Written By Zachary Spafford
Here’s some food for thought. Would you like white ketchup with your fries?
Sorry, I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Try this instead.
To what degree do you understand that the entire modern postural yoga megasphere as we know it, is almost entirely made up based on misconceptions as to the age and authenticity of this thing we refer to as yoga asana?
It’s not uncommon in the yogasphere to find yourself in a spirited debate over what is classified as Yoga/yoga, but getting into a debate over what constitutes yoga asana is an exceedingly rare occasion. Most often when people say they “do yoga” they are referring to the modern physical practice specifically, or what they consider to be ‘yoga asana’. From Santa Monica to Manhattan, London to Tokyo, and all the cities and studios between, the term yoga asana enjoys a casually accepted, unchallenged gestalt. It is easily applied to almost any configuration of conveniently recognizable shapes. We in the West have played so fast and loose with the definition of yoga asana that the majority of us don’t care how it’s defined, as long as it conforms to our desires and meets our ‘needs’. At the top of this list of desires and ‘needs’ sits the reigning champion, Exercise, with Therapeutic Promises closely by its side.
If you happen to be part of the small minority of modern yoga practitioners who choose to use the old school definition of yoga asana, you might feel as though you’re fighting on the losing side of the schism. Especially in the land of the know-it-alls on Facebook. For example, what if someone told you that yoga asana was exercise in the fitness sense? If the chatter in the large Facebook yoga groups is any indication of this popular belief, you could safely say that there are many out there who probably agree with this standpoint. They might even bolster that opinion by presenting the dictionary definition of exercise, and argue that what they refer to as ‘yoga asana’ as practiced by the vast majority would fit that definition.
What if you disagree with the ‘asana as exercise’ statement? What if the fact that the vast majority calling their exercise ‘asana’ wasn’t enough to make it qualify as such? Would you even think to point out that, for them to claim that asana is exercise, “because most people call their exercise ‘asana'” is a total strawman argument? Would you have a strong enough counter argument to take the ‘asana as exercise’ peoples’ popular logical fallacy to task? In relation to the three-ring yoga fitness circus that we are exposed to everyday, debating this claim can seem a daunting endeavor. We are inundated with ads and products and social media images that all seem to reinforce the idea that yoga ‘is’ whatever we want it to be, leaving us with the idea that all the various parts of yoga are also open to our interpretation. The physical shapes themselves seem to be the only markers necessary to qualify the activity as ‘yoga’; and so arguing that fast sweaty gym yoga or goat yoga or kettle bell yoga isn’t the real deal is a futile effort because to most, as long as the recognizable shapes of the modern postural brand are present, ‘it is yoga’.
So why in da fuck are we calling what we all do in class asana, anyway?
Does it even qualify as yoga asana?
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.
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. So, let’s take a stroll through the asana archives. Here you will find bare bones references from historic texts, all showcasing common threads that become more apparent with multiple readings. This is similar to the hidden image 3D pictures that pop out at you if you stare at them long enough.
After this section, we can then discuss what it means for us as modern yoga aspirants to live in a world in which yoga asana is presumed to mean something very different from that for which it was intended. In the spirit of satya, let’s examine the historical definitions and common applications of the word ‘yoga asana’ in its traditional context. Once we are better equipped with this information we can cross-reference our modern attributions more accurately.
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 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. Tip: Read the asana compendium a few times before moving on to the next section.
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 the 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. 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. Classic yoga asana was a safe preparatory component preceding the work of yoga. The problem is not that people are renaming this practice. The problem is that they are inventing something new and using an old mystical moniker to legitimize its place in modernity.
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.
On that note, let’s jump right in and address yogaland’s pet obfuscation, that old relativist standby, “yoga is to me”. While I respect the verve and vigor it requires to keep that flying peach airborne, this isn’t quite the place for such a fanciful sojourn. Remember, yoga asana is the topic du jour on today’s menu. What IS yoga asana within the framework of this classic 8 part system? What understanding do the beacons of context provide?
Contextually speaking, yoga asana is not exercise. Not physical fitness. Not aerobics. Not gymnastics. Not contortionism. Not movement. Not wellness. Not dance. And it’s certainly not ‘what it is to you’! Nope. No buts. Stop. You can probably get away with the “yoga is to me…” line if you’re sufficiently dedicated to a self- entitled, all consuming, me-ism…, but you can’t pull that same trick with yoga asana. Not that you’ve ever had to…Hatha-inspired shapes have the privileged distinction of ranking high on the commodification scale and there is an entire industry that revolves around controlling the narrative behind this perpetually renewable resource.
