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Namaste नमस्ते


Months ago, a friend living in Beijing complained about yoga teachers using Sanskrit and not explaining the meaning. She was especially annoyed by closing class with “namaste,” when many didn’t know what it meant. I believe my friend and colleague Ben also takes issue with this. I’m guilty of it, I admit, largely because I do not chant in my Columbia classes, and it’s nice to have a touch of the spiritual tradition. I don’t explain simply because by the end of the class, there is less than no more time.

I always intend to explain, because I get the impression some students think it means, “thank you.” And because my friend is right, it should be explained. Namaste literally means “I bow to you.” It is the act of acknowledging the soul of another. This is also described as bowing to the divine, the light, the spirit, the humanity, in another. Some teachers also say, “The light in me bows to the light in you.” Namaste is traditionally said with the hands together in front of the heart, with the head bowed, or with the hands at the third eye, and drawn down to the heart. The posture itself literally means “Namaste,” and because the meaning is inherent in the action, it doesn’t need to be said. A final note: It is not by chance that the hands are pressed together in front of the heart.

Namaste. 😉

p.s. In response, Jessica sent the above video.


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ways of knowing // 5,000 years continued

To address Ben’s comment in the last post (5,000 years?), I want to say that to some extent, I agree. But there is a difference between the “kinds of consciousness one accesses by practicing yoga” and yoga. They are not the same thing. Calling something yoga before yoga existed is questionable.

I like Ben’s assertion: “anything that brings one closer to the full embodiment and expression of oneself to be ‘yoga,’” but it’s also very time and place specific. What the “self” means in rural China and what it means in New York City are two very different things in 2010, much less 5,000 years ago. The idea of being one’s “true self” is not universal. It doesn’t even hold the same meaning for everyone right now, 2010, in NYC.

But this wasn’t what I was speaking to in the last post. I was objecting to teachers and others stating that yoga is 5,000 years old without explaining what they mean by yoga, so students don’t think that hanumanasana (for example) is 5,000 years old. Even worse—teachers not knowing themselves that hanumanasana isn’t likely 5,000 years old.

That said, we don’t know definitively that hanumanasana isn’t 5,000 years old. We just don’t know that it is any older than a hundred or so years, which makes 5,000 quite a number to throw out casually. I agree with what Ben is getting at, which, I think, is that the practice of yoga is in some way eternal, and that yoga existed before it was known as such. Edwin Bryant, a scholar of Yoga and Hinduism at Rutgers, believes that, “The origins of yoga are in primordial and mythic times.” In saying this, I’m switching gears and appealing to a less quantitative way of understanding, which we often neglect and devalue, and the practice of yoga can help us cultivate and respect. Though Vedism and Tantrism are both textual traditions, text is not the only source of knowledge or knowing. Just because we haven’t proved something scientifically (in whatever discipline) or textually does not mean it’s untrue.

So, while I doubt that the Primary Series was the rage in ancient Pakistan, I do think that the roots of yoga have been around since we have. Thanks for the interesting comment, Ben.


asana blog what is yoga

5,000 years?

I have to admit, I sometimes ask myself if I’m part of this world. The yoga world, I mean. On Tuesday, the New York Times wrote a piece on foodies and yoga, and it seems to be popular, given its rank on their most emailed list: “When Chocolate and Chakras Collide.”

My favorite part of the piece was  a comment from Sadie Nardini about judgment in the yoga world, about being “yogier than thou.” What do I think about sampling food on a yoga mat? To each her own. Is it yoga? Does it matter?

I suppose I should say, I’m not terribly troubled by what people choose to call yoga, as long as it isn’t this 5,000+ year old seal.

I′m not terribly troubled by what people choose to call yoga, as most of what is practiced now bears little resemblance to its history, and why should it? Traditions need to evolve to be relevant. I do have a pet peeve about the “5000-year-old practice” line (which appeared in that NYT article), stated as if yogis were hopping through sun salutations in 2990 b.c.e. They weren’t.

The philosophy of yoga is fairly old and can be dated back to at least the mid-first century b.c.e. Some of the asanas (postures) can be definitively dated back to the 10th century c.e., as described in the Pāñcarātrika Samhitās (see Mallinson), but many date back only a century or two. Years ago, in one of the first books I read on yoga (I don’t read that much about yoga, I practice it), Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India, he asserts that the sun salutations are adapted from Indian martial tradition in the late 1800s, when the Hindu masculinity movement was strong, and ever since it’s grated on me when people boast that yoga is 5,000 years old. The date of 5,000 b.c.e. comes from an ancient seal found in Mohenjo-daro with Shiva sitting in a seated position (though Shiva was not quite Shiva until around 200 b.c.e). All around, the argument is pretty weak. A picture of someone sitting = yoga? There are images of Egyptians in backbends. Were they yogis? You can imagine the fun academics have pulling that apart. Many agree that not only is it not yoga, but not Shiva, or even necessarily male. It’s important to note as well that the seal was found in a series of seals with figures depicted in other less formal, less yogic-looking seats (see Doris Srinivasan, “The So-Called Proto-śiva Seal from Mohenjo-Daro: An Iconological Assessment,” Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 29, (1975/1976), pp. 47-58).

