When I first started practicing yoga, I thought it was a 5000-year-old practice. I thought when I stretched back into Downward Dog that I was tapping into an ancient system of yoga that, in and of itself, had powers to heal me.
I was wrong.
It’s true that there is 5000-year-old evidence that people used to sit cross-legged in meditation, and “yoga” is an ancient practice within Hinduism. Texts like the Yoga Sutras, a famous treatise written around 200 BCE, talk mostly about meditation, and any reference to physical postures seams to imply simply the seat for meditation. Downward Dog doesn’t exist in any of these ancient texts.
In his fascinating book Yoga Body, Mark Singleton suggests that the postural yoga we think of when we go to a yoga class actually originated in a distinctly colonial reality. “In the early decades of the 20th century, India—like much of the rest of the world—was gripped by an unprecedented fervor for physical culture, which was closely linked to the struggle for national independence,” he writes, and argues that physical postures came into existence mostly through this context.
During the English occupation of India in the early 20th century, groups of Indian nationals would congregate to build their physical and communal strength to fight their colonizers. “Some teachers,” Singleton goes on, such as one named 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.” Calling these practices “yoga” allowed practitioners to hide their revolutionary intentions. Chaturanga may truly be a push-up after all.
These practices evolved further as they traveled West, continuing to change and be influenced not only by English military routines, bodybuilding, and Swedish gymnastics, but also Western practices. “Much of the yoga that dominates America and Europe today has changed almost beyond recognition from the medieval practices,” Singleton writes.
The question is, then, does it matter? Does this make our yoga any less authentic?
Authenticity can only truly come through your own experience. Looking to any tradition for purity is a bit of a false exercise—the best practices, myths, and philosophies are able to move and change with the changing needs of a culture, and sometimes in interaction with other cultures.
It is worth considering where we are coming from when we take on traditions from another time and place. We must understand that we apply the perceptions that are available to us, and that can change the tradition in real time. Rather than trying to see Downward Dog as a pure and inviolable part of a tradition, we can think about it as something whose change we have participated in, and consider what that means for us in the present moment.
When you love someone truly, you do not try to force them to exist only within the confines of who you think they should be. You allow them to change and take different shapes in interactions with their world. Truly loving yoga means accepting its myriad meanings, including the parts that come from anti-colonial revolutionaries, Christian missionaries, and bikini-clad Instagram yoginis. “Understanding yoga’s history and tangled, ancient roots brings us that much closer to true, clear seeing,” Singleton concludes. “It may also help to move us to a more mature phase of yoga practice for the 21st century.”