Yoga is ancient, but that down dog? He’s just a pup. Journalist Michelle Goldberg says that we’re all speaking with our feet in our mouths when we say our yoga practice, particularly asana, is thousands of years old.
“Probably the greatest myth is when you do these poses, when you do sun salutations or the warrior poses, that that there’s some sort of continuity to what yogis were doing 3,000 years ago on the banks of the Ganges, and that’s just not true,” Goldberg said in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Wait, what?? You mean all of the poses on Instagram aren’t passed down from yoga’s ancient gurus? We know, shocking. We’ll give you a minute to recover.
Seriously, though, the origin of yoga is a pretty interesting topic for various reasons, if not mostly because we all too often blanket explain away the magical ancient history of yoga practice that has withstood thousands of years and is still going strong. That’s not exactly how things went, Goldberg says.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her book tells the fascinating story of how Devi, a woman born Eugenia Peterson in Russia in 1899, was inspired by a book on the Indian practice of yoga (which was written by an American), and then brought the practice to the West, which was then exported back to India, which was then brought back to the West. (Which is now being brought back to India, who wants to bring it back to the world. It’s all very confusing and cyclical you see.)
Devi studied in India with T. Krishnamacharya where she learned more about the physical postures. Krishnamacharya, as some of us might already be aware, is considered the godfather of the physical practice we know today, as the teacher for both B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, and the father of T.K.V. Desikachar. In the 1950s, Devi famously took her knowledge of this modern yoga practice to Hollywood where she taught celebs like Gloria Swanson and Marilyn Monroe who have been immortalized as yogis thanks to fab photographs like this one:
And this one:
There’s much more to Devi’s extraordinary life and The Goddess Pose sounds like a super interesting book and definitely one to add to your summer reading list if you’re looking to dig deeper into yoga’s modern history. Here are just a couple snippets of Goldberg’s intriguing interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. You can listen to the whole interview below.
On Devi discovering yoga:
GROSS: So Indra Devi was born in 1899 in the Latvian city of Riga. Her mother was 16 when she gave birth. She was an aristocrat. And the first time that Indra Devi hears about yoga was in Moscow in 1914 after World War I had started, when she found a book about yoga in the library of one of her mother’s actor friends. What was the book and who wrote it?
GOLDBERG: Well, the book was “Fourteen Lessons In Yogi Philosophy And Oriental Cultism.” And although Indra Devi, or, as she was then-known, Eugenia Peterson, had no way of knowing it, the author was not an Indian yogi, he was an American New Thought pioneer. He went by the pen name Yogi Ramacharaka, but his real name was William Walter Atkinson. And he had been part of the New Thought movement at the turn of the century in the United States, which was sort of the grandparent of many different strains of American sort of mind-over-matter thinking. Probably the most famous descendent of it is Christian Science. But a lot of New Age thinking, a lot of ideas about how the mind controls reality and how kind of harnessing our thoughts will allow us to harness our destinies originated in New Thought. And then, you know, there’s elements of that in yoga philosophy as well, and the two sort of merge. The New Thought writers were very, very interested in yoga. Some of them, like William Walter Atkinson, passed themselves off as Indian yogis. And so what’s fascinating to me is that Indra Devi discovers this book. She thinks that it’s a sort of dispatch from this otherworldly land. You know, and it kindles a fascination with India that will carry her throughout, you know, almost a century. But really it’s Indian wisdom as refracted through a sort of American self-help writer. And I think that exemplifies, again, the sort of mash up that we see both in her life and her thinking, but also in yoga as it’s come to us today.
On Devi and the Krishnamacharya influence on modern yoga practice:
GROSS: She studies in India with Swami Krishnamacharya, and he brought together breathing and movement in yoga, is that right?
GOLDBERG: Well, there was a number of people who were working along the same lines. I mean, basically, this was a time when there was a worldwide craze for what was then called physical culture – you know, essentially physical exercise. And there was a number of people in India who said, well, we have our own traditional Indian version of physical culture. And, you know, this was during the Indian nationalist movement. They said, you know, we have this in our own tradition. We have a superior version of physical culture called yoga.
And what they did is they took some practices that had been part of the kind of mystical yogic tradition going back to medieval times. They combined them with physical practices that came from Indian wrestlers, you know, particularly kind of what they called dands or push-ups. They took elements from a gymnastics system that had become popular with the British Army – so kind of British Army calisthenics and gymnastics. And they took elements of traditional Indian gymnastics, things that had not before been seen as part of any sort of a religious or spiritual tradition. And there was a number of innovators who were kind of mixing all of these things together.
Now, Krishnamacharya was the yogi-in-residence at the Mysore Palace. And the maharajah of Mysore was this very progressive nationalist figure who, you know, really wanted to unite the best of the East and the best of the West. And so he sponsored Krishnamacharya to run a yoga school in the palace. And Krishnamacharya, because a lot of his students were young, royal boys, created a system that would, you know, sort of capture their – you know, the animal energy of an 8- or a 9- or a 10-year-old boy. And so, you know, he put in things that if you do yoga now are really familiar to you. You know, the jump-backs and the chaturangas, which is the sort of half push-ups, and these very fast, flowing movements that we call vinyasa.
