The question went around the yoga blogosphere not too long ago about how old yoga REALLY is. elephant journal wrote about it here, Nick Rosen of the movie Enlighten Up! created controversy at YogaDork's house when he said that the asana thing is only about 100 years old, and I added my two rupees here. The discussion about this question ran hot and heavy in the comments to all these posts. I felt that Svasti made excellent points in her comments over at YogaDork so I asked her to expand her discussion here (since I totally agreed with her...heehee.) She was kind enough to write a guest post, so without further adieu, here is Svasti in her own words -- I have neither added nor deleted one word. Her post will be presented in two parts.
Talk amongst yourselves.
I don’t know how old yoga is and neither do you
And to be perfectly honest, I actually don’t care.
I’m not over here in sirsasana romantically imagining myself back into the annals of time, okay? Sure, yoga has been around in one form or another for a long time. But as to its exact age? I don’t know. And despite much diligent research, neither does anyone else.
This post is not an argument about what yoga and/or “real yoga” is, or whether yoga is as ancient as some people claim. Instead, I’m suggesting that in general, it’s not a good idea to run around saying that yoga is only 50 or 100 years old. Why? Because you can’t prove it.
We really don’t know how old yoga is, or when asana first came on the scene.
A friend of mine recently said to me that real science is based on disproving theories rather than proving them. Let me state that I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s an interesting idea nonetheless.
And I get what he means. In terms of yoga asana, I’ve constantly disproved myself over the years. I remember once thinking I’d never be able to do some of the asana I now find very simple. Up to and including a good portion of this year, I’ve always had a hard time with any balance pose. I used to think it would always be that way. Now I’ve disproved that, and I also understand why I’ve had so much trouble with them in the past.
Right now, I’m learning some very challenging asana in Shadow Yoga and I’m in the process of disproving current limitations I was certain my body had. Only last Sunday, I learned that one particular asana (which they call chakrasana, although it’s not wheel/bridge pose) is not hard work at all, if I can just trust my feet implicitly (something I plan to write a post on shortly).
There’s plenty of other things I’ve disproved in my life, including that I’ll always suffer from PTSD; that I’m uncoordinated; and that I’ll always bite my nails, to name but a few. Basically, there’s enough evidence around to make whatever point you want.
Much ado about asana
Got myself in a spot of bother over at Yoga Dork a couple of weeks back. So much so, that Nick Rosen (cynical star of Enlighten Up!) called me “un-yogic” (IMHO that’s just another way of telling someone to shut up). Then Waylon Lewis over at Elephant Journal chimed in, perhaps feeling the need to support his “longtime acquaintance”. Waylon even suggested to me (via DM on Twitter) that when I get around to replying (and BTW, this is my reply) that I shouldn’t hesitate “to be mean”. Wow, I guess Waylon and Nick think I’m mean. So do some of the commenters on the Yoga Dork post.
Now, folks are entitled to think whatever they like. For the record, I am not a mean person. Like almost everyone else I do get angry sometimes, and I can be intolerant when I think people are talking through their butt cheeks. Thing is, getting angry doesn’t make me either yogic or not yogic. What is yogic is what we do with our reactions.
And that’s what I’ve been doing. Sitting with these events and considering my reactions and other people’s too. In fact, this whole brouhaha has taught me a lot. Generally I avoid online debates, but this time I didn’t. Some people found my frank and upfront comments to be rude. They were never intended that way. So let me say right now: if you were offended by my part in the debate, please accept my apologies. Because I did not intend to be offensive.
So what was it exactly, that got my ire up? Couple of things really. First of all, we have Nick Rosen running around saying that yoga is only 100 years old, both in the Yoga Dork interview and also in a piece he wrote for Huffington Post (won’t go into what I think of that article - don’t wanna start another war!).
Then, when a couple of people (including me) suggested this was a ridiculous statement, Nick changed his mind and said that maybe yoga was 500 years old at the most. Then he decided to clarify, saying he was talking about “modern yoga” – y’know, that asana-only-based thing some of us whities call yoga. Oh, that’s only really 100 years old, if that. Riiiiight…
Modern yoga - WTF?
Listen up people: not all “modern” yogis think of yoga as Nick has defined it: “a set of postures and movements we undertake to achieve health and for some a sense of spiritual/meditative calm, as an end in itself”. Funnily enough, I can think of at least 200 yogis I know personally who wouldn’t dream of describing yoga like that. Wait - let me add in the entire Bihar School of Yoga, which is a world-wide organisation. None of those people think of yoga as purely a physical pursuit, either.
Speaking of the Bihar School of Yoga, they are one of several living traditions that do not conform to Nick’s idea of “modern yoga”, and yet they are in the here and now. Let’s look at the Saraswati lineage from which BSY was founded. The current head(s) of the lineage are Paramahansa Satyananda, and his successor Swami Naranjananda. Satyananda’s guru was Swami Sivananda and his guru was Swami Vishwananda.
These four generations tell us that the Saraswati lineage is over 100 years old, at least. Further back than that, we don’t know for sure. There’s plenty of oral teachings, many of which I’ve been given, but no concrete evidence. So we don’t know either way.
But what do we know for sure about BSY? First of all, asana is specified by both Satyananda and Sivananda. I don’t know too much about Vishwananda except that he was Sivananda’s guru. But given Satyananda learned what he knows from Sivananda, it’s safe to assume that Sivananda learned what he knows from Vishwananda. Probably, right?
And what did they all teach? Yoga as a complete path to for life as well as practices to achieve enlightenment. Including asana, pranayama, meditation, philosophy, health, music, dance and so on.
So you could never suggest that BSY falls under Nick’s definition of “modern yoga” and yet it’s practiced by thousands of people worldwide today. So I guess that mustn’t be everyone’s definition of “modern” yoga after all!
And I can’t buy into this idea for another reason: Yoga is a constantly evolving practice. Let's say yoga is (for argument’s sake) 1,000 years old (not that this can be definitively proven either way). The yoga that was practiced 900 years ago vs the yoga that was practiced 800 years ago vs 700 years ago vs 600 years ago etc… are bound to be different. That's the thing about time. There’s always change. That doesn’t make what we practice today less than what was practiced before. It is still yoga, based on the same principles.
From my personal practice, I can tell you that the fruit (or results) of practicing yoga (I’m talking about asana, pranayama, meditation, mudra and bandha here), have in some cases turned out to be eerily similar to those of yogis who lived long before I was born.
Then, according to certain oral and written traditions in yoga, this world has been around for much longer than whatever age scientists are currently suggesting it is. In fact there is a belief/idea/theory that the entire universe is cyclically created and destroyed (MahaYuga) at the completion of the four Yugas (cycles of time). Personally, I don’t know if that’s true or not. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Point being, we really have no idea.
TO BE CONTINUED....