Image Credit: Hendrik Terbeck
Yoga has been around a long time. Like, a really, really long time. Try about 5000+ years. Originating in India, this practice has changed dramatically in the years since its birth. Rather than go into an explanation of the early stages of yoga and it’s four extensive, broad categories (Vedic Yoga, Preclassical Yoga, Classical Yoga and Postclassical Yoga), I want to get straight to the question. Can we still find examples of traditional yoga today in Western Society? What changes have been made to this practice that brought us to where we are now?
OK. I lied. In order to truly see the changes yoga has gone through, you need a brief history lesson on the subject:
Sometimes referred to as "Archaic Yoga", this practice was directly connected with the ritual life of the ancient Indians. Their idea of yoga was to embrace sacrifice as a way to connect the material world with the spiritual world through focusing their minds for extensive periods of time. This ability to cultivate inner focus is the root of all yoga. A successful Vedic yogi or yogini was fortunate if they were able to experience a vision in their practice, for which they could now become a “seer”. This was the ultimate goal of the Vedic practice.
Moving right along, this period is considered the time when many different schools of yoga began to develop. The teachings from these schools can be located in two of India’s greatest yogic scripts: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. You might be familiar with the Bahgavad-Gita, which is embedded throughout these works. Essentially, these schools began developing many different techniques for creating deep meditation in order to lead yogis and yogini’s in going beyond their mind and discovering their true nature.
As we begin to move forward, you might recognize some familiar territory you’ve heard about in a modern day yoga class. This period of yoga refers to the eight-fold yoga teachings by Patanjali in the Yoga-Sutra. Most yoga students begin identifying with many of these teachings as they dig deeper into their practice. The teachings of this period are meant to further explore the separation between the physical body and the mental mind. The goal? Formless but conscious existence in day to day life.
This period of yoga evolves with a new focus in mind, the ultimate unity of everything. In contrast to previous periods of yoga focusing only on the mind and how to separate ones physical self from their mental state, many teachers in the postclassical yoga period began to take a turn and discover the hidden potential of the physical body. New systems of practice began focusing on prolonging ones life, and rejuvenating the mind through this physical practice. Born around this time, Hatha-Yoga is an excellent example of a style that is practiced today due to the priority of wanting to energize the body.
Yoga has evolved in many different ways. Although many of it’s roots are still apparent in modern day classes, there has been a significant shift in how yoga is viewed in modern society. Previously, Yoga referred to realizing the entire mind, body and spirit as one object, with a goal of separation between these aspects. Yoga was seen ultimately as a spiritual practice; a pathway to discover ones true inner self. In modern times, this view has shifted to focus on the postures of yoga. Don’t believe me? Open up Instagram and search #yoga, and you’ll be flooded with pictures of yogis in graceful, challenging, or inspiring postures. Of course, this is neither a good or bad change, but one can easily notice the shift Yoga has gone through. In addition, Yoga is also seen today as a mere means to achieving physical fitness. Many studios pride themselves on creating an environment to tone, strengthen, and loosen the muscles. While this is definitely a positive aspect of Yoga, it strays away from Yoga’s original purpose.
One obvious, yet overlooked change has been made in the past few decades. The idea of a “Yoga mat”, a device used to assist in achieving various postures to the highest degree. This object has been significant in creating today’s “Yoga industry”, which also includes “Yoga” clothing, jewelry, props, accessories, etc. Since the Yoga mat is a device used primarily to help achieve postures, it has helped modern day yogis and yoginis to stray away from Yoga’s original intent. Another result of this introduction of a yoga mat is the creation of yoga "on" and "off" the mat. In the past, there was only Yoga, and with the addition of a mat we are brought another complex world of viewpoints and opinions on what Yoga is truly meant for.
Ultimately, it’s up to you whether or not to buy into the hype that is modern day Yoga. You can decide for yourself whether to walk into a Yoga class focusing on its mental and spiritual aspect, or solely for it’s physical practice. Don’t get me wrong, Yoga is an excellent way to ease stress, focus on your inner spirit, alleviate tension in your body, and strengthen your muscles. But there is so much more to what you might experience in a modern day Vinyasa or Hot Yoga class. To truly develop an understanding, and to practice Yoga to it’s fullest degree, start looking beyond the physical practice. You’re mind, body and spirit will thank you in the long run.