A Brief History of Yoga

This is Ashutosh, he’s a bit of a showoff.

So we might as well dive in to my real motive for being in this place, which is to study yoga. To study it in the geographic environment where it originated, in a place where it is still a culturally significant force, in a way that is at least notionally committed to some kind of ancient tradition.

The question of tradition is a complicated one when it comes to yoga. Much of its value, and it’s identity as a product, has come to be associated with it’s deep links to the past and it’s deep links to Indian spirituality. However, the extent to which this is actually the case is hotly debated. The argument has been made that much of what a casual western observer would consider to be yoga, i.e. performing calisthenic postures linked to breath in a class led by a teacher on a sticky mat in a studio, has more of a connection to swedish gymnastics and military cadet drills then it does to any ancient Indian tradition. This point is grounded in some historical fact. But there’s a much bigger picture that this view seems to ignore.

I will attempt to provide some historical context.

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The Bhagavad Gita, composed some time in the 4th or 5th century BC, has come to be considered the foundational text for a large proportion of the various non-abrahamic spiritual and mythological traditions of India which the British colonial class would eventually lump together under the umbrella definition “Hinduism” during the 18th century. In one section the god Krishna elucidates prince Arjuna, who is also a minor god in his own right, on the methods one may take to achieve union with the divine. This word “union” is the most common translation of the word yoga.

Krishna describes 3 paths: Karma Yoga, the path of action, of mindful work and selfless service; Jnana Yoga, the path of divine knowledge and spiritual understanding and Bhakti Yoga, the path of love and devotion to God.

Notice that at no point does exercise, or even meditation, enter into what yoga means in this context. It is possible that some of the practices of brahmin ascetics of that day may have borne a resemblance to certain modern yoga practices, but this is largely conjecture, and The Bhagavad-Gita was intended for a wider, popular audience.

The text that has become the centrepiece of what we would now call the philosophical school of yoga are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written around 400 AD. An incredibly dense treatise on a method of achieving this state of union known as Ashtanga, or the 8 limbs. They include ethical precepts, purification practices and progressively deeper forms of meditation eventually culminating in Samadhi, or spiritual liberation. The 3rd of the 8 limbs is Asana, or postures, physical exercises intended to focus the mind and prepare the body for long bouts of seated meditation. It is Asana which most people think of when they think of yoga. Included among these are all of the famous poses: Downward Dog, Upward Dog, Child’s Pose, Warrior etc. but even these are not mentioned in the Sutras at all and it is unclear if they would have been practiced in the same way.

The postures as practiced today don’t really come into focus until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika of the 15th century, although it is known to be a compilation of earlier works and cites a very long lineage of teachers it is in this form that the tradition of Hatha Yoga, which we can think of as the yoga of body and breath, is first handed down to us in what can be called a systematized way.

Many of these yogic texts fell into obscurity during the time of British rule in India. It wasn’t until the efforts of the charismatic guru Swami Vivekananda, and the growing interest in Asian mysticism of western theosophists, together with a growing tide of nationalism, that many of these texts, and their attendant practices began to reemerge around the end of the 19th century.

In 1926 a yogi named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was installed by the Maharaja of Mysore to teach yoga in his palace. For the next 20 years he would regularly hold widely attended public demonstrations and travel extensively to promote yoga as a means of attaining health and spiritual well-being not just for renunciant brahmins, but for people of all walks of life. He gained a reputation as a gifted healer who could take an individual in any state, healthy or otherwise, and improve their condition. In his efforts to create a yoga practice that would be efficient and effective for working householders he created a system called Vinyasa, in which physical postures were combined with calisthenic movements that synced up with the breath and incorporated yogic techniques of concentration and energy control. In this way he sought to amalgamate the 3rd and 4th limbs of the Yoga Sutras, Asana and Pranayama and prepare a foundation for the pursuit of it’s more refined stages. This is the sort of yoga practice that the majority of westerners have become familiar with. Through his students; notably Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi and T.K.V. Desikachar, the practice was spread throughout the world as an exercise and wellness practice.

