By Zach Spafford
One evening, I made french fries for my sons. We had run out of ketchup so I gave them mayonnaise instead. My 4 year-old looked at it, made a crinkly face, said “Ewwww, I only like ketchup”, and firmly refused to dip his fries in the mayo. My clever 8 year-old then told him that the substance before him was in fact “white ketchup”, and that if he just tried it he would like it. As a ketchup fan, or at least a fan of the idea of ketchup, the 4 year-old, pleased to hear this news, proceeded to dip his fries in the mayonnaise. He loved it. It was “yummy”. For quite some time after that, we referred to mayonnaise as ‘white ketchup’.
Because this is the is the compact, bullet point version of the original, much longer article, I’ll cut right to the chase.
Yoga asana as we have come to understand the term, is ‘white ketchup’. In other words, it’s not ketchup at all. It’s actually mayonnaise, something entirely different from actual ketchup. We call it yoga asana because, like my 4 year old with the mayonnaise, that’s what people want to hear.
Mayonnaise in this sense covers the entirety of hatha inspired postural calisthenic routines that came to prominence around the 1930’s and all subsequent modifications, variations, mutations, evolutions etc. that followed.
We in the West already had a fitness jones, long before these novel Indian postural calisthenics came to our shores. So it wasn’t really a hard sell from the get.
The ‘yoga asana’, which in actuality was nothing more than hyped up postural calisthenics with an Eastern flair, was eagerly adopted and assimilated into our modern lifestyle because unlike the actual internal process of yoga, the overt body centric fitness vibe was not unfamiliar to us.
These poses, stripped of their contextual purpose as conditioning poses meant to prepare the body for actual yoga asana, were sold as the thing itself. The familiar feel-good fitness promises, combined with the allure of their exotic aura was too much to resist.
This can’t be mere fitness we told ourselves. Surely this can’t be mere mayonnaise.
But it is mere fitness isn’t it. Divorced from it’s historical, traditional, classical, practical, cultural context within the 8 part system, these conditioning postures, almost always ubiquitously associated with ‘exercise’ in the western fitness sense, are nothing more than well…exercise.
A quick side note, yoga is NOT exercise. Not in the physical fitness sense. And yes, that includes yoga asana. Furthermore, it never was. This realization is a tough one to accept and people fight it tooth and nail. But in the end, the evidence stands for itself.
It was only very recently (1920’s) that yoga became conflated with asana, and ‘asana’ conflated with everything but that for which it was intended.
The most solid example of this approximate timeline is found in Elliot Goldbergs The Path of Modern Yoga. In it he states “In founding the Yoga Institute, Yogendra had relocated the center of hatha yoga instruction from the realm of the sacred, the ashram, where renunciates withdrew from ordinary society to seek spiritual liberation, to the realm of the secular, the yoga center or institute, where students exercised together to improve their health. He had made an essentially religious experience into a secular experience. The means of this subversion of the hatha yoga tradition was its radical—but now axiomatic—form of instruction: the yoga class.”
Goldberg continues –
“So Yogendra created something novel: the yoga class session, a period of an hour or so, which pupils could attend and then leave. This tenuous agreement between yoga teacher and student was a fundamental and far-reaching departure from the sacred contract between guru and chela.”
Yogendra’s innovative drop in pose-based group fitness routine may very well have been the prototype of the modern postural calisthenics class that Jois, Iyengar, Bikram and others ended up passing on to the West as ‘asana’ years later. Once the asana-for-health brand was packaged up as something ancient, we bought it wholesale. This template is the ‘white ketchup’ that we continue to embellish upon, and repackage, and brand, and sell.
So ask yourself, why in da f are we calling what we’re all doing in class ‘asana’ anyway? How willing am I to continue to contribute to the appropriation and rebranding of another cultures already integral practice at the expense of that cultures unique history, traditions, and dignity?
At what point are we going to muster the integrity to stand up and call our mayonnaise, mayonnaise…our postural calisthenics, postural calisthenics?
The embellishment has already become so thick that it’s starting to slide off the cake in one big mudslide like too much heavy frosting. Isn’t it time we all pitch in and clean up this mess together?
