Yoga Poses: Old, New, or Both?
BY: MITCHEL BLEIER
There is no definitive way to view the body’s alignment in hatha yoga. There seem to be agreements based on years of tradition, beliefs, the access to information we have, and innumerable other variables, such as our goals and expectations within the asana practice. However, all truth is dynamic, and as we discover more through the years of practicing yoga, what we end up with are new truths that weren’t available when we first began or even present. It is like Dr. Steven Hawking who received his doctorate for a thesis that proved a theory of physics for the first time, and then he spent the remainder of his career trying to prove a different view than his doctorate thesis. Yoga is just like this. As we learn more about the body and it’s range of movement and function, we also learn how certain yoga poses are serving us, or in the painful truth, not serving us. A yogi's view of the body and its alignment is not meant to stake a claim at being better or more right than the common agreements. Were there really systems, styles, and dogmas of "yoga styles" as we have today? Sure, the history points to lineages and traditions, and there were arguments around the Absolute and how to attain it and knew you had attained it. Yes, it appears the human condition over time is to make differences and compare one thing against another with the goal to win or be better. But is yoga's future limited to the common condition or can it be more evolved and progressive? Did the rishis of the Upanishads, who were the closest historical yogis to the Vedas, separate themselves from one another through systems, right, or wrong? Or did they ask, listen, and help each other learn and be better?
Nowhere in the history of hatha yoga has there ever been such a strong focus on the physical practice of postures to ascend the spiritual path. Traditionally hatha yoga as a system, involved pranayama, meditation, astrology, diet, cleansing techniques, as well as, asana. The asanas were little in number and belonged to a different model of science, beliefs, and language of the body than the current Western sciences, beliefs, and names we use today. The overall purpose was the enlightenment of the soul, and the physical practices, acts, and behaviors connected to an energetic alignment of not just the physical body, but it's astral, mental and causal bodies too. The practices brought about a greater capacity of the human potential and an evolution towards enlightenment. Today, for whatever reasons, the popular notion of yoga and its practices in the West are focused around the physical and, more specifically, the asana practice with some breath involvement. It is even debatable whether the teaching of the breath in a typical class is accurate or beneficial. This doesn't mean the notions of spirituality and heart-centered qualities aren't present in the current yoga teaching and practice, but if surveyed on what yoga is, people would most likely answer with "stretching," or "down dog." Since this is now the case, the alignment of muscles and actions in poses has become a necessary study and evolution unlike any other time in hatha yoga's past. In some ways, the practice has become isolated from its greater context, and positioned to an exalted performance that in many classes across the country is more like a sport, in which, the physical postures are perfected, even measured. Something that can be compared more to gymnastics, acrobatics, or a contortionist then a sage meditating in solitude. What we have here is not a degradation of yoga, but rather, something different or new, and being so we should look at it through a lens of the what is happening now instead of held in the past. In fact, we can live with both, the established ways and the up and coming ideas. It depends on the person: what he or she does, age, life experiences, needs, and ultimately, his or her purpose in practicing asana.
If we look at yoga's evolution in the West as a sport, then the practice of it takes us towards extreme movements for the body. Elite athletes train at levels beyond the comprehension of the average person's body, stressing it to such extremes where an injury is part of their world. These athletes are paid, many of them astronomical amounts, to perform at such high levels. Yoga has in it an inferred promise towards enlightenment, and now that promise somehow got placed into the achievement or perfection of the poses, at least here in the West. But to push the body to these extreme levels of postural perfection, can be dangerous and unhealthy, just like an elite athlete through training and competing is often injured. One thing that is happening today is more yoga-induced injuries than ever before. A simple answer may be more people are doing a physical yoga than ever before, and yes, that is true and can be a valid reason. But we can also look at the way we are practicing and the attitude we take the poses as a culture. It's no longer the Lilias Folan's PBS yoga of gentle stretching on the floor (by the way, I adore Lilias). It's a whole new world of very physical yoga that has taken over the mainstream, and understanding that yoga is more just as much accepting what's new as it is to understand how old it is.
