The Origins of Yoga: Part III

This post is the third in a series about myths surrounding the origins of yoga. You can read Part I here on yoga in Ancient Egypt, and Part II here on the 5,000-year-old yoga myth.

I ended the last post in this series with the revelation that postural yoga as it is practiced today is not 2,500 years old, let alone 5,000 years old as many claim. But this raises the question, exactly how old is postural yoga? Where exactly do all these poses come from, and how did yoga become synonymous with acrobatic, physical practice? To understand the answer to these questions, it’s necessary to review a bit of history.

Traditional Hatha Yoga 

The traditional practice of yoga most closely aligned with modern postural forms was hatha yoga, which flourished in India from the 13th century until its decline in the 18th. However, to say traditional hatha yoga and yoga today are the same is impossible. Historical texts in the hatha tradition do describe several asanas, however, there are relatively few included and, similar to the texts discussed in my last post, the focus is on seated postures rather than the more acrobatic, gymnast standing or inverted postures common now.

Other bodily practices that were part of traditional hatha yoga might be downright alarming to yogis today. These included: “(1) dhauti, or the cleansing of the stomach by means of swallowing a long, narrow strip of cloth; (2) basti, or ‘yoga enema’ effected by sucking water into the colon by means of an abdominal vacuum technique (uddiana bandha); (3) neti, or the cleaning of the nasal passages with water and/or cloth; and (4) trataka, or staring at a small mark or candle until the eyes water” (Singleton 2010:28).

When British rule in India began in 1773, hatha yogis were actually viewed negatively by both Westerners and Indians. Hatha yogis were associated with black magic, perverse sexuality (based in tantric philosophy), abject poverty, eccentric austerities, and disreputable, sometimes-violent behavior. This wasn’t simply prejudice, either. From the fifteenth century until the nineteenth century, highly organized bands of militarized yogis roamed Northern India, controlling trade routes and becoming so powerful that they were able to challenge the East India Company and British rule (39).

yogi ascetics, central india, coutesy of project guttenberg

Yogi aesthetics from central India (Guttenberg Project)

The British government went so far as to ban wandering yogis and tried to promote more “acceptable” religious practices among Indians, namely meditative Hinduism common among the educated and upper classes. These policies were supported by wealthier Indians who hoped for reconciliation with British rule and found traditional hatha yogis disturbing at best. As the scope of colonial police powers grew in India, poor hatha yogis were increasingly demilitarized and forced to settle in urban areas where they often resorted to postural yogic showmanship and spectacle to earn money panhandling. As a result, physical hatha yoga practices became associated with the homeless and poor, and were considered by both the British and Indians “not only inferior but parasitic on other, worthier expressions of yoga” that foregrounded meditative traditions (43).

The Creation of a New Hatha Yoga

In the late 18th and early 19th century, the British began to pursue policies of conciliation towards the native culture of India. As a result of this policy, many Indian and European administrators, intellectuals, and public officials began supporting the creation of a new, modern India that combined the best of what modernity and the West had to offer, but in a traditional, Indian form. Years of colonial rule had resulted in numerous stereotypes of Indian effeminacy and degeneracy narratives that implied Indians were physically and racially degraded–in other words, inferior to whites.  Re-appropriating hatha yoga became part of a larger project of Indian nation building and the construction of the new Indian man designed to combat these stereotypes.

swedish gynmastics 2Above: Swedish gymnastics being performed at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912

Russian army (roughly 1910) performing Swedish Gymnastics as military calisthenics.

Above: Russian army (circa 1910) performing Swedish gymnastics as part of military calisthenics

At the time fitness and exercise regimes known as “physical culture” were quite popular in the West and, as a result of colonial influence, in India. Physical culture was based in body building practices, gymnastics (which at this point in history was male-dominated), and military calisthenics. Because of it’s emphasis on manliness and cultivating the body it was generally viewed as a way to regenerate moral and physical mettle of India and its people (read: men). Traditional hatha yoga practices were re-appropriated and combined with modern physical culture in an attempt to meld “indigenous” Indian exercises with more Western practices and ideals. Thus, a new, more aerobic and acrobatic version of yoga was born that was devoid of any of the negative associations of earlier centuries.

