You did not help yoga evolve. (It’s the other way round…)

Via on Jul 14, 2011

There is a lot of talk lately about how we have ‘evolved’ yoga.

There are a number of recent books (not to mention the seemingly vast yoga ‘blog-o-sphere’) that talk of a ‘Modern American Yoga’ that has developed, or matured, or progressed yoga into a new age.

Nonsense.

Yoga is an ancient spiritual tradition. It is one of the oldest systems of personal development in the world. No one can say how old it is, but there is archeological evidence that it existed 5000 years ago. There are various texts and scriptures that are many hundreds of years old. So we can say without doubt that the Yoga that came to America last century was unchanged for many centuries before that. And many people believe that yoga may in fact be much older than we can even imagine…

Evolution means progress; expansion; development.

When something is already perfect, there is no longer a need for evolution – the evolution is complete. This is the case with yoga: it has essentially remained unchanged for many centuries because it does not need to change. It is perfect.

In fact, Yoga was brought to us (in the West) last century by great, disciplined, devoted, and adept yogis, who taught, and had themselves been taught, by example. Traditionally yoga was handed down from master to student by word of mouth (the Gurukula system). That is why there is relatively little (and almost exclusively very vague) written instruction of the yogic techniques in the yoga scriptures: they are written in an enigmatic, mysterious way because a basic knowledge on the part of the reader was expected (a basic knowledge that was not learned from texts, but transmitted directly from master to pupil).

Those great teachers who came to the West to bring us the wisdom of yoga would laugh out loud if you told them that yoga had ‘evolved’ recently. To say that to them would be like saying that God had come of age lately! In fact, it is said that the first yoga teacher was Siva himself – I wonder, if he were here right now, what he’d think of the idea that his many thousand-years-old yoga had been evolved in the last century?!

Siva's reaction!

Let me be clear about something: I am not criticizing any particular style or teacher of yoga. ‘To each his own’, and I really mean that. If someone wants to practice Hot Power Yoga, or Running Yoga, or Disco Yoga, or Yoga-lates, or Yoga Boxing, or any of the other countless adaptations that have sprung up in the last 10 or so years, please feel free. I genuinely believe that any and all of these things may be just what someone needs; perhaps even a great introduction to something deeper.

What I am criticizing is the ego-centric view that we in the West have taken an ancient, perfect spiritual practice, and made it better.

***

When I was introduced to yoga it was to asana. I came to yoga as someone that lifted weights, went running, and had little knowledge of the other aspects of yoga.

I’d never even practiced pranayama, mudra, or bandha, nor had I tried to improve my concentration. I thought chanting was a very flakey activity that Western people only did after being heavily brainwashed, and if you had asked me to clean some toilets in the name of Karma Yoga I would have assumed that you were a con artist (a bad one).

I had done a little meditation, and I got it. But as far as I was concerned, Yoga was Asana, and Asana was Yoga, and you could keep all your spiritual fluff. Or shove it. I didn’t care one way or the other.

I traveled to India with the intention of becoming adept in asana – and on arrival there got the shock of my life.

On the morning of my second day in India I was on the beach. I got talking to a group of University students who were splashing about in the water, pushing each other around, having fun.

They asked me what I was doing in India and I told them (proudly) I was going to train to be a yoga teacher. They all burst out laughing! One of them asked me:

“So you’re not afraid to die?” (cue: more hilarity and splashing).

At the time I had no idea what he was talking about! I mumbled something and laughed along with them, shrugging it off as an in-joke that I was destined to not ‘get’. However, in the days and weeks that followed I came to understand very well what he meant. He knew that to experience the essence of Yoga is to surrender the ego: the death of the ‘self’ that leads to the birth of a higher awareness. That is the real meaning inherent in the yoga that was said to be handed down by Siva many ages ago.

Yoga is a complete system of personal development that is based upon a very scientific understanding of human being-ness. What I learnt during those six weeks in India unraveled all of my prior education, and shook the foundations upon which my shaky life had been built.

I realized that 5000 years ago (or whenever it was) the sages and seers faithfully propagating yoga by word of mouth knew much, much more about what it is to be human – biologically, psychologically, and energetically – than we do today! Yes, even with all of our apparently advanced sciences and civilization.

In fact, the modern sciences (like quantum physics and epigenetics) have recently been discovering to be true claims that yoga has been making for millennia!

