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”.