Many yoga practitioners get curious about the deeper practices behind what we are doing on our yoga mats. What exactly are the philosophies we are following here? What’s the meaning behind all this Ujjayi breathing and Downward Facing Dog?
Well, it really depends on who you ask. There is a lot of confusing (and sometimes conflicting) information out there. When I first started practicing yoga, I thought Crow Pose was five thousand years old. I thought there was something ancient and grave about postures poetically named after Eagles and Dragons in a language so old no one actually speaks it anymore.
I didn’t have the whole story. The idea of yoga may be five thousand years old, but it was never intended for me: for a long time, yoga was only for upper caste Brahmin men in Indian society. Women were not supposed to practice it, and it was at its heart a religious expression of Hinduism, not something a white North American girl like me could just drop into. Plus, the physical postures that make up the kind of yoga I practice here in the West are relatively modern, coming into fashion (and probably existence) as recently as the early 20th century.
There was some mention of about 15 yoga postures in the 15th century text Hatha Yoga Pradipika. B.K.S Iyengar came out with 200 postures in his 1966 book Light on Yoga. Where did all those extra poses come from? As it turns out, Indian teachers in the early 20th century were mixing the spirituality and meditation of ancient traditions with a physical practice that included elements of Swedish gymnastics and English military routines and calling the whole thing “yoga.”
Teacher Mark Singleton, in an article exploring the history of yoga, writes that this was happening in the context of a push towards Indian independence from English colonization: “Building better bodies, people reasoned, would make for a better nation and improve the chances of success in the event of a violent struggle against the colonizers. [...] Some teachers, such as Tiruka [...] traveled the country disguised as yoga gurus, teaching strengthening and combat techniques to potential revolutionaries. Tiruka's aim was to prepare the people for an uprising against the British, and, by disguising himself as a religious ascetic, he avoided the watchful eye of the authorities.”
Crow pose may not have the deep and ancient sacredness of a five thousand year old practice, but this story of independence through physical strength is powerful in its own right. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that I often get messages from my culture that my body doesn’t really belong to me: that I’m too fat or too skinny, or that I need to buy a certain product in order to be good enough, or that I have to follow a certain social script to be accepted. Yoga is the only form of exercise (at least the way we’ve come to practice it) that asks us to continually pause, breathe, and check in with how each shape feels in our bodies as we move. This connects us with our instincts, and thus cultivates an intelligence and power that comes from within, not from without.
A “yoga body” then, is not necessarily one that fits some external mold of what a healthy person should look like, nor is it necessarily an authentic expression of a five thousand year old spiritual lineage. The true “yoga body,” then, may be the practice of listening, learning, and personal sacredness: it’s your body, right now.