This new, reinvented form of yoga had more in common with body building, gymnastics, and military calisthenics than traditional yoga practices. But because it was combined with a few “acceptable” hatha yoga practices, and had the label “yoga” attached, it was seen as part of the cultural heritage of India and used to promote a new image of the modern, strong, and masculine Indian body as well as a modern, independent India. As such, modern postural yoga was created in direct opposition to the project and discourses of colonial empire, and cannot be separated from Colonialism.

Modern Postural Yoga

This means that modern postural yoga, and most of the poses we practice today, are only around 100 years old. One of the most influential figures in the development of modern yoga, T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), was deeply embedded in physical culture. His financial backer, the maharajah of Mysore, was a physical culture enthusiast, and many of the teachers he was connected to or the students he would later teach came from similar fitness backgrounds. The result was a new formulation of yoga that was a marriage of body building, gymnastics, military calisthenics, and those hatha yoga practices that were deemed acceptable. It was this new form of yoga that was taught to some of the most influential global yoga teachers of the 20th century: B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and T.K.V. Desikacha. It was this new physically-orientated, acrobatic form that would later migrate to the West, a yoga nearly devoid of any spiritual or meditative practice.

Some of the poses or sequences we often think of as foundational to yoga today were only invented after 1930. Sun salutations, one of the most venerated yoga sequences, were invented in the 1930s and have more in common with military calisthenics and gymnastics than with yoga. On top of that, many of the inversions or arm balances we see today have only appeared in the past few decades. Often the use of sanskrit for these poses is intentional to make them seem like part of a cultural tradition of yoga, that, let’s face it, doesn’t really exist in the way most yogis believe. The idea that the poses we practice are part of a thousand year old tradition is completely false; the idea that they are even hundreds of years old is a myth.

So why do so many yogis believe in origin narratives of yoga that trace postural yoga to some ancient tradition? What purpose do these myths serve? And what are the implications of the true history of yoga for our practice? Does it mean modern yoga is “inauthentic?” I’ll explore these topics in my next post in this series!

Further Reading

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I would highly suggest checking out Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture as well as Joseph Alter’s work, including his book Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and PhilosophyThe following articles are also great:

Yoga’s Greater Truth (by Mark Singleton)

History of Modern Yoga Asana (by Ann Pizer)

Where Yoga Poses Come From (by Alanna Kaivalya): This is one of my favorites, the author wrote an entire book about the mythical origins of yoga poses and only after publication realized that many of the poses she wrote about were less than 100 years old… talk about origin myths!

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Are Commercial Deodorants Harming Your Health?

If you’re a health nut like me you probably see a ton of articles out there promoting psuedo-scientific advice on how to treat or avoid illnesses. I’ll be the first one to question some of these claims (oil pulling being one of the most recent health fads circulating the interweb). However, I do think there is some advice that you just can’t go wrong following: the less toxic chemicals we are exposed to, the better.

It’s estimated that over 80,000 chemicals are in use today in the United States, the vast majority of which have not been tested for safety. The American government registers an average of 2,000 newly synthesized chemicals each year. With so many chemicals being added every single year, it’s physically impossible for governmental departments that are understaffed and underfunded to adequately research and examine health and safety concerns for every single product. Of those few that are studied, research focuses on short term, high-quantity exposure, often ignoring long term effects of continued exposure or the health consequences of exposure to the smorgasbord of chemical combinations out there in the real world (rather than the one, isolated chemical in the laboratory petri dish).