Looking at it contextually, there is no room for goats in actual yoga asana. No room for beer. No room for cleverly choreographed sequences nor ‘Power Flows”. These gimmicks are only possible because we’re not doing ‘it’. We’re basically just spicing up our own fitness mayonnaise, and calling it yoga as we desperately try to capture the publics attention.
Let’s face it, 15 years under Yoga Alliances substandard YTT ‘standards’ and yoga teaching has devolved to little more than group aerobics instruction with a few trite Rumi-easque tropes sprinkled in for ‘inspiration’. *Gag. But we get it YA. You’re a business after all. And without the YTT mills cranking out new (unqualified) paying registrants, who then go on to pay you to open new (unqualified) YTT mills…. your kushy revenue stream might dry up and…Anyway, we get it. Great job gaming the system. I mean, who doesn’t love a good corporate survival story!
The only reason YA was able to pull off this preposterous fitness instructor racket for so long was because of our overall collective neglect and our inability to make distinctions between yoga asana’s contextual purpose, and our own fitness predilections, which I suppose could be summed up again as neglect or perhaps less harshly, a general lack of attentiveness.
Once you start looking into the purpose of yoga asana, and inspecting the overall process of which it is only a small part, it really isn’t that hard to see the distinctions begin to take form.
In relation to facilitating single pointedness of mind, yoga asana is a step in the process. A tool. A technique. It’s an actual thing. It has a history and purpose beyond the somatic embodiment and mind-body connection commonly applied to it in contemporary yogaland. In fact, you might say that the purpose of yoga asana is actually to disconnect (temporarily) from the bodily feedback loop in order to explore the mind unencumbered, or, more accurately perhaps, to harness or ‘yoke’ the mind‘s modifications. Yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ yes?
So what do we do when someone insists that yoga asana is exercise in the fitness sense? These days I don’t hold back with the harsh truth. I tell them that what they are doing is indeed exercise in the fitness sense, but that it’s not yoga asana in the yoga sense. It’s yoga asana prep.
If there is any pushback, and there almost always it, I’ve found the following references to be more than enough in formulating an informed argument to the contrary. Over and over, we will hear the same message. Yoga asana is traditionally, a static pose for meditation toward the aim of and the practice of yoga. In preparation for your asana, other pose like activities were developed in order to increase the viability of the asana. These are preliminary practices and conditioning poses, meant to prepare the body for asana>pratyahara>dharana>dhyana>samadhi<yoga. It was the asana prep poses that were stripped form the classical 8 part system and rebranded as stand alone health/fitness practices.
To repeat, it was the asana prep poses that were stripped from the classical 8 part system and rebranded as a stand alone health/fitness practices. This point can’t be overstated. Yoga asana is one part of the 8 part system… and the conditioning prep poses are the smallest, most insignificant part of yoga asana. If you were going on an 800 mile trip, the conditioning poses are the equivalent of topping off your oil and backing out of the driveway.
No wonder we haven’t been able to get it right. We’ve been stirring flour in a bowl without any eggs, thinking its eventually supposed to congeal into batter, all the while telling people that we’re baking a cake. Far from it friends.
But don’t take my word for it.
The following is an asana synopsis of sorts, providing you with some historical, working definitions of yoga asana from a wide variety of texts, so that you can be as informed as possible, while slagging it out with your friends at the local meta meat locker on your magic rubber carpet of determination.
While this is by no means an exhaustive compilation, it does represent a unified field of familiarity and acceptance of the terminology over a broad time span. You will see that, from the pre-classical ‘Vedic’ period (i.e. 1200-500BCE), all the way through to the Middle Ages (1500CE), the definitions line up quite well with those of the historians from the modern era, and that, despite the different factions claiming ‘yoga’ as their own, the definition and practical application of yoga asana (as a technique for facilitating the inner, mind practice i.e. yoga/samādhi) was never really in dispute.