The yoga industrial complex is a 16.8-27 billion dollar (depending on the source) a year industry. Those who have an investment in steering the narrative toward the ‘yoga as exercise’ model do not want you to make these kinds of considerations. You are the batteries that power the industrial yoga matrix. Your sweat is the sweet ambrosia that feeds the machine. If you unplug from this construct the whole thing will collapse, and that will be hard on some of the more heavily invested pocketbooks. So, those with the most invested in controlling the narrative do what they have always done. They pander, propagandize, make false claims and deceive. Yoga Alliance, one of the most heavily invested, manipulative and parasitic drivers of the industrial yoga machine, is working side by side with the fitness industry education/certification giant ACE to make it possible for fitness professionals to obtain continuing education credits for yoga workshops from YA registered teachers. Let that sink in for a moment…These newly minted amateur yoga instructors can then use their minimal knowledge of yoga to help sculpt the sweaty weight lifting crowd at a gym near you, furthering the naïveté surrounding what it is that yoga and yoga-asana are about in the first place. There seems to be a pretty sizable Yoga Alliance agenda hidden behind the clever little pairing of this fitness giant and the yoga registry. You see, it‘s not easy to pass yoga, with all of its Hindu and Eastern roots through the eye of the US political system’s needle, so that it can be included in a $1000 pretax write-off as part of the PHIT Act. Yoga Alliance is so desperately lobbying to have yoga included in this bill (a bill that benefits no one but YA itself and the studios that funnel them money), but those damn pesky Eastern roots make it way too threatening to the more conservative political sect. “Fear not” say the Yoga Alliance shills, “There’s a solution! Yoga poses aren’t part of an Eastern system at all! No, they‘re just shapes that result in physical fitness, nothing more.” Yoga can now be passed off as physical fitness, and YA can marry the wealthy and popular exercise industry and live happily ever after. The problem with that is, yoga isn’t fitness. Asana isn’t fitness either. Why would YA sell out like that? Refer to the top of the paragraph. $$$
Let’s be real. It’s the body-oriented practice that brings most of us into the studios and signing up on those online platforms. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Many of us continue to feed this misconception because we want to believe that practice is somehow something more than glorified calisthenics. We associate the moving practice (incorrectly) with an exotic ideology that fits our own Western predilections. A pre-packaged esoteric adornment to be not so inconspicuously displayed in our IRL ‘public feed’. An Eastern spirituality system with a built-in physique toner. A monthly membership to the philosophy-in-a-box-club. Without the bodily achievement based group fitness classes, Western yoga would have nothing to sell. For the industrial yoga matrix to survive, you must be plugged in, physically. My intention today is to point out that your physical involvement (as far as yoga asana in the classic sense is concerned) is tenuous at best.
You may hear people say that their movement practice is their yoga practice. For me, this is not worth getting into a debate over. Through a post modern relativist’s lens, my reading Leaves of Grass on a shaded bench by the river could qualify as “my yoga practice” in a broadly generic sense. That is, if I were to decontextualize the term, and water it down to Yoga/Yuj/Yoke(Union), leading to “This makes me feel as though I’m unified with something outside myself”. But that’s a bit of a cheap catch all, don’t you think? Call me old fashioned, but when I decide to practice the yoga asana aimed at bringing about a single pointedness of mind, I don’t pretend that any activity I do (even those I do with awareness) counts. After all, yoga asana has a purpose. There are, in fact, parameters around how this works.
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? The thing you see everyone doing in group classes seems to be aiming more than a little askew of this mark. While vigorous exercise can surely facilitate a ‘calm’ state of mind, that goal alone would be quite a departure from the actual work of attaining single mindedness via the mind- harnessing aperture of samyama. Through that lens, the aerobic group activity we’ve all seen playing out in the studio setting seems to be more of a commercialized mutation of a fetishized western adaptation of an imported amalgamation of a very ingenious and eclectic Indians hybridized method of yoga + gymnastics.
Of course, in the end people will continue to call whatever mindful movement exercise they’re doing a ‘yoga practice’, but even then, they are dangerously close to cultural appropriation because the spiritual imagery they are relying on for validation as some sort of complimentary, accessory function is very much culture-based and involved and hardly reflected in a sweaty, heartfelt flow, Ganesh on their tank top or not.
