The history of yoga in a readable book

In his book The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West, the creator, Alistair Shearer solutions a easy query: How did “a time-honoured road to enlightenment” flip “into a $25 billion-a-year wellness industry”? He solutions it throughout 357 pages, the primary few chapters having a scholarly density, the sources being from history — excavations from Mohejodharo (c. 3000 BC – 1500 BC), and texts just like the Vedas (2500 BC – 500 BC). It eases up quickly sufficient with insights on what pushed yoga from meditative observe to bodily mat work. In a nutshell, Shearer tells us that the unique observe was all the time meant to be what he calls “mind-yoga”, the aim of which was to look inward, however what we’ve turned it into is “body-yoga”, the aim of which is health or “a secular healing remedy”.

Past Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, whereby he says solely three quick verses are dedicated to bodily postures; the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that has solely 4 asanas; and varied different texts, Shearer establishes that the aim of yoga was by no means to tone our our bodies, however “as the way to transcend its irksome limitations altogether”. The physicality of the observe, he says, started with the British Raj’s intelligent fusion of gymnastics with yoga as promoted in the YMCA. Along the best way, we meet the Theosophists, Swami Vivekananda, BKS Iyengar, and encounter varied actions and alliances, just like the quantity of hours of lecturers’ coaching, the categories of yoga which have come up through the years, and Western medication’s ‘stamp of approval’ — all of which have contributed to the best way yoga is seen at the moment.

In an electronic mail interview, Shearer, who has in the previous translated the Yoga Sutras, and co-created Neeleshwar Heritage in Kerala, talks of his personal curiosity in yoga, its previous, current and future. The book took three years to jot down, and wanted to be pruned of 40,000 phrases, thereby leaving out some components of the history of yoga, just like the Bihar School. “A lot of interesting material had to be jettisoned. It’ll be in the next book,” says Shearer.

Alistair Shearer, creator of The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West  
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Why a book on yoga — was it an concept that got here to you as a result of of the massive curiosity in it, or was it one thing you had all the time needed to do and the time was proper?

Well, I’ve been in Indian tradition all my grownup life, first learning Indian religions and Sanskrit academically after which instructing programs on Indian artwork and structure at varied establishments in the UK, together with the British Museum and London University. At the identical time, on the sensible degree, mind-yoga has been a fixed supply of nourishment for me since I studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi over 40 years in the past, and I’ve been practising and instructing meditation ever since then.

The extraordinary progress of international yoga as a commercialised and secular train routine, slightly than a path resulting in non secular enlightenment, has boomed in the final 20 years, sparking in flip a enormous improve of educational investigation into the origins of the observe in India itself. So three or 4 years in the past, it appeared to me to be the precise time to carry all these totally different strands collectively and weave them into a story in a method that was accessible to the final reader, in addition to these engaged in instructing and practising the self-discipline. Hence the book.

What does yoga imply to you?

I suppose my entire life revolves round it. I’ve had a every day routine for a few years that consists of a easy set of asanas, some pranayama and meditation, in addition to pursuing my pursuits in the philosophies of yoga and Vedanta. Then there are the retreats I lead for my college students each couple of months or so. Recently although, the bodily facet of my observe has given strategy to longer every day durations of meditation. I maintain that means to get again to doing asanas however on condition that I even have a busy working life, it doesn’t look probably in the mean time. There is simply a lot time every day one can dedicate to self-improvement!

The book is kind of dense in the primary few chapters and it will get simpler to learn because it goes alongside? Did you focus on this along with your editor, and why did you determine to do that?

The content material dictated it, actually. The book proceeds chronologically, and to look at the early roots of yoga, you haven’t any alternative however to delve into the history of historic India and become familiar with a very totally different society that had a very totally different method of seeing the world than we do at the moment. Much of the precise proof comes from a handful of extremely esoteric Sanskrit texts, such because the Upanishads and Patanjali’s Yogasutra, that cope with the nuances of altered and unusual states of consciousness caused by extended meditation. So for the non-specialist, that is actually very unfamiliar territory that must be trod slowly and with some care. There’s no method spherical it. But persevere, pricey reader! As the narrative strikes out of the dense forests and darkish caves inhabited by these early yogis, we emerge in direction of trendy instances, the place there may be extra room for recognisable markers, anecdote, irony and humour and so the tone mechanically lightens. Then, by the tip of the book, I come again to discussing yogic spirituality, however in its modern setting and in trendy phrases, with the scientific proof and so forth.