***

I was very ill on that yoga teacher training, and as my opportunity to become an Adept Asana God faded I had a stark choice: quit the course and go home ‘with my tail between my legs’, or surrender my ego and give myself fully to the wisdom and power of those ancient teachings. Thankfully, I chose the latter. Actually, I remember the exact moment of my decision. It was quite literally a dark night of my soul.

I was lying in bed. It was about 4am. I wept with self-pity. Every muscle in my body ached. My throat burned; I had a fever and I hadn’t slept deeply for weeks. Every night I went to bed late after a very long day (hours of chanting and meditation, karma yoga, four hours of asana and pranayama, many lectures and study) – to be regularly woken by my illness; the utterly ruthless mosquitoes of Southern India; and my roommate’s snoring, late-night (extra) meditation, and loud, early morning neti nasal cleaning.

As I listened to the wonderful sounds of the inside of this man’s sinuses splattering the tiles in the tiny bathroom we shared, my ego crumbled. I had nothing. My health, my dignity, and my pride, had all apparently refused to get on the plane with me to India. I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life. I lay in bed and thought of my girlfriend back home, and of the warm hug she would give me as I stepped off the plane to meet her. A large part of me was seriously considering giving up. The thought of another day dragging myself around the ashram… chanting alien sounding words and forcing my aching body to undergo the humiliation of another asana class (in which I could barely hold a single position longer than a few seconds)… it was simply too much! My ego crumbled. It had nothing to hold on to. I was in a corner, with only too choices: run home for a hug that I knew would be only a very temporary comfort, or stay on here in total uncertainty, discomfort, and enforced humility, to stick it out. Fight or flight, without a drop of adrenalin left.

Something shifted in me. I realized slowly that I wasn’t going anywhere. I inwardly decided that I was staying the course. I felt deep down that if I ran away now, my running would be for the rest of my life. On the other hand, if I stayed, that perseverance would define me forever. So I felt something shifting inside me as I said no to my ego, and to the thought of a loving hug, and to the comforts of home. In that moment I felt a softening and an opening in my heart, and I fell asleep.

Once I stopped resisting what I was being taught – once I gave up my preconceived ideas of what I would learn – and embraced the ancient teachings fully, everything changed. My health started slowly returning, along with my dignity. My heart stayed open, and I began to understand the beauty and wisdom of chanting. My meditation, in which I’d previously been aware only of aching bones and weary muscles, went deeper, and I began to embrace and enjoy the silence within. I felt lighter than ever before.

Suddenly a whole new world had opened up before me.

This is the potential and the promise of yoga:

“Yogas chitta vritti nirodaha”

Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind. Projection ends, and true perception begins.

How can you better that?

You can’t.

So please beware of people that say that they have contributed to an evolution of yoga. It’s a contradiction in terms. You cannot evolve something that is perfect – there is no need!

The danger is that yoga becomes nothing more than an exercise in egotism; a practice intended to relax the ego ends up in fact stimulating it.

Of course it’s no danger at all: evolution is a natural and inevitable process, and the evolution of consciousness demands that at some point, each of us must let go of the ego and go beyond. But this is a warning: choose carefully how you practice. Because fuelling the ego now makes for a more difficult transition later– that’s the true meaning of karma.

Respect the ancient traditions. Realize that we know very little about them, and study them with wonder.

To do anything else is, to my mind, to suffer from the same arrogance and lack of respect with which I suffered before that dark night of my soul.

Please ‘like’ it up, share, and spread the love, as always! Oh, and leave a comment! Thank you…

(If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy Get Out Feeling Good (The wise grieve neither for the living, nor for the dead) )

About Ben Ralston

Ben Ralston almost joined the army when he was 18. When he was 32 he almost became a Swami. *** Now he is a healer, Reference Point Therapy teacher, and advanced Yoga instructor in the Sivananda tradition . His work as a healer acknowledges trauma as the underlying cause of almost all human problems, and resolves trauma at the causal level: gut-based survival instincts. The intention behind all his work is to empower others. *** Ben splits his time between his busy international practice, training therapists, and writing. As an experienced Yoga and Meditation teacher he also runs retreats, usually on the beautiful Croatian coast. *** Connect with Ben on Facebook. Read more of his writing on his new website with integrated blog! Yes, he's excited about that :)

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18 Responses to “You did not help yoga evolve. (It’s the other way round…)”

