Considering that Yoga is today practiced by way more people than has ever been the case; one would expect that Yoga is clearly understood by all its practitioners. Right?
Well, as it turns out, there seems to be much more confusion than clarity regarding Yoga! And this is sad, but true. Look around and you will find any number of Yoga schools from Hatha Yoga to Ashtanga Yoga to Bikram Hot Yoga, Power Yoga and Iyengar Yoga to know 5 out of possibly a 1,000 different styles (and growing!) So how do you choose what’s good for you?
Option 1: Try all 1000 schools and then decide! I think this is really the best way.
Option 2: Let’s try and understand a bit about these sometimes-conflicting styles.
To begin let’s examine what Yoga means in general and also please take some time to ponder about what Yoga means to you. Once you know what you want out of the vast ocean of Yoga; you’ll have a better idea about exactly where you should dive in!
The Yogi Patanjali
Yoga is best defined in the eternal, crisp and perfect words of the great Yogi sage, Patanjali. In his work on Yoga called the ‘Patanjali Yoga Sutras‘ (essential reading for anyone curious about Yoga); he defines Yoga as “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah“; translating into “Yoga is the cessation of all activity of the mind/ consciousness”. So with this as the benchmark it’s easy to understand that in antiquity, Yoga was seen as a meditative process of ‘living in the moment’ (what else would happen if there were absolutely no thoughts activity in your mind – no worrying about the past and no planning the future? You would be ‘right here; right now’). Being absolutely present allowed the innate knowledge to come forth to one’s realisation. This was seen as the goal of Yoga –Samadhi; when the Yogi had gained a complete knowledge of himself – past, present and future; and in this sense gained knowledge of the universe of which he was a microcosm.
Also important to note here is definition of Asana in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Asana or the ‘physical yogic postures’ are the most clearly visible aspect of Yoga; and as you can guess almost all the so-called different yoga schools are essentially different styles, emphases & progressions of practicing these same asanas. Patanjali describes it thus: ”Sthiram Sukham Asana” translating into ‘Steadiness and Comfort means Asana’. Now, you may wonder that there is no comfort when you are holding Naukasana (boat pose) or something else – but please note that Patanjali is not referring to a generic usage of the word Asana. Here, he implies only those 4-5 Asanas or Postures used in Meditation. (The word Asana in modern Hindi means ‘a Seat’). Hence he has laid stress on only the 4-5 meditative postures that a practitioner should master – you should be Steady and Comfortable while sitting in Asana!
Having understood the traditional meaning of Yoga; let us skip now to the 21st century Yoga boom and try to make sense of all the clutter. Firstly, we should understand that Yoga is today practiced for very disparate reasons – sometimes as Therapy (a modern phenomenon once doctors and scientists began understanding the numerous Health benefits of Yoga) and also as Fitness (a post-modern phenomenon once people realized that Yoga could provide weight-loss and toning); and also for Stress-Relief (again once the calming effects of Yoga, Pranayam & Meditation were understood). Very few of the millions who attend yoga classes in all the great cities of the world are actually doing it for the same reasons that Patanjali and others had done it for 1,000′s of years – namely a Search for Truth and Enlightenment. So to say that any one style of Yoga is ‘traditional yoga’ would be to be-little the scope and effort of the pioneers who did yoga in traditional times.
And this change in the way Yoga is practiced is absolutely necessary! Simply because Yoga is a Science and not a Dogma – and science has to progress as new research by contemporary people comes to light. Now, 2000 years ago no one who practiced Yoga needed to lose weight (it’s a guess of course!) or to deal with deadlines and work stress – as these people were living in the mountains with their Guru and would be practicing yoga & meditation daily. So when you enter a regular yoga class today; you can see that some people come there to lose a little weight; and other badly need to relax before they can ever dream of doing meditation. So of course, the way the class is taught needs to change. Yes, the basics and the aim of Yoga needs to stay sacrosanct; but the physical movements can be enhanced to help students based on their needs. And so we have these 1000-odd Yoga styles!
Iyengar Yoga In the 1950′s & 60′s, when the venerable BKS Iyengar created his world-renowned Yoga style; most of the students approaching him were patients. Their need was therapy and pain relief. Iyengar himself was a patient in his childhood; and that was the reason he was sent to stay with his brother-in-law and Guru – the incomparable (‘Father of modern Yoga’) T Krishnamacharya. Iyengar understood that the patients needed to stay in the Yogic postures as that was therapeutic for them; but were unable to do so. Hence he devised a series of props from belts, chairs, bolsters and many more to help these patient/ students hold these poses. This helped cure them; and Iyengar Yoga was born – to this day it uses the similar props; even healthy practitioners use them to sustain their postures often for 5 mins or more. The focus is on correct posture alignment in Iyengar’s style. Iyengar himself is still a picture of Health today; at 93 years he can be seen practicing yoga daily at his ashram in Pune, India.
Asthanga Yoga Iyengar’s contemporary was Pattabhi Jois as they studied under the same Guru. Jois later devised a system of Yogasana-progressions based on a middle-ages text on yoga and called his school Ashtanga (8-part/step) Yoga. The primary difference was that the focus shifted from posture-alignment to progressions of yoga poses. This “Flow’ became increasingly popular amongst fitter students who sought yoga as a means to strengthen body and quieten the mind. In fact, most of modern Yoga is to some extent based on Jois’ yoga-flows. The Asthanga yoga students later sprouted Power yoga and so on. Shri Jois passed away a year ago at his ashram in Mysore, India.
Bikram Hot Yoga is the brainchild of Bikram Chowdhury. Often called the first truly globalized Yoga school franchise; Bikram Yoga has found great acceptance in the west. Bikram was a yoga champion in India; and when he was sent abroad by his Guru he found himself in Japan and later in the USA in the 1970′s. There he soon realized that owing to the extremely cold winters it was nearly impossible to get his students to warm-up so that they could stretch in yoga poses. So he thought of an ingenious method – let’s heat the room itself! He raised the temperature control in the room to over 40 degrees C; and Hot Yoga was invented! Bikram’s style has 26 poses (including 2 breathing exercises) that are repeated in each and every of his classes, anywhere in the world – he even tried to patent this unique flow of poses which were designed to stretch and strengthen the body optimally. (The Indian govt refused permission for this patent; but that has hardly slowed down Hot Yoga!) Bikram Chowdhury is yoga’s most flamboyant teacher and even now in his 60′s he possesses a body and the health of a 30-year old!
I’ve taken time to explain these 3 important YOGIS in the evolution of modern Yoga. A lot of what you see today are essentially students of these 3 people creating their own versions of yoga sequences and so on.
Hope that this article had helped throw some light on Yoga. I’ll repeat this though- before you join a class; decide what you want – Physical fitness, Relaxation or an introduction to Meditation!
– Manish Pole (Yogi, Nomad, Writer, Founder – Total Yoga)