But what of its roots in spirituality? Anyone keen to probe the practices taught by Krishnamacharya or his students to any depth will realize that they are still present. Yoga in all its forms has always been about practice, about a direct inquiry into the nature of the self, the world and whatever lies beneath it. Yoga is not an ancient thing, it’s something that’s always there, and in this there is no special difference between people of different historical paradigms, cultural backgrounds, bodily configurations or life stages. The specific yogic systems that people have devised may have varying degrees of accessibility or appropriateness but these have only ever been means of attaining yoga. They themselves are not yoga. Yoga is what happens behind it all. There are many methods, many paths up the mountain, but they are all trying to get you to the same place. So what about someone with no interest in probing the murky depths of experience who just wants to attend yoga classes to tighten up their butt or fix their back pain. Are they doing yoga?

I think the trick answer is that we’re all, always doing yoga. So tighten away. If you do them regularly over a long enough period the practices will transform you, whether you accept the pronouncements of a big, blue, baby-faced prankster-god in a golden chariot or not.

Hare Om

 

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Rishikesh and it’s fauna

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The unfortunate fact of the matter is that as far as travel blogs go this one is bound to be a bit lacking. I really only plan on staying in one place for the next few months barring, perhaps, a handful of excursions. That place is Rishikesh. So really this will be mostly a Rishikesh blog for the next while. But Rishikesh is a pretty deep place. There is enough to absorb here to last a lifetime never mind a few months.

Before arriving in India I had agonized over all the things I felt I was obligated to see and to do in the time before my first yoga course begins. To make sure my time was filled up with adventures so that I could enthrall and educate all my fervent admirers back home. Should I rent a motorcycle and take the road from Manali to Leh, the 2nd highest in the world? Should I undertake some religious pilgrimages in the high Himalaya and really get deep into the guts of the Hindu religion? Should I go to Lucknow for Ashura and see the blood drenched rituals of zanjeer and talwar zani? I couldn’t decide. I was anxious with option paralysis.

But within hours of arriving in Delhi I simply got on a bus to Rishikesh. The place that has come to be known as the “capital” of Yoga, and started practicing.

Rishikesh first became a destination for western travellers after the Beatles famously learned meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in his ashram near the banks of the Ganges but it has always been a center of pilgrimage for Hindus and the large ashrams of Parmarth Niketan, Kailash, Sivananda and Dayananda, among others, have made it a center for the study of yoga and spirituality since long before the western world caught wind of it, and anyone expecting it to be full of skinny white girls in lululemon pants will quickly be disabused of that notion. It’s not that they aren’t there. But they are very much overwhelmed by the thousands of Sadhu’s, Hindu spiritual renunciants who line the streets with their alms bowls and populate the enormous dormitory complexes that have been set up to provide for their wellbeing, as well as the locals and domestic pilgrims who come to the Ganges to bathe, make puja and visit the local temples. And the cows…thousands and thousands of cows.

The cows in India are one of the real strange things about this place. I mean, cows are a domesticated animal. But in India, and especially in hindu holy places, they’re just around, feral, and seem to be doing just fine. In Rishikesh the cows are the most incredibly docile creatures you can imagine. They seem to feed off of the religious energy of the place and they are treated relatively well by the locals, which is not always the case in other parts of the country. Some are even outwardly affectionate as evidenced by this picture of a cow licking and nuzzling this Krishna guy. I felt a bit profane taking a picture of their special moment, but I couldn’t resist.

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I assume people must be feeding them, since unlike the rather bold and enterprising feral dogs and wild monkeys that are also around, they don’t really seem to do much other then chill the fuck out. You sometimes see them listlessly rooting around in the garbage but it never seems like enough to sustain an animal of that size. In any case, Rishikesh cows are A number one cows.

The monkeys, on the other hand, are some sneaky little bastards. Hot Rishikesh tip: Don’t cross Ram Jhula with food in your hands because you will get attacked by monkeys. And on a narrow footbridge, 60 feet above the Ganges, when they surround you on all sides, the monkeys have the advantage. It took a whole lot of stomping and barking to keep possession of my spicy yams with mint sauce, but I’m not about to get pushed around by a bunch of sneaky bridge monkeys.

