In India, reverence for the guru is more than respect for an individual; it is devotion to the knowledge honed by a lineage of masters stretching back to ancient times. Dance and music are the main classical Indian traditions. They are the arts, but they carry the weight of centuries of precision and discipline. Each student learns from her guru; each guru is one link of a timeless lineage; the art is the living language between the ancient ones and us today.
Yoga is said to be one of these ancient, living, Indian arts, and yet the physical practice we know is fairly new. For most of modern history, the practice of yoga was an esoteric search for enlightenment, often carried out in mountain caves and forests. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most ancient texts of yoga, teaches that yoga is perfect evenness of mind, equanimity in success and defeat, and non-attachment to fruits of labor. And yet, those who live by these yogic teachings are not typically practicing gymnastic-like physical fitness routines. So who is truly practicing yoga?
For all artists, there is a dynamic conversation between tradition and innovation. This dance between discipline and creativity is especially complex for yoga, because the ancient texts seem to describe something orthogonal to today’s fitness phenomenon. Traditionally, in the East, yogis were gurus and their disciples, wizened ascetics full of mystical knowledge. Today, in the West, yoga evokes images of lithe young women in leggings. To find the true art of yoga, we must first find the lineage of yoga gurus.
History of Yoga
The ancient texts of India teach yoga as a path of knowledge and austerities, with the ultimate goal of stilling the mind and merging with the infinite. There were no drop-in classes or exercise routines; yoga was an esoteric practice handed from master to disciple in secrecy.
This changed in the early 1900s when an Indian Brahmin named Krishnamacharya was inspired to seek a yoga guru in the Himalayas.
Kino MacGregor, student of Patabhi Jois, student of Krishnamacharya, writes:
The tradition traces back to an ancient sage named Vamana Rishi. We do not know much about him other than that he is the purported author of the Yoga Korunta. Even this legendary text is not available for study, because all of it was destroyed by time and eaten by ants.
The next person in the lineage was Rama Mohan Brahmachari, who lived in a cave on Mount Kailash (in the Himalayas) with his wife and three children. No one knows what happened to his children—where they went or if they became yoga teachers. Rama Mohan Bramachari taught his student, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, from a copy of the Yoga Korunta. Part of the legend is that when it was time for Krishnamacharya to leave his teacher, Rama Mohan Bhramachari instructed him to go out and teach yoga to the world but to tell no one where they could find him.
After completing his studies in the Himalayas, Krishnamacharya returned to India to share yoga in a way that would benefit the people living with jobs, families, and societal duties. This shift from esoteric knowledge to public practice was the beginning of yoga as we know it today. But yoga was not immediately popular in India.
BKS Iyengar, student of Krishnamacharya, writes of the early days of modern yoga:
Yoga was unknown when I first began teaching. I had to ask people to give me a meal in exchange for a lesson. At times I would practice yoga, drinking only tap-water, without any food for days. When I did get a little money, I used to live on bread and tea, because that was the cheapest nourishment I could get in India in those days… Now I have come on from there. I have struggled inch by inch, not only to feed myself, my wife and my children, but at the same time to develop this most misunderstood subject of yoga, which in the 1930s was accorded no value, even in India. (Tree of Life, 1988)
After Krishnamachrya returned from the Himalayas, he taught many students, some of whom established strong lineages of their own. BKS Iyengar studied a short while with his guru, Krisnhmacharya, and became expert in adapting the postures and practice with precision and for the individual. Pattabhi Jois studied a long while with his guru, Krishnamacharya, before establishing the school of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. While there were many other famous disciples, these are the two Indian lineages that have inspired most of the physical yoga practices we know today in the US. Those who are not teaching Ashtanga or Iyengar yoga are sharing their own innovations rather than presenting the traditional teachings rooted in India’s ancient yogic arts. It becomes the duty of the student to choose the teacher and path based on her own place along the continuum of innovation to tradition. But even choosing to practice traditionally requires discernment.
Though Iyengar and Jois learned from the same guru, their own teachings are quite different from one another, such that people who practice Iyengar yoga very rarely also practice Ashtanga, and those who practice Ashtanga are rarely interested in Iyengar practices.
Flow vs. Precision
Ashtanga yoga is named for Patanjali’s eightfold path (ashta=eight and anga=limb). The physical practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is a reflection of these eight limbs and is founded on three concepts: breath, bandhas, and drishti. The breath (pranayama) leads the movements such that the transitions between asanas are fluid. Each posture is held for five breaths, which encourages the mind to draw itself into the body (pratyahara), control the breath (pranayama), and perform the posture (asana) simultaneously. This concentration (dharana) leads to a meditative state (dhanya).
The Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice is a movement meditation. The goal is that every breath taken becomes a conscious one. The set sequence, the consistent flow, the internal holding of the bandhas, the drishti, and listening to the sound of the Ujjayi pranayama are all techniques designed to withdraw the senses [pratyahara].
