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What is yoga?

This is an excerpt from Foundational Yoga Flow by Collette Ouseley-Moynan & Weston Carls.

Atha yoga anushasanam: “Now, we begin the study of yoga.” This is the first passage in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a text believed to have been first codified between the second and fourth centuries BC. It is a reminder that yoga is a practice done in the present moment. Wherever you are, with or without a yoga mat, if you are present in your awareness, your breath, your body, your surroundings—you indeed are practicing yoga.

Yoga is a Sanskrit word that comes from the root word yuj, which can be translated to mean “to yoke” or “to unite.” Yoga is a practice of uniting the mind with the body. Yoga can bring our self (our egoic mind and awareness) back in connection with our Self (our spirit or higher consciousness). Yoga reminds us of our connection to one another, to all other beings, to this planet, and to the bigger universe. And while we can only ever practice yoga in the now, yoga reminds us of our connection to our past—our roots and our lineage—and invites us to be more aware of and intentional about how we choose to move into the future.

Yoga originated in what is known today as India and was first mentioned in the sacred text the Rig Veda around 5,000 years ago (although some historians believe yoga could have originated closer to 10,000 years ago). In the Bhagavad Gita (dating back to the sixth through third centuries BC), we are introduced to the four paths, or margas, of yoga that are said to lead to liberation, also referred to as moksha:

  • Karma yoga (from the root word kri, meaning “action”): the path of service and doing good without expectation or attachment to the result of these actions
  • Jnana yoga (meaning “wisdom”): the study of ancient texts and philosophy along with the practice of meditation, self-study, and deep inquiry into the nature of who we are
  • Bhakti yoga (from the root word bhaj, meaning “to bind”): the practice of love and devotion for and of “binding” with the divine through prayer, worship, offerings, ceremonies, and chanting mantras
  • Raja yoga (translating to “royal path”): often referred to as the supreme path to moksha, raja yoga presents an eight-step system (which was organized in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) referring to both the outcome of yoga (enlightenment) and the method of attaining it

Around the 15th century, a sage by the name of Swami Svatmarma composed one of the most influential surviving texts on hatha yoga, called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This title essentially breaks down to mean “to shed light on the union of the sun and the moon.” To refine this definition even further, the text sheds light on how to unite the energies of the masculine (sun) and the feminine (moon) in each of us as a means to achieve higher consciousness. When we refer to hatha yoga today, we mean to unite body and mind through a physical practice that allows for greater clarity and connection.

The postures set forth in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika would later evolve into a larger collection of 122 yoga poses called the Sritattvanidhi, the first book entirely devoted to asana. This text depicts, for the first time, many postures that we are now familiar with from the ashtanga vinyasa (a style of modern yoga) series and from Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, a manual of sorts used in most 200-hour yoga teacher trainings across the globe.

Yoga as we now know it in the West can be attributed to the teachings of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (November 18, 1888–February 28, 1989), considered to be the father of modern yoga. Krishnamacharya cited the Sritattvanidhi as a source in his early writings on yoga and drew on this tradition as inspiration while blending it with a number of other sources to systematize the style of hatha vinyasa yoga that most of us are familiar with in the West today. It is said that in 1915, Krishnamacharya ventured to Mount Kailash (considered the eternal abode of the deity Shiva), where he studied asana and pranayama under the tutelage of Sri Ramamohan. In Health, Healing, and Beyond, T.K.V. Desikachar (2011; p. 43), son and student of Krishnamacharya, says

My father once told me that his guru knew about seven thousand asanas. Of these, my father mastered about three thousand. After more than thirty years of study with Krishnamacharya, I know approximately five hundred or so.

This speaks to the breadth of yoga asana and how limited our knowledge of the practice is in modern Western society! When Krishnamacharya left Mount Kailash and the ashram of Sri Ramamohan, he was instructed to bring yoga to the people so that it would be of service to everyday householders and not be reserved only for renunciates living away from society.

Throughout the 1920s, Krishnamacharya traveled throughout India offering lectures and demonstrations of yoga asana. In 1926, upon hearing of Krishnamacharya’s skill, the maharaja (prince) of Mysore, India, invited Krishnamacharya to teach yoga to his family at the royal palace. Krishnamacharya further cultivated a style of yoga asana, blending not only the traditional teachings he had received from Sri Ramamohan but also incorporating British gymnastics, martial arts, and military calisthenics. It is important to address that the emphasis on postures and the focus on yoga as a primarily physical practice was born at a time when India was under British colonial rule. When British rule effectively began in 1773, Westerners associated yogis with poverty, witchcraft and black magic, and sexual perversity (based in tantric philosophy), and yogis were relegated to the position of social outcasts. A new merging of traditional hatha yoga with the more Westernized physical fitness—as developed by Krishnamacharya and his students who followed—was considered more palatable when seen through the lens of the West’s preference for masculine physicality and feats of strength. While Krishnamacharya never set foot in America, his influence on modern yoga in the West can be found in what comes to mind when we think of “yoga” today, such as sun salutations, vinyasa (linking movement with breath), and even many of the arm balances and inversions that now populate our Instagram feeds.

More Excerpts From Foundational Yoga Flow



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