Cosmetics are made from at least 5,000 different chemicals; more than 3,200 are added to food. As many as 1,010 chemicals are used in the production of 11,700 consumer products, and about 500 chemicals are used as active ingredients in pesticides, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. In fact, even furniture as innocuous as your couch is chock full of chemicals. Scared yet? Yeah, me too. (Welcome to America and the brave new world!)

While we can be exposed to these chemicals through contaminated water, the food chain, air pollution, household products, or even our couches, one of the most common ways we are exposed is actually through body products. In case you didn’t know, our skin is porous, meaning that it’s possible for us not only to sweat out water, minerals, and the like from our pores, but also for things to be absorbed into our bodies through our skin, a process called skin absorption. Skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and according to National Geographic the average adult has about eight pounds, or about 22 square feet of skin. Compare this to a standard doorway at 21 square feet, and the average adult’s skin would fill all of that space.

Since both men and women use body products full of chemicals on their skin nearly every day, that’s a lot of chemicals entering into our bodies. Women are at higher risk, since they often use more of these products than men: women use an average of nine personal care products each day, exposing themselves to a mixture of over 100 individual chemicals. All the toxins that we’re exposed to eventually become part of our body burdenthe total amount of these chemicals present in the human body at a given point in time.

There’s a whole slew of reasons why this situation is a recipe for disaster, and I won’t get into all of them here. But what I’d like to focus on here is a part of the body, and our skin, that is often ignored: the armpit and our use of deodorants.

Most commercial deodorants, including the Dove one included in the humorous video above, are antiperspirants that rely on an aluminum base and parabens (chemicals used as preservatives), along with other harsh and toxic substances such as solvents and some fragrances. Aluminum compounds are easily absorbed through the skin and have been associated with higher risks of Alzheimer’s, seizures, kidney problems, and bone formation disorders. There is also evidence that these chemicals are associated with higher rates of breast cancer.

While there is some speculation as to whether these studies are true, given how little research is actually being done on chemicals in the US or the long-term effects of continued exposure to chemical combinations, I think it’s a safe bet to assume that more chemicals equals worse health. So one of the best things you can do for your health is to avoid commercial deodorants that contain any form of aluminum or parabens.

Making the switch from a commercial deodorant to an aluminum-free, all natural version can be a bit daunting since there are a number of great options out there and the consequences of trying out different products can be, let’s face it, smelly. Nothing is worse than trying a new deodorant and realizing halfway through a work day that the product is just not the right fit for you. (Trust me! I’ve been there.)

With that in mind, I’d like to share with you my all-time favorite company for aluminum-free deodorant: Jungleman Naturals. I tried some other (more well-known) natural products that just didn’t live up to their reputation before happening upon this one. I’ve been using their deodorants ever since, and have even converted my boyfriend (who works as a restaurant manager, so you can imagine how awesome this product is if it can last through his workday). I’ve tried several different versions of their original deodorant, all of which are great, but my favorite is the Junglemint:

junglemint

 

You can buy their products on their website: http://www.junglemannaturals.com/, or through amazon.com. Trust me, you won’t regret it! If you do try to go for a different company/brand, I’d suggest reading some reviews before buying, and having a back-up, reliable deodorant on hand until you’re sure your new one is a good fit for you. Keep in mind, it takes your body a few days to adjust to the change so you won’t be able to tell immediately how effective the new deodorant will be. Make sure to try it for a few days (maybe applying two times a day or as needed) until your body transitions to the new (and healthier) version. If, after a few days, it still isn’t working for you chances are it’s not a good fit and you’ll want to try a different brand.

 

“The Edge” in Yoga

Today I want to talk about a phrase that we hear quite often in yoga: “The Edge.” While it may sound ominous, chances are paying attention to your Edge and having a deep understanding of what it means will change the way you practice. I think ultimately it allows us, and requires us, to take our practice off the mat.

