Every week — at least several times and often 80 minutes at a stretch — I make shapes in the basement. At least, that’s how the amused basement cat, Schnoogie, must view my yoga practice, an intensive hybrid of Sivananda and Vinyasa styles honed to my own particular needs. Schnoogie enjoys our yoga time, in which I spontaneously turn myself into the perfect cat jungle gym.
What annoys me about yoga: the competitive aspect of many classes, which is why I do my best practices by myself — listening to my own body, although I have taken classes in the past. The second: the whole notion of yoga as “ancient wisdom” that’s “5,000 years old.” To which I say: Put down the almond milk carob latte and listen up.
The problem, in my view, is a conflation of terms and concepts. Folks who say yoga has millennium-old roots tend to conflate it with the practice of Hinduism. Indeed, classical yoga — whose root means “to yoke,” similar to the meaning of the Latin “religio” — is quite old: it’s seated meditation. The precepts of meditation are included in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and even the Upanishads. But even those texts don’t bring us to 3000 B.C.E.
Those who make the millennial claims conflate yoga with the Vedas, without truly knowing what the Vedas are. Yes, they are the oldest texts in Hinduism, memorized by every Brahmin. But they aren’t meditation instructions: they are hymns to the Gods, many of which are no longer worshiped in modern Hinduism, having evolved through the press of time. Other texts are ritual instructions and invocations to be recited by particular kinds of priests, not by the layman or even the mystic, so to speak. Religion was different back then, including practices such as animal sacrifice that would be abhorrent to Hindus today but which were standard in the ancient world — even among the ancient Israelites.
In other words, it was in no way recognizable as “yoga,” at least how that practice is viewed and defined today. In fact, even in modern history, “yogis” were regarded as charlatans and miracle-workers of ill repute, using manipulation to twist bystanders out of their well-earned ruppees.
There is ancient art from the Indus valley civilization that shows a god or man sitting in what appears to be a “meditation posture,” but that’s about it for postural yoga in ancient times. The Gundestrop Cauldron depicts a horned God sitting cross-legged; does that mean the Druids practiced yoga, or an equivalent? Or is it only that sitting cross-legged is the easiest way to situate yourself on the ground sans chairs?
Mark Singleton has written a truly excellent book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, that details the actual origin of what we consider the heart of yoga. In short, asanas come from body-building practices and the harmonial gymnastics traditions of the 1930s, which were embraced by Indians as well as Europeans. The meditation practices were older — they were around in the 1800s — but completely severed from postural practice, which was considered disreputable at the time. The first modern yogis included body-builders, not mystics; it was a strictly physical practice that only became married to meditation later on.
It’s not as fun as claiming yoga as ancient wisdom, true. But accepting it as a relatively modern practice also allows you to think critically about it, and not take it as immutable. This is important because any physical practice — or mental one, for that matter — can harm you if done without listening to your body and spirit. By accepting something as “ancient truth,” you give up the agency to adapt the practice. Adapting is important, too. For example, while some gurus claim headstand is good for all ills, I’ve stopped doing it because it aggravates my thoracic outlet syndrome. Headstand is probably great for a lot of people; heck, even elderly yogis do it. It’s just not suitable for my particular body formation.
All of this, however, reminds me of Wicca and its myth of origins. Thankfully, we’re largely past the point where people are claiming that it’s an unbroken spiritual tradition dating from the Neolithic. While it may be inspired by ancient Pagan cultures as well as Renaissance magic, modern Wicca — with its duotheistic structure and ceremonial circle — has its origins in the 1930s with Gerald Gardner. It has since evolved into many different traditions, much as yoga has evolved since the 1960s. Obviously, Wicca is more than just Gardner; the Romantics and feminist movement have influenced its various strains, for example.
Witchcraft before Wicca is a different entity, often Christian in its imagery and focused on charms, spells and other ways to achieve desired results. In other words, it was magic and not religion. I’ve always thought that the marriage between magic and religion tilted toward the former even in modern Wicca, but then again, I’m a pesky religious Druid.
My recommendation: any time a tradition claims to be ancient, disregard the claim. Few things are truly millennia-old. Age doesn’t necessarily equate with value, either. Modern Wicca is a vibrant religion, just as modern yoga is a vibrant form of exercise, regardless of ancient “pedigree.” The ancients weren’t necessarily wiser, healthier or more spiritual than we are today; they were simply people — human beings with human bodies, needs and desires. For that matter, teachers and tradition-leaders aren’t necessarily wiser, healthier or more spiritual, although they can be (and if they’re not, claim to be even more so). Don’t give up your right to question and, if need be, adapt for your own truths, realities and physical necessities.