We start, below, with several versions and translations from the Yoga Sutras, as these were the main source for informing the parameters of yoga asana as part of the classic 8 part system throughout the bulk of yoga’s currently verifiable history. Georg Feuerstein says in The Yoga Tradition – “Historically speaking, the most significant of all schools of Yoga is the classical system of Patañjali, which is also known as the “view of Yoga” (yoga-darśana). This system, which came to be equated with Râja-Yoga, is the formalized résumé of many generations of yogic experimentation and culture.”
We will then reference a few other ‘classic’ texts, and then some written pre- and post-Mysore era, but all informed from pre-Mysore, pre-Yogendra sources. This is important to remember as that is the general point in history when the classical conditioning poses were divorced from the rest of the process and positioned as stand alone practices that somehow mysteriously retained their Yogic bonafides.
Tip: Read the asana compendium several times. The more you read, the more the threads bring form to the overarching theme.
The slideshow is immediately below. Don’t forget to scroll to the right!
The above references are a sampling of the texts concerning asana and its contextual usage as a means to still the body in order to begin the work of yoga. We learned that classical yoga asana is something more than the shapes we have borrowed from hatha, but also that many of the modern shapes we attribute to hatha are themselves something much more contemporary, owing their present form more to multicultural and multidisciplinary influences than to any single Indian lineage. This is not to say that medieval hatha was not authentically Indian in origin, only that medieval hatha did not make the jump into what some are now referring to as Modern Postural Yoga. Instead of MYP, I much prefer the term Hatha inspired postural calisthenics because while modern and postural, there isn’t much precedent for the ‘Yoga’ part.
We also learned that traditional hatha postures themselves were not commonly seen as asana proper, but rather as preliminary conditioning poses or ‘prep’ poses for preparing the physical and ‘subtle bodies’ for the work of asana > pratyāhāra > samyama and so on.
Most importantly, we learned that yoga asana was not a series of shapes done in a flow-like sequence, but rather a pose or set of poses done statically for long periods of time with the intention of training the mind away from the somatic distractions of the body. Despite the huffs and guffaws from those who seek to brand all ancient yogic practices as backwards and masochistic, not all who practice static postures did so to the detriment of their physical wellbeing. Classical yoga asana was a safe preparatory practice designed to facilitate the work of yoga.
So, the problem we have today is not that people are revamping an old practice in hip new ways. The problem is that they are essentially inventing a new practice (MPY or HIPC), and using an old mystical moniker (Yogasana) to legitimize its place in modernity. Essentially, they are adapting postural calisthenics to their own purposes but continuing to call it yoga asana. Again, this is not unlike calling ordinary mayonnaise white ketchup.
In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says to Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ by any other name would smell as sweet.” This is true. The thing itself, by any other name would retain the same qualities. But that’s not the case here. In the case of yoga asana, the defining qualities are long gone and only the name remains. I am quite certain that should Count Paris have changed his name to Romeo, Juliet’s lack of affection toward Paris would have remained intact. Changing the essence and keeping the name, is NOT the same thing as changing the name and keeping the essence.
So where do we go when the 84 poses alone don’t grant us access to the mystical Indian sauce? Do we continue to teach pose-based group fitness with no intention of ever acknowledging the rest of the process? How can we continue to call this pose-based fitness routine yoga asana when it is clearly only a romanticized approximation of hatha with no resemblance whatsoever to actual classical asana? How can we continue to sell it as white ketchup when it’s clearly mayonnaise?
If we accept that the poses we loosely base our group classes on today are in fact preliminary poses meant to prepare the body for asana, and that traditionally, doing those alone without dhāranā, dhyāna, samādhi (of which asana itself is simply a preliminary facilitating technique) is not yoga, then where is the yoga in the average group ‘yoga’ class? If we are simply moving our bodies through space, are we doing the thing or just using its name? What degree of Eastern embellishment will satiate our appropriation guilt and allow us to rationalize that this multicultural pose-based group fitness routine: “this is yoga”? A Ganesh over the door here? An Om stenciled there? How many namaste’s does it take to absolve this great post-modern lie?
