01 December 2009

"I don’t know how old yoga is and neither do you" -- part 1

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.



Aurobindo said...

Compilation and dating of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra's

Radhakrishnan and Moore attribute the text to Patanjali, dating it as 2nd century BCE.Scholars such as S.N. Dasgupta, claim this is the same Patanjali who authored the Mahabhasya, a treatise on Sanskrit grammar.

Indologist Axel Michaels disagrees that the work was written by Patanjali, characterizing it instead as a collection of fragments and traditions of texts stemming from the second or third century.

Gavin Flood cites a wider period of uncertainty for the composition, between 100 BCE and 500 CE.

The notion that asana's are only 100 years old is very naive.A few decades from now I wouldn't be surprised to hear if the new age guru's of America claim that they invented yoga in California. :)

Bob Weisenberg said...

Hi, Svasti. Thanks so much for writing this excellent guest blog.

My only comment here is that I personally found Nick's understanding to be quite a bit more subtle and nuanced than you're making him sound above. He quickly admitted that his first blanket 100 year-old statement was "flippant", and then went on to clarify repeatedly that he just meant the way the majority of people practice Yoga in the U.S.--as an exercise routine with a touch of meditation.

I believe he would readily acknowledge that there are many other forms of Yoga out there and that he was just talking about this one type. But I'll let him speak for himself!

Thanks again for taking this on.

Bob Weisenberg

Anonymous said...

Hi Linda:

You make good points. We need to get past the notion that asanas as we know them came mainly from Sri Krishnamacharya or the Mysore palace. Having grown up in India, about 80 miles from Mysore, I was exposed to many humble yogis who had no affiliation to the Krishnamacharya lineage.

India is full of thousands of yogis who in certain cases have a long family tradition of Hatha Yoga. In fact, I have seen sadhus in places such as Hrishikesh perform many asanas from the second and third series of Ashtanga Vinyasa. Notions that these have only been made up in the recent past are inaccurate.

To summarize, Yoga is very sacred to me, and it does not matter how old the asanas are, they just work. Trying to categorize them into origins and timelines is a very western concept.

Om Shanti,


Linda-Sama said...

Thanks for reading, C, but I want to emphasize that while I agree with Svasti, these are HER points, not my points. Svasti is a guest blogger and the second part will appear tomorrow.


Bob Weisenberg said...

These are all very interesting and true comments, but everyone is refuting a claim neither Nick or anyone else ever made. He never said asana began 50-100 years ago, only the narrow way asana is practiced today by a large majority of devotees of Yoga in the U.S.--as primarily an exercise routine with only a touch of meditation and spirituality, if that.

Let's all give Nick a little credit. He spent six months in India visiting a wide variety of Yoga sites. He knows what's going on. And after his first brash remark, which he quickly corrected, I can't see where he made any of the silly statements about asana everyone is refuting here.

I urge everyone to go back and carefully read all of Nick's comments and clarifications in context. He's being badly mis-characterized.

Bob Weisenberg

P.S. I've never met Nick and I'm defending him not because he's a good buddy, but out of a sense of simple truth and fairness.

Eco Yogini said...

You know svasti,
This was an interesting post. Especially since I did notice that Nick's comments obsviously 'got your ire' up. Which was interesting to me, as my post about drunken sexist yoga didn't.... which I guess says something about how we have different things that we are passionate, or push our buttons.

What I thought was most interesting from this debate, was the realization that since Yoga isn't my 'faith' or my main spirituality/path, then perhaps this was why these interviews and comments don't really bother me... issues surrounding spirituality are always difficult, and are most certainly for myself, but frmo a pagan/Godessian perspective.
I see your point from your elaboration here, I'm glad Linda asked you to write this guest post- sometimes thoughts and full meaning get lost in tiny comment blips that don't allow us to expand. :)

Blessings Svasti! (and Linda :) )

Linda-Sama said...

"Postural yoga is a very modern phenomenon. The history’s like 100 years old."

I assume "postural yoga" means asana practice. So if one substitutes "asana practice" for "postural yoga" one could assume Nick is saying that the history of asana is "like 100 years old."

Define asana. Just standing poses? Just sun salutations, like in "modern" vinyasa classes? I do a sun salutation that Krishnamacharya taught that I have never seen anyone else other than my teacher Ramaswami teach. I know that padmasana -- an ASANA -- is listed in the HYP, which is older than 100 years.

