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Historical Confabulations: The Diverse Sources of Yoga

To trace the history of yoga, is to trace a nebulous cluster of ideas and practices, across wildly different religions and groups of people. For hundreds of years there have been yogas in many Indic religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, but for most people, the term yoga, and it’s modern offspring are often associated with Hinduism. It is important to note that Hinduism itself is an over-generalization that encapsulates an enormous field of beliefs and forms of religiosity. India itself is a country of pluralism that is in no way reducible to a single set of beliefs or practices, nor can it be essentialized in any meaningful way. There are people who follow primarily one deity (such as Visnu), multiple deities, different philosophies, and there are local village practices (such as tree worship). Syncretism, the blending of various beliefs and ideas, is characteristic of Indian religion and philosophy. Two people who might claim to be Hindu can believe and practice radically different things (the modern conception of a unitary Hindu identity is a relatively recent one, largely brought about due to the collapse of the British raj).

I started off writing a linear historical narrative of yoga and than I realized it was impossible. In the words of David Gordon White (from Jain’s Selling Yoga), “Every group in every age has created its own version and vision of yoga. One reason this has been possible is that its semantic field— the range of meanings of the term “yoga”— is so broad and the concept of yoga so malleable, that it has been possible to morph it into nearly any practice or process one chooses”.

When talking to modern yogis about the historical origins of yoga, there are a few sources at which they most often point. These sources are often Indian, and upon closer inspection bear remarkably little resemblance to modern yoga practice in the West. These sources can be found to varying degrees on the bookshelves of urban yoga studios – alongside texts that are merely indic and not necessarily yogic such as The Mahabharata. The two major sources are: non-tantric, or orthodox conceptions of yoga (primarily raja yoga), which include texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; and tantric or unorthodox conceptions of yoga (hatha yoga) which includes texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

The word “yoga” comes from the sanskrit verb root yuj literally referring to “yoking”, like harnessing oxen together. So, the word yoga means “to unite” or “to join together” but it’s ancient usage reflected it’s meaning as a particiluar spiritual practice. There are classically four types of yogas within orthodox Hinduism: there is karma yoga, or the spiritual practice of not being attached to the fruits of one’s positive actions; bhakti yoga, the practice of spiritual devotion such as to a particular deity; jnana yoga, the yoga of study and intellectual contemplation; finally, and (arguably) the most recent addition, was raja yoga, the spiritual practice of meditation and inner cultivation through specific techniques outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These four forms of yoga were was historically classified as an astika practice, meaning that it still respected the canonical scriptures (at least nominally). This use of the term yoga (within the astika/nastika distinction) is why The Bhagavad Gita is often seen on a yogi’s bookshelf since it has passages concerned with the first three forms of yoga. Patanjali is thought to have lived in the 3rd century CE and there is some debate whether Patanjali was influenced by Buddhist or Jain meditation. Raja yoga is distinct from modern forms of yoga in that it contains very few physical postures, or asanas. It contains padmasana (lotus pose) and a few others but they are largely seen as supplemental to meditation. There is no mention of many mainstays of contemporary physical practice like Warriors 1, 2, and 3. The Yoga Sutras were not an explication of body centered spiritual practices.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written in the fifteenth century and contains a much greater emphasis on physical postures and the body. However, there are also a collection of unusual practices in the book that you probably wouldn’t find most Western yogis doing (nasal flossing). David Gordon White’s book The Alchemical Body is a great analysis of the complex religious milieu that existed in India at the time – a boiling intersection of religion, class, and race (perhaps somewhat analogous to a globalizing modernizing culture). It is especially difficult to differentiate and identify strains from this milieu. Previous ideas of yoga were reshaped and reinvented, and the lines between various religions blurred and became insignificant.

The actual transmission and transformation of yoga in the west is complex and the causal factors are numerous and varied. Krishnamacharya and other popularizers of Indian yoga drew from fields such as the modern calisthenics and gymnastics movement. It was a syncretism between many Western fields concerned with physical health, and Indian practices that were often portrayed as being part of a clear “Hindu” historical lineage. Interestingly enough, there now exists many strains of yoga with claims of Buddhist, Hindu, and even Sikh lineage. (See: Yoga Body:The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton]

Some critics of contemporary yoga practice claim that it is simply spiritual materialism, consisting of nothing but stripped down religious rituals. Others, such as the site, claim that it is a form of cultural appropriation, and rife with social justice issues. What needs to be recognized is that there is no ‘true’ yoga and there are no ‘true’ owners of the practice. Yoga, like religion, is profoundly multi-faceted and can’t be essentialized to a particular doctrine, people, or practice. However, people can make cases where practices are problematic and cases in which the practice’s potency might become diluted. Asking questions about ‘true’ forms of culture is near impossible, and nothing resists an inquiry quite like the history of yoga. The way that different practitioners draw from varied sources and historical narratives, is a testament to the plurality of yoga. An entire plurality of approaches to yoga should be, if not encouraged, than at least accepted and criticisms should arise when based upon questions of efficacy and malpractice, but not on questions of essentialism.

More on this:

(often cited as) Primary Yoga Sources:
Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Gheranda Samhita
Shiva Samhita
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the Edwin Bryant translation is particularly good)
The Bhagavad Gita (and really anything else “Hindu” related)

“Scholarly” Sources:
The Alchemical Body by David Gordon White
Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton
Selling Yoga by Andrea Jain
The Great Oom by Robert Love