Honoring the Ancient Traditions of Yoga
Paying respect to traditions gives us a sense of our roots, our heritage and a sense of being. We follow tradition because for centuries our ancestors have followed the ways that encapsulate the meaning of life and how to be free of suffering caused by uncertainty and trudging down dark paths. But tradition has many faces. It doesn’t always capture the best of us. There are those who cling to traditions and refuse change, while there are those who fear traditions that are unfamiliar from their own. With the world being increasingly cross-cultural, traditions of all sorts are being exposed to many reaches of the earth. In their travel they are becoming transformed. Through their transformation, we have to find a bridge that allows for us to protect the integrity of the tradition within the roots of their purpose.
Yoga is one of these traditions. It’s origins are rooted in the soils of the Indus Valley, beneath the Himalayan Mountains, what is Northern India and Pakistan today. It’s traditions so ancient, that it’s claimed to have been practiced since the beginning of civilization. Through internationalism, the seeds of yoga have scattered, blown in the wind and spread to those who seek light. Yoga now touches upon the lives of people all over the world.
Yet the traditions of yoga have altered significantly, in their travels from South Asia. In the West, people flock to 40.6 degree Celsius rooms, to sweat it out in a session of Bikram’s hot yoga, or work their core in power vinyasa yoga classes that focus on asanas, or physical postures of yoga combined with fitness. The roots of yoga, the mantras, the Om, breathing techniques, pranayama, and the intentions of finding inner peace, and stilling the mind to single-pointed concentration in meditation are foregone in the mist of vanity to achieve one’s ideal body type.
When the tradition has diverted so far from its roots, then what do you call its modern variation? Is it time for the traditions to shift with the modern currents?
If you travel to the Himalayan regions of India or Nepal and take a yoga class, you will experience how the traditions have modernized in its birthplace. Classes are conducted with an opening mantra, an Om, and an intention, then proceeded by a series of asanas, or poses, followed by a lengthy savasana. Sometimes the class begins or concludes with pranayama, breathing exercises, and then a final meditation to use the benefits of the physical practice in stilling the body to ease into the mental practice. The local yoga instructors have been practicing as a part of their culture, their heritage. They probably woke up at 3 or 4am to do their own practice before the sun rose, and established their own equilibrium before teaching the class that you participate in. Your class isn’t glistening with brand names, like Lululemon or prAna. It’s simple. You might even find yourself on a rooftop, with the monsoon pounding it’s way in through the makeshift roof made of tarpaulin, spraying you occasionally with rain as you press into adho mukha svanasana, or downward facing dog. But you feel the wind on your face, and outside is a sea of green fields.
In the West, the yogic experience differs depending on where you practice and who you practice with. Classes are more focused on the anatomy, which is safer than in India where you’ll be put into headstands and shoulder stands without caution. Sometimes there are real gems out there, where you get the mix of modern Western and classical Eastern traditions. The class will begin with a centering, focus on the breath, an Om you can join into, a sequence of poses that gets your heart pumping while simultaneously bringing you into yourself and connecting to the core of your being. Then a calming savasana, and a final centering that reflects on the intentions of the class. These classes exist. The music played during class may not be a traditional method, but traditions can change, as long as the intention remains.
The next time you step into a yoga class, be mindful. Leave your ego at the door, and explore yourself in the ancient tradition of connecting the body and mind. Be aware of the poses that open up that connection, and go inward. The hand foot bond to the mat should be all that matters, not the mirror in the room, or the person next to you. Let go and chant Om – there’s a reason it’s called the eternal sound. Lose yourself in the history of movement and discover how it makes you feel. You will never know until you try. Yoga is a tradition of self-discovery through seeking this connection.
Finding Tradition through Intention
The origins of yoga comes from Sanskrit, to yoke, or union. This is the intention of the practice. It can be done through chanting, breathing, meditating, or physical movement. Whatever form of yoga you practice, if your intention is to create a union of the body and mind with the true nature of yourself, then you are following the roots of the yoga tradition. It doesn’t matter if you use modern music to carry you through your practice, if you laugh, sweat and shake, call the poses by their Sanskrit, or locally invented name, if your intention is pure then you are amongst the traditions of yoga. Find your path and allow yoga to become your teacher as you explore its roots, and find a tradition that remains alive and intact in each of us.
“By Yoga, Yoga must be known; Through Yoga, Yoga advances; He who cares for Yoga, In Yoga rests forever.” (Unknown source)
The Science of Yoga
Stress has become a way of life. Whether the days are full of multiple goals and endless obligations, traffic jams and transit delays, complex systems of bureaucracy and finance, or an overwhelming array of in-person and virtual relationships, the pace of current human existence is bursting at the seams.
For centuries, sages have relied on yoga to transcend earthly limitations. Each meditative pose is an effort to identify pockets of pain that accumulate inside the body. Each inhale confronts suffering. Each exhale is an attempt to transcend it. Through this process, worry is replaced with loving-kindness.
Now, bodies of research are proving that yoga is more than a niche spiritual force for enlightened beings.
Yoga has the power to heal the world, one human at a time.
The Rise of Yoga
A system of poses, breathing exercises, and meditations that originated in ancient India to inspire physical, mental, and spiritual well-being first started to spread around the world as a form of exercise in the twentieth century.
For decades, in the US, yoga seemed to capture the interests of quirky, white city dwellers and affluent suburbanite moms, but over the last decade, it has expanded from the studio and can currently be found in public parks, hospitals, outpatient clinics, workspaces, elementary schools, military bases, rehab centers, and even airports.
In fact, the 2016 Yoga in America Study commissioned, by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, estimated that more than 36 million people were practicing yoga in the US by 2015, compared to 20.4 million in 2012. A staggering 80 million people are likely to try yoga in 2016.
The Origins of Yoga
Yoga is first mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient collection of Sanskrit poetry that is sacred to the Hindu religion, dating as far back as the second century BCE. Verse 48 of Chapter Two essentially describes yoga as a state of equilibrium.
In the series Introduction to Yoga Sutras, Nicolai Bachman references the authoritative text on yoga to explore what it means to live a yogi life. He teaches that yoga is a path to positive transformation. Through a dedicated yoga practice, one can root out negativity and plant loving kindness. Citing Sutra 1.2, “yoga-citta-vritti-nirodhah,” Bachman describes yoga as a powerful tool for calming the noise.
While the validity of ancient texts may invite skepticism, the first professional-level medical textbook on yoga was released in the US in 2016. In Chapter One, “Introduction to Yoga in Health Care,” licensed medical practitioners recognize the importance of developing habits that balance emotions and modify unhealthy thought-patterns and acknowledge that yoga can play an integral role in preventing disease.