Looking around the web, I’m glad to see that others seek historical accuracy as well, e.g. Kate Churchill and Nick Rosen in the documentary Enligthen Up! The next post flushes out my less quantitative take on the matter.

asana blog favorites what is yoga

bikram yoga: good or bad?

Bikram is thought of by many yogis as “not real yoga,” whatever that means. Why? Well, it’s incredibly body oriented, and most people attracted to it (it seems to me) are primarily interested in their bodies lookin’ good, as there isn’t much attention to anything but forcing yourself, asana, and some heating pranayama.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing. It is what it is. A bikram yoga studio is heated to a recommended 105° F/40.5° C to assist flexibility (warm bodies are more flexible than cold) and sweat, with the hope of detoxifying the body. Bikram Choudhury (the founder) has gained attention for claiming trademark and copyright on his sequence of 26 yoga asanas (poses) and threatening to sue anyone who teaches them without his approval. “This is enlightenment?” many ask, including Nora Isaacs at Apparently so, as Bikram has compared his speedoed self to the Buddha.

How do I feel about Bikram yoga? Mixed. I tried it at Funky Door Yoga every day for a week while visiting a friend in San Francisco in 2005 and I liked it a lot. I liked it most, probably, because I love to be warm. It felt great to sweat. I personally think Bikram might be trying to recreate the climate of India in those heated rooms, which makes sense in a certain way. I didn’t find it that hard—it wasn’t a vigorous vinyasa, but 26 poses performed one after another. Maybe some are repeated. I’ve forgotten.

My concerns about Bikram concern safety and health. Some of the asanas aren’t for every body, and there were people in the room trying to do poses that could be downright dangerous. One of the poses, supta virasana, is a standard pose that most western bodies just don’t manage without props (there are no props in Bikram). Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen once said that this asana sends more people to the emergency room than any other (blows out the knee) and yogajournal even issues a caution before explaining the pose on its site.

Another concern is that imbalanced people (most of us) tend toward what we don’t need. Bikram tends to attract hot-headed, aggressive, type-A people. In yogic thought, the last thing such people need to do is hop into a 105° room and sweat it up. Instead, they need to learn how to chill out. And I must say that the few people I’ve known to do Bikram regularly aren’t particularly relaxed or present (not that, ah, I judge). Even if this strikes you as hogwash, the question of how healthy it is to work out in that kind of heat does present itself, especially if the student has health issues.

I’m not so much into good or bad. If you like Bikram and it’s working for you, great. I think it might even be good for people who tend to be cold (physically), retiring, or in need of a boost.

2014 Update: Bikram is something of a scoundrel. If you are seriously interested, check out the book Hell Bent by Benjamin Lorr, or at the least read this Vanity Fair article about the rape and harassment cases against him.

Or the Netflix documentary:

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what are the different types of yoga? what is hatha?

The styles of yoga on offer are endless. Teachers often blend different practices to suit their needs, and give it a name that ends up on a class schedule, familiar only to those who frequent the studio. Most types of yoga stem from a few different schools, which have splintered into countless directions.

ardha_pinkYoga as we know it in the West—physical yoga—is but one of many types of yoga. It is called hatha yoga. Our appropriation of the term hatha to describe a style of physical yoga strays from the traditional Indian usage of the term. For most Indians, the term yoga is most closely associated with rajayoga philosophy, or with dhyana, meditation (though that’s changing due to hatha yoga’s popularity in the West). Unlike the general western concept of meditation, dhyana is not specifically body-oriented. It doesn’t necessarily mean seated meditation, nor does it necessarily exclude the body or hatha yoga.

When reading about types of western yoga, keep in mind that any physical yoga is hatha yoga (I won’t italicize when speaking in western terms), but it is also used to describe a style of yoga. More on that in the schools section.

Other types of yoga, as per Vivekananda‘s interpretation, which is, if not historically accurate, how yoga is commonly understood today, are:

raja yoga: cultivation of the mind/meditation
karma yoga: discipline of action
bhakti yoga: blissful devotion to the divine
jnana yoga: path of knowledge

In the West, we are best acquainted with hatha (physical) yoga, and usually use the term loosely to describe yoga that is fairly basic, slow, and relaxing, probably because it was associated with Sivananda and Integral Yoga, who also practice raja, karma, and bhakti yogas, and so they logically designated their fairly basic physical practice as hatha. And then everyone else did too. If you are new to yoga, a beginner’s hatha class is a good place to start, especially if you are out of touch with your body.

Because “hatha” is used so generally, ask what the class is like before you show up.

Sivananda, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Integral, and Kripalu are all traditions of hatha yoga founded by Indian gurus. They all stress the spiritual aspects of yoga and include chanting, as well as short periods of meditation. Viniyoga developed from the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya and his Madras-based student-son T.K.V. Desikachar. It stresses the adaptation of yoga practice to the needs of each person.

Keep in mind, these styles of yoga are hatha yoga. Viniyoga and Kripalu would also consider themselves to be styles of vinyasa as well. While other types of yoga, e.g. Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Bikram, etc. are not generally thought of as hatha in the west, they are hatha yoga in the physical sense and may be thought of as such.