If you have been to select simply the primary milestones on the street to the rise of yoga, what would they be — in the context of it turning into a half of the multi-billion greenback wellness trade?

One silent seed of the fashionable scene was the work of Shri Yogendra, who introduced yoga as a secular, scientific self-discipline with measurable well being advantages, each preventative and healing. He opened his pioneering Yoga Institute, the primary in the world, in suburban Bombay in 1918. It continues to be flourishing at the moment and has grow to be successfully the official spokesman of medical yoga for the Indian Government.

But an important, albeit unwitting, milestone was in all probability the nice Vaishnava scholar and yoga grasp, TM Krishnamacharya of Mysore. In the 1930s, he ran a yoga faculty in the palace of his patron, Maharajah Krishna Wodeyar IV, and he blended Scandinavian gymnastic workouts, then turning into very fashionable in Europe, into his regime. TMK’s two most profitable pupils have been Okay Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. The former went to America and developed his vigorous Ashtanga system, whereas BKS conquered Europe together with his eponymous methodology that pioneered the use of props. Both these extremely bodily approaches ignored the interiority that Patanjali calls ‘the heart of yoga’. Significantly, Krishnamacharya additionally accepted a feminine disciple, Indra Devi, as a result of he felt that as Indian males have been being seduced from conventional brahmin values by the will to become profitable, the longer term of yoga lay with ladies. Indra went to California and launched many of the main women of Hollywood to posture work as a strategy to shed extra pounds, maintain match and fight the results of ageing. Such considerations have formed a lot trendy yoga, which is a 90% feminine phenomenon.

Then got here the yogic grocery store — numerous DVDs, movies, apps, books, garments, trend objects and diverse equipment — that promotes yoga as an image-conscious and celebrity-endorsed pastime.

The book cover

How did yoga transfer from the North of India to the South?

This is an fascinating and, so far as I do know, little researched query. My feeling is that yoga was a pan-Indian phenomenon from early instances, although most information of it are in the North. It is extensively held that the nice Vedic rishi Agastya introduced sacred information to the South, maybe establishing his major ashram at trendy Thanjavur. In different centres of Tamil tradition, equivalent to Kanchipuram and Kumbakonam, Jain, Buddhist and Hindu yogis lived and taught alongside one another from not less than the start of the frequent period. The famend Vedantin, Adi Shankaracharya, who was born in modern-day Kerala, of course, travelled extensively across the South in the eighth Century AD, establishing monasteries and instructing. He advocated jnana yoga, probably the most superior kind of mind-yoga, and wasn’t in postural work, however we do have depictions of bodily yoga from the Pallava capital of Mahabalipuram relationship from the identical interval. Then, in medieval instances, an important group of yogis, the Naths, established a highly effective centre on the Kadri-Manjunath temple, South of Mangalaru, that dates from the 13th Century, presumably earlier.

Do you ever see yoga going again to what it was initially meant for, or do you see it evolving into one thing fairly totally different altogether?

I feel it’ll develop in each instructions concurrently. There will probably be a rising starvation for a return to a yoga that’s extra profound, extra non secular than mere Instagram flexibility. The devastation attributable to COVID-19 might assist this. But on the similar time, the relentless advances of know-how will develop profitable human-machine interfacing that may outcome in a kind of cyborg yoga, developed by, and for, techno-nerds.

What are some of probably the most outrageous issues folks have mentioned to you about yoga, and who has mentioned them?

I bear in mind a public speak I gave a number of years in the past when a critical younger man stood up shouting that yoga was ‘the work of the devil’ and I might ‘go to hell’ for selling it. I replied that the pipe he was smoking would do him way more injury than yoga ever may. Thankfully, these days, there’s far much less ignorance and prejudice across the topic.

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