via society6/toria

I took a yoga history workshop today at Ahimsa Yoga. Yosh is one of my favourite teachers at Ahimsa and one of the reasons is because he isn’t afraid to bring elements like Sanskrit chanting and yoga philosophy into the classroom. He also took the time to learn my name – not that it bothers me if a teacher does not recognize me or doesn’t learn my name – but certainly, when a teacher makes the effort, that relationship is more emphasized and becomes more active.

I’ll preface this review by saying that I did take an ancient philosophy seminar style class in my undergrad so I was introduced to the Vedas, Upanishads, etc. in my teenaged years. Having said that, I don’t know about you, but my grey matter is not particularly up for discussing Atman and Brahman at 10am (especially when awake until 3am partying or having one of those early morning spill your soul discussions the night before), so most of that went right over my head. I’ve also read some of Patanjali’s yoga sutras on my own, texts from the Sivananda school, and picked up a bit about Krishna and modern Indian history when I took a world cinema course. What I was lacking however, was an overall history, a structure, grounded in a timeline, by which to fit all of these bits and snatches into.

Yosh’s workshop provides that exact framework. It’s a beginner’s history of yoga, presented in a simplified and an incredibly condensed manner. We covered a lot of basics and addressed questions like, “what is karma?” “what is Atman?” etc. However, given the time constraint (2.5 hours), it would be fairly ridiculous to expect to gain any in depth understanding. We did not really explore or debate any scholarly controversies or issues. This class is more about setting up a timeline, a structure, as well as grasping key concepts and terms.

Yosh also balances this bird’s eye perspective with a lot of up close details, e.g., close readings of excerpts from key texts, practicing hymns, etc., which made the class very engaging. His enthusiasm for the material is also very clear and questions were welcomed throughout, so in some ways, this workshop felt very much like a sort of casual university seminar in which the teacher is engaging in his/her pet subject and the group has established a good rapport.

Overall, I found this workshop gave me the broad overview I needed to better approach further study and to connect all the disparate little dots I’ve been accruing so far. It definitely has helped me think more about positioning contemporary, mainstream, westernized yoga. Not that it can be said that yoga in the west is all the same. Certainly, it seems to have evolved quite a bit from its initial introduction to the west. However, I do find that while the history of yoga philosophy and practice is founded upon tenants like the revealing the true self/non-ego, understanding the machinations of one’s mind and especially, harmonious conduct in society, most of what I see in westernized yoga today is focused on physical fitness and the well being of the individual (at its utmost extreme, it is a highly commercialized practice or something akin to pampering yourself to a spa-like retreat). And as Yosh noted, modern yoga – in the west and in India – can in fact, work towards feeding the ego rather than teaching someone to see through ego structures.

Now I’m no purist; I am not interested in splitting hairs over “authenticity.” However, I do think that this style (note, style, not school) of westernized and commercialized sexy slim-pursuit of happiness-adjusted to perfectly match your individual and fickle wants and needs-treat yourself-yoga represents a radical departure from the tradition of yoga. Radical means “root” so I am saying that what I’ve described is a departure from the roots of yoga. This is not an expression of exclusion (not suggesting that this kind of yoga is not “real” yoga), but rather it is an observation. I imagine that there must have been many radical departures in yoga’s long and rich history, some of which may have come to be incorporated back into the mainstream, so it’s always interesting to see how these radical departures develop.

Right now I’m seeing an explosion in yoga that’s going through a fertile experimental/commercial phase, resulting in a multiplicity of different yogas that only a postmodern, capitalist society could support. Naked yoga, Yogalates (yoga+pilates), Doga (yoga for dogs), etc. Today, there are as many kinds of yoga as there are brands of cereal. Some of these developments will die away. Others, like bringing yoga to a younger demographic, may be here to stay. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel that all this commercialism is completely negative. If it wasn’t for the passport to prana card, a program that I think really commodifies the yoga studio experience, I would never have met the amazing teachers I know today and whom I’ve followed when they changed studios.

And how is yoga developing in my home town, Toronto? Yosh mentioned in class that this city has an amazing yoga community. I keep hearing from visitors that quality of teaching here is really special and diverse. And I think what makes TO unique is that we are past the cusp of shifting mainstream yoga back towards its roots. It’s no longer something people are thinking about; it’s happening right now. Not in any reactionary way, but in a manner that respects and engages with the rich history of yoga. I think of all the great studios hosting workshops that go beyond asana, Ahimsa, Yoga Space, Sivananda, Downward Dog, etc. I think of last summer’s amazing yocoto conference. I think of small, grassroots initiatives to bring yoga to people who cannot afford the fancy studio practice. But more than all this, it is really the people who are driving this evolution. The fact that there are lectures and workshops about Sanskrit and yoga history and ethics mean that there is a growing demand for them. And I have been so lucky to have had an amazing roster of teachers all these years, teachers who are not simply running studios, but are really bringing yoga’s history and traditions to bear in their teaching. I’m seeing that studios aren’t simply places for people to drop in and out, but where relationships are being nurtured. I can’t wait to see how this all plays out…