This note was inspired by Karen Croley, who read a recent article in the Yoga Journal and asked a good question – about the historical roots of yoga and it’s relationship to gymnastics. Here’s my response, similar to what I answered on Facebook but expended upon.
The article I found was titled: New Light on Yoga by Anne Cushman. She talks about a book by a guy named Sjoman who did some research on Krishnamacharya and where he got his yoga, from where we now have our yoga via Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar. The article makes mention of the fact that Krishanamacharya was interested in British gymnastics and used the gymnasium and the tools there to elaborate the yoga postures that are now a signature of the Ashtanga tradtionion, but also transcend it and have become what we now recognize as "yoga postures".
Anne Cushman does make one point in the article which gets overlooked generally among yoga practitioners - it's not WHAT you are doing but HOW you are doing it that makes it YOGA.
That being said - I have to agree with her article. It's well put together and it mirrors my sentiment and teaching style. It is because of the above mentioned point, that I tell people what to do, then tell them to experiment and find out what works for their body precisely! Each body IS different. We owe Ieyngar the attention to detail and the precision of yoga posture alignment but ultimately even his strict instructions must be adopted by a body and its own peculiarities. A posture must feel organic, dynamic, alive and what I like to say “juicy.” It’s like eating a good dessert. It could be done with most precise measurements of ingredients but it still may not be the kind of flavor you prefer. To your bread pudding you may want to add some rum, or nuts. I prefer chocolate. So, that’s the stuff that’s still left to you to figure out in a pose – where is your chocolate and your rum, and how much of a nut are you trying to perform the postures, rather than let your body express them.
Indeed we are left with very little instruction on the postures of yoga. Like the authors mentions in her article - the Hatha Yoga Predipika only has 15 postures and they all are sited, forward bends or variations thereof, or of padmasana (the lotus pose). Even things like Shiva Samhitta are short on a few postures when you compare it to yoga lore, the story told of when Shiva danced in front of his wife and manifested the 850,000 yoga postures....The Shiva Samhitta states that of all 8.4 million posture (notice the number just went to a million) only 84 are important. Most of these texts did not emerge until the 15th -17th century. Prior to that yoga was a philosophical exploration of reality aided by meditation and varieties of ritualistic practices. The Vedas mentioned the word “yoga” thousands of years ago, but in the context of spiritual growth, not in the context of exercise. In fact, thousands of years ago, it never occurred to anyone that exercising is good for your heart. They considered closeness to God, serving others, understanding the nature of reality, to be good for your heart…and your mind, and your karma, dharma and neighborhood.
So, as far as postures go - it has been left to the imagination of the practitioner to manifest a flow that works for the body. When that mentality and Krishnamacharya’s creative expression came to America, we added steroids to it and made everything fancier, more challenging, more fun, more everything, until it was all about the posture and not at all for the PURPOSE of the movement - which is to purify the body, the energy and the mind. So, our yoga postures became nothing more than a mind trip like everything else we do. That is not to say that a person cannot work with these postures for the right reasons and indeed purify the body, energy and mind. Many do exactly that. Creativity in itself is not a problem. In most cases creativity is the result of listening, experimenting, being present in the moment and manifesting the inspiration of the moment. In this case it's the HOW of the movement that makes it YOGA.
Yoga is about growth, transcending suffering, realizing one's full potential and contributing positively to the lives of others. Even enlightenment is about that, not about a trip up to a cool place you can later tell all your friends about.
So, that's why I generally get ticked off when people start asking, what I consider irrelevant questions such as" Do I get enough cardio when I do yoga?" Not only does it depend on the style of yoga you do, but also it begs the question "Why are you doing yoga in first place?" If you want cardio - run, bike up the hill, box... there are tons of ways to get cardio, why bother tying yourself in a knot to do it. If you jog, bike, spin, or whatever for cardio, you also get to keep your dignity. In a yoga class, your hind end is up on display, you get to see, feel and hear body parts and mind tendencies you may not want to know that they exist, so if you want to keep the pretense of your ego personality, you should pick something more forgiving.
Even though we are left with very little instruction on the yoga postures, we are left with tons of instruction on how to be present, evolve and develop and realize our full potential, be happier, serve others and enjoy life...which is what yoga is really all about. The best part about it is that we get to learn these truths by first facing our own selves, learning to listen to our own bodies and intuition and learn to enjoy the present moment in the safety of our own mat. When we sincerely approach the practice, the practice changes how we are, even though we may have never heard of the Shiva Samhitta or Patanjali, or Krishnamacharya. The grass does not need to know how to grow. When the spring comes, it grows. It doesn’t even know what kind of grass it is or who brought the first seed over. It just grows and fulfills it’s grassness.