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The dogs here are also unusually cheerful. The mid-sized feral mutts of India are a famous nuisance and often travel in intimidating mobs that like to frighten people wandering around late at night. But it’s hard not to fall in love with a couple of lovable pooches bounding around the bathing ghats, playfighting and frolicking and then running up to you and jumping in your lap unbidden like you’re best buds before bounding off to frolick some more. I’m not sure what it says about me, because its one of the things that people often deride about places like India, a marker of a certain lack of civility and civic control, but the ubiquitous presence of animals is one of the great joys of this place. Sure there’s shit everywhere, sure it’s complete chaos, but cleanliness and order come at a price, and I think it’s good to be reminded of that.

Until next time…

Hare Om

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Two incidents.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been paying my way by working as an audiovisual technician, doing sound and lighting for big events around town. On the very last gig I had booked before leaving for India I walked into what looked like a relatively straightforward job; tear out a small installation from a temporary event space, take down a few chandeliers, put it all on a truck, no problem. Within 5 minutes of starting I sliced open my finger on a piece of metal, not much more then a paper cut, but enough to send me off to the bathroom to deal with it. When I returned from the bathroom, one of my coworkers, an experienced carpenter and stage worker, was clutching his hand. It was bleeding from 2 little wounds in his palm. Apparently he had stuck himself rather deeply with a wood staple. His shock was brief and he gruffly taped up his palm with electrical tape. I quietly remarked on the coincidence of the 2 events but thought little of it. We returned to work.

Not 10 minutes later, we were taking down the chandeliers, thin metal frames with 10 or 12 glass globes affixed to them. The lead hand was passing them down from a temporary scaffold and we were packing them in boxes lined with thick pads of styrofoam. Suddenly from right behind me I heard the buckling of metal, followed by a loud crash and the clatter of broken glass. The railing of the scaffold had collapsed and our lead hand had fallen 15 feet sideways into one of the full chandelier boxes. The chandelier was destroyed and most of the fragile glass globes shattered. Luckily, the styrofoam pad had broken his fall and he walked away with a few cuts. If he had fallen anywhere else…

Synchronicities tend to be reported coalescing around a major perspective-shifting event. They seem to attend, often preceding, major traumas, powerful mystical or psychedelic experiences and abrupt life changes. I’m not saying that what happened to me was an omen. At least I hope not. I think it’s more that life on the edge of expectation takes on the logic of a dream or a story. Perhaps we merely become sensitive to patterns we otherwise take for granted. Perhaps we merely become unusually concerned with meaning and apply it where it doesn’t belong. As someone skeptical of the primacy of what we call the material world I’m not sure the difference is important to me. It is not the job of matter to ascribe meaning to things. That’s what we do. The etiology of the effect the energies emanating from the domain of our imagination into the material world have on matter is a mysterious question, especially where other people are involved. I expect it is more subtle then we commonly assume. States of profound organization emerge from chaotic events and no doubt an abrupt perturbation in circumstance can cause these organizational paradigms to shift.

In any event, I have given away most of my material possessions, placed all of my work engagements and artistic projects on hold, moved out of my, admittedly tenuous, lodging, said goodbye to my friends and family and, at 31 years old, have hopped on a one way flight to India with the intention of changing the details of my life.

Now I’m in Delhi planning my next move.

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I remember Delhi smelling like coal and cowshit and rotting fruit, but I had forgotten the even more prominent smell of Paan. Betel nut, caustic lime and the strange Indian chewing tobacco. It hits your nostrils, acrid and dense, as soon as you leave the terminal. It mixes with the smog and hangs thick in the air all over the city. The memories it evokes are dark ones.

My first few hours in Delhi, a rite of passage as anyone who’s been here well knows, went about as well as a 2am arrival with no hotel booked could be expected to go. The cab drivers here are as smooth as silk and they have their little grifts down pat. At 2am when they know you don’t have a plan they’ve got all the cards in their hand and they squeeze you for whatever they can get. So I spent a bit more then I had to on a cab and a hotel. Not the end of the world. Last time I flew to Delhi my arrival went much worse.

