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.
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.
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.
I was teaching a private class the other day, and my student was frustrated. He was finding it hard to do a twisted high lunge. It is hard, right? That’s the point. It’s supposed to be challenging. But he was annoyed because he hadn’t found it hard before. It hadn’t been an area of his practice that he struggled with. And all of a sudden, he was struggling.
As a teacher, you recognise and relate to that frustration. I’ve had it myself. I’ll continue to have it.
What we can do, as teacher and student, is to step back. Is to simplify. It’s not a regression, because yoga isn’t a progression. Some of the hardest stuff to do in yoga is the most simple, physically.
Take savasana. How many of us lie in savasana thinking about what we’re going to have for dinner, or what someone said that morning. How many of us can empty our mind? Not many. Because it’s hard. Because it takes practice. Because it takes patience.
We can work on our patience by trying longer holds in our asana practice. Some slower breathing. We can strip the practice back. Just you, your mat and your breath.