Linda-Sama said...

"He spent six months in India visiting a wide variety of Yoga sites. He knows what's going on."

Bob, I have to say that after all this I will definitely see Enlighten Up! before I leave for my 4th trip to India. It will be my 4th time studying at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. And on this trip I'm spending 9 days at the Kumbh Mela where some real hard-core yogis, the naked Shiva babas, will be doing their wild tantric yoga thang.

I also want to say that I am not devaluing Nick's 6 month stay in India -- hell, even one month in India can send someone home screaming, I've seen it happen.

But I know many people who have studied for months at a time, more than once, at the schools in Mysore, Pune, and the Bihar school that Svasti mentions....and I have never heard any of them comment on the history of yoga quite like Nick did in the YogaDork interview.

Six months of "visiting a wide variety of Yoga sites" does not make one an expert on yoga. It's kind of like digging a bunch of shallow holes instead of one deep one. I certainly do not consider myself an expert but I think I know what's going on, too, at least that's what some people tell me. I've been writing this blog since 2005 and I'm still waiting for a publisher or a producer to wise up and give ME a contract! I'm ready for my close-up.....

sorry, Bob, we just have to agree to disagree, I don't think the 100 year comment was taken out of context. as Svasti said, once challenged on that, Nick danced around a bit.

Waylon Lewis said...

The "feel free to be mean" comment was just intended to, well, mean...that you could feel free to say what you really thought about my well-intentioned, but not overly accurate article. I'm not a yoga scholar, and I don't pretend to be. In fact, that was the source of my and Nick's irritation, I think...that fellow yoga friends casually say, all the time, "ah, yoga is 5,000 years old" and they aren't yoga scholars, either. They. Have. No. Idea. What they're talking about. That was Nick's point: that when folks say "yoga," they generally mean something similar to what we see practiced in studios. Asana. Hatha yoga.

But when we say "yoga is 5,000 years old" we're talking about something that, while wonderful, bears little resemblance to yoga as we know it since Light on Yoga, just 50 years back. Very little.

Thanks for keeping the discussion alive, may it be of benefit!

Bob Weisenberg said...


Nick himself admitted that his first statement, the very one you keep quoting, was flippant and quickly went on to define what he really meant in several long comments on the same blog.

Nick deserves to be judged by his whole stream of comments, not just one ill-phrased statement. Even that first statement is completely true if you define it the way Nick was thinking about it, and later clarified it.

And I will continue to defend Nick's standing to comment on any aspect of Yoga he wants to, without any education or background requirement at all. Nick tried to cite references for his point of view, and was criticized by some even for that.

Why should we impose an experience requirement on bloggers such that only you and a few others are qualified to have an opinion?

If Nick has written anything that's untrue or arguable, let it come out in the discussion. Let's never tell anyone here they don't have the right or the experience to participate. That would quickly rule out most of us and bring these wonderful blogs to a sudden halt.

After all this, and after reviewing the entire YogaDork discussion several times, I still don't see anything Nick has written that is clearly wrong and not just a question of misunderstood definitions or reasonable variations in interpretation. I appreciate the way he has taken the time to stay involved and try to answer all the criticism.

And let me make it clear that enjoy I this whole process, including this current discussion, and think it's very interesting and rewarding.

Bob Weisenberg

Linda-Sama said...

"Why should we impose an experience requirement on bloggers such that only you and a few others are qualified to have an opinion?"

Now I think it's you who's getting your ire up and becoming defensive.

Where do I or anybody else say if you don't have X experience keep your mouth shut? There is experience and then there is experience in ALL areas of life, not just yoga. for example, and maybe its a poor one, I'd rather go to someone who has more experience in cutting my type of hair than someone just out of salon school last week. or who read books on how to cut hair.

and yes, I do believe that some peoples' opinions are more qualified than others because of their "experience." that's life. that's why people who are thinking about becoming yoga teachers check out credentials of yoga teacher trainers -- not that pieces of paper make one a good teacher, but it's a reference point. and by the way, I do not include myself in that category of being "more qualified" because of my experience, that is for others to decide. I considered myself a little ant at the bottom of the yoga hill for a long time so I really don't like your insinuations that I am imposing an "experience requirement" on anyone to say whatever the hell they want to say.