It was similar timing but I was a skinny 21 year old who was green as hell and the cabbie knew it. As soon as the van pulled out of the airport his buddy jumped in beside him and they proceeded to drive me around in circles while the meter ran. I kept demanding to go to Paharganj, the seamy, neon-tinted armpit of Old Delhi near the train station where most backpackers post up while they’re passing through. They claimed with a big grin that there was a great holy festival in Delhi and all the hotels were booked, “Not a single hotel in the whole city, but we’ll help you out my friend! We know just the place!” I kept insisting that they just take me to Paharganj. “Don’t worry sir.” The more riled up I got the more relaxed their tone became. “No tension. Everything OK.”

They took me down some side streets into what, at the time, I thought was a horrifying ghetto, but what I now understand to be a fairly middle class neighbourhood in central Delhi and corralled me down some stairs into a “travel agency” that looked like it had been thrown together earlier that day. There were 2 more guys in the travel agency and they got me into a windowless room and started going on and on about how there were no hotels available in the city but they would give me a 4 day trip in a private car to Agra and Jaipur, 2 places I didn’t want to go, for what, even then, I recognized as an exorbitant fee. They threw a contract down on the table in front of me and handed me a pen, their previously affable manner turned to hardened glares. I was scared shitless. I almost feared for my safety enough to go through with it but at the very last minute I kicked out my chair grabbed my stuff and stormed out into the street. I hailed another cabbie, who tried to pull the same kind of bullshit on me, and I ran away from that one too. Finally I had had enough. I found another cab, drove back to the airport and got on a plane to Bangalore.

I know now that those guys were just hustlers and not violent but at the time I had no idea. India has some harsh lessons to teach you if you go into it expecting everything to be love and light and Dharma and Shakti. Because the venomous blood-spattered serpent-witch Kali is the other side of Shakti and she’ll take everything you have and leave you a burnt out husk if you’re not prepared.

At the end of the day getting ripped off an extra 10 or 15 bucks because it was 2am and I was too tired to argue seems downright acceptable compared to that.

I’ll harden my haggling muscles in the days to come.

The inaugural post!

Greetings loci of the group consciousness!

I have come to cast a datum of my own into the blinding information geyser of the extended mind.

It’s called SuperNormalBlog, and this is it’s inaugural post.

In a few weeks I will be travelling to India where I will spend some time affecting the lifestyle of a spiritual vagabond; studying yoga and meditation, playing guitar and wandering about. While there I will be publishing a diary of sorts, using the trip as a thematic excuse to link together a collection of stories, philosophical musings and, I’m sure, a few squawking diatribes.

I arrive in Delhi on Sept. 20th and I will begin regular updates shortly thereafter.

But first, I shall entertain you with a pedantic presentation of my current spiritual outlook.

The group consciousness has been a bit temperamental of late, our paradigm is shifting rapidly and my aim is to look past the easy anachronisms of materialist despair towards something bigger. Something we all belong to. The state of our precarious world is undoubtedly troubling, and my own, often debilitating, anxieties have always been a persistent nuisance, but I have found some reliable solace in the faith that our most imminent assumptions about the world are tenuous and that we are far more connected to one another and the world in which we live then it is popular to espouse.

It seems the basic question is whether you are an ontologically distinct entity with a consciousness that is unique to you or an entity among many with a consciousness that is not unique, but emergent entirely from a sufficiently complex chemical process. If you are ontologically distinct and the sole pinioning of consciousness it means that you are the only reference point for the existence of the world and all phenomena literally flows from you or at least depends on you to complete the subject-object dichotomy required for a process to actually undergo the formality of occurring. Alternatively, if your consciousness is emergent from a sufficiently complex chemical process it means that any chemical process that can exhibit qualities of appetition, reaction and manipulation can be said to be conscious, and that the boundaries that define and separate consciousnesses not only from things that are not conscious, but also from each other, are blurry enough to put their meaning into question. This question finds expression in the yogic opposition between Being and Karma, between Yin and Yang and in the dualistic tension that underpins metaphysics and phenomenology. The exploration of this relationship forms the basis of much of the world’s mystical religion.

