Archive for the ‘History’ Category
Inspired by William Broad’s recent NY Times article, here are some reasons why safety is a growing problem in the yoga community.
Many yoga teachers are undertrained: To put it bluntly, 200-hours of training isn’t enough. If you map that to a 40-hour week, that’s 5 weeks worth of training. Five weeks may be enough to teach English in a foreign country, but many modern yoga classes involve poses that can cause serious injury. I suggest to friends that they seek experienced teachers with 500-hours of training. Ideally 200-hour teacher training should be followed by a year of apprenticeship, assisting a senior teacher.
Yoga classes have gotten too big: Towards the end of his life, the esteemed teacher Krishnamacharya mainly taught individual and small classes. In a large class a teacher just can’t scan the room fast enough to catch every unsafe alignment. I currently have primarily a home practice that I supplement with regular, one-on-one sessions with my (very experienced) teacher. Because individual sessions can be expensive, the other option is to find a small class in your local studio. Unfortunately small classes tend be held during inconvenient time slots (which is the main reason they are small to begin with).
Mass media hypes Celebrity teachers: Not all famous yoga personalities are great teachers. Many become famous for reasons other than their teaching skills or knowledge of safety. In addition their classes tend to be extremely large and fast-paced.
Large, fast-paced classes bring out competitive juices: With music blasting and the teacher yelling instructions, it’s not uncommon to scan the room and compare yourself with other students. “Hey that person can bend far, I can do that too!”
Many standard poses are actually not as safe as you think: In previous posts I highlighted the headstand (sirsasana) and the seated forward fold (Paschimottanasana). In Broad’s recent NY Times article, he has stories of yoga teachers who’ve gotten injured while executing seemingly standard poses.
Strict vegan diet and intense yoga practice: I admit this is pure speculation on my part, but somewhat based on anecdata. Many of the busiest yoga teachers are also strict vegans (or vegetarians). If you’re practice puts you at the level of serious athletes, then you have to make sure you have the diet to sustain your level of physical activity. As a group, Vegans probably need to be more conscious that they’re getting enough nutrients.
Not enough yoga practitioners study history and anatomy: In some circles, there might be too much emphasis on the idealized/spiritual roots of modern asana practice, and not enough on recent academic research into the origins of modern yoga. The result is a physical practice that downplays science and empirical data. Fortunately there is also a growing number of experienced teachers who have assembled materials on yoga anatomy and gentle assists. Consult my reading list for possible resources.
Update (1/13/2012): Yoga teacher Glen Black, who was quoted extensively in Broad’s NY Times article, elaborates further in this excellent Huffpost interview.
I thought the sentiment expressed also applies to modern-day hatha yoga teachers. I think many times yoga teachers relish being “exotic” (Sanskrit anyone?), when often the best pedagogical technique is to use familiar concepts.
In many cases authenticity is tied to Hindu concepts and formulations. Whenever you find yourself looking down on a particular style/lineage/school of yoga, consider that there have been so many systems of yoga, your favored system is just one of them. So embrace the yoga system that works for you, but realize that “authenticity” and “lineage” can be slippery slopes.
From Yoga in Practice pages 24-27:
Given the fact that the people who “do” yoga number in the tens of millions in the West alone, many students will come to a course on yoga with a number of preconceptions received from their teachers and trainers. Primary among these is the received notion that all yoga are one, and that one Yoga tradition has remained unchanged since its origins in the mists on antiquity. An alternative assumption is that yoga has evolved in a straight line and following some sort of historical determinism from the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra down through the classical works of hatha yoga and into modern-day Vinyasa, Astanga, Kriya Yoga and so forth. What a chronological reading of the outstanding translations and introductions in this volume makes abundantly clear is that there are as many discontinuities as there are continuities in the history of yoga, and that there are nearly as many yoga systems as there are texts on yoga.
… There are continuities — historical, philosophical, ritual, and so forth — between and among various yoga traditions … This being said, once cannot help but notice that even when they are seeking to refute one another, the authors of these words were clearly engaged in some sort of conversation. So, while there are distinctively Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Tantric, non-sectarian, and even Islamic yoga traditions, there are a number of pervasive themes that recur across texts and time. … As the six contributions on yoga in South and Inner Asian Tantric traditions make clear, sectarian differences among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains paled in comparison to the commonalities of their shared Tantric worldview, metaphysics, goals, and techniques.