The strong emphasis and celebration of completing a yoga pose, or even the idea of working to acquire such poses, seems ironically counter to the point of yoga. There is very little historical evidence to support the common ideas about the yoga postures have any “spiritual” relevance. The oldest text that introduces hatha yoga used very few postures, and the majority, if not all of them, were simple seated poses. In the early Twentieth Century, T. K. V. Krishnamacharya began teaching many more yoga poses than historically known. He said he learned them from a yogi living in a cave where he studied with him for seven years and learned 5,000 poses. There is no record of this yogi, and no one can locate the cave, let alone 5,000 poses. He also claimed to find ancient teachings of a systematic practice of yoga asana written on palm leaves, and as soon as he transcribed the scroll ants ate the leaves. He taught this style, a more vigorous series of hatha yoga postures, to the young boys at the Mysore Palace. How can we validate any of this history? Perhaps it was more about reclaiming something from the Indian people's past then having it be true, particularly in a British colonized India. There are many assumptions to why Krishnamacharya taught that vigorous hatha yoga to the boys, and all most presumably be true to some degree. Some say it came from the influence of gymnastics and wrestling. Another belief is hatha yoga was a form of military training for the young boys. A way to prepare them to fight the British. And of course, politics influenced many decisions. Whatever the reasons, in less than one hundred years, the postural practice of yoga spread throughout the world and took on innovations unlike any other time in the five hundred years prior.
Another interesting and less known shaper of modern day yoga is a man name Jagganath Gune, who in 1924 established an ashram devoted to the scientific study of yoga. He was well known for being an admirer of the independence movement that was gaining power in colonized India, a movement that Gandhi and Nehru led. It's important to understand India's political landscape since it always played a role in shaping the spiritual landscape. Before Gune opening this ashram, yogis did not have a very good reputation. They were scary, often considered crooks, magicians, or imposters, and practitioners of Tantra, but they were the connection to India's spiritual roots and in a British ruled India that gave people a sense of identity. In the 1800's these yogis were gaining a reputation in Europe for their supernatural physical feats. But by the early 1900s, their reputations were tainted. It was important for the independence movement to have a past that they could be proud of, and repackage it to be ready for the new era. Gune was outspoken about his political affiliations, and many affluent Hindu nationalists were large donors to his ashram. Gune's ashram radically changed the way yoga is perceived: from an untidy, ashen-smeared, disheveled charismatic performing Tantric acts, sexually rituals, and unfathomable feats (like being buried alive for 40 days and nights), to a sterile, clean, scientific experiment. The mess, the sex, and the danger were gone and in its place was a white lab coat and the feeling akin to a Western hospital for healing, only in this case through pranayama and asana. He published many reports without any scientific credence or backing. In fact, he had no education in science or medicine, let alone any accredited education. Gune exposed a new breed of yoga to the West with many of the great Indian luminaries of modern yoga, like Krishnamacharya and Iyengar who visited him and learned at his ashram. Yoga was reshaped, repackaged, and redesigned to fit a new era of Indian politics and needs. It was not based on thousands or even hundreds of years of proven experiential results. He created, very smartly and based on his preferences a yoga stripped of the past yogis and ready for a brand of the new yogi.
Today the common experience and understanding of yoga lie in yoga’s postures, with countless dissections and arguments over the proper physical biomechanical alignment: movement of the muscles, joints, hand placements, foot placements, eye gazes, etc. These debates are more a distraction and a way to enlarge the ego then it is to evolve and listen to what's changing. Sadly, the yogi has fallen in the arms of a greater machine, corporate America, than in knowing how to a yogi. Right now, an important question to ask is, "What functions do the yoga poses serve in my life?"
