Several years after I completed basic teacher training and was teaching yoga to people with disabilities, I started to question what I was doing. When I told my students that the poses we did were thousands of years old, I wondered, was this factually correct? When I searched for information online, I found a variety of differing accounts about the evolution of yoga.
Most of what I taught was from a 200-hour Accessible Yoga training offered through Integral Yoga, which I combined with an Iyengar-like alignment awareness to safely modify poses. I had no trouble learning about the origins of Integral and Iyengar practices from books about their founders, Sri Swami Satchidananda and B.K.S. Iyengar, respectively. But there's so much more to the history of yoga in India than any 200-hour training can provide––and I needed to find out more about the origins of the poses and practices.
My search to discover exactly how the poses and subtle practices came into existence made significant progress when I took an online course in 2018 offered by YogicStudies.com. I learned that according to the textual evidence that we currently have, yoga as a mind/body/breath practice began about 2,500 years ago in India and South Asia. The practice was not called yoga and, at that time, involved meditation for the most part; the Sanskrit word for pose (asana) was used mainly to refer to your sitting position for practicing meditation.
Around 500 BCE, Alexander the Great traveled to India where he wrote about seeing local people performing headstands or standing on one leg similar to Vrksasana (Tree Pose) for an extended time. We have written records of his encounters with these ascetics who were doing what may look like modern-day poses but which, at that time, were done in an attempt to transcend the mind and body. Also around that time in India, the word "yoga" is found in the sacred Katha Upanishad (6.10-6.11), where the word is used not to refer to poses but to signify steadfast control of the senses. I have a daily meditation practice and was humbled by the fact that meditating has been going on in India for millennia.
A second online course I took, "An Introduction to Yoga History and Philosophy," was great. It opened my eyes to the academic perspective on the ancient traditions and revealed what we know about yoga's beginnings which is derived from textual evidence. Texts in India and South Asia, before paper became widely available, were written on dried palm leaves that easily disintegrated in the damp local climate or became a tasty meal for insects. Fortunately, many of these texts have survived and Indologists who are given access to them for research are helping preserve the teachings for future generations by taking digital photos of the palm leaf pages. But some facts about yoga's origins took the magic and mystery from my practice and I felt disenchanted for a short while.
In that second course I learned about Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who was commissioned in the early twentieth century to teach boys at the royal palace in Mysore, India, where he developed a version of asana practice for the students. The yoga taught by Krishnamacharya included poses and practices he learned from his elders but, for a variety of historic and cultural reasons, was also heavily influenced by Scandinavian gymnastics and body building exercises with an overlay of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras philosophy.
The asana practice originating in the Middle Ages as an element of Hatha Yoga greatly influenced what we practice today, and Krishnamacharya played a crucial role as well by developing a methodology suited to twentieth century interests. And the many students he taught who brought his teaching method to the West also brought along their own innovations. These individuals included B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, Indra Devi, and Pattabhi Jois, among others.
Although I felt elated to find out so much about the origins of the poses I do, the truth came with thorns attached. I realized that as a female, had I lived earlier, I would have been left out of yoga practice until the early twentieth century with rare exception. Although I had heard that before, it only became crystal clear while reading about the different historical stages of yoga’s evolution that occurred through the leadership of exclusively men.
However, in 21st century yoga, women are treated as equals to men––in fact, today far more women practice and teach in the West than men. With this new information, I've come to accept the truth about yoga's origins and am pleased to be able to participate in this day and age.
In addition, sometime in the midst of my studies, the magic and mystery returned to my yoga practice revealing itself to me slowly and subtly. Now it wasn't based on anecdotes or ancestral stories that I had accepted without questioning as a teacher trainee. It came from knowing the background of what I was doing on my yoga mat, which ushered in moments of clarity and serenity there. Factual evidence about the ancient yogic teachings reassured my mind to accept the benefits of a practice that has been enjoyed by many for thousands of years.
I'm so glad I spent the time and effort to inform myself about the roots of yoga––for my students' benefit as well as my own. Now I can tell students which of the poses and practices are ancient and which are modern. When providing information, I'm extra careful to be accurate or admit when I'm not exactly sure. Knowing the origins of what I teach has made me feel like I'm living an authentic life and can share my practice joyfully with my students.
This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog.
° REGISTER here for our next conference.
° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.
To preorder Jivana Heyman's forthcoming book Accessible Yoga in the U.S., go to Shambhala Publications, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indie Bound (for independent bookstores), or your local bookstore. People in other countries who want the order the book see How to Order "Accessible Yoga" from Countries Outside the U.S.