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:
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.
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 22% 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…