collection of “asanas” or physical postures. Whereas “asana” originally meant seat, Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s never mention any asanas by name, later hatha yoga texts in the 11th century allude to 84 classic asanas, though only defining two seated postures (siddhasana/accomplished pose and padmasana/lotus). The publication of Iyengar’s Light On Yoga in 1966 came as the preeminent yoga asana text of the time, preceded by smaller publications such as Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati 66 basic postures and 136 variations. To use an analogy from earlier, to say there are only a certain number of postures is like saying we have discovered all the plants that treat disease.
Most modern Hatha Yoga teachers, know their tradition largely stems from the teaching of B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois (founder of “Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga”). If you took a teacher training, chances are you had to read “The Heart Of Yoga” by Desikachar, son of Krishnamacharya and teacher of the aforementioned Gurus (Teachers), but where did his education come from? Krishnamacharya’s education can largely be traced to his time at The Mysore Palace in the 1930’s when he ran a yoga school. During his time at The Mysore Palace, Krishnamacharya had access to the Sritattvanidhi a largely unknown and seemingly the first definitive text purely dedicated to the physical practice of yoga and the former palace gymnastics hall (including gymnastics ropes and other “props”) and British gymnastics manuals written by the Mysore Palace Gymnasts. Krishnamacharya references the Sritattvanidhi in his first book and the history of the palace and evolution of yoga can be found in:
Modern Hatha Yoga is not Gymnastics, but to discount the influence gymnastics has had is to discount a large portion of Hatha Yoga’s lineage.
Tradition can be important; We need to understand our past to know how best to move forward. This is much of where my own practice has taken me, in an exhaustively enjoyable exploration understanding my physical vehicle. My own Yoga practice is not a performance, as my teacher Nevine says: “If you are performing, you should get paid for it.” Ram Dass defines Karma Yoga as: “The yoga of daily life.” Just as Krishna instructed Arjuna: “We have a right to our labor, but not the fruits of that labor.” The farmer isn’t entitled to the harvest, but is entitled to the discipline of his action. This is the nature of Zen; Oftentime the work we do has profound things to teach us, far beyond what we thought our labor was to provide us.
Unfortunately we continually forget who we really are. We think we are this person and then that person dies. Occasionally throughout an incarnation, we have big events, (a graduation, wedding, death of a loved one, etc.) that seem to change the very personality we defined ourselves by. We are seemingly given the opportunity to answer the call of a new us. The greatest gift you can give someone is a shift of perspective, it is a life altering, world shattering event. Most of these shifts, are just nudges (a small push in a different direction). I heard US President, Barrack Obama talk about the small degree turns a leader can make to change the policy of a Nation. So how can we expect to do any more on a day to day basis? The sun shining through the clouds for only a minute on a Seattle February day is enough to give one the reminder to pause and take a breath. The breeze on a hot Summer day is like the passing brush of your lovers touch. It is a reminder that we are supported, or even when things feel heaviest, lightness, joy and laughter can be found. Even more profound the reminders we create for those around us, and greater still are those we manifest for ourselves. Perhaps our practice, our work, ur dedication and immersion in it can remind us we are working not for the fruits of that labor, but rather a something far more subtle and yet incomprehensibly complex. This can be the nature of Hatha-Yoga as we continue to evolve it and immerse ourselves in the complexity and richness that exists in knowing our physical vehicle.