THE ORIGIN OF YOGA
The way most people understand yoga today is quite different than what academics, scholars, and religionists have grappled over for centuries. In modern society when we hear yoga, most of us think downward dog, but the origin of yoga is part of a much broader and more complex framework. To fully understand why yoga styles are a myth, it is useful to have some insight to its origin. The Vēdas, a large body of texts originally composed in an ancient form of Sanskrit, are considered the most sacred source of knowledge in Hinduism. They provided the philosophical foundation for the future development of both yoga and Hinduism. Some scholars believe in the first four centuries C.E. six main schools emerged from these teachings. This philosophical system became known as the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, or Ṣaṭ Darśanas. These philosophies promoted ways of looking at knowledge and understanding our true nature. The six orthodox schools vary in their focus but at their core illuminate the essence of the Vēdas. These schools are Sāmkhya, Nyāya, Vaiśesika, Mīmāmsā, Vedānta, and Yoga. It is important to understand that in Vedic times the philosophy of each school was matched to an individual based on their temperament, capacity and mental caliber. This is a meaningful concept as we delve into a modern understanding of yoga.
When I discovered yoga it was still considered fringe. My teachers imparted on me a wisdom that has been handed down from this ancient culture, which acknowledges the birth and intention of yoga and its true purpose. This is a very different orientation than what countless of participants are receiving in today’s more popular interpretations of yoga. These days the origins of yoga are often misunderstood and quite frankly, not of real interest to many who attend group classes. By traditional standards, yoga in a group setting, dictated as a particular style is a modern phenomenon. In the 1930’s we begin to see the development of group practice, although then it was limited to young Brāhmin males. It’s also worth noting what millions of people in most Western yoga classes are actually doing today. What we call practicing yoga is, more accurately, doing postures (āsana) or breathing exercises (prāṇāyāma) and maybe some other aspect of Hatha practice. But even the way most of us are being taught how to do āsana and prāṇāyāma falls short of an authentic understanding of this ancient system’s higher purpose.
The reality of what I have observed for nearly two decades as a student and a teacher- often points to a favorable interest in an exaggerated physical practice, mixed up with a few Rumi quotes and a hot playlist. It’s a redundant scene that perpetuates the cycle of an inadequately informed public plied with misinformation and potentially risky psychological and physical pursuits. Along with the new globalization of yoga, the public is being sold an image and idea of how to understand this holistic system in a fairly limited way. Western culture, media, and economic growth are driving yoga into the future. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it does have a powerful impact on yoga’s roots. As our culture gains greater interest in yoga, these familiar scenes become the norm and even the expectation. This gives more energy and momentum to these diluted ideas, ultimately redefining yoga’s vast depth and limiting its potential. This shift is well on its way and is forging a new frontier to modern teachings. It makes sense that the practice will evolve to meet the needs of current populations; however, the principles and fundamental purpose of yoga and its gifts are often ignored and misconstrued as simply another form of exercise.
THE VINIYOGA OF YOGA
This modern interpretation and application that continues to flourish began primarily through one lineage. Often referred to as the grandfather of today’s yoga culture, T. Krishnamacharya’s teachings are central to what have now become the more popularized styles of modern yoga. Krishnamacharya is best known as the teacher to B.K.S Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois and his son, T.K.V Desikachar. These students were paramount in spreading the teachings of yoga on a global scale. In the process each became associated with a particular method of practice. However, what many people are not aware of is that these individuals were not practicing a style of yoga, but simply doing their yoga, the way it was intended for him alone. At the core of Krishnamacharya’s teaching is the understanding that you teach the individual the yoga — not the yoga to the individual. The teacher meets the student where they are and matches the practice to support their needs. The focus was never performance but always function. B.K.S Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V Desikachar all had different individual needs based on age, health, and mental capacity. In the spirit of Vedic tradition, Krishnamacharya taught each student in an appropriate context to respect these unique qualities.
Although yoga had an earlier presence in the west, it was not until the 70’s that we begin to see the naming of particular practices. The practice B.K.S Iyengar had fostered so eloquently for decades became known as “Iyengar” Yoga. In Maui, a student of Pattabhi Jois spread the teaching of his teacher, calling it Aṣṭāṅga Vinyāsa. It is also around this time some of Desikachar’s students noticed the way they had learned yoga looked much different than that of Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois though they came from the same source. Desikachar consulted with Krishnamacharya about this and the term viniyoga was given as a way to distinguish it from other teachings. To be perfectly clear, the term was given to create a distinction for a public audience, not as a creation of a yoga brand — that came later.
The term viniyoga is not a made up word but is one of rich meaning. For us to fully comprehend the concept of viniyoga it is useful to understand the word itself. Viniyoga is an ancient word that has its origin in the Vēdas. The word appears many times in sandhyāvandana, an ancient sun meditation that is believed to predate the existence of yoga. For our purposes, the word can be dissected into three parts, vi + ni + yoga. Here the word yoga represents a connection. The prefix ni comes from the word nitarām which means always or continuous. Ni + yoga or niyoga gives us a continuous connection. Add the prefix vi coming from the word viśeṣa, meaning special and we arrive to a special continuous connection. Another way to understand the term is appropriate application. The term is commonly associated with the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali (3.6), where the author states the practice (of saṃyama) should be approached to meet the needs of the individual.
To understand how to accommodate student’s needs most efficiently, we must understand the beginning place for each student, his or her present condition, goals and means available. We all differ and constantly change so a one-size-fits-all approach limits the efficacy of yoga’s potential. Facing change provides an opportunity to reflect, reestablish, and clarify the best means for an individual at any given time. Consider this: everyone comes to yoga with a different motive. Some of us come early in life while others come later. Some of us are practicing to help our low back pain and some are practicing to calm anxiety. Some of us want to become physically stronger and some are interested in a spiritual path. Given this, would it make sense to teach everyone the same kind of yoga practice? It’s like people with all different body types trying to fit into the same pair of pants. This is why traditionally yoga was taught in a one-on-one format, to acknowledge and honor the unique changing needs of each student and to address all aspects of the individual, thereby truly maintaining yoga’s holistic integrity.
WHAT KIND OF YOGA DO YOU TEACH?
The branding of yoga became very significant in the early 90’s. Some of Desikachar’s students took the word viniyoga and began to create organizations under this name. Suddenly viniyoga became lumped in with the up-and-coming styles of yoga. It is commonly misunderstood that Krishnamacharya and Desikachar invented this style of yoga. They never believed in the concept of yoga styles, especially when most of the styles were and are focused on how the techniques are performed rather than what the techniques can do for you. In this way viniyoga is a dynamic and evolving process rather than a fixed style of practice. Viniyoga is a timeless principle that extends beyond the physical application of yoga and is more geared to the application of life. Unfortunately, today, with the ever increasing invention of more yoga styles, the term is now often limited to just another style. To say I teach viniyoga is not a fully accurate statement as this too has its trappings and limitations. But when someone asks me “What kind of yoga do you teach?” to simply answer “yoga” is most perplexing and vague, but really that is all it is.