Friday, April 24, 2020

My Journey to Post-Lineage Yoga

Travelers on a Mountain Path at Night by Hiroshige
by Nina Zolotow

Accessible Yoga is a post-lineage yoga community. There is no guru here. And the members of the community were all trained in different yoga schools and traditions. While many of us continue to have yoga teachers, we also learn from each other as colleagues and friends. While we are all committed to making yoga accessible to all, we also understand there is no one yoga that fits all.

Yoga teacher and scholar Theodora Wildcroft came up with the term “post-lineage yoga.” In her article Post-Lineage Yoga & Dandelions, she defined it this way:

“Post-lineage yoga describes a shift that many yoga teachers and practitioners go through—they might start out only learning from one teacher, and never questioning their authority. But at some point, many look beyond the lineage teachings to expand their understanding of how yoga works in practice. They might or might not maintain a strong respect for their original teachers, but they might read books from other lineages, or be fascinated by the latest neuroscience research, or share a practice with peers or go to workshops with other teachers.

“Post-lineage yoga is incompatible with any doctrinal view that claims that only one way of practicing can ever be valid and that methods should not be mixed between schools.”

I don’t know about you, but that describes my experience almost exactly! But it has been a long journey for me, from my first yoga class in the 1980s to where I am now. I thought today I could describe my journey as a way of exploring why post-lineage yoga is so important for the future of yoga. For another and very different personal story of a journey to post-lineage yoga, see Jivana Heyman’s post Reflecting on My Teacher Swami Satchidananda.

Falling into Yoga. I started doing yoