Friday, August 12, 2016
Traditional Yoga History
Jaipur Rajasthan Vishnu Vishvarupa, detail
A RECENT POST, “The Secret History of Yoga,” [8/7/16], was a copy of a BBC audio sketching Western influences on Indian yoga especially in the early 20th Century. rather than on a Western co-optation of traditional yoga. An emphasis on fitness, sequences of poses or asanas, inclusion of standing poses and so forth are described as examples of these Western influences. As yoga masters came to the West, there was clear pressure to avoid religious overtones, and this pressure did result in a yoga that is predominantly a physical fitness practice as health.
However, a traditional yoga did reach the West in the early 20th Century that was quite different from the dominant modern yoga. It “emphasized the moral disciplines (yama) of non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, and greedlessness... .meditation and inner stillness and the ideal of enlightenment, or liberation.” [2. Georg Feuerstein, “the Lost Teachings of Yoga,” Yoga International, October 2002. This article sketches several yoga masters emphasizing traditional yoga in the West. There emphasis was not just on an esoteric or intensely ascetic outcome, but rather an everyday emphasis on livelihood that cared for others, a moral truthfulness in actions, and an attention to events in everyday life as expressing divinity [after 2. Feuerstein]. These qualities are still heard in modern yoga classes as goals but practically, “health” is physical fitness.
“Health” in traditional yoga results from practice that facilitates movement beyond a finite sense of self because such a sense impairs, divides, and is not whole [after 2. Feuerstein], “attachment to the material world and to the perishable self” [Swami Rama]. While seeming extreme, a sense of calmness and serenity is an optimal health that is practical. And this idea of wholeness is practical, ecological and an effort to be in harmony with the universe/natural laws/science. Sometimes practice for a sense of physical health, exposes physical limits or imperfection that create stress. At best, we stay rational, and do not open shruti or a self-evident intuitive knowledge “heard by the innermost ear of the sages...” [Swami Rama, “Eternal Knowledge: The Wisdom of the Upanishads,” Yoga International, December 20, 2013]
Traditional yoga is millennium+-deep.
The term, “yoga,” references many things, and has been a secondary motif in human activities that range from self-mortification, eroticism, every religion that has either passed through India or originated there, and even militaristic cults prior to and during (and supporting) British rule, and a global health movement. It provides both a casual practice and an intense practice that can gel groups.
So what is at the core of traditional yoga?
Traditional yoga is an expression of the Rig Veda, perhaps the “oldest literary document in any Indo-European language” [1. George Feuerstein, “What You May Not Realize About Yoga, Yoga International , November 20, 2015] with perhaps their more global appeal in the later Vedic literature of the Upanishads, and especially in the Advaita (Shankara, selected Upanishads) Vedanta (“end of vedas”). They are spiritual more than dogmatic religious, challenging “blind faith, superstitions, sectarian beliefs, and dogmas” [Swami Rama] and, because of this neutrality, form the core of not just yoga, but of specific religions that also emerged in India beyond Hinduism such as Jainism and Buddhism, as well as having presence in Islam in India.
Traditional yoga, in its quest for enlightenment, or liberation, aspires to the Vedic/Upanishad goal of direct experience of Brahmavihara. In Upanishadist orientation, somewhat like Chinese tao, Brahman is that which alone exists, to be experienced in the most concrete experience, and “no different from oneself.” [Swami Rama]. The quieting and inner stillness is crucial for this experience, to get beyond reasoning, scripture, teachers, and other practices. The modernist “workout” only touches the fringe of the intuitive (but it is tasted vaguely there). Yoga has been vilified in the West by religious fundamentalists, but, paradoxically due to its popularity, has been adapted, initially by fundamentalists, into “Yahweh Yoga.” Modernist yoga has generally become diffused into hyphenated-yoga, such as power-, nude-, dog-, bro-, etc. When Swami Vivekananda spoke at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he quoted a hymn from childhood:
As the different streams having their different sources in different
places all mingle their waters in the sea, sources in different tendencies,
various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee”
[2. George Feuerstein].
NOTE: It would be a mistake to try to encapsulate the myriad years of traditional yoga into a small post. Traditional yoga reached the West but has been largely stripped of its spiritual orientation, but it is essentially very neutral and morally disciplined. The idea of enlightenment and meditation, remains largely an outlandish idea, and yet it is the very heart of yoga, vedanta yoga/jnana yoga.
The intent of this post, “Traditional Yoga History” is to say that we tend to dismiss the very heart of yoga that aspires toward the highest goal of human existence--a freedom from suffering due to an illusion of separation. In “a huge evolutionary experiment” it is hoped that we might override our more facile use of yoga for merely physical health reasons and contribute, as George Feuerstein admonishes us, to “produce really good Western masters who will breathe new life into our ailing civilization.” It is not about creating or recreating a religion or a preserving stodgy tradition.
Getting extremely simplistic, stillness and breath are blessed contributions of SE Asia to the world that science continues to validate.
When we do dip into the spiritual aspects, we might, for example, practice a series of poses that we imagine to relate to the seven chakras. Well there may be hundreds of qualities that are chakras, and why do we relate to seven--proposed by a Westerner but accessible in an English book--so therefore reality? When we look at much of our modernist yoga reality, we find it paper-thin, facile, if not wrong (even from our Western science).
Perhaps review a book such as Debra Diamond (Ed.),Yoga: The Art of Transformation for an undeniable visual sense of the presence of stillness over manifold poses/asanas through centuries, as well as the interpenetration of yoga into all varieties of spiritual as well as profane activities, and, of course, yoga as deep transformation at its enduring heart.