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The Origins of Yoga: Part IV

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, Part II here on the 5,000-year-old yoga myth, and Part III here on exactly how old postural yoga is.

This final post in my series of articles on the origins of yoga has been a long time coming. To be honest, this was a daunting post for me to write because it addresses why origin myths have been so widely adopted and spread within yoga today despite the fact that they are fictions. And this is a difficult question to answer. If you haven’t checked out the earlier posts in this series, I ended part III asking: 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? What are the implications of the true history of yoga for our practice? Does it mean modern yoga is “inauthentic?” So let’s try to tackle the real, although messy, answers to these questions.

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?

There are a number of reasons why yogis believe in and perpetuate origin myths about yoga. First, origin narratives provide for shared experiences of group members that promote unity and social solidarity within a group. These narratives may or may not be true, as we saw in the case of yoga, but regardless they are usually simplified into a more easily digested version of a common, public history and become part of our collective memory, or the “memories” shared by all members of a group. So origin narratives allow for people to bond and feel a sense of social identification with the group as a whole and with other community members, where the group is incorporated into our sense of self and the self is experienced as an integral part of the the group. (As such, origin narratives actually provide us with a means of identity formation as well as group membership.) Benedict Anderson called this process the creation of imagined community, or a community that is socially constructed and imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. While members of the community will never know each of the other members personally, they are bonded together through similar interests and identification as part of the same group, united by collective memories of a shared history.

In the case of yoga, these origin narratives have become institutionalized as required instruction in teacher training programs throughout the United States and subsequently spread throughout the yoga world. Origin narratives within the yoga community allow us to bond together as part of a group of like-minded individuals who all have the same collective memory of yoga, and can therefore feel solidarity over our mutual identification as yogis, and a recognition that we all have something in common. (“Hi, I’m a yogi! You’re a yogi too? Awesome, let’s go do some headstands and talk about the eight limbs of yoga.”) For particular groups within yoga, like yogis of color who are often marginalized in the whitewashed Western yoga world, origin myths like the one I wrote about in Part I of this series, which claims yoga dates back to ancient Egypt, are a way to create a subgroup that seeks to reclaim yoga as a black practice. But the result is the same in both instances, as the Egypt origin narrative provides this subgroup of yogis with a means to bond and unite through shared (black) history.

So much for the first reason so many people believe in these myths. I think the second reason is related to a crisis of faith and spiritual commitment that has beset modern societies. There have been a huge number of studies documenting the decline of organized religion and the rise of those who are “spiritual but not religious.” In 2012 the PEW research center even published a much discussed poll that showed the increase of religiously unaffiliated people in America. This isn’t to say that no one is sticking with traditional religions–the majority of citizens in the United States do still religiously identify. But the number who don’t is rising, and younger generations are much more likely to be religiously unaffiliated. Add the fact that those who are religiously unaffiliated are also two times more likely to be liberal, and overwhelmingly believe that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics and we start to get an idea of the type of person that opts out of traditional religions.

In a modern world where organized religions continue to contradict science or support political policies that oppose liberal values of human rights, many Americans are beginning to opt out of the religious system entirely. But as social beings, we often still desire the meaning, community, and purpose that religion provides. Yoga has become a vehicle for many highly educated, religiously unaffiliated yet spiritually inclined individuals to fulfill these desires. And indeed, many yogis argue that yoga provides a sense of spiritually, meaning, and ritual within our spiritually bereft modern world that can be fast-paced, stressful, and anxiety-producing for many individuals. Many yoga practitioners describe “finding yoga” in ways that mirror spiritual discussions of “finding God,” and openly claim that yoga serves religious purposes within their lives. Origin narratives in yoga are seen as “proof” that modern postural yoga has spiritual roots, and a sign of authenticity for individuals trying to navigate a world of mass information.

What’s ironic is that while many may argue yoga is a 10,000 year old practice that has evolved over time to be the perfect solution and ailment to our modern conditions of high-stress insecure employment, postural yoga is a modern invention. It’s also ironic because yoga and other mindfulness practices have largely been used to prop up unsustainable practices of capitalism. The article by Purser and Loy on mcmindfulness is too good not to quote directly:

“Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots… Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam — a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life… Mindfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals…Unfortunately, a more ethical and socially responsible view of mindfulness is now seen by many practitioners as a tangential concern, or as an unnecessary politicizing of one’s personal journey of self-transformation.”

In other words, as I’ve mentioned before yoga and other practices of mindfulness are often co-opted by corporate interests to avoid actually solving systemic problems. While mindfulness practices can help people learn to cope with the chronic stress and trauma in their lives, learning how to cope doesn’t eliminate or solve the real problem: that chronic stress or trauma has become normalized as a way of life in America. Simply teaching people to “cope” with problems caused by structural failure acts like a stop-gap measure, mitigating the effects of much larger problems that can only be solved by structural change and activism. Yet as the above quote notes, when some people try to promote a more socially responsible viewpoint most practitioners (who often are coming from a place of privilege) are quick to play the “authentic yoga is about non-judgement” card, implying that drawing attention to systemic problems is unnecessarily politicizing what mindfulness practices “should” be about. Such disturbing arguments are often based on fictional ideas of the origin of yoga: origin myths.

What are the implications of the true history of yoga for our practice? Does it mean modern yoga is “inauthentic?”

The most important implications of the true history of yoga for our practice is the realization that yoga has never been just one definitive thing. Yoga has always been multiple and various, and has undergone a very drastic and complex evolution over time. What yoga is has changed at different moments in history for different groups to meet their needs and desires at that social and historical moment in time. So acknowledging that yoga is in fact a modern invention doesn’t make the meaning we get from the practice is any less real or authentic. Authenticity is socially constructed, so the fact that origin narratives widespread in the field now are myths doesn’t make postural yoga “inauthentic.” It makes it the latest evolution in a very long and complex process of cultural diffusion, innovation, and (admitably) appropriation. Acknowledging that the history of yoga is a history of evolution means that we should be able to consciously, purposely mold yoga to be what it needs to be for our group(s), at this time, to meet our needs and desires.

For example, if we admit yoga is a modern invention, then why not admit that some of the myths we’ve been adhering to might not be serving all yogis, or meeting all our needs and desires? Why not consciously change yoga to be more accessible and welcoming for all people and groups? Accepting and being actively involved in the evolution of yoga means we could adjust our asana practice to include more biomechanics and movement patterns rather than relying on “yoga speak” that tries to sound “authentically” ancient and wise but actually has no basis in science, or ancient yogic practices. Or maybe we and could begin to use yoga as a force for social change to combat structural problems. You get the idea? Abandoning yoga origin myths creates the possibility to consciously change yoga for the better since we are no longer locked in to ideas of what yoga should be, and frankly striving to improve yoga is a very yogic goal to have. I think the yoga world is ready to adopt a more accurate origin narrative for yoga, and that doing so could ultimately change yoga into something better, more powerful, more meaningful, and more relevant to our needs and desires.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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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!

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)

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 ❤