Believing that a mindful movement class makes you a yogi is like believing that skydiving in tandem with a paper clip connecting you to the guy with the parachute is enough of a connection to the parachute to make you a candidate for survival. You would never do this, I’m sure, but people all across the world now are identifying as yoga practitioners based on the paper clip connection that is the mindful movement practice + this and that cliche.
Before the West’s merging of dance-like elements with the already watered down iterations coming out of the subcontinent, there were no such practices attributed to classical yoga. But again, many will cling to the ‘yoga practice’ loophole as a means to justify whatever it is they feel like doing, including flowing sequences of hatha- inspired shapes. So, ‘yoga practice’? Maybe…Sure. Maybe if it’s a some bhakti- esque physical form of praise and worship like the Christian evangelicals. Why not? Again, for me, it’s just not worth debating with someone who is that determined to appropriate the term. But mindful movement and flowing sequences of hatha – inspired shapes as classic yoga asana? Does it qualify? No it does not. Not even close. And there’s the rub.
It’s a bit like calling mayonnaise ‘white ketchup’. One evening, I made french fries for my boys. We had run out of ketchup so I gave them mayonnaise instead. (I prefer it anyway!) 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 it 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’. So, now we have a situation where the 4 year-old is consuming the mayo, all the while convinced that it’s ketchup of a different color, all the while none the wiser. Some might say “What’s the harm? At least he’s enjoying his food!” To which, I would reply that there is nothing inherently harmful in this deception on the surface, but that it is inherently dishonest and if the deception were allowed to persist over time, could certainly result in confusion and mistrust once the truth is discovered.
In keeping with this idea, imagine if you will, that we in the U.S. are really into the idea of Indian ketchup. We keep hearing about this special Indian sauce (yoga asana) and we really want to dip our fries in it. Some clever British (cause why not?) importers hear of our desire to try this exotic elixir and flood our docks with an abundance of mayo which they already conveniently had on hand.
U.S. Importers – “So this is that Indian ketchup everyone’s been asking for eh?”
British Importers – “Yes indeed! Straight from the Orient!”
U.S. Customer – “Is it supposed to be white? Looks an awful lot like mayonnaise …”
British Importers – “Ahhhh see, that’s what Indian ketchup looks like after the long journey over seas! But it’s the real deal, trust us!”
U.S. Customer – “Ok! White ketchup it is! Hey everybody! White ketchup for sale!”
The fallacy persists….
U.S. Woman – “Have you heard? White ketchup can make you lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks!”
Steve, from Dublin Ohio – “White ketchup improves my golf game. I cut 3 strokes off last weekend.”
Yoga bro – “Me and the bro’s usually get mayo’d, but my girlfriend made me try white ketchup and now I’m hooked.” #whiteketchupbeastmode
High School Football Coach – “My team has been using white ketchup now for 2 seasons now and they’ve never been in better shape.”
Carrie, stay at home mom – “When I’m feeling stressed out from the kids, I just go do white ketchup with my girls and all my frustration just melts away.” #whiteketchuptribe4life
JoJo, 25 year old white ketchup Studio Owner – “White ketchup makes me the best me I can be. It like, really puts things into perspective, ya know?”
Amy, FuFu FemFem Ambassador- ” White ketchup helps me keep my weight down and gives me the perfect platform to practice my life coaching skills.”
Some vegan white lady – “I like to do my white ketchup with goats. They put me in such a playful mood and who are you to tell me that my white ketchup can’t be playful?”
Larissa. Actual person from a FB group. I’m not kidding. Direct quote just for effect – “I don’t care for the meditation aspect of yoga or the history, but I enjoy doing the poses. If that hurts people’s feelings they should really examine why they care so much. I like the poses because they wake my body up and increase my flexibility. Simply put, yoga is healthy for my body. I’m not going to stop doing poses or take time out of my busy life to study something I don’t need to study. I could call it stretching or contortion but that wouldn’t make sense since clearly I’m doing yoga poses.”
We all know someone like this don’t we?
Someone who really believes in the benefits that white ketchup promises.
Some of us have been this person.
We fully believe that the modern postural group fitness we’re practicing is a version of an ancient Indian ‘ketchup’ developed by the yogins. We accept that it might be “just a little different” and we believe those who are selling it to us when they say that it is indeed ‘the thing’. It’s oddly familiar to us because it is in fact a product of our own culture, as it merged into another culture we had colonized, being sold back to us. We rationalize its ‘whiteness’ in the same way we rationalize adding beer, and power, and goats, and music, and fitness, etc. We see it as yoga asana, plus a little bit of ‘white’ and we’re OK with that. It works for us. We relate to it. What we fail to realize is that the thing we are consuming, is already as white as it gets! Our white ketchup asana is really just our own fitness mayo repackaged with an exotic label. Read the ingredients and you will find that none of them add up to yoga asana.