… What distinguishes the principal types of yogic practice from one another are the components of the self that are the objects of one’s discipline. So it is is that in meditative traditions, the principal focus will be on immobilizing thought, usually in conjunction with breath control, the inner repetition of mantras, and so on. In most forms of Tantric yoga, thought, semen, and the body are highlighted to varying degrees. In hatha yoga, the focus can be on all four components as immortalized in a medieval vernacular poem attributed to the Nath Yogi Gopicand: “Steady goes the breath, and the mind is steady, steady goes the mind, the semen. Steady the semen, and the body is steady, that’s what Gopicand is sayin.”
… culture warriors from worlds apart are making the nearly identical claim that yoga is fundamentally Hindu. In the United States, a number of Christian evangelists are taking this position for the expressed purpose of controlling the bodies of Christian women, while in India, Hindu fundamentalists are doing the same in the service of their ongoing campaign of identity politics.
… As for their shared claim that Yoga is fundamentally Hindu, this can only stand if one allows that there has only ever been one “yoga” , and that yoga has remain unaltered since incepetion, i.e., the yoga being taught today in yoga studios across the globe is identical to the yoga of the Upanishads or that taught to Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita, the two earliest treatments of “yoga” in the Hindu cannon. However, upon inspection these two original Hindu teachings on yoga are found to diverge on several points, an so one must conclude that from the very outset there have been at least two Hindu systems of yoga. And, as the contributions to this volume make plain, the past 2,500 years have seen the emergence of many, many systems of yoga — the earliest of which may not have been Hindu at all, and many of which arose outside of India — whose theories and practices have often been diametrically opposed to one another.
… Now, it is the case that many modern-day yoga gurus have collapsed the rich and varied histories of the many yogas of India, greater Asia, and now the West, into a simplistic vision of yoga as an unchanging tradition grounded in the religion of the Vedas. However, the simple fact that some contemporary teachers and practitioners of yoga hold to such an untenable hypothesis does not make yoga Hindu, any more than the presence of a plastic Jesus on some dashboards would make all automobile drivers Christian.
(1) “… the task of the religious studies scholar is not only to make the strange seem familiar, but also to make the familiar seem strange.”
I always smile whenever I hear people refer to themselves as “yogis” or “yoginis”. Especially when the person is a bit of a self-promoter to begin with. So I found it interesting to read the following passage from a recent essay by David Gordon White: my instinctive reaction does have a historical basis!
From Yoga in Practice pages 11-12:
Here it is helpful to introduce the difference between “yogi practice” and “yoga practice”, which has been implicit to South Asian thought and practice since the beginning of the Common Era, the period in which the terms “yogi” and “yogi perception” first appeared in the Indian scriptural record. On the one hand, there is “yoga practice,” which essentially denotes a program of mind-training and meditation issuing in the realization of enlightenment, liberation, or isolation from the world of suffering existence. Yoga practice is the practical application of the theoretical precepts of various yogic soteriologies, epistemologies,and gnoseologies presented in analytical works like the YS and the teachings of the various Hindhu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophical schools. Yogi practice, on the other hand, concerns the supernatural powers that empower yogis to take over other creatures’ bodies and so forth. Nearly every one of the earliest narrative descriptions of yogis and their practice underscore the axiom that the penetration of other bodies is the sine qua non of yoga.
The cleavage between these two more or less incompatible bodies of theory and practice can be traced back to early Buddhist sources, which speak of a rivalry between meditating “experimentalists” (jhayins) and “speculatives” (dhammayogas). … The gulf between yoga practice and yogi practice never ceased to widen over the centuries, such that, by the time of the British Raj, India’s hordes of yogis were considered by India’s elites to be little more than common criminals, with their fraudulent practices — utterly at odds with the true “science” of yoga, which, taught in the YS, was practiced by none — save perhaps a handful of isolated hermits living high in the Himalayas.
Here are (holiday) gift suggestions for your yoga teacher. You’ll notice that the titles I’ve chosen lean towards the academic (history, anthropology) side — I am after all, an ex-academic.
History of Yoga
A year after the ad for the 4-pound New Age yoga mat appeared in the Yoga Journal, here’s an ad for a rubber mat that looks more like contemporary mats. The Pose Mate mat’s dimensions are comparable to current models (24″ x 72″), although it’s a bit on the thin side: at 3/32″ thick, unlike the New Age mat, it’s “not a cushion”.