Listen to the whole interview below or at NPR.org.
“Yoga Poses Not As Old As We Thought?”…this is not news to those who have read Mark Singleton’s “Yoga Body” (published 2010 iirc, promoted on this site as part of the “YD Library” at above right.) In fact, Singleton goes one step further and demonstrates that much of “Modern Postural Yoga” or MPY is neither ancient nor Indian!. It is quite funny to see how widely the myth of “ancient Indian practices” is promulgated in the yoga industry.
Thanks for the above response. I thought exactly the same thing as I read this story. Seems that there is alot of great research into the history of yoga (as Mark Singleton’s book demonstrates) but not alot of scholarly yogis. I think we owe it to our students to provide them with current information rather than just reinforcing misinformation of the past.
Glad to see that this issue is getting some media attention.
Some Nordic roots to yoga, too: http://mereorthodoxy.com/call-danish-gymnastics-yoga-body/
Both Sweden and Denmark, as well:
” […] he analyzed Niel Bukh’s Primary Gymnastics (1925) and found that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.” Both Jois and Iyengar were students of T. Krishnamacharya, who taught yoga in the Indian royal palace and whose classes were categorized as “physical culture” or “exercise” in the official palace records. By that point, the Danish gymnastic system had reached such a level of popularity that it had been incorporated into the British Army and into the Indian YMCA. “
Sounds like an interesting supplement to singleton. Expect the same none-response singleton’s book got. Every one will go on insisting that what they teach is ancient, traditional, the full system and those other people over there – the ones who listen to the wrong music, don’t say “spiritual” often enough, move too fast, sweat too much, take photos of themselves, don’t spout enough new thought “philosophy” – they’re the ones this applies to
It should be interesting to see an offshoot of MPY in which, like with fitness/spas/studio fare before this resurgence in popularity (and in the face of being threatened by Cross-Fit and cardio bootcamp trends) they encourage the taking up of yoga to “embrace your Viking side” … maybe co-opting the Minnesota Vikings for this? http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2013/12/16/pro-athletes-turning-to-yoga-for-recovery-peace-of-mind/
This book is far from the first to look at this important part of yoga history known as MPY (Modern Postural Yoga) though the author’s focus on Devi in the realm of MPY is new and specific to the field. The works being written about MPY range between highly academic (E. DeMichelis) and journalistic (S. Symon). MPY is what we call, globally, yoga today: postures and flowing movement between postures. While yoga’s philosophy and some of its subtle body/energy anatomical techniques are rooted in Vedic and Vedantic text–and can therefore be called Indian and ancient–the field of MPY traces our modern postures, with some exception from 15th Century texts, to no earlier than the late 18th-early 19th Century A.C.E. It’s all pretty fascinating.
The point these books often make is that the “philosophy”of yoga has been as heavily influenced by recent ideas and ideas from outside India as the postures. The influence of “new thought”, the appropriation of practices Hindu writers previously derided as “not spiritual” by those creating a Hindu nationalist identity, the role of nationalist thinking appropriated from Europe, “western” ideas of transcendence, physical culture as self improvement….
I think I now more clearly understand that the perspective of this new book is thru the female experience of yoga. Devi was definitely a break thru for women participating in yoga. She is an important part of the historical record of yoga in the 20th century.
Indra Devi seems to have pioneered the template for aspirational yoga teachers. Change your name to something exotic. Move directly to Los Angeles and seek out celebrity clients. Encourage photos of clients, preferably with client. Seems that when other people follow her example, they are labeled something differently than “Goddess” on YD.
I’m not convinced by this that yoga poses are recent. I’m open minded but I would like to see some hard evidence, this is very anecdotal. As it stands right now I am unsure when yoga asanas were discovered… maybe long ago, maybe not… I don’t know. Either way it doesn’t change what yoga is.
Have you read the books? Have you read the sources referenced in the extensive bibliographies? It’s far more than “anecdotal”. Either something remarkably different (physically and “philosophically”) to what came before was discovered in early 20th century India and turned out to bear an astonishing resemblance (pose by pose of sequences and detail of ideas) to popular European and American systems of the time and somehow it had been hidden until exactly that point or… it was a dramatic evolution including imported ideas and movements.
I remember when Iyengar teachers used to proudly claim that the old bully himself invented half moon pose. Suddenly it’s news to people that it hasn’t been part of the canon for centuries.
Sure it changes yoga. All those people insisting that theirs is the one, true, way, that yoga is better than gymnastics because they’re teaching part of some ancient tradition? They’re talking cobblers. Yoga becomes an interesting blend of various Indian practices and early 20th century physical culture, and all the better for it.
Check out the scholarly resources available on this topic. There are very, very few “ancient” yoga poses. (Chris “Hareesh” Wallace wrote a piece on them, which I think you can access via the Mattamurya Institute, with illustrations.) The philosophy of “yoga” is largely unrelated to the aerobics-in-Sanskrit we now call “yoga.” The very word “yoga,” as used in the ancient texts, had jack to do with physical posing and everything to do with meditation and mental state.