When you start asking this question, then you develop an honest relationship with the postural practice that is personal and, hopefully, healthy. If it is to conquer the asanas and do them all, then wonderful, that can have great value. It will take hours and hours, and years and years, of practice and commitment. It will take a tremendous understanding of the body, in differing ways, and it will most likely come with pain, suffering, and injuries, as well as celebrations, elation, and strength. If you decide to look at the poses as a way to gain function in your physical life, support deeper health and spiritual discoveries, then wonderful too. In this way, then knowing what your personal, healthy functioning range of motion is will be necessary, and staying within that is the key. There isn't a better or worse, or right or wrong, but rather, your choice. And your choice is allowed to change.
What is the healthy functioning range of motion? What do our bodies really do on a regular, daily basis? We stand, sit, walk, lower down, get up, lay down, squat, and maybe run, jump, lift, crawl, but not much more. I don't think I've ever met anyone who has a reason to function with his or her leg behind their head or walk around with their feet on their head. Of course, these are things we can do, and find great joy and accomplishment in doing them, but also, at what cost? Do they help support your life and make you function better? This alternative view is an evolution or progression from the traditional agreements of hatha yoga that traps us in the past (which isn't that old or validated), and the West's current relationship with yoga as poses. It comes out of the voices, bodies, and experiences of great yogis, and gravitates towards the function of our bodies, minds, and emotions for the daily needs and basis: what we need or use the most.
An alternative view of posture can come right from science. Advancements in science is happening at such rapid rates today that can begin to verify the different states or claims yogis have described for centuries. We have much greater information into the brain and the NeuroSciences than ever before, such as studies on happiness that can scientifically state that happiness is 90% within the individual and only 10% based on things outside the person. The Maitri Upanishad, nearly 2500 years ago said, “What’s outside is inside, and what is inside creates what is outside.” Further studies show us that our belly is our main sensory brain within the body, which validates things like the cakras and brings a greater awareness of posture and how it affects our moods. Also, we have a better understanding of breathing and the blood chemistry of our blood, as well as, the heart and the power of it as the central intelligence of the body and the evolution of the mammalian and human nervous system. Lastly, there are physics principles that help explain the way the Universe builds, from the smallest molecules within our bodies, to beehives, trees, the human body, and even to the amazing man-made structures we see today that seem to defy the laws of gravitational pull. All of this makes us more informed than ever before to bring physical yoga into the West, for Westerners.
Yoga is the concept of continuously and constantly, which is a way to describe your fascia, your connective tissue. If anatomists had described the body for us, then they would have described a unifying network of fibers that was visible everywhere within the body, connecting it. Isn't that what the Rishis described? Unfortunately, for historical reasons, this was not the case, and anatomists have ended up defining the body for us as distinct parts that do separate actions. This modern way of defining the body is valuable in compartmentalizing the body and understanding it in pieces. But the truth is everything is connected. Yogis have known that for thousands of years, after all, yoga means union. The union is everywhere, especially within our bodies. When we treat the body as one connected network of fibers, which are communicating across the body at speeds ten times faster than the brain. We find that every movement has a reaction to all parts of the body. And every experience is in the fascia. It becomes almost impossible to isolate out an area for a singular purpose, which means healing and health is a whole being view.
Integrating this view into the body's movement and making it functional requires the need to turn your perspective at times. A seamless integration is one that is continuous and constant. Your body is in a perfect balance of tension, called Tensegrity (thank you, Buckminster Fuller). You learn to move with that balance. In and out of any movement, but mostly the ones you perform regularly, like sitting, walking, lowering down, etc. If you imagine a geodesic dome, or geometrical shapes like a tetrahedron, icosahedron, or octahedron, and you apply force at any point on its surface, the balance of its geometry would evenly distribute the weight across the surface making it impossible to crush. It allows then lightweight materials to create a large structure the can bare large loads of weight. The is the human body is a network of fibers that are holding the body in perfect balance. We are floating. We are currents. We are electric. We are light. We are so much more, and that is what I believe the yogi's of every generation was discovering. They were free from social constructs, politics, being right or wrong. Instead, they were unapologetically invested in the discovery of the Absolute as a state of superhuman performance. Is it more valuable to feel superhuman than to hold on to an idea that isn't working?
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