What exactly is the Edge? One of the most common explanations of this term that I’ve seen is: “the place in your practice where you are being sufficiently challenged but not so much that you experience strain or injury.” This is completely true. Playing with your Edge should not be about pushing beyond pain to the point of injury. We have to be mindful not to overdo our physical practice and hurt ourselves. But I also think definition is a very physical way to think about the edge. It focuses on feeling pain and difficulty in the body. Personally speaking, my practice really took off when I started to develop a deeper understanding of what the Edge is.

The Edge isn’t just physical. It’s mental. When we teach people to “find their Edge” by only being mindful of strain or injury, the mental aspect is lost. We don’t often connect strain or injury with the mind; when our mind is strained it doesn’t usually hurt in the same way that the body does (though if any of you have been to graduate school, I think you’ll agree with me in saying such a thing is completely possible).

We can think of the mental Edge as challenging focus, concentration, dedication, and willpower to persevere even in conditions that are not comfortable. Ever hear the saying that “the pose begins when you want to leave it?” That’s the mental Edge. It’s learning to thrive and persevere even in the face of difficulty. It’s breathing into the intensity rather than running from it. It’s working in the growth zone.

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By challenging both the body and mind to move beyond what we think we are capable of (but only in small increments, without injuring ourselves) we are able to redefine what our limits are. We realize that something we never thought was possible, or never even considered at all, is actually within the realm of possibility. This is where the practice becomes transformative. Yoga makes the impossible possible when you work at your Edge.

My favorite way to the think about the edge involves thinking about change, about the Edge as the growth zone. One of the most common translations of “yoga” is “union.” For me, the Edge is yoga, it is the union of what you are now capable of and what you are not yet capable of. It is playing with moment of union between who you are now and who you will become, between who you have been, and who you will be. Working at the Edge, not just in our physical practice but in our day to day lives, enables us to actualize our full potential, to become the people we want to be, and to recognize that limits are often barriers we impose on ourselves rather than something that actually exists “out there.”

comfort-zone

Given that playing with your Edge can be so transformational, sometimes we may want to always challenge ourselves to work in the growth zone, or push ourselves to be where we imagine we should be before we may be ready. This desire arises from our ego. All great things take time, and yoga is a practice. We need to practice playing with our Edge; we cannot exist there all the time. Recall the song, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need?”

The Edge is personal, and variable, and there are times when what we need may be to rest and heal rather than challenge ourselves. Listen at these times. The Edge is a moving target, and it will change day to day, week to week, and year to year as we grow. Yoga is a practice, and some days the practice is just showing up rather than pushing our limits. Other days the practice will involve playing with the Edge. Some days we find our Edge has not changed, or that we hit our Edge sooner than we have in the past. Other days we may find we have moved beyond a plateau, and we can push ourselves harder and longer than ever before. Cultivating mindfulness is absolutely necessary to recognize our Edge at any moment so we make sure we don’t move so far beyond it we injure ourselves.

So, play with your Edge as you need, and be patient. With patience comes all things. Through practice we explore our Edge, we find our path, and we move beyond our limitations.

With love, light, and…

yoga ❤

Origins of Yoga: Part II

This post is the second in a series exploring myths surrounding the origins of yoga. The first post in the series discusses myths about yoga in ancient Egypt.

This post explores what I feel is the most common origin myth in yoga: the claim that yoga is 2,500 to 5,000 years old, having originated in ancient India. Invariably, if you have practiced yoga or are part of yoga culture, you will have heard this assertion. “Yoga is ancient! Yoga is thousands of years old! Yoga is part of cultural tradition! Yoga is authentic!” Most organizations, studios, styles of yoga, and teachers are quite willing and quick to make this point. Yogis around the world have deep faith in this idea. We talk about “traditional” poses, “traditional” styles, “authentic” practice, and so on, and so on.

