How We Got Here: Where Yoga Poses Come From

In order to make our beloved asana practices ready to sustain the test of time, we have to make it relevant by using these practices to create sustained freedom and joy... just as the history of yoga has intended.
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I wrote a book titled Myths of the Asanas. This was before I found out about the real myth of the asanas... that most all of the ones practiced these days are less than 100 years old. Not kidding. I've spent nearly half of my entire life studying yoga, and until just a few weeks ago, even I was under the impression that at least some of our beloved asana practice had its roots in at least a centuries-old tradition that used physical practices to incite profound internal transformation.

There is, of course, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which was written around the 15th century, that outlines a scant 15 postures. Fifteen. A friend recently pointed out the shocking point that asana practice is a relatively new development, particularly as it has exploded in Western culture in recent decades. This claim incited a crazy inquisition, which led me to Mark Singleton's book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, as well as Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda.

Singleton does a thorough job of researching the history, modernization and rising prominence of asana practice. He even reveals the mystery behind the obscure yogic text, The Yoga Korunta, which is said to have been the origin of the Ashtanga Series taught by revelatory 20th century master, Krishnamacharya, to Pattabhi Jois and other prominent students. Though many (including me) would like to believe the story that Krishnamacharya learned the text from his guru and passed it on to his own students, we must make room for the very real possibility that even luminaries like Krishnamacharya were responding to changing times and creating asanas to meet the demand of a more physical culture -- which was developing in India in the early 20th century, and of course remains strong here in the West.

Even if the Yoga Korunta existed, it is rumored to be a 14th century text (not that old), and it is well known that postures have been added, modified and evolved to the supposed structure it presented. For example, the first edition of Yoga Mala, by Pattabhi Jois, didn't include revolved side angle. That posture wasn't introduced until later. In fact, when the first western students learned the primary series from Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the 1970s, there were no vinyasa transitions between the Janu Sirsasana variations and the Marichyasana variations. This reveals that there has been a very live, real-time, evolution of even the most venerated yoga practices.

Basically, we're all just making this shit up. Even in the decade that I've been teaching yoga, I've seen postures "appear." Most recently, additions like "falling star," "reverse warrior," and "flip the dog," weren't around even 10 short years ago. Actually, it feels like they've appeared over the past few weeks! We can even take a look at modern yoga schools and realize that most every type of practice we enjoy here in America has a fairly recent history. Beryl Bender Birch was a practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga, who boldly took it into the realm of innovation by creating power yoga, and from there we have most every branch of vinyasa evolving from this singular root. Thank you, Beryl, and Baron, and Brian and other fearless innovators of vinyasa yoga!

Despite the fact that our beloved asana has a relatively new existence, it still remains a powerful practice for about 16 million Americans. None of this news of newness of the tradition of asana is supposed to diminish it's importance or relevance in our world, but rather to create an awareness that it's up to us to verify it's validity. Many (myself included!) regard asana as a deeply spiritual practice, though the traditions of meditation and bhakti (devotional) yoga have far more historical precedent. If we, as Westerners, have developed and placed in prominence the practice of asana, then dammit, it's up to us to prove that it really works.

Yes, it works as a physical practice, sure. Cirque Du Soleil has done a good job of proving that, as it has gymnastics and aerobics that also feature many of the same shapes. We garner flexibility and strength through asana. Even studies can corroborate asana's healthful effect on the physical body (though, the infamous recent New York Times article also recounts it's detrimental effects). Either way, if we are reading more deeply into the traditions of yoga and reflecting on it's inherent philosophy, then we are revealing the opportunity to show that the way we have revolutionized the practice of asana can actually contribute to the goal of the practice.

It's no secret that yoga means union. Nearly every yoga book starts with that definition. A little inquiry into the type of union yoga indicates reveals that yoga is an awareness of one's intimate and inherent connection to a higher power, and practices of yoga help to create the condition for this realization to arise. That's pretty much it. If we don't automatically have a sustained experience of yoga -- the awareness of ourselves as inherently whole and complete -- then, we do certain practices to reveal that experience more readily and in a more sustained way. There are many proven practices that help to create this condition, meditation probably being the most tried-and-true method.

But, let's be honest. How many Americans are ready to sit their asses down and meditate? For, like, a long time? We are not even a culture who can sit on the floor in relative comfort. However, we love working hard on our bodies. Sometimes to the point that it becomes an obsession. Given these proclivities, it seems natural to develop a means of practice that utilizes and initially emphasizes the body as an entry point into the deeper awareness of yoga. Hail asana. Honestly, let's not knock it or diminish it, even though it is the baby of the modern yoga culture and the brainchild of yoga innovators of recent decades. Why wouldn't it work?

There's no proof it can't... but the onus is on us to prove that it can, that yoga asana practice is a valid and effective means for aligning the energetic body in such a way to allow for a sustained experience of the natural state of yoga. Otherwise, it will remain in the realm of gymnastics and aerobics. Gymnastics and aerobics are great forms of physical exercise, but what makes them different from a true yogic practice is that their focus is only on the body. What makes a true yogic practice unique is that it's focus is on a sustained feeling of freedom and wholeness. This sustained feeling has the very exciting potential to be brought about by new shapes like "airplane pose."

Really, who ever thought that was a millennia old asana? Anyway, we're all just making it up... hopefully with humbled intelligence and a deep understanding of the biology of the body and the philosophy of the practice in mind. Now, in order to make our beloved asana practices ready to sustain the test of time, we have to make it relevant by using these practices to create sustained freedom and joy... just as the history of yoga has intended.

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