Looking around the yoga industry these days, it appears that the validity and the authenticity of the product is irrelevant as long as we all buy into the sales pitch and the hype. But don’t we owe it to ourselves, and those whom we teach, to at least attempt to adhere to a little truth in advertising? Maybe it’s time we looked at these things honestly and stopped pretending that we owe nothing to anyone or anything outside of our convenient and immediate belief bubble. I would say that we are fucking yoga without even kissing it, except in this case we seem to be dressing each other up like yoga and fucking ourselves without even kissing the parts of ourselves pretending to be yoga. Meanwhile yoga asana is over like “smdh…”
Maybe it’s time to examine our white ketchup and accept it for what it is? Then we can examine Indian ketchup and appreciate it for what it is as well, without trying to sell our own products by virtue of the other’s allure.
With these things in mind, how do we reconcile what we’re doing in the average ‘yoga’ class in relation to this historical context? It is clearly not yoga asana, as it relates to the process of inhibiting the bodily feedback loop toward the aim of dhyāna/samyama. The shapes somewhat resemble what we know of hatha, but we also know that our Western ideas of hatha were highly influenced by Western postural traditions as well. So, in the end, what is the point of doing a shape, or even a series of shapes, if there is no higher yoga being attempted? Remember, the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, a guide to the preparatory methods designed around the practice of Yoga which was written long after yoga asana had become a known practice, states that to practice only hatha yoga and not Rāja Yoga is to “waste your energies fruitlessly”.
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 classes with no intention of ever acknowledging the rest of the process? Isn’t that a bit like mixing up the cake batter and then serving it to your guests unbaked and straight out of the bowl? Licking batter off the spoon just isn’t the same as eating a fully baked cake. 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 technique) is not yoga, then where is the yoga in the average group 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 those, or none of those. 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 preliminary 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.
By pooling together these historical definitions and references to asana, it is my hope that you are able to extrapolate for yourself the context from which the word was consistently understood, by the culture in which it was developed. This way, you can identify the key signifiers and make the necessary distinctions between exercise, mindful movement, acrobatics, gymnastics, fill in the blank _____ , and yoga asana.
In my opinion, it’s important to stay as true as possible to the meaning and purpose of this yoga thing and not decontextualize it and dissect it in order to make it more desirable to the consumer. The marketplace does not possess the authority or the depth of understanding to redefine yoga asana and neither do we. It matters not that the vast majority of students BELIEVE that their exercise or gymnastics is asana. As convenient as the ‘white ketchup’ deception was, I eventually felt compelled to come clean. After all, if my 4 year-old’s misconception surrounding mayonnaise were to spread, we would soon have a whole generation of young adults confidently ordering white ketchup with their fries to the bemusement of the wait staff. Their insistence upon it being a form of ketchup wouldn’t change the fact that it is in fact, mayonnaise. The ingredients of one are tomatoes and vinegar, and the other eggs and oil. If you change the fundamental ingredients, the product itself is changed.
This is not a semantics game as in “you say tomayto, I say tomahto”.
This is apples and oranges folks.
Tomatoes and eggs.
Yoga asana has an etymological stamp that can be traced back to a root within the classical system. That root feeds a tree; and we swing in its branches. This tree has been around a long long time and those who climbed the tree paid homage to the roots as well as the fruits. Practicing asana was practicing asana until very recently when some folks decided to climb too far from the roots and the trunk and fell out of the tree entirely. Instead of trying to climb back into the yoga tree they just started dancing around its base, telling everyone who passed by that their new dance was more important than the steady effort to climb the tree. This is the white ketchup dance and it is not related to the yoga asana root of which we speak. If an asteroid were to wipe out everyone on earth, and the only two people were left were the white catsup believers who fell out of the yoga tree, then and only then could eggs + oil = ketchup. As long there are those alive who know the historical context of yoga asana, the modern invention of flowing fitness will never qualify.
Asana as it is known today in the studio group fitness model is an inaccurate representation of the classic yoga asana and an equally inaccurate representation of the hatha that everyone seems so desperate to stake claim to as their paternal motif. We have all heard teachers say that the poses are not the yoga, but we never hear them say that the poses are not the asana… What we seem to be doing in these studio settings is yet another manifestation of the same pose based, group fitness that seems to have originated around the same time a reluctant yogi by the name of Manibhai Haribhai Desai (AKA Yogendra) began his successful repositioning of ancillary yogic conditioning techniques as secular health practices available in a handy dandy hour class format.
