Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tradition is not still stand

In this post I refer mainly to the book "Yoga - A yoga journal book" by Linda Sparrowe.
I found it so interesting what I read under the chapter "history", that I want to write about it. It also helped me to understand the Ashtanga series.
For further reading I also recommend the book by T.K.V. Desikachar "Yoga". Desikachar is the son of T. Krishnamacharya and teaches yoga as well.

We have to go back to the times of T. Krishnamacharya (beginning of 1900). During that time it was not only the case that yoga was taught in a one to one situation. It was very difficult to find someone who could teach yoga. Krishnamacharya had to go till Tibet to find a yoga guru. Yoga was not at all wide-spread, not even in India. It was more or less a secret science. All training started with studying Patanjali's Yoga Sutra and not with practicing asanas. This is the first point where most of us do not follow the "tradition" anymore.
Krichnamacharya was very lucky. He received financial backing from the Maharaja of Mysore when he was a teacher himself already. The Maharaja was very open to yoga due to his illness. Krichnamacharya wanted to spread yoga and he liked to make it available to as many people as possible. He set up classes in schools. His students were strong young men. For them he created sequences, demanding sequences, so that they remained challenged. Krichnamacharya developed increasingly more difficult sequences. With his students he travelled through India to give yoga shows. He wanted to spread yoga. And I am so sure that if this would have been possible, he would have produced DVDs and books and videos. He wanted to share and spread his passion for yoga. To impress spectators he invented spectacular series. To know this helps to understand why the poses of the Ashtanga series are so demanding. Whom do I want to impress, I wonder?

Krichnamacharya had 3 pupils who became more or less famous:
P. Jois
Indra Devi
B.K.S. Iyengar

There was no still stand. The development of yoga went on faster than I can breathe.
P. Jois seems to be rather conservative and taught more or less the learned sequences. Nevertheless since I'm doing Ashtanga yoga for only 5 years the series have changed.
Examples for modifications:
I remember that in the beginning 4 different paschimottanasanas were taught, now it's 2.
Urdhva dhanurasana was added, it's not even mentioned in the yoga mala.
5 breaths are recommended nowadays, it used to be 8 breaths.
I could go on.
The greatest merit of P. Jois seems to be that he was really passionate for yoga and that he continued teaching it even though it was not always easy to earn a living out of it. This has changed, too.
B.K.S. Iyengar was more creative. He started using blocks and straps and even chairs to help his students.
Indra Devi was according to the text the one who spread yoga in the US.

Let's summarize: The Ashtanga series were created to have a wonderful show to attract people. It's very difficult to find out what really is stable and therefore tradition, because so many things changed only since 1930. Before that time yoga was secret and the knowledge of it was in the hands of only a few yogis. In 1930 Krichnamachary started teaching and yoga was no more a secret science. Stable seems to be the change.

In these days yoga is influenced by the Americans. The American society is a marketing society. Everything can be sold, chewing gums, cigarettes, why not yoga, too. Thanks to Gutenberg and the ability to print it's easier to spread yoga via books. Yoga is a picture show today. The word "perfect pose" comes into my mind. In the early times yoga helped sick people to heal, nowadays soccer teams add yoga to their exercise to win.
"Everybody" does "yoga" nowadays. Yoga is popular. I remember once I was on Canary Island. I did yoga on the balcony, not because I'm an exhibitionist. The balcony was the best place to practice. One day a woman asked me what I was doing. I told her that it was yoga. She: Me, too, I do yoga, every morning when I'm still in bed I do yoga. I didn't answer that she wasn't doing yoga. But isn't it great when people care for their bodies. I think this is wonderful however it is called.

Yoga is influenced by Western teachers. I learned yoga by a teacher, who was in Mysore very often. But I also learned from books. The book by Swenson was a great help in the beginning. He also has recommendation for a shorter practice. He shows asana modifications. Again, here is no still stand. Sweeney created sequences. Power yoga developped. The Jivamuktis learned Ashanga first before they created their own sequences and added music to the show.

Yoga made such a racy development since 1930, that I do not know what tradition is. We cannot go back to the times where yoga was taught secretly as a secret science. We also do not start reading the "holy texts". We start with asanas, with our beloved body.
Yoga in the early times seemed to be taught from guru to student. It was rather individual. Modifications were made all the time to adjust the asanas to the abilities of the students. Some "traditionalists" demand that yoga shall passed forward individually, but without individual modifications of the asanas. (If you cannot do supta kurmasana or urdhva dhanurasana you are not allowed to go on. You must learn yoga from a teacher and not from a book.) The demand to follow the tradition is full of contradictions. I see only one way: to think oneself, to remain open.
Tradition is not a worth per se.

Isn't this all exciting.
Everything changes, so does yoga.

Please read the comments for further information and some adjustments of this post. Thank you for commenting.


C.K. said...


Krishnamacharya is considered the father of modern hatha yoga. According to Sharath, K's teacher, Brahmacharya, told him that his payment (dakshina) for teaching him was to spread the yoga to others. It was his duty to comply.

There is also a (northern?) classical hatha stayle (Bikram, Sivananda) that is a bit different and does not seem to have changed very much. This is what Dharma Mittra teaches. The Jivamukti people were Dharma's students, and much of what they teach is a combination of what they learned from him and Pattabhi Jois.

Ursula said...

Hi C.K.,

Thank you very much for your comment.

I have my infos more or less from the mentioned books and my own experiences.

But you are of course right, I've totally forgotten to mention the Sivanandas.

I will add to my post to read the comments.



Gururaj said...

T. Krishnamacharya is a great yoga teacher
Yoga Schools

Ursula said...

Yes, I think so.
Without Krishnamacharya I would probably not know what yoga is.

I'm very thankful.