Yoga scholars Dr. Mark Singleton and Dr. Jim Mallinson are on a mission. Their Kickstarter project Roots of Yoga: A Sourcebook from the Indian Traditions plans to trace the earliest expressions of yoga from several thousand years ago all the way up to the 19th century.
They need funding to scour untranslated yoga texts from the”‘old traditions” because “serious reliable research” is needed. And as Singleton recently pointed out in a radio interview – we need to know more about yoga in the past – so we can know where yoga is going in the future.
Yes indeed gentlemen, please help us. Because as far as I can see, yoga is undergoing a crisis of meaning, of relevance, a kind of existential funk. The growing vacuity of the yoga scene (so gleefully skewered by The Babarazzi’s recent juxtaposition between aerobic championships and yogathons) has left me adrift. I can’t find the gumption anymore to engage in internet debate over the appropriateness or inappropriateness of ‘yoga panties’ emblazoned with words like HOT.
I need direction. I’ve lost faith in the gospel of yoga as currently advertised through teacher training programs, trendy studios and yogic ‘retreats’ – as an ancient mind/body healing discipline. Because as Singleton pointed out in his previous book, yoga as practiced in mainstream studios today – has almost nothing to do with history or ancient traditions. Despite the permutations of language, of schools, of breathing and meditation techniques, the bottom line is what we do in the yoga studios of the 21st century is an entirely modern creation serving thoroughly modern paradigms.
And the most fascinating question that nobody seems to asking is -why? Why did we feel the need to ‘spiritualize’ our fitness routines with eastern mystical concepts? Why have we embraced calisthenics with Sanskrit names and gussied them up with new age clichés about the union of body mind and spirit?
In yoga class yesterday, the teacher counseled (as she had us in deep squats balancing on our tippy toes) “to breathe through our resistance, to breathe through burning thighs, to use these sensations to learn about ourselves”. So I ask you, when and how did exercise become seen as a route to self-development?
To me, these are important questions. Because I believe that by paying attention to how and why yoga has captivated our psyche we can better understand where it needs to go in the future. So I don’t get why we are preoccupied with trying to draw links between our modern practice and the past, between pranayama and ancient texts, between obscure rituals of mantras and mudras. Because if we’re looking for the definitive text, the essential principle that links modern yoga to the past -we might as well be looking for a needle in a haystack. Because it looks like there are as many versions of historical yoga as there are stars in the sky.
Mallinson stated in a recent interview that best as he can ascertain yoga can be historically defined as any practice involving the body. That is pretty wide open and pretty bang on. As far as I can see, it seems to be the only constant link so far as centuries of yoga texts go. And remember, this bodily practice could involve anything from lying on the proverbial bed of nails, rolling your tongue back to touch your tonsils, or holding your arms over your head for hours of mind numbing meditation.
Fact is the more I read and research the history of yoga the more confused I become. Yoga, the actual factual documented yoga, of cakras and seminal fluids, of charnel grounds and fire sacrifices has little to do with me – a woman alive in the 21st century, a woman caught between dominant paradigms of health and beauty, appetite and desire, discipline and denial.
A woman who joins with hundreds and thousands of others in yoga studios across the world to enact modern rituals of magical postures. Rituals whose purpose can be gleaned from the headlines of Yoga Journal covers “10 poses to keep you centered”, “10 poses to find calm admist chaos”, “10 poses to restore body and soul”.
Yoga, in the modern parlance means we can “find strength through arm balances”,“conquer fear through back-bends” and achieve a “healthy body, clear mind”. It seems we’ve agreed that through perfecting our bodies we can perfect our souls.
Which really isn’t a new idea. In fact it goes to the heart of the mystical thinking behind historical yoga – the quest to transform the body into something perfect, incorruptible, even immortal. Yoga may be defined as any practice involving the body, but ultimately it boils down to a process of embodying divine consciousness.
But there is a critical difference between then and now. The holy grail of popular modern yoga is ‘perfect health’ and being materialists, we work on perfecting matter, the body, the posture. But for the yogi of old, the incorruptible perfected body began from the inside out – with consciousness, spirit. An ‘a priori’ we’ve left completely out of the equation, well at least consciously.
Because the rhetoric of modern yoga clearly betrays a modern preoccupation with finding wholeness, finding soul. And in this way we’ve come full circle with ancient mystics and yogis who believed the body is not separate from the world – but a microcosm of the macrocosm.
I believe, as I have written before, that the popularization of ‘yoga’ is being driven by a paradigm shift in consciousness. We no longer believe in the scientific materialist paradigm which that tells us the body is a mere machine, that the physical reality of our bodies is separate from our mind. We believe we are something more.
And isn’t this the trail we should be following? While we can glean wisdom from the past, I find it infinitely more fascinating to ponder what happens if we just let it all go? Forget all the preconceptions of what yoga is and has been and start from here and now. And my first premise, my essential truth, is that whatever the posture, with each breath, my intent is to honour and enjoy the gift of my body, to embody devotion, to express my love for life.
In fact, my view of yoga falls more in line with the shamanic practices of my female ancestors who embraced ecstatic embodiment not only as route to enlightenment, but as way of healing and serving community. Scholars like Monica Sjoo, Vicki Noble and Miranda Shaw believe these practices form the earliest yoga, an ancient female centered practice that preceded the Hindi yogis by thousands of years. (see Did Women Invent Yoga?)
I suspect documentation of these earlier female centered yogic practices (dating to the neolithic) won’t be found amongst the texts Singleton and Mallinson will interpret. Part of this may be due to patriarchal suppression and part of this may be due to the fact there are no words to interpret. These oral traditions (as all great yogic traditions originally were) may well be lost to us now.
And yet what of the centuries of poems and writings by Tantric Buddhist women recently uncovered by scholar Miranda Shaw? Or of the texts of Taoist Women, The Immortal Sisters, who taught the cultivation of Yin, their poetry of enlightenment is nearly forgotten. While these practices may not be considered part of the official traditional yoga canon, I believe (under the definition that yoga is any bodily practice involving the body) they should be. So I am hopeful that Singleton’s and Mallinson’s ambitious Roots of Yoga will choose to illuminate some of this more feminine oriented history as well.
Which brings me back to today, to the rituals of magical postures we call yoga. There is no denying we have cherry picked from ‘yoga’ history what serves us – and made yoga into our own image. And I believe that whatever Singleton and Mallinson translate, we will continue to do so. But ultimately, as I cast out my 25.00 bucks to contribute to their project, I guess I do agree. It’s important to know where we’ve been in order to know where we are going. Lets just not lose sight of where we are now.