In his book The Path of Modern Yoga, Elliot Goldberg says the following regarding Yogendras influence on the modern (for your health) class model.
“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 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’. 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.
The more we learn, the more we re-contextualize, the more honest we are with ourselves and our students, the clearer and more precise we are with the language we use, the better. As we begin to uncover the roots of modern yoga, we find that it’s less classical yoga, and more quasi-spiritualized postural group fitness. Or, as I’ve come to refer to it, “modern postural calisthenics”. There is no historical precedent for this postural group calisthenics thing. It’s OK to drop the Yoga and yoga asana part, y’all. It really is. There are a lot of people out here rooting for you and supporting that decision. As much a bummer as this seems to be, it’s actually a great opportunity to create something new, and therapeutic, and rediscover something old, and full of innate consciousness changing potentiality. This doesn’t mean stopping your mindful movement practice. It means embracing it in an honest manner and then exploring yoga and yoga asana on their own contextually-sound terms.
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 without making it vulnerable to the inevitable degradation that creeps in as a result of tyranny of the majority, i.e. the average paying customer. 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 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 from 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 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 it could qualify as ‘asana prep’. There is no reason why focused, functional physicality can’t be part of a yoga practice. 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 prepares 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.
Unfortunately, my partner’s thoughtful and contextually sound approach is the exception to the yoga circus, not the norm. Under the Machiavellian manipulations of the establishment, the industry insiders have been able to keep the 200hr fast food YTTs pumping out more and more ‘teachers’ who know less and less about the topic of yoga in general, let alone yoga asana and how it actually relates to that topic. The numbers are clearly not in our favor. We are no longer looking to teachers or history to understand what it is we’re actually doing in asana. We have handed over the reigns to the popular majority. YA and the rest of the corporate yoga giants have a vested interest in insuring that the vast majority of would be teachers take the CrackerJack fast track to becoming nothing more than pseudo spiritual fitness instructors.
The industry is the new guru.
Modern postural hatha-inspired group fitness teachers, at least from the time of Yogendra onward, had already been taking huge liberties with the word asana long before the corporate chains and the various branded styles like ‘Power Yoga’ ham handed the term to their own devices. For this reason, we can’t blame all of the degradation on the Core Powers and Baptistians alone. For whatever reason, Yogendra seemed intent on stripping the conditioning practices from their original context within the yoga asana framework, and selling them as stand alone practices perfect for improving overall health (a misconception that persists today). This reframing of the preparatory conditioning techniques as yoga asana proper (starting in 1918 at the Yoga Institute in Bombay) was eventually carried over into the teachings of Krishnamacharya at his Yogashala in Mysore starting in 1933. While Krishnamacharya’s pose-based routines with the Mysore boys were more performative in nature, and less about spreading yoga to the masses, his star pupils soon picked up the more commercially driven open class model championed by Yogendra a generation before. Perhaps if Krishnamacharya knew just how far this blurring of definitions would go, he would have been more accurate with the words he used to describe the gymnastic performance routine he developed for the Mysore boys? Unlike Yogendra, it does seem as though Krishnamacharya and those of his line retained a slant toward tradition, lineage, and teacher/student relationship that the former obviously did not. Unfortunately, none of them are around for discussion, so it looks like it’s on us to set it right.
Maybe now we can send our wagons East again in search of the yoga asana sauce we’ve been missing. From the looks of it however, the East has already adopted the modern postural group fitness model themselves, going back as far as the 1920’s thanks to Yogendra’s agenda. There may be no one left who knows the original recipe. Even so, maybe we can at least send our figurative wagons back to a time just before the whole purpose of yoga asana (and subsequently yoga) was lost. Maybe there, we can find the strength of spirit to admit that what we’ve been passing off as yoga asana, isn’t. And maybe then, we can summon the integrity to drop the yoga/yoga asana bit; unless it is…
It is because of our contextual neglect and our intellectual laziness that yoga asana has been missing from our lives. It never even made it to our shores. Maybe it’s time to let asana be asana and call our white ketchup what it is… Mayonnaise. Really tasty, enjoyable, invigorating, mayonnaise. (postural calisthenics in case you missed it)
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.
Please Note: Our host [wordpress] does not allow certain characters to display so ‘Hatha’ and ‘dhāranā’ are missing the dot indicating retroflex ‘th’ and ‘n’ sounds respectively.