blog what is yoga

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.