Three Lessons that the History of Yoga Taught me About my Modern Practice.
When I first started practicing yoga, I thought that it was supposed to be done one way and only one way. More specifically, I thought it was supposed to be done the first way I was taught. I also thought that Sun Salutations were standard and non-negotiable. I hadn't yet experienced the joy of a gentle practice, the intention of Iyengar, or the explosion of energy in Acroyoga.
Asana Has Always Been Tailored To The Times
What I learned as I dove deeper into the rich history of Yoga is that physicality of Sun Salutations are a relatively new invention for Yoga given its centuries old history. They were written down and recorded by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a 20th century guru who adopted and adapted the Surya Namaskar from a warm up practiced by contemporary Indian body builders. However, the act of Saluting the Sun in some form or another has been a yogic tradition for centuries.
In fact, much of what we practice physically is relatively new, though it has a lineage that we can follow back and back and back, to where the oral teachings were written down by eager students.
Yoga as it was shared with us in America by the teachers who first brought it to the West, is an adapted practice for our lives. And that is what has always been intended, a physical practice adaptable to support the other deeper aspect of the Yogic path. What that means to me is that yoga is a practice that evolves. Just like each of us are the realization of all our ancestors' genomes, modern-day yoga is just the most recent point on a path.
Asana Is a Small Part of the Equation
Yoga is movement ... and it is a movement. It encourages us to look deeper into ourselves, and deeper into the world around us.
For me in my practice, that means not only learning asana but also learning the history of yoga, the path that others have walked, and contemplating what remains relevant and will continue in the future. Until recently the volume of poses was much slimmer. Much more of its focus was on contemplation and meditation.
Honoring traditions from past generations of yogis on and off my mat does not necessarily mean my practice will look identical to theirs. But as time on the mat and the meditation cushion becomes more engrained in my life, it influences (and absolutely should influence) my intentions and actions as well.
This is where much of the 8 limb path focuses its attention.
Our inner world.
Our outer actions.
Our true nature within the Universe.
Sometimes we can practice this off the mat living of Yoga on the mat by feeling into what is right for us and what we need in a pose. Even that is imply an exercise in strengthening our ability to pay attention to our own needs. But this skill must also live off the mat as well so that we can respond (rather than react) to the world around us too.
Yoga Requires Inquiry
As we as humans move forward and learn about our relationship with yoga, the yoga itself changes. We are each points on this trajectory and even if no one ever practices yoga the way I do, or the way you do ever again, we are all points of light sharing the yoga experience.
So, what does your yoga mean to you? What does it mean for you when you step onto your mat? What did it mean the first time that you practiced, and how has your experience changed? Is there a way that we can quantify the changes that we bring to yoga, or the changes that yoga incites in us?
We each bring our own baggage onto our mats with us. We all have stuff we’re carrying. Yoga can be that place where you put your baggage down. You can settle in, right next to your baggage, and feel safe together. Each time that you step on your mat, whether you are in it for the movement aspect, for the mental aspect, or for a spiritual element - you’re inviting a change. You’re adding a point on the yogic timeline.
Your practice matters, and the way you practice matters. But that doesn't mean it can't evolve, in fact it must. The more you grow in yoga, the more yoga evolves in us.