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Is yoga an invented tradition?

I recently went to Ayurvedic Man exhibition at the wellcome collection and it got me thinking about the history of yoga.

I was aware of Krishnamacharya from my training. I knew he taught Indra Devi, Jois, Iyengar and Desikachar. I knew he influenced our modern practice.

What I didn’t know until very recently, is that modern postural yoga (or yoga asana) is very modern. As in, the last century. 

Krishnamacharya (1888 to 1989) developed asana as we know it, at a nexus between yoga, bodybuilding and physical education in India in the early twentieth century.

So surya namaskar, downward dog, upward dog: all brand new.

Confused? Yep.

Not many people mention that the yoga asana we practice has nothing to do with the ‘ancient, centuries old’ system of yoga dating back intact to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in the fifth century CE. There were only 15 original seated poses. And yoga did not mean the physical practice we know it as today.

If anything, some yoga schools encourage the idea that asana as we know it has been passed down through the centuries. 

Do we need this ancient authority to believe in its effects?

As Sita Reddy writes in her essay ‘Who owns yoga’, the roots of yoga run deep, but modern postural yoga, including surya namaskar, is an invented tradition.

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Ouch! Yoga injuries and why we get them

Yoga injury is connected to the ego.

How many of you go to what you perceive as the last stage? Because you want to prove that you can do it.

But what if there is a misconception? For example, you think the ‘last stage’ of tree pose is to get your foot on the upper thigh. When actually the pose is a hip opener. The pose is about lengthening the thigh bone out of the socket. And you achieve that lengthening wherever your foot is.

What happens when we try and get to the last stage too early? I was obsessed with forearm stand. I used to practice and practice. I wanted to be able to kick up effortlessly into a beautiful forearm stand.

And yes, I find it easier now. But I think that’s because I’m stronger from my yoga practice, not because I repeatedly practiced forearm stands for months. And I pulled my right hamstring from all that jumping when I wasn’t warm enough. It’s still tender now. I have to modify my practice to accommodate it.

Is it worth it? No. Can I see that now? Yes.

Yoga does not cause injury. We cause ourselves injury. Because of our ego, because we want to see progression.

It is so important to let that go. It’s just noise. You will perform an asana when your body is ready to perform it, and there will be no strain.

That’s not to say don’t practice difficult asanas. They are fun and exciting, and if that’s what pulls you to yoga, then great.

But yoga is not gymnastics. We cannot let our mind get ahead of our body. We must learn to control our ego and be safe.

Meditation: what is it?

There’s a lot of talk about meditation, as if it is a separate thing from yoga. There are people offering to teach you how to meditate. There are apps to help you meditate – you may have tried them.

When you think of meditation, what does it mean to you? Do you picture a Buddhist monk on a hilltop somewhere, sitting in silence, for hours?

Try sitting in stillness with your breath. Try it in your asana practice. Try it in savasana. Try it in seated meditation, in seated pranayama.

Every single person thinks they’re doing it wrong. Every single person thinks that the person next to them is doing it properly. Everyone feels like a fake.

You cannot practice yoga for a short time and expect mental stillness immediately.  It takes practice to start to understand the potential of yoga. The potential to exist in a physical and mental state at the same time.

I try to think about each movement as a physical expression of my breath. I try hard to link the two. And I keep practicing.

Balance

We are all attracted to certain things. We often pursue activities we love, and why wouldn’t we?

But we need to make sure there is a balance. If we love cardio, we need to do some restorative exercise. If we love fast yoga, we need to practice slow yoga. If we are lethargic, we need to choose activities that demand more energy.

Not all the time, just sometimes.

According to Ayurveda, if you are a person with a vata-dominated constitution and you naturally love fast yoga classes, you should make yourself go to slower ones sometimes.

We practice yoga to restore balance in body and mind, but our choices also influence that balance.

It is important at this time of year when things get busier and the weather gets colder. We need to pay attention to our energy. We need to observe our body as we would any other complex living creature, with curiosity and respect.

Children vs. adults

I’m reading ‘The Tree of Yoga’ by BKS Iyengar. In it, he talks about the difference between teaching children and adults. Adults need demonstrations and constant advice. Children just do.

Children live in the present, adults live in the past and the future.

When we begin yoga, we think a lot. We are worried about the pose, worried about whether we’re doing it properly.

How can we move our mind back to the present?

The first thing is the breath. When we practice yoga well, the asana becomes an extension of our breath.

The second is bandhas. Engaging the root lock (perineum or pelvic floor), the abdominal lock and the chin lock. A good place to practice this is tadasana (mountain pose).

The third is dristhi. Your focus. Ask yourself, where are you looking in the pose? Are you looking down, at the floor? Are you looking at other people? Wherever our gaze is directed, our energy follows.

Self care

What does that mean in today’s society?

Everywhere you look, there is an emphasis on humanism. You know what’s best for you. You decide. Only you can know how you feel.

How do we interpret that in our yoga practice?

The trouble arises when we focus too much on the ego. The voice that demands better, demands more, demands linear improvement.

Do we really know best?

Yoga is a moving meditation. We are striving to practice without interruption from our ego. We are striving to practice with a still mind, and a smooth breath.

Stewart Gilchrist says an advanced practitioner could go to a practice and do nothing but breathe, and still be advanced. As long as they were reciting the practice mentally and connecting it to their breath, they would be practicing advanced yoga.

Asana is just one of the eight limbs of yoga. Physical ability will eventually fade, so our practice needs to live in our mind.

Switch off the other voice and listen to your breath. That’s the greatest act of self care there is.

Control

How attached are we to control? We control everything: what we eat, how we spend out free time, who we spend it with. This can be a great thing. We feel like we are making good choices by doing things we want.

What happens when our control is challenged? When things happen that we don’t choose. When choices are taken away from us.

How can yoga help us with this?

Our control of external things is an illusion. We are never really ‘in control’.

Through the practice of yoga we can start to see that this idea is just that – an idea. But we can shape our reactions as we choose.

Yoga can help us control our mind. Pranayama (breath work) is control of the breath. Asana (physical practice) is control of the body.

Both of them, with practice, help to control our thoughts, help to calm the ‘monkey mind.’ The mind that jumps from one thought to the next, screeching for your attention.

Through our practice, we can begin to change that. We can control our reactions, but we must see that we cannot control our world.

“Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.” BKS Iyengar.