Indeed, the infamous Yoga Alliance describes how yoga “developed up to 5,000 years ago in India as a comprehensive system for wellbeing on all levels.” Yoga Journal claims that the “Yoga Tradition and History section provides information on the beginnings and foundation of the 5,000 year old tradition that is yoga.”  Iyengar Yoga traces this yoga style’s “lineage” back to Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras of 2,500 years ago. This list could go on, but you get my point. Though I realize many in yoga will consider questioning this claim blasphemy, I think it’s important to ask: is the idea that yoga is thousands of years old actually true?

The 5,000 Year Argument

There are two different dates that are often thrown around in the yoga community: the 5,000 year old argument, and the 2,500 year old argument. Let’s tackle the 5,000 year old argument first. The claim that yoga is 5,000 years old is based on the archeological discovery of the Pashupati Seal (pictured below) during the 1930s at a dig site in India. The seal was carbon dated to around 2500 BCE and is held to be one of the earliest depictions of the Hindu god Shiva seated in what appears to be the yoga pose mulabandhasana (according to the Iyengar tradition). And that’s pretty much all the evidence there is. There are a few other archeological finds that are not as old as this seal but have similar imagery (always seated postures of deities), but this one piece of stone has caused yogis everywhere to holler to the skies with a passion and devotion: “5,000 years old!”

pasupati seal

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are so many problems in reading too deeply into these images and claiming they are representations of a “yoga tradition.” Interpreting visual evidence (especially images of, well, let’s face it: sitting) as yoga poses is often a result of modern day yogis grasping at straws to “prove” something they deeply believe about their practice and want desperately to be true. (The last post in this series will explore why we might be so desperate to believe these claims.) Numerous scholars, including those I mentioned last week (Singleton 2010; Doris Srinivasan 1984; Samuel 2008) have essentially said as much: that when we make claims that yoga is 5,000 years old based on this one seal and the few others like it we are just reading modern practices into the material. In short, we are being anachronistic. Such a reading is not sound base for constructing a history of yoga or a belief in a “classical tradition.” So the short answer is, yoga as we know it–as a postural practice, but in all likelihood the spiritual practice too–can’t be dated to 5,000 years ago. This claim is a myth, albeit one widely accepted and proclaimed today.

The 2,500 Year Argument

The 2,500 year old argument comes from textual evidence of yoga. In this case there are a number of references used as “proof” of the authentic, thousands year old yoga lineage. The first occurrence of the word “yoga” is in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (roughly third century BCE) where it is revealed to a boy by Yama, the god of death, as a way to overcome death itself. Also around the third century BCE the Svetāśvatara Upaniṣad describes a procedure for bringing the mind under control with breath restraint and an upright seated posture. The later Maitrı̄ Upaniṣad outlines a six-fold method of yoga: (1) breath control, (2) withdrawal of the senses, (3) meditation, (4) placing of the concentrated mind, (5) philosophical inquiry, and (6) absorption, or samadhi. (Note there is nothing about postural practices here.) These were later incorporated into Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga.

The two most well-known texts used to make the 2,500 year claim might be more familiar to yogis today, since they are often required reading in teacher trainings or the topics of articles in popular cultural products like this post in the Yoga Journal. First, the section of the Mahābhārata known as the Bhagavad Gıt̄a lays out the three paths of yoga by which one can know god: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jhana yoga. (During the twentieth century these were later incorporated into the “four paths of yoga” (along with raja yoga) by Vivekananda and Swami Sivananda.) Second, and most notably, is Patanjali’s Yogasūtras, dated to around 200 BCE and which is hailed in the yoga community as the “bible” of yoga that introduces the eight limbs of yoga in one of the sections. It’s important to keep in mind that though this text is often considered the primary yogic text by Westerners, it’s only one of many texts on yoga out there (even from this early time, as indicated above). Yoga, from its very beginnings, is a characterized by plurality and variation. In fact, the main reason we now accept it as the seminal work on yoga is not  because it is the only, or oldest/most authentic, or best work on yoga. It’s because Orientalist scholarship done by the British during colonialism proved incredibly influential in its adoption by anglophones, and early promoters like Vivekananda included it in their teachings upon traveling to the West.

yogasutra1-14

Now the question is, are these texts really part of a “classical tradition” of yoga that can be traced to modern yoga? Here’s where it gets tricky. If you are talking about the spiritual/meditative practice of yoga, as it is tied to Hinduism and becoming one with a Supreme Being, then the answer is a resounding yes. But if you’re talking about modern postural yoga that’s largely devoid of spiritual/meditative elements (recall the recent Encinitas court case where the judge ruled modern yoga was in no way “religious”), the answer is pretty clearly a resounding no.