In comparison, the mat I like to use these days comes in at 4.0 lbs, and has the following dimensions: 71” x 24” x 3/16”.
Long before beautifully illustrated Yoga Anatomy books became available, Yoga teachers had to come up with clever ways to relate asanas with anatomical regions. In the 1970′s specially designed t-shirts were popular among yoga instructors. It might not be a bad idea to bring those back, at least for yoga workshops!
… YJ: What qualities would you say are necessary in a good yoga teacher, whether it would be on television or in the classroom before 150 people or five people?
Lilias: … I think another essential quality for a yoga teacher is the desire to share, to share ideas, and methods, and ways that you have learned to communicate something in a posture that is a little bit different — to share your knowledge. So often beginning Hatha teachers feel that they have to hold it to themselves and not give it away to other teachers, because they might be sort of stealing their thunder and as soon as they share it, you’ll know that. Actually, as soon as you share it, you really have it! But it’s that sort of holding your ground that can be verv choking.
… YJ: What was your trip to India like?
Lilias: I went to India, I think it‘s almost five years ago, with a Rama Krishna group led by my friend Swami Pranananda. We were there for three weeks and we visited traditional Rama Krishna maths in Calcutta. Delhi and Madras. In Rishikesh we visited Swami Chidananda at the Sivananda Ashram, and it was just a wonderful experience to be with him in his home. The trip wasn’t at all stressful. There wasn’t too much focus on Hatha Yoga. It was more for meditation and just to be in these places and absorb the atmosphere. It was delightful. I don’t think it’s necessary for students to go to India. India is coming to the United States. But I hope I can go one day to visit Mr. Iyengar in Poona. Yet, it is not necessary since so many of his teachers are here.
YJ: Do you feel it is helpful though for students to go to the country or visit the culture where yoga originated or that it would help their understanding in any way?
Lilia: Honestly?… I don’t think It helped me to understand particularly. I don’t think it deepened… No, I don’t think so. I’ll tell you why I loved India — it was a jewel. It is a country that is a jewel. And I never had those pictures in my mind. I thought it was just poverty, then I went there and saw its beauty … such beauty. The Ganges at sunset, Sivananda’s burial place, Swami Chidananda in his own ashram, things like that were beyond words. … To experience it… Wading in the Ganges… I mean, I will never forget that.
… YJ: As we approach 1980, what do you think the future of yoga will be? For example. do you thlnk it win ever become part of the physical education programs in public schools lllte calisthenlcs and swimming are now?
Lilias: Right now Hatha Yoga is starting to be used in the school system. Children are being taught Hatha Yoga in the Montessori schools. I know of a class for two-and-a-half to 5-year olds at our Cincinnatl Jewish Community Center. It’s also being taught for college credit in different parts of the country. And I hope that someday lt will be introduced into medical schools. Do you just mean Hatha Yoga in the school system?
YJ: Well, that was part of the question. But also, what future do you see for Hatha Yoga in America? Do you think it will really become mainstream?
Lilias: Well, lt’s certainly been a 3000 year fad. I think it’s going to last for a little bit longer. What is fascinating to me is that Hatha Yoga seems to be synthesizing. lt’s growing. It’s not always taught now in the traditional or purist or classicial way that was taught thousands of years ago. It’s synthesizing. We have this method and that method, and can take the best from each and put that into our own practice. What’s right for you may not be for me. I love taking what I can use, putting it through my inner filters and getting it back out in a way that is comfortable for me. It is like we are all weaving a giant colorful mandala of dance, music, song, word, and touch … a mandala that will portray the balanced body, mind and spirit.
In a 1977 article for the Yoga Journal, B.K.S. Iyengar laments the lack of support for Yoga education in his native India (“Yoga and the Integrated Student”, pages 20-23, Yoga Journal, Sep/Oct 1977). Yet another essay affirming that the “Take Back Yoga Campaign” is 33 years late to the party!
Our educational authorities are still debating the propriety and worthwhileness of introducing yoga in schools and colleges. In 1937 had the opportunity to pioneer the teaching of yolga in a few selected schools and colleges in Pune (India). I even taught yoga in the National Defense Academy, to the cadets as well as the Officers, with beneficial results. At that time I met with a strong opposition from several yogis and yoga teachers who maintained that yoga could be taught at the individual level only, and not to groups. Today I am happy to find that those who were opposing the introduction of yoga in schoos and colleges in 1937 agree with me and are themselves emphatic in their insistence that yoga should be taught at the group level in schools and colleges.