–Gregor Maehle, Ashtanga Yoga, 2006
The fluid vinyasa transitions of Ashtanga yoga have inspired many offshoots of new yoga styles that emphasize creative sequencing. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, the sequences are set by tradition: the series of postures taught by Krishnamacharya were preserved and taught by his student Pattabhi Jois, who preserved and taught the same sequences, a lifetime of work now carried on by his grandson Sharath Jois.
Every student of Ashtanga Yoga begins in the same way: learning Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A). Then Surya Namaskar B, then standing poses, then the seated poses, which altogether form Ashtanga’s Primary Series. After mastering each of these poses, and learning to stand up from backbends, the practitioner is introduced to Second Series, which is also called Intermediate or Nadi Shodona. Primary Series is calming, full of forward folds, twists, and hip openers that balance strength and flexibility. Second Series is energetic, full of the deepest backbends of Ashtanga as well as deep hip openers and inversions.
Students learn each posture one at a time, sequentially, until each new posture flows naturally with the rest of the practice. When the student has demonstrated consistent mastery of the posture, the teacher will give the next posture. The average Ashtangi will spend most of her life in Primary Series; those who devote their lives to practice and teaching Ashtanga often move through Second Series and even on to Third series, which requires unbelievable stamina, strength, and devotion.
Sometimes, a few postures will come easily one after another, and in other times, a student may work on a posture every day for years before learning the next posture. This is partly due to the nature of the sequencing: postures are often unlike those before and afterwards, such that a deep backbend is followed by an arm balance. In this way, each individual progresses at her own pace, caught at different places.
In Ashtanga, there is only one way forward: the student must learn each traditionally-sequenced posture to earn the next in the series. Some postures are known as “gateways” because they require much time and practice to master, though each practitioner will find difficulty in different postures, according to her unique body-mind-practice. There is no option to practice only the “favorite” or “easy” poses. This can be difficult for the ego, who always wants more, and always wants the pleasure of having accomplishments, but these periods of dynamic equilibrium are healthy in other ways.
The physical body is understood to be the home of the emotional body as well as the mind, which both have to progress in time with the physical changes that earn new postures. And yet, these periods of feeling “stuck” are difficult in every way: difficult for the body to learn a new way to move, difficult for the mind to maintain devotion to a static sequence of postures, difficult for the emotions to reconcile the desire for accomplishment with the humility of faithful practice. But these “stagnant” periods can be most fruitful: with daily practice of a static sequence, each posture becomes more and more familiar, the body becomes stronger in practicing the challenging vinyasa transitions, while the mind can pay more attention to the breath rather than the sequence.
Iyengar yoga presents a different approach to the practice of asana. Each posture is taught with precision and respect for the individual practitioner, such that the teacher allows modifications and alternatives. Iyengar yoga encourages the use of props and external aids to make postures more accessible, which not only makes the practice well-suited to older and injured students but also allows for creative exploration and long holds of asanas. Within the longer holds (ranging from one minute for standing poses to ten minutes for inversions), students are given detailed cues for proper alignment and subtle actions. Iyengar yoga invites pratyahara through precision rather than flow.
Although vinyasas are taught occasionally in Iyengar classes, the understanding is that each posture (including the postures that make up the vinyasa) must be mastered before they can be linked. And so downward facing dog will be taught many times, held for many consecutive minutes, as the teacher cues precise details for perfect execution of the posture. The breath, bandhas, and drishti are not integrated into the practice of asana: they are taught separately and the integration is at the discretion of the student.
Iyengar sequences are creative yet methodical, inspired but not bound by the sequences taught by BKS Iyengar. Sequencing will often focus on one physical action that links many different asana, or working through a sequence of postures that lead to a “peak” posture. Typically, Iyengar sequences begin and/or end with long holds of inversions, while Ashtanga yoga begins with sun salutations and concludes with brief holds of inversions as a closing sequence.
Both of these traditional schools of yoga value seated meditation, study of the sutras, and a daily practice, which are all elements deemphasized by the newer styles of yoga now presented in gyms and studios.
In India, disciples of classical arts are taught to learn, rather than to create. Those who become teachers themselves are the experts in the codified knowledge, and share their a fundamental respect for the tradition with their students. Each teacher is unique, and chooses how to present the ancient techniques, including how much personal innovation to add to the traditional art: this is the living dynamic between classical and creative. There is a constant evolution, firmly rooted in times of mythology and the devotion to knowledge, traceable through the lineages of gurus and their disciples.
The West has embraced yoga with fervor and materialism, so that it is sometimes difficult to tell where yoga leaves the realm of traditional art to explore the spaces of group fitness, synchronized dance, or even boot camp. Yoga has left the realm of esoteric knowledge and joined the service industry.
And yet, we are blessed with the preservation of the ancient texts of yoga and the knowledge passed down from generations of yoga gurus. Each of us may study the art of yoga, just as each of us may choose to practice yoga as an artist. It is easier to be creative here in the West. The land doesn’t pull as heavily, somehow. The roots are elsewhere, we are surrounded by international inspiration, and we may see for ourselves how far to pull from tradition before the art itself is uprooted.
So how do we transform the theory and history of yoga into a personal practice of yoga? Come back next week for answers!