We don’t need ancient roots to make a practice authentic or effective. A Pagan practitioner once said that the history of Wicca (another crazy read!) and roots modern witchcraft are interesting but “have little to do with our relationship to the Goddess today.” (That’s what I remember, not an exact quote.) The same is true of yoga. Iyengar taught that headstand is the king of yoga poses, now we understand it’s not appropriate for all of us. It doesn’t make our “yoga” better or worse, just evolving with the state of the knowledge.
I’m not sure what kind of evidence you would like, beyond this book (which is scholarly and researched) and Singleton’s (also a scholarly work). Would the absence of any known yoga texts describing yoga poses, or the absence of any artistic representation of yoga poses (save for about three poses), be satisfactory? If so, you should check out the work by the Mattamurya Institute’s faculty, who are scholar-practitioners of yoga (but not yoga posture practitioners).
This is an insight that may raise some brows and some issues with studying yoga, and one thing is definitely clear: yoga evolves throughout the ages, and the practice can be greatly influenced by both serious practitioners and casual yogis.
Nice to see pictures from the past with yoga positions. I notice the trend in yoga leggings, but for me loose fit yoga pants as here http://esiamcenter.com/ are the real thing. As you see on these images, they wear loose fitting yoga clothes. It is so much better as you can freely move and have a nice cooling effect on your legs while doing yoga.
This is a great variation to singleton I agree as well. It’s great to read such articles and learn more about the origin of yoga
Enjoyed the radio interview too (Terri Gross, Fresh Air) & Singleton’s book before it.
But something’s missing – has anyone really looked into the exercises and practices of Indian dance and martial arts, especially the south Indian systems? Both know some … stuff, and they are pretty ancient. The connection between martial arts in particular and yoga is alluded to here and there but not explained very well, perhaps because of suppression of these arts in the 19th century?
Yes, people have looked into the connection. Singleton and this book, to some extent. The problem is that “Indian martial arts” is as murky a history as “Indian yoga”. At least one martial arts expert with decent financial backing has gone looking for “traditional” Indian martial arts and found only a blend of “western” practices. There’s gatka, but it doesn’t resemble yoga much. Shadow yoga claims to be based on traditional dance and martial arts but if you talk to people around when it was formed they say it owes a lot to the local shaolin school and not much to the anyway much “westernised” kalarypiat it claims to be close to.
I’ve seen tapes of traditional Kathakali from Malabar. Historically, very young boys are chosen as dancers, and training includes massage (often painful) intended to help tissue, muscle, bone to develop in a way that allows the highly stylized movements that characterize the dance. (It’s not that different from older, more traditional schools of ballet that only admit the youngest dancers, as the training affects body composition, flexibility, range of motion, etc.) 99.99% of the Kathakali dance doesn’t resemble what we’d call “yoga practice” (aka asana, poses, postures) today.
Fascinating stuff though.
i wonder what the reaction would be if there were a 600 year old text discussing vinyāsa and many postures (and considering there are thousands of texts floating about unexplored, this is not improbable)- how would that change anything, besides show that white supremacy is enforced by the assumption that whites have seen all the evidence and evaluated it properly, and nonwhites are not to be believed/trusted.. we already knew that though, so i suppose it’d change nothing; just an “oopsies” and back to business as usual.
This completely misses the point. There are many “white” people claiming non-existent ancient origins for postures/sequences many Indians happily point out are recent inventions. If you’re looking for racial politics in yoga read up on the links between modern yoga and the RSS. Or consider why people of every nationality can be so anxious to invent and believe in totally unproven myths of ancient “eastern” origins for a practice with documentable recent roots. There are some pretty old descriptions of stuff very like elements of vinyasa – but they relate to acrobats not yogis.
you might not like my conclusion, and i don’t know what point i’m missing, but to my hypothetical- what would happen, what would be different?
This is a bold claim by the author to suggest that Hatha Yoga is not an old ancient practice. Yogic practices are deep and have a rich history. Research Tibetan 5 Rites or Tibetan Yoga and you will find ancient yogic practices and illustrations that date far back and were passed on to the Tibetan culture through India. These yogic practices as well as hatha yoga are all part of disciplines adopted by spiritual practitioners and has developed and passed on from one generation to the next.
In the west the lineage we have become familiar with (Brahmacharya, Krishnmacharya, Pattahbi, Iyengar, Devi, Sivananda, Satchidananda, Amrit Desai…) we’re practitioners who helped spread the practice to the west. They each have their own lineage that trace back to India. Pattahbi Jois and Iyengar are just a few branches from a lineage that dates back over years and years of development passed on from one spiritual practitioner to the next. In the west we just so happen to be familiar with a few and that does not mean that the it starts and ends there! In India there so many practitioners of hatha yoga that did NOT study under Krishnmacharya, Desikachar, Pattahbi or Iyengar. If you want to learn more there is an intriguing book that will be released in Jan 2016 by Penguin books “Roots of Yoga” http://www.thinkbodyelectric.com/2012/07/roots-of-yoga-interview-with-mark.html
Also “The Deeper Dimensions of Yoga: Theory and Practice” are great resources to dig into.