  1. Harinath says:

    Dear Ben,

    I see your article as a yoga “fundementalist” backlash to the “yoga evolutionist” trend. So good job at pointing out the inconsistencies of that trend. But I would only partially agree with you. We can not change the fundamental principles of the universe or the principles of spiritual science (yoga) but the methods of cultivating spiritual awareness, and there application is actually in a constant state of flux. This is what accounts for the many religions of the world, and within India, the vast plurality of yogic schools, sects, etc. The true masters allways improvise new ways to the same old goal. Look at ramakrishna paramahansa, yogananda, Amma, Swami Kaleshwar. If you have not read “The Holy Science” by Sri Yukteshwar, I would recommend you do so. In every cycle of yugas, the masters initiate dharmas that are appropriate relative to this or that time and place. Look at the Sikh Dharma, for example. Yoga is not any specific practices but the various practices evolved and adapted over time by individuals to reach self realization. So this science is only perfect and complete relative to a practitioner who develops self awareness by it. So it is good to see the value of tradition. Look at physics or chemistry. Of course we should master tradition before we can improvise a new way. That is the real problem with all of these new pseudo-yogas. So maybe keep your heart open to new things. Would the world benefit if we were all in the Sivanand school? I don’t think so, because this is not even the most up to date version. I hope I’m hitting your buttons, but know that I appreciate where you are coming from a bit.

    Om Namah Shivaya, aloha, Hare Krishna, Shalom, peace, be light , an don’t take anything at face value. What is real and objective any way?

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Hi Harinath,
      Even if I would try pretty hard, I couldn't find anything to disagree with in what you say… so, er, no – sorry, you're not hitting my buttons :)
      I agree, but my article is not really about what you're talking about – it is, as you initially pointed out, more about the 'fundamentalist' vs 'evolutionist' schools of thought.
      I completely agree that teachers must adapt teaching to suit different times and different audiences… but I don't agree that Yoga is being 'improved' or 'developed' by yoga studios, teachers, books, in the West. I just don't see that. That's the premise of what I wrote…
      With love!
      Ben

      • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

        I think that I would place myself in the maligned "yoga evolves" camp. However, for me at least it is a misinterpretation to take this as a claim that "yoga is being improved." Some may see it this way, true. But when I hear "evolving," I take it to mean "changing to meet the needs and sensibilities of this particular time and place." So if you agree with Harinath on that issue, I do too, and there is really no conflict on that issue at all.

        • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

          Carol, I agree that the teacher changes the way he presents the teachings… but I don't agree that Yoga itself has changed. Could you tell me how you feel Yoga has changed / evolved?

          Personally I feel that the word evolution does imply development and improvement. Without evolution things die and are forgotten… but it's just semantics and unimportant I guess.

  2. Kelly says:

    That is Narasimha not Shiva, he is devouring our vengeful nature.
    Yoga systems are not perfect, because they cannot address a particular person at a particular time. They are mostly perfect, wise headings and guidelines and inspiration, though the spirit of your article is true, currently now many people want Truth only as they think it should be. Harinath expresses my other sentiments well.

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Ahhh, you are right about Narasimha. But don't tell anyone ;)

      And I disagree (predictably). Yoga *is* perfect – it never set out to address a particular person at a particular time… rather, it addresses the whole of mankind timelessly, and succeeds, perfectly.

      • Kelly says:

        I see now there isn’t a disagreement, except maybe predictably on particulars of what is “perfection”. People dismiss injunctions of yoga, but this does not fault yoga system but the ego system. Again and again we pick ourselves up to pursue the task, eventually the vision appears in the the determinate mind. Narasimha shows us that no matter how crafty a person thinks they are, the Lord always sustains beyond craft.

  3. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Hi Ben. I appreciate many of your points. Thank you so much for this.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  4. [...] opinion on blogging yoga exists somewhere in between Ben Ralston who believes that “you did not help yoga evolve” (even though he might not be talking directly about yoga blogging) and Carol Horton who thinks that [...]

  5. sarah oakley says:

    Great article. I enjoyed the comments too.

    I agree with you Ben. I expect there are many teachers who run classes under some neuvo yoga title who don't know what “Yogas chitta vritti nirodaha” means let alone help their students to work towards it. But they can boast a great trikonasana!

    But as you say, each to their own. I just hope this brings people towards the joy I feel from my "deeper" classical practice.

    love Sarah

  6. Cynthia says:

    Hi Ben,
    Your article is very well written and makes a lot of good points. However, as an evolutionary biologist (who currently works as a yoga teacher) I do just want to point out a few things that I think are relevant, since the point of your article is that yoga can't evolve because it's perfect.