There is an asana missing from yoga. And it’s not number 85. In fact, it could be any of the known poses, or something entirely different. It won’t be found in a picture on Instagram. It won’t be found on a kitschy tank top. It won’t be found in Sun A or Sun B. And unfortunately, it probably won’t be found in a modern volume-based yoga studio. This missing asana requires work beyond what your toned abs and hyper-mobile joints can grant you. It’s challenging inner work. Mind stuff. And the harder we grind away in hot studios perfecting those conditioning poses, the further away we get from ever achieving yoga. We are stuck in the trap of our bodies. Again. The ancient yogins sought to liberate themselves from the body’s dominance over the mind, but it seems that our modern myopic pose based practice is leading us ever deeper into a clingy body oriented trap.
Contextually speaking the thing we call yoga asana has mutated so far away from the original purpose that it’s almost comical. My intention here is to ask you to look at what this has become, contrast that with what it was, and hopefully reconcile the differences as best you can.
By all means, let certain aspects of the physicality change. They should. Again,15 years of YA pretending to be a legit regulating body, while in reality sleeping behind the wheel, we are careening out of control and people are getting debilitating injuries left and right.
By all means, let yoga remain open to others regardless of politics, sex, race, color, creed, and gender and ability.
But yoga asana as it was practiced so long ago, doesn’t require any of our tweaking. It can still work perfectly well without any of our confabulations as to it being something other than what it is.
After reading through the asana reference slideshow a few times, it should become glaringly apparent that we have cherry picked the very preliminary aspects of this thing out, and almost entirely disposed of the rest. Except for our shabby attempts to dress it up in exotic Eastern cliches, you would never identify what’s happening as ‘yoga’. That’s sad to me. Especially when the parts we have cherry picked out, are being used to the benefit of illegitimate charlatans, frauds, and opportunistic interlopers as they scavenge the landscape, leaching off of eager yoga believers in the vacuum left by the post modern commodification of something that is actually quite worth contextualizing.
So where does that leave us?
Are we supposed to just throw out our postural calisthenics group classes?
Obviously, the process of directing the mind toward single pointedness (ekāgratā) via dhāranā, dhyāna, samādhi is simply not a practice that you can easily graft onto a commercial group class model. The average paying customer wants to move and flow. So how do we meet them where they are and maintain the integrity of an actual yoga practice?
If the big name yoga posers are any indication, this is not an easy task to pull off. Look at how many disgruntled former yoga practitioners are out there rolling around on the ground like beached seals, pretending that what they’re teaching is yoga asana. Look at how many Pilates instructors there are poaching off of the pre-established yoga base, pretending that their functional movement is something new and exciting. None of it is yoga folks. It’s not even yoga asana.
The secular guru slayers have done their best to undermine all lineage and tradition but what they have replaced it with is even worse.
The gimmick is the new guru.
Coming to terms with these distinctions allows us to become very clear on what we are actually doing in those classes. If anything is to survive, it must be examined honestly. Much of what is being taught out there does not deserve to be called yoga asana, but some of it could qualify as ‘asana prep’. There is no reason why focused, functional physicality can’t be part of a yoga practice.
For example, my partner teaches the most skillful physical concentration practice I’ve ever witnessed. It’s focused, functional, strengthening, and restorative, and yet that portion of class is not technically yoga asana. It’s asana prep. It conditions the student to go further into the process by simultaneously developing their powers of concentration (a technique that comes in handy later in the form of dharana), as well as gently preparing the physical body to sit undisturbed in yoga asana. These subtle physical activities, done wisely, achieve the same goals of “health and lightness of body” spoken of in the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, but without all the nasty injurious end of range contortions that plague our wistfully exuberant, yet tragically unregulated, undereducated modern postural milieu.
So it’s not all bad news! You can still do your conditioning practice! Then, if you want to practice yoga asana, practice yoga asana! If you still aren’t sure what that is, do some research. If you don’t have a knowledgeable teacher, find some of the books above and study why asana is important in the bahiranga. Then study the antaranga. Study classical ashtanga. Try your best to contextualize this process. Instead of trying to force fit this context into your current understanding, try to bring your current understanding to the context first, and build out.
This stuff is worth exploring. And if you’re not going to explore it, it’s at least worth acknowledging. To do otherwise is to be the person who doesn’t know, or the person who doesn’t care. Either way, you’ve got mayo on your face.