It is difficult to understand why we neglect this rare heritage of ours instead of using it for our benefit. It is even more difficult to understand this sad neglect when we observe European countries taking an increasing interest in yoga.
For example, technologically and scientifically advanced countries like England have introduced yoga as an approved subject. The Inner and Greater London Education authorities have under my supervision introduced yoga in their syllabus. And the demand is so great that they find it difficult to provide qualified teachers.
When yoga is so popular abroad I fail to understand why there is delay in introducing it in our own country. Is it because it is traditionally associated in our minds with a recluse who renounces life, runs away from society and isolates himself on some remote mountain top? Yoga is life-abundant and not life-negating. It is the only system l know of which develops harmoniously both the body and the brain.
One cannot emphasize enough the need for yoga for our students. India is rapidly coming industrialized and urbanized. We are thus heading for an era of speed, stress and strain. Such a life makes heavy demands on our nerves, which are but invisible branches of the brain. When the nerves collapse, anxiety and neurosis of one kind or another sets in. The individual becomes a nervous wreck. Prevention is better than cure, and yoga is the prevention. It ensures strong yet elastic nerves that can face a great deal of hectic activity with equanimity and poise.
- LA Times profile of Sharon Salzberg:
Sharon Salzberg, 58, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, has spent more than three decades helping Westerners access a daily spiritual practice that originated in Buddhism but is not confined to that faith.
… The Buddhist principles of vipassana, or mindfulness, and metta, lovingkindness, afforded Salzberg what she calls a “spacious” form of awareness in which people know they have a choice. Instead of being dominated by her fears, Salzberg said, she began to communicate what she learned, ultimately publishing seven books.
- Yoga isn’t as old as you think: Responding to the the “Take Back Yoga” marketing campaign, the author cites a couple of authors (Sjoman and Singleton) that I’ve previously highlighted. One additional academic source worth mentioning is David Gordon White’s upcoming book on the Yoga Sutras.
… Both Sjoman and Mark Singleton, a US-based scholar who has interviewed many of those associated with the Mysore Palace during its heyday in the 1930s, believe that the seeds of modern yoga lie in the innovative style of Sritattvanidhi. Krishnamacharya, who was familiar with this text and cited it in his own books, carried on the innovation by adding a variety of Western gymnastics and drills to the routines he learnt from Sritattvanidhi, which had already cross-bred hatha yoga with traditional Indian wrestling and acrobatic routines.
In addition, it is well established that Krishnamacharya had full access to a Western-style gymnastics hall in the Mysore Palace, with all the usual wall ropes and other props that he began to include in his yoga routines.
Sjoman has excerpted the gymnastics manual that was available to Krishnamacharya. He claims that many of the gymnastic techniques from that manual—for example, the cross-legged jumpback and walking the hands down a wall into a back arch—found their way into Krishnamacharya’s teachings, which he passed on to Iyengar and Jois. In addition, in the early years of the 20th century, an apparatus-free Swedish drill and gymnastic routine, developed by a Dane by the name of Niels Bukh (1880–1950), was introduced to India by the British and popularised by the YMCA. Singleton argues that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.” The link again is Krishnamacharya, who Singleton calls a “major player in the modern merging of gymnastic-style asana practice and the Patanjali tradition.”
- Europe’s New Politics: I try to stay away from politics on this blog, but I thought this recent BBC podcast on the rise of populist, anti-immigrant parties in Denmark & Sweden was worth highlighting. The Danish cartoon controversy aside, it is disturbing to witness the rise of intolerance in Western Europe. Immigrants are stereotyped as being ill-suited because of culture (Islam) and economics (over dependence on the welfare state). To be fair, in both Denmark and Sweden, we are talking about minority parties. But in both cases they have real influence on parliamentary proceedings.
- How effective is yoga?:
The aim of this overview was to evaluate critically all systematic reviews of yoga for the symptomatic treatment of any condition. Twelve electronic databases were searched and 21 systematic reviews relating to a wide range of conditions were located. Nine systematic reviews arrived at positive conclusions, but many systematic reviews were associated with a high risk of bias. Unanimously positive evidence emerged for depression and cardiovascular risk reduction. Despite an impressive number of systematic reviews, evidence of effectiveness is positive only for two indications.