Of all the earliest textual evidence that actual dates back to 2,500 years ago, only Patanjali’s Yogasūtras even mentions asana, or what we now think of as postural practice. In the ashtanga section asana is described as the third step or limb of the eighfold path in achieving samadhi, which traditionally meant an unbroken union with the divine. But wait! Surely this reference must be the elusive evidence these claims refer to? Unfortunately, if you’re holding out hope you’ll be mistaken. Again–tricky! In this reference asana is only one of many steps toward divine consciousness and spiritual enlightenment, so if you’re talking spiritual/meditative practices of yoga it’s possible to trace these this back this far in history. But, if your talking modern postural practice this doesn’t pan out.

While the word “asana” usually is translated to mean “pose” or “posture” today, what it literally means is “to sit down” in a comfortable (and still) seat. In other words, Patanjali wasn’t talking about sun salutations, or headstands, or even touching your toes. What he was talking about was using a few seated postures to aid meditation and spiritual enlightenment. In all the early textual evidence of yoga, there is little to no emphasis on any sort of postural practice of yoga as it exists today. Thus to make the claim that modern postural yoga is in fact directly connected to the “classical yoga tradition of 2,500 years ago” is highly questionable at best. The meditative/spiritual side of yoga, maybe. But the practice as we know it now? No. And since modern yoga has become so devoid of spiritual and meditative practices that a judge can rule in a court of law that it is not a “religious” practice, we can safely say the 2,500 year old argument is largely a myth.

Keep an eye out for Part III of this series, where I’ll explore exactly how old modern postural yoga actually is.

With love, light and…

yoga ❤

Further Reading

If you’re curious and would like to read a bit more about this yoga myth, I’d recommend Mark Singleton’s excellent 2008 book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and these articles:

Elephant Journal: Yoga History in 9 Easy Steps

Yoga Journal: New Light on Yoga

Yoga Journal: Yoga’s Greater Truth (also by Mark Singleton)

Does What We Do Define Us?

In the past few years there have been a number of studies revealing that the vast majority of workers are unhappy with their jobs and want to change their careers. In 2012 a global study found that 56% of workers in the US were trying to change their careers. A more recent study in 2013 found that only 14% of workers believe they have the perfect job. A whopping 80% of workers in their 20s said they wanted to change careers, followed by 64% of workers in their 30s and 54% of workers in their 40s. Yikes! But it gets worse: nearly 1 in 5 workers plan to change their jobs in 2014. In a society that values and privileges work, often at the expense of health and happiness, how is it possible that so many people are so utterly unhappy with their careers?

Today I want to explore the difference between what we do, and what type of people we are. When we are young, we are encouraged to “plan for our future” and asked, per the featured quote above by John Lennon, “What we want to be when we grow up.” We aren’t encouraged to figure out who we want to be, in terms of the type of qualities we want to possess. In a world that values work, and overwork, we are pushed to define who we are by our careers. But I think this is ultimately a damaging way to cultivate maturity, adulthood, and happiness.

The idea we possess when we are young that we will only have one “career” (singular) is flawed; today, the average person changes jobs 10 to 15 times during their lifetime. We don’t just get a career (singular), we get a variety of careers (plural). In addition, even if we are unusually lucky and find a steady, secure job that we will stick with for the rest of our lives (one career) we often don’t get the “career” (singular) we want. Though the vast majority of people have career goals when they are younger, 73% of workers do not end up in the job they expected to. 