Put simply, either you alone are conscious, or everything has as much a claim to consciousness as everything else. I think that on some level both of these statements are true.

Somewhere amid the deepest reflections of science, there seems to be an emerging tendency that points to a place hidden among the hierarchies of being where dualism dissolves into monism, where the conclusions of both materialism and solipsism are revealed to both be useful in describing an aspect of the world, but fundamentally incomplete.

Evolutionary biology tells us that even within the limits of our fleshy bodies we are not a being but beings and the very structure of our cells, including our brain cells, may be characterized by a gradual fusing of lifeforms, mitochondria being a controversial example. However, the principle also applies to the bacteria which process our energy and the various parasitic entities which at first seem malevolent but without which, experiments have shown we quickly die. Because we are not just animals, we are ecosystems. You are literally an ecosystem that is conscious. When considered this way it is not hard to imagine this pattern playing out at other levels of organization, and I would submit that if it plays out at other levels of organization, it is plausible that it plays out at every level of organization, including the most general. The Gaian worldview can’t simply be dismissed as a new-age fantasy. A planetary consciousness is no more or less objectively plausible then your own consciousness.

Additionally, the world of particle physics appears to show that the universe is not built on a system of separately encapsulated particles interacting with each other like we once thought, but that the bedrock of matter is more like a single unified ocean of energy the chaotic permutations of which create the bifurcations necessary to give rise to the appearance of physical matter, it’s apparent diversity of properties and the apparent separateness of its form. So when spiritual people proclaim that we are all one, it is literally true on the most fundamental level. Every discrete object is not only made of the same material as every other but is a dynamic part of the same thing. It seems clear on an absolutely basic scientific level that differentiation emerges from unity and what we perceive as order emerges from what we perceive as chaos.

The quantum world is in fact so utterly chaotic, displaying a nature so capricious, so spatio-temporally non-linear that to describe it as obeying laws demands, at the very least, some semantic reflection. In any case, the idea of the universe as mechanistic, analogous to a type of physical object called a machine, a formal construct which emerged from the human brain, is revealed to be backwards. Nature does not display the properties of a machine. Machines do not even display the properties of nature. The orderly properties of machines emerge from the chaotic properties of nature. Nature is prior to anything properly called mechanical, as is consciousness, since machines are products of human consciousness.

That ones individual consciousness should be the only thing exempt from the patterns of cyclical emergence and interdependence that the whole rest of the universe seems to display strikes me as unlikely. So what we’re left with, then, is a world of soluble boundaries, hidden connections, symbiosis and recapitulation predicated upon a conscious energetic unity which some have chosen to label as god but which is distantly prior to the phylogenetic outskirts upon which rests the human historical narrative which has created the social baggage associated with that word.

So the dichotomy I posed earlier can be rephrased something like this: You alone are conscious and everything has as much a claim to being you as everything else.

Whatever meaning you ascribe to any of this is basically up to you. Existentialists have a point when they proclaim that meaning is essentially a choice. But it feels like a lot of people have looked at the world they are presented with and reached the conclusion that the most authentic life is one of self-aggrandizement, spiritual isolation, apathy, competition and worry.

I disagree. In my mind, the state of affairs presented above seems to point to the perennial logic of love. An authentic life is marked by compassion for other people and for the environment in which we live, characterized not by despair, but by courage, creativity and playfulness. On some level, hidden from our ordinary perceptions, we are indestructible, incorruptible and whole. Yet, despite some slow progress, my anxiety remains. There are 2 possible reasons for this. Either I don’t really, totally believe what I just said. Or, there is something about the constitution of my body that is getting in the way. I expect that both are true to some extent.

Yoga and the various mystical traditions have provided many methods for both truth-apprehension and obstacle-dissolution. I aim to explore them. While doing so I will also explore India. A country that vacillates wildly through extremities of beauty and horror. A place where all of the comedy and tragedy of life, all of its profundity and absurdity is made plain. This blog will serve as my account of this journey and I invite you to follow my perambulations.

More after I arrive….