"Let's never tell anyone here they don't have the right or the experience to participate"

and who is saying that? many times in the course of writing this blog commenters have asked me to clarify my opinion on something about yoga and I have. if you put an opinion out there, and you get questioned about it, then defend your stance. Nick has, and no one has said that is he has not done so or that he's untruthful. sure he cited references to back up his statements and what is wrong with someone criticizing his references? I sure wouldn't expect to go unscathed if one of my references for my yoga opinions was the Ogden video! bad example but I think you get my drift!

Bob Weisenberg said...

I'm deeply sorry if I misunderstood your meaning, Linda. Obviously if I paraphrased you incorrectly then everything I wrote in response is irrelevant and off-track.

Thanks for clarifying.

Bob Weisenberg

Anonymous said...

@Aurobindo - hehe, you know, that wouldn't surprise me at all!

@EcoYogini - thanks for your thoughtful comments. Glad you liked the post. Hope you got to read the second part, too?
Yes, yoga is my life in many ways. I'm not perfect, I'm not a scholar and I'm certainly not enlightened yet. ;)

@Waylon - this comment: "...when folks say "yoga", they generally mean something similar to what we see practiced in studios. Asana. Hatha Yoga..."

This is part of my point. That is *still* yoga. It isn't different or seperate, and I don't see any point in seperating it out from everything else that's labelled as yoga. Did you see the image Linda has at the top of the second post? Its a stone carving she took a photo of in India. Of a guy doing asana. And yep, its more than 100 years old!
Also, be careful when you start equating Hatha Yoga with the idea of "just asana". Traditional Hatha Yoga incorporates all arms of yoga, not just asana. It's a misnomer or a misuse of the word, to suggest its some form of generic yoga. I know that happens a lot these days.

When you say the yoga of 5,000 years ago bears little resemblance to the yoga we practice today, what are you basing that assumption on?
This is one of my issues. You simply don't know what yoga looked like back then. Neither do I. So its kind of a silly thing to say, don't you think? It's a pointless argument, because you can't prove that one way or another. As I mentioned above, of course, yoga from 5,000 years ago is going to have changed. BUT there's still plenty of people practicing traditional forms of yoga, myself included. And the truths we learn (through our practice) about our existence as human beings as well as understanding what things like "I Am That" really mean... *those things* don't change too much over time.

@Bob - I just don't see the need to make so many micro-qualifications around yoga. Anyone can do that, and make a statement that other people can agree with. I can probably make the same sort of micro-observation talking about football (which I know remarkably little about, despite living in football-mad Melbourne). People would agree with me. But I wouldn't be surprised if someone turned around and said to me as a result, "So what? What's your point?".
And this is what I'm saying. I don't get the point of Nick's point. As I've said in the second part of this post, why slice and dice yoga into something that means almost nothing?
Because saying, "oh, there's a whole bunch of people in American that practice nothing but physical asana and call that yoga, and that's only 50-100 years old"... that's a statement of fact. And it means very little in the bigger picture.
Trying to suggest that that part of yoga shouldn't be connected to the history of yoga that is at least 5,000 years old (and perhaps much older)... I don't get that. As I wrote about in the second part of this post.
Anyway, glad you've enjoyed my thoughts...

Bob Weisenberg said...

Hi, Svasti.

I agree completely with you that even modern exercise asana Yoga is connected to the Yoga of the past. I didn't mean to support Nick's idea of separation, only, as you say, the literal truth of his statement.

As I'm sure you already know, and in spite of my joking about "Yobo", I'm a Yoga universalist who happens to practice the Radical Traditional Yoga of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutra.

Thanks again for a great guest blog. And thanks to Linda for inviting you.

Bob Weisenberg

Linda-Sama said...

"I wouldn't be surprised to hear if the new age guru's of America claim that they invented yoga in California."

actually I thought Madonna invented yoga....;)

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob,
Sure, Nick has made a literally truthful statement. I guess my issue is that there's no real value in saying that, unless one is trying to cut yoga down to size. Or perhaps to have something to say that sounds authoratative?
And when it boils down to it, that's probably what was making me angry.

Bob Weisenberg said...


That's why I appreciate all nuances and subtlety you and Linda have brought to this discussion. We have all learned a lot because of your willingness to engage and speak out.

Bob Weisenberg

Anonymous said...

Nice article Svasti,

Nick talking about Yoga is like Paris Hilton talking about the economy ;-)

Why are going letting Nick get under your skin? Let Nick and Bob think and say whatever they want, all that matters is what you think. Time for some meditation sessions…