-by Greg Nadri
Often times as yoga teachers, we appeal to tradition in order to claim authenticity for our teaching. But we often have an ambivalent relationship to tradition, enjoying the authority it implies while simultaneously editing anything that presents itself of a distasteful, unappealing, or inconvenient nature. It seems as though we would like to have our tradition cake and eat it too. Recently academic research in Yoga studies has attempted to trace the influences that have shaped Modern Yoga. It should be clear when we look around to the culture surrounding yoga in the west that not everything that is found in Modern yoga is traditional. The least of which is the abundance of products, styles of yoga, and studios, the celebrity around some yoga teachers, and the pedagogical approach of group classes. This might leave us to divide up our current yoga culture into “real” yoga and everything else. Of course, most people interested in these divisions assume that they sit squarely in the midst of a “real” tradition. According to the textual tradition of yoga, these types of divisions are common, but symptomatic of an underlying problem that yoga seeks to address. Yoga posits that the conditioning influence of the mind that creates such divisions is actually at the root of all suffering. Instead, we can approach concerns over authenticity by probing deeper into the meaning of tradition and how we can make room for innovation while still cleaving to those aspects of tradition that make yoga effective.
The paradigm shifting work of yoga scholars have begun to seek into the origins of Modern Yoga in both India and America. They make the case that the rupture that occurred in India as a result of colonization caused a re-interpretation of yoga tradition in order to accommodate post-enlightenment and modern values. It is this re-interpretation that had the greatest influence on modern yoga through the work of Swami Vivekananda. A careful study of the cultural influences surrounding the yoga taught by Krishnamacharya in the mysore palace show a tremendous amount of innovation to re-invent traditional yoga techniques and themes in a way that allowed them to thrive in a modern world. It is this environment that spawned much of the renaissance of Modern Yoga as it is commonly practiced today. Research has shown that there were traditional practices that were considered entirely unsavory and unsuitable for practice by modern, civilized people and for a long period, yogis, sometimes deservedly, held low esteem in Indian culture due to their uncivilized ways and practices. Modern Yoga was able to flourish in America as a result of careful editing of the tradition as well as appending it to other popular movements such as the new age movement and alternative health.
If all of this is true, then how do we make sense of “tradition?” Elizaebeth DeMichelis, in her A History of Modern Yoga, rather generously includes Modern Yoga as a western graft onto the tree of traditional yoga, whereas Mark Singleton in Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice recommends that we view Modern Yoga as a homonym rather than a synonym for traditional yoga. In other words, it shares the same name, but refers to a wholly different set of practices. I find that Joseph Alter comes the closest to a definition of tradition that will help us to make sense of modern yoga’s place in the history of yoga. He defines tradition as something that is unbounded, meaning that instead of a fixed set of practices traditions can be more malleable. In order to find practitioners, it must survive over long periods of time by adjusting to current needs. While the technique of yoga may change according to culture and period, there are some aspects that will need to remain fixed for the sake of continuity. What matters most if we are to see the progression of yoga through time is that we understand the aims of traditional yoga.
Traditional yoga, according to the texts is a liberation practice that seeks to free its practitioners from suffering through methods designed to overcome the conditioning influences of the mind. Accepting that the mind, then, can delude us, it becomes important for us to learn discernment and perspective in our approach to traditional yoga. There is an element of surrender that comes from understanding that sometimes self- guardianship fails us. While we have become skeptical of the guru figure in modern culture, it is important to have checks and balances in the form of trusted teachers and peers to help guide our process. We must put our faith in practices once we have done our due diligence to ensure that they are safe and a good fit for us. In this way, we elevate the practice above our own desires approaching it with the reverence due to a tradition designed to save us from the whim of desire and fleeting happiness and suffering. Yoga tradition seeks to establish us in abiding peace by transcending the allure of sensual pleasure. This isn’t to say that the pleasure of the senses is good or bad, but simply that our attachment and inability to transcend the will of the senses can bind us in a cycle of seeking happiness outside of ourselves, a tactic that will inevitably cause some misery in our lives as our self esteem would then be based on fickle trends that are bound to change leaving us falling flat.
With the proper attitude and approach, we should then approach our practice of yoga with some earnestness. We will find benefit from any practice, and as Krishna reminds us in the Bhagavad Gita, no effort in yoga is wasted. If our goal is to find greater health and more mental peace, then even a little yoga goes a long way. Yoga should be practiced according to our means and our constitution and this is why we find so many methods throughout the texts of yoga. However, it is important that we understand that traditionally, increased health was a collateral benefit of the path to wholeness that is yoga. It is Patanjali who, in the Yoga Sutras, gives us the means of both Abhyasa, or practice, and Vairagya, or non-attachment. If our goal is total inner freedom, then Patanjali says we should practice with earnestness, uninterruptedly, and over a long period of time. In the second chapter he gives us his Kriya yoga method of Tapas, or purifying self-discipline, svadhyaya, or study of the sacred texts and self- reflection, and Isvara Pranidhana, or dedication to the sacred. While many traditions and styles of yoga exist, most would agree that these ingredients are necessary for success in yoga. It is our commitment to yoga and our reverence for the practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher and in a community of equally dedicated peers that will determine our results. There are many different aspects of practice that can be discussed as more or less necessary for a traditional practice, but I think that more than upholding dogmas in the name of tradition, we should evaluate our traditions and hold them up to the standard of effectiveness for meeting the stated goals of teachers and practitioners. The combination of the right teacher, community, method, and practitioner often has everything to do with sharing common goals and approaches, as well as mutual respect and an openness to innovation in our shared passion for yoga tradition. This perfect combination will lend authenticity and effectiveness to our yoga practices.
“The Story of Yoga in America, The Subtle Body” by Stefanie Syman
“Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” by Mark Singleton
“The Body between Science and Philosophy, Yoga in Modern India” by Joseph S. Alter
“The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace” by N.E. Sjoman
“A History of Modern Yoga” by Elizabeth De Michelis
“Sinister Yogis” by David Gordon White
Greg is one of a select group of Level 2 Authorized Ashtanga yoga teachers worldwide. This designation reflects his years of dedicated practice under the guidance of the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. Greg has been integrally involved in the development of numerous yoga centers and Ashtanga Yoga programs around the United States. For the past 5 years, as a partner, he has been developing the Miami Life Center along with Kino MacGregor and Tim Feldmann. In the past year, Greg has been involved in a teaching and development alliance between White Orchid and Miami Life Center. His studies in yoga, eastern philosophy, and Sanskrit mantra chanting include his numerous trips to Mysore, India, as well as Georg Feuerstein’s Traditional Yoga Studies course, and instruction with the American Sanskrit Institute. In 2009, at the age of 94, Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois passed away leaving behind a legacy that has touched countless lives around the world. Greg is committed to honoring his teacher by spreading the Ashtanga method, which has been such a blessing in his life. Greg teaches internationally sharing the method of Ashtanga Yoga with every interested, inspired student His view on yoga respects the ancient teachings that have been passed down unbroken through the centuries and give the practices the power to transform our consciousness. Greg’s style of teaching assists students in finding the approach to the practice that is most beneficial for them. Through the use of hands on adjustments he will aid each student in building a connection to their body and help them understand how to work in a safe and healthy manner through the series. Go to www.ashtangayogaworldwide.com for more information about Greg.