Having goals is incredibly important in life, as is finding happiness and satisfaction in our work lives. But I think ultimately to find joy in our careers, we need to be able to understand ourselves and who we want to be, in terms of what type of people we want to be, rather than what society says we should be. I love the Venn diagram below since it captures this idea that what we are paid to do isn’t the only part of the picture; we also need to discover what we do well and what we want to do, and find the middle ground for all of these things.

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Personally, I don’t typically think about what type of person I want to be when I think about my future–usually when I think of my future I think of career goals, jobs, the things society says I should define my life and value through. Given that I don’t usually think about this, I definitely have never written down concretely what type of person I want to be. But identifying what type of person we want to be shapes what we want to do in terms of our careers. It shapes the decisions we make. So here’s my list of the type of person I want to be in my life. I’ve also made a fun word map, because, well word maps are awesome. What type of person do you want to be? 

 

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I want to be a woman who loves deeply, and laughs often. Someone who finds grace through strength; someone who has the courage to be vulnerable. I want to be mindful and possess the deliberate devotion that leads to wonder. I want to be a creator, an innovator, someone who adapts, bending rather than breaking, who is resilient in the face of change. I want to cultivate gratitude, simplicity, empathy, and wonder. I want to live a balanced life and develop symbiotic relationships that are mutually beneficial to growth. I want to be perceptive and inquisitive in order to develop a deep understanding of the world. I want to be honest and fair, a perpetual student, and a motivational teacher.

word map

Origins of Yoga: Part I

I run into numerous yoga myths in the yoga community, but perhaps the most persistent myth I’ve encountered is the myth that modern yoga is part of a classical yoga tradition stretching back thousands of years. The idea of tradition, or heritage, within yoga practice is so widespread that nearly every practicing yogi and yoga organization makes claims about modern yoga’s heritage. In fact, such claims are often necessary to authenticate these people or organizations as legitimate within the field. (This very topic is one I’m researching right now for my dissertation, so I’m sure I will write more about later.) But is the origin narrative we find in yoga actually true?

The short answer to the question of whether modern yoga is as old as we say it is would be: “Sort of, but for the most part no.” I think this answer is one that ruffles the feathers of many yogis, who cherish and value the origin myth. This is particularly true for yoga teachers, who are often socialized to believe and embrace this myth wholeheartedly in their practice and their teaching by utilizing things like sanskrit, chanting, or the incorporation of mythological themes in their classes. These practices further perpetuate the belief in a classical yoga tradition among their students.

Since this is the beginning of my blog, I think it’s important to start out discussing some of the myths surrounding the origins of yoga. This is the first part of several blog posts that will focus on this topic, exploring the variety of “tall tales” that get told about the history of the practice. The final post in the series will be focused on why the myth persists and what purpose it serves for many yogis and the field as a whole.

I’d like to explore these myths chronologically in time, so the first myth about the origin of yoga is goes back quite far in “yoga history.” The practice of yoga is most often cited to be nearly 5,000 years old, having originated in ancient India. While this claim is itself questionable, and will be the topic of my second post in this series, there is another theory that claims the actual origin of yoga was Egypt c. 40,000 BCE.

Yoga in Egypt

Often referred to as Kemetic Yoga, advocates of this origin narrative claim yoga was practiced in Egypt and North African for nearly 10,000 years during the heyday of the Egyptian Empire. According to the theory, the idea that yoga is part of Indian heritage is in fact due to the migration of this practice from Africa into India, where it was eventually adopted and the claims we hear now of yoga’s Indian heritage formed. As a result, yoga is “actually” African, not Indian. This idea is based on hieroglyphics and artwork like the featured image above, and this one here:

Egyptian-Yoga

This theory was proposed by one Dr. Muata Ashby in 1994, who even published a series of books on the topic. I think it’s important to note here that his doctorate is within Theology, rather than the social sciences, and that he is a self-proclaimed advocate for “the concept of the existence of advanced social and religious philosophy in ancient Africa comparable to the Eastern traditions.” In other words, his research is driven by a particular agenda and not grounded in vetted historical methods. Anyway, regardless of his credentials, his work has spurred the creation of several organizations, numerous facebook and twitter pages, and a variety of articles and blog posts about the “true” origins of yoga.

egyptian-yoga-exercise-workout-book-muata-abhaya-ashby-paperback-cover-art

While it may be true that religious practices in Egypt looked like what we imagine yoga to be today and that within Egyptian texts there are mental and spiritual practices that resemble those of modern yoga, it’s a mistake to think that resemblance is the same thing as equivalence. Many spiritual institutions have similar practices and yet are not the same thing; many body practices look similar yet are not the same thing. Saying Egyptian spiritual/body practices were yoga is like saying prayer is meditation, and dance is postural asana. It just doesn’t equate.

The problem with this theory is that it isn’t in fact true. As Singleton (2010) and Doris Srinivasan (1984) have noted about other claims of yoga’s ancient Indian heritage, the interpretation of such visual “evidence” as hieroglyphs that depict what look like modern yoga postures or textual descriptions of spiritual practices as yoga is misplaced. Basically, it amounts to what Samuel (2008:8) has described as us “reading later practices into the material” to such a degree “that it is of little or no use for constructing any kind of history of practices.” In other words, believing yoga is in fact an ancient Egyptian (aka, African) practice is just a product of us seeing what we want to see in the records of the time and misinterpreting the data. It’s anachronistic.

Persistance of Myth

Then why has this myth persisted, and even gained in popularity since it was introduced in the 1990s? This is the real kicker. Kemetic Yoga has become popular primarily among African Americans, who have used the idea that yoga’s “true” heritage is from North Africa as a way to reclaim a practice that has been in recent decades dominated by whites. An academic study by Birdee et al. (2002) found a significant difference in racial composition of yogis, with 84% of practitioners being white and only 6% being African American (10% other). This is compared to Census data that shows African Americans make up 13% of the US population. But you don’t need this academic article to see whiteness in yoga; all you need to do is open an edition of Yoga Journal, where practically all the bodies portrayed are lithe, white women.

If yoga can be traced back to Africa (and I think it’s clear from the evidence that this is not actually the case, unless you can say the origin of french fries as a cultural phenomenon can be traced back to Chile since that’s where potatoes originated from) then it provides African Americans a way to reclaim yoga as a practice that is ultimately, well, black. Claims about Kemetic Yoga are a continuation of the black power movement that sought to reclaim artistic, cultural, and spiritual heritage for African Americans in a society that has (and continues to) be dominated by whiteness.

And here is where I’m torn. Because there is no denying that yoga is defined as white in our day and age, and most yogis would agree that they want to see yoga become more diverse and welcoming to people of color, particularly African Americans. In many ways, this population could stand to gain the most from adopting yoga. African Americans in the US have faced centuries of historical discrimination that has resulted in structural inequalities: on average, blacks today face higher rates of poverty, worse health, more stress, higher drop out rates, higher incarceration rates, and a variety of other inequalities studied by numerous sociologists. Yoga, as a practice that reduces stress and increases health, provides an outlet for youth and a way to turn a life around within and outside of prison, could be a powerful tool for African Americans.

If the yoga myth that yoga is at its root Egyptian serves to draw more black men and women into yoga, is this a bad thing? I don’t think it is. But I also know, that in my own life I value truth. I always want to know the truth, even if it is painful. A beautiful lie is another way to be controlled; it is the essence of cultural hegemony and practices of domination that have resulted in the very inequalities that African Americans face in the US today. I also think yoga is about uncovering truth, about being self-reflexive and mindful, and about revealing the lies that hold our true self prisoner to habit and conformity.

What do you think?

With love, light and…

Yoga ❤