November 18, 2009

How Old is Yoga?

Disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m sure. So are you. If I’ve got something wrong, comment and I’ll make corrections to this elusive, enigmatic and ill-understood question as we go (that’s the wonder of the web—it’s a two-way street) ~ed.

We American yoga students casually, commonly claim that history shows yoga to be at least 5,000 years old. Why? Because we’ve heard it from some yuppie hippie American dilettante, or read it in online somewhere, or in a marketing brochure.

Fact is, JC and the Buddha came about 2,009 and 2,572 years ago…that’s a loooong time ago. And you’re telling me yoga is twice that? Maybe so…but I don’t get it, yet.

The ancient Hindu Rig Veda is approximately 4000 years old, give or take 500 years…and it doesn’t mention “yoga.” Then, of course, there’s the seminal, philosophical classics Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, both of which mention yoga, which clock in in from the first millennium BCE right up to the modern period.

The only substantive claim yoga has to JCx2 is an image on a coin of a man in full lotus. You call that yoga? Give yoga more credit: it’s a full and expansive, multi-faceted physical and spiritual tradition drawing from several traditions and countless influences. Defining its age necessitates defining just what yoga is—and what it’s not—and that’s tough to do.

A few months back, I was in the Trident cafe, downtown Boulder, talking with my longtime acquaintance Nick Rosen, and he was talking about how, in the course of starring in Enlighten Up!, and meeting with Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, others, he’d learned that yoga was…

…not 5,000 years old

…not even, really, 500 years old

…over at Yogadork, probably my most-visited yoga site these days, Nick Rosen and Svasti politely discuss whether yoga might be 100 years old…here’s an excerpt from Nick’s comments:

“As I understand it, the tradition of asana AS WE PRACTICE IT TODAY — as a set of postures and movements we undertake to achieve health and for some a sense of spiritual/medititative calm, as an end in itself — and by tradition I mean a basically unchanging continuation of practice with the same means and ends, is about 100 years old. There was a book or two traced back to 500 years ago, but the way it was practiced and why it was practiced was very different back then. so how relevant is that?”

…read the rest at Yoga Dork, it’s well worth it. For even more depth on this discussion, check Nick’s Confessions of a Yoga Guinea Pig over at Huffington Post. Excerpt:

“…In a rare interview, BKS Iyengar, the 90-year old ambassador of yoga to the West, told me that his yoga, as taught to him by his master, was a purely physical exercise and completely unrelated to ancient philosophy. He says he invented and refined much of it himself. It wasn’t until 1960, while on a visit to London, that English intellectuals introduced Iyengar to the ancient “yoga sutras”. Five years later, he combined the yoga poses and the Hindu teachings together in his book “Light on Yoga,” which then sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the United States. And voila — the modern yoga craze was born. But it was basically a new age invention, not an ancient practice…”

Yoga as we know it today—hatha yoga—could be said to be just 50 years old, when BKS Iyengar brought various traditions (including British acrobatics) together in his seminal Light on Yoga. As far as the interviews I’ve done with various teachers on this question, this seems to be as accurate a place to plant a marker in the sand as any.

Where I differ from cynical savvy Nick (who cheerfully told me about the Yogadork commentfest yesterday when we ran into each other at the climbing gym) is the importance of defining and protecting “true yoga.” Now, I understand his point that “real yoga” has never really existed. Still, in the soupy marketing hype, the giddy goldrush that is American yoga over the past 15 years, it’s important to beware/be aware of “spiritual materialism“—not from a point of view of defining true yoga and identifying charlatans so much as from a personal practice point of view. Is our practice dedicated to the welfare of all? Is it about opening up to the present moment, and all that brings? Or is it merely about refining and perfecting ourselves, and our ego? Or is the yoga we practice losing its historical, spiritual thread—is it just about refining…our yoga butt?

Of course, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are also a pretty darn decent marker for the advent of “yoga.” Still, the yoga Patanjali talked little about what we know as hatha yoga, and more about about yoga as a spiritual path. Not something your modern soccer mom would recognize as yoga, or even the cousin twice- removed of yoga.

To read a succinct history of yoga, including lots of dates and early forms, click here.

To see my interview with Richard Freeman on the Future of Yoga, click here.

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