The long history of yoga is as twisty as parivrtta trikonasana. In the way back, about 400 B.C.E., Patanjali compiled a how-to book of aphorisms to guide folks on using yoga to attain personal freedom. It’s like a buzzfeed list but way more literate. Also, way longer. Buzzfeed minds don’t seem to fathom more than 30 items in a list. Patanjali gave us 196. (Hey look! 196 minus 190 easy steps to become enlightened.)
Patanjali’s foundational text, while essential to our modern practice, doesn’t present the prototype of yoga in the world. Example one came well before, at some date that no one can agree on but may have preceded Indian Vedic traditions. (That would mean sometime before 1750 B.C.E.) I like to imagine someone slumped at the fire, who, witness to some rancorous back and forth in the family, is distracted by the sensation of breeze on her nose or the welcome settling of a sigh. She becomes gripped by an understanding that she can watch the family politics or she can watch her mind. ‘I just had the weirdest idea,’ she might have said. And someone good and open bothered to answer: ‘Tell me about it.’
Or maybe it was totally different. Some guy looking for immortality. A healer trying to assure patients that despite their inevitable mortality, there’s fun to be had. And here’s a lollypop.
However yoga heaved onto the soft-sand shores of metaphysical ponderings, it was already rooting around in Patanjali’s time. This is not to diminish Patanjali’s contribution. He had the foresight to gather, consider and shape the older traditions into a pretty objet d’art worthy of the pedestal we continue to swarm.
So what does Patanjali say we must do? Broadly, to find freedom, we should cultivate peaceful ethics, a healthy body, a sound breath, and a focused and sustained attention on silence and perceptual awareness. (As for the asana we call yoga, he writes only that our poses should be steady and comfortable.) We do these things in concert until they get the body and the mind into a sturdy chokehold, and then, later, the mind and the absolute. The yogic word for this chokehold is yoke. The more we practice, the better we move under the yoke. The more clearly we understand how much practice is required. Also, how much study. And practice. And more attention.
I write on this today because paying this much attention demands precious means. It has a cost. We are all blessed and burdened with tittering minds. We are all highly distracted, at best. To pay attention we have to dig deep and pull some change from our pockets. That change is often something like yoga.
Yoga can, believe it or not, pay the price. It allows us to enter into a study of our embodied selves, to transcend the impermanence of the body to see the mind, and then… well… to transcend. It’s the believe it or not part that interests me.
Over the millenia since Patanjali, yoga has been variously used to become supernatural and super strange. For a decent amount of time in the middle ages, it gave itself over to fancies of the flesh— that is, to challenging the body with extreme sensuality or pain in order to commune authentically with the base instincts of life. At some point, the classical yoga abridged by Patanjali would have been a tame and esoteric excuse for a spirit quest. Without mortification and extreme renunciation of all things fairly normal—like, say, not hanging oneself by the skin— it would have been argued, the spirit has no chance of triumphing over the spell of the body.
And then it happened that yoga was rebranded. Not entirely to the classical form that Patanjali described but to something rational, beneficial, palatable to those without chaotic leanings. An upstanding path to an upstanding body. Swami Vivekenanda, who lived until the turn of the 20th century, championed an abandonment of all the carnal and promoted yoga as a method for strengthening the body. Anything mysterious or mystic about the practice should be rejected, he cautioned. Thus detoxed of its depravity or delight (you decide), yoga could be a source of national pride for a nation withstanding colonial rule.
Which is how Krishnamacharya, the modern-day source of most of the yoga practiced in the West, thought of the practice. He called yoga ‘India’s greatest gift to the world.’ And though he was adamant that yoga should be responsive to the needs of an individual—combining breath, meditation, asana and Ayurvedic principles as required— it was his playful, rigorous sequencing for young men that created the yoga spectacle now firmly entrenched in the universal consciousness.
He pushed his young students into backbends so arched that their heels framed their heads. And spindly arms and legs found no skeletal resistance to twisting over on themselves repeatedly. Though most bodies, and certainly most bodies over 30, wouldn’t find any of Patanjali’s ease or stability in these positions, the sight of them might have inspired some greater hope. That these moves, so easily done, might freshen our aging bodies and turn them into the temples we’d like them to remain. Yoga, these exuberant demonstrations shouted, may be the elixir we’ve been seeking.
Which is a lovely misapprehension. Or, at least, a sweet though short-sighted analysis of the power of yoga. It is the case that an asana practice that works with the breath and the mind will serve to improve the body. But, just like temples, the body will not last forever. It will, one day, expire. The greater work of yoga, whether you like it or not, prepares you for this.
And that’s the charm of yoga. Or the clever power of it. You can like it or not. You can believe it or not, but yoga— that idea of creating a union between the body and the mind so the mind can release itself from the body—is profoundly capable of undermining doubt. Even if you don’t think you’re paying attention, yoga makes the payment for you. And still returns the benefit to you.
The simple act of moving with the breath relieves the mind of its often spastic control of the body. The anxious mind, depressed mind, perseverating mind can retreat to rest; the body’s intuitions can then communicate with a mind more willing to listen. As the mind hears the body, the body heals and finds health. As the body finds health, the mind becomes calm and clear. And whether it makes buzzfeed or not, we all know how captivated we are by the presence of a healthy body housing a calm mind. That is a wondrous spectacle.
And so we haven’t quite come full circle, but maybe it’s becoming more clear where the border of the circle lies. Yoga circumscribes us, like a really good hug, and if we stay in the circle, the embrace—the union, the yoke, the chokehold—becomes something we provide for ourselves.
It speaks to the flexibility and integrity of a practice that it can be reformed and recast but never lapse. It’s precisely these two qualities that a yoga practice can instill in a person—body and mind. The yoga of you is what will bring you peace. And that means following the sage advice at the heart of all yoga and transcribed by Patanjali: live ethically, move gracefully with breath, focus your mind and pay attention.
Please note: the other parts of the show—the rotated headstands and birds of paradise and circus crows— are for play and wonder which does not discount them in anyway.
To joy! Until we die!