    Evolution is process orientated and does not move towards a goal of "perfection" therefore, it is an ongoing process that is never complete. Humans are still evolving, as are all other species on the planet. You've said that evolution means "progress, expansion, development" but evolution actually describes what happens when the subject under study changes in response to environmental pressures. It is not about fitting into an ideal or a perfect model. How "good" or "perfect" something is, is entirely dependent on context. If the context fluctuates (as everything does) then evolution cannot stop.

    In this case the "subject" which is evolving (or has evolved) is yoga. The context, of course, is our world. As you say yoga has changed, and I would add that it has changed to suit it's environment (namely, the lifestyles of the people who are practicing). This is the definition of evolution (changing in response to environmental pressures). Whether you think yoga is better or worse as a result is, of course, up to you.

    I definitely agree that "yoga" is more asana-focused now than ever, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing, is it? When yoga was developed all those thousands of years ago people had very different lives. They were not nearly as sedentary as we are, nor as stressed, working monotonous, repetitive jobs day in and out. They were not exposed to the vast range of toxins present in our food, water, air, and environments. The physical focus of the yoga practice is of course not better than the classical practice, but perhaps it is well suited to the needs of many modern practitioners. The fact that it has changed in response to our current state of being does mean it has evolved, however.

    Thanks again for the article!

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Hi Cynthia,

      Thanks for a fascinating comment. It's quite an honor to have an evolutionary biologist commenting on my post that is (not really) all about evolution!

      I agree that evolution is about process rather than 'perfection', but the process is all about overcoming challenges isn't it? A species evolves in order to overcome environmental challenges, and always in ways that are more likely to assure it's survival.
      And it's certainly true that humans are still evolving! I'd theorize that we are still only in the prepubescent stages of that process…

      But the my post is really a reaction to the egos in the Yoga world who try to justify their focus on the physical as an evolution. It's not an evolution at all. It's simply a justification of their choice to disregard the deeper aspects of yoga. You're right – our needs are different from the needs of our ancestors. But I would argue that we also need devotion in our lives much more than they did. We also need to learn to think much more than they did. In fact, we need Yoga in all it's aspects now more than we ever did. But we're also conditioned not to work hard at the things that don't come easily. And conditioned to focus on the physical. So it's very easy to say: "I only do asanas, and the way I do them is actually an 'evolved' form of yoga. Sorry, but to me that's total nonsense :)

      With love
      Ben

  7. Mike says:

    Yoga is a human invention. It was created by people and is changed by people. To think it is some kind of absolute system that existed in a pure state before it came to the west is naive.

  8. Christine Janeczko says:

    Thank you for sharing this article. I started this process earlier this year under the guise of writing a blog. During the writing of the blog I spent five days with Ram Dass: my heart was opened.

    I have been trying to convey in my blog exactly what you are saying: Asana is not all there is to yoga!

    Keep up the good work. With kindness, Chris

  9. [...] morning I read an article in elephant journal about yoga’s evolution. In it, Ben Ralston says, “Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of [...]

  10. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Evolution means change, sure. But implicit is the idea that that change is for the *better*. Improvement. The Dodo didn't evolve, so died. Human beings have evolved from reptiles through mamals, into our present form. We became more agile, taller, with better vision, and far greater capacity for higher thinking and communication. These are all improvements. So evolution is not just random change. It is a journey towards perfection – or if not perfection, which arguably can never be attained, then certainly improvement. This is my understanding of evolution. Especially in regard to evolution of consciousness, which in this context (yoga) is what it's all about.
    I am a yoga purist. I do believe Western Yoga has 'changed' yoga. But that doesn't mean it's evolved, it just means change. Yoga-lates is a change. Is it better than traditional yoga? Obviously not. It's just a change. And that's my point… when people believe that yoga has changed *for the better*, they are deluding themselves.

  11. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Carol, great points, challenging to answer. I will answer in full, but I'll do it in blog form because I believe this conversation merits it… thank you for your intelligent and eloquent comment, I will get back to you.
    Ben

  12. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Hmmm :)
    Great comment. Yep, the wisdom (and that's what it's all about – when it's not about ego) is unchanging.
    People become certified yoga teachers in a weekend, and online!!
    Anyway, thanks for the support, I appreciate it.
    Om and Prem
    Ben

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