A few years back, articles about the 20 to 40 postures practiced in a standard yoga class began appearing. The assertions were that most of these poses were under 200 years old, rather than the oft-touted 5,000. This caused a great deal of harrumphing among the old guard who were teaching “traditional yoga” (myself included). What do you mean that the sage Patanjali didn’t do downward dog? Lord Shiva didn’t grant us warrior II? Isn’t this the sacred yoga asana of antiquity?
Perhaps not. In fact, most of these poses came through Krishnamacharya’s lineage (who died in 1989 and taught B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, Indra Devi, and other yoga masters). Yes, in the 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one can find many references to postures that look similar to poses practiced now. The HYP is said to be the oldest surviving text on hatha yoga, one of the three classic hatha yoga texts (the other two being the Gheranda Samhita and the Shiva Samhita). But are the similar poses we encounter in class today truly capable of healing myriad ills and aligning the energetic system, preparing it for enlightenment?
Isn’t this the sacred yoga asana of antiquity? Perhaps not.
Many adepts and sages, notably Anandamayi Ma and Paramahansa Yogananda, moved spontaneously into extreme yogasana in order to accommodate the high voltage energy generated by deep meditative states. This was often with no instruction from a teacher of asana. The movements came from within, and such states of samadhi may have inspired some of the postures we see today. But as writer Anne Cushman addresses in her book, Moving Into Meditation:
“Here’s something to remember about yoga poses: people made them up. Some of them were made up a long time ago—hundreds or even thousands of years. A lot of them—including many that we think of today as “classic” yoga poses—were invented by Indian yogis in the early part of the 20th century. Some were imported from places as diverse as YMCA exercise classes and Swedish gymnastics—and then given Sanskrit names. Some were invented as recently as last week. There is nothing inherently sacred about any of the postures that you’ll see arching and twisting on yoga calendars. What makes them sacred is the way we inhabit them.”
I can remember being shocked when introduced to fiery Kundalini yoga kriyas, which employ the use of repetitive movements and rapid breathing. I can also recall teaching in an Iyengar studio in the early ’90s, where another teacher was fired mid-class for teaching what she called “wavy dog”—a wiggly mobile downward dog (“Heresy!”). I doubt such a dismissal would occur in the current yoga climate, but there remains a good deal of dogma surrounding the postures—a dogma that holds that there is something inherently spiritually edifying in achieving greater flexibility and mastering more advanced poses.
My practice has become far less pose-oriented over the years, and it incorporates a lot of odd-looking and sometimes noisy rituals that prepare me for meditation. I find that an eagle pose done in a chair can have more tangible energetic effects than one done balanced on one foot, though it looks far less fancy.
The wide, sprawling leg movements that were a delight in my childbearing years, when expansion of the pelvic area was biologically more important, seem far less delightful now. I prefer practices that make me stronger. My asana is often maintenance—stretching out tightness from gardening or building strength around a sore knee. Is it still yoga? My meditation practice says yes, it is. My mind is steadied, and my heart feels brighter. When I do the maintenance, I can forget about my body and move inward. Perhaps inhabiting any shape becomes yogic by application of mindfulness. Consider a definition that hit me the other day: Yoga is a process of discovering the movements needed to breathe well and find stillness.
The asanas we see taught in most classes came from a time when humans worked very hard. They planted crops, carried water, and walked long distances. Intense stretching balanced such vigorous activity. Often, yoga practitioners also did long hours of energy-building seated meditation. These days, we go from an energy-depleting desk job to flying splits in an arm balance. For as often as we hear “It’s all about the breath,” we still seem to come back to how an asana looks, and we exert great effort to nail the pinnacle pose. It’s time to rethink what modern asana means for our healing. It may not serve our bodies or our meditation practice to be so asana-directed.
Discipline, or tapas, is a huge piece of the yoga puzzle. Many of us have found that the practice and form of classical (and not so classical) asana has helped us to focus, achieve greater comfort in meditation, inhabit healthier bodies, clear the nostrils and the lungs and the mind, and boost us down the yogic path. But advanced poses, as we know them today, are not worthy of the reverence we accord them. It is the discipline and attention behind the practice that fuel our inner progress.
Toss out all yoga poses? Never. As we rise out of a standing lunge after it’s been held and refined—sensing the difference the pose made on one side of the body, perhaps even how one eye and ear now feel more awake—we know that this particular movement is a boon in helping us become more fully alive. A boon, indeed, but not the wakefulness itself. The tangible yoga in that movement comes when we stop and take pleasure in the sweet energetic asymmetry, or when we realize that both nostrils are clear and our mind is more vibrant.
The fact that humans can move in such wonderful ways will never cease to awe and inspire us to try novel variations. But growing attuned to authentic and subtle changes in how we breathe, think, and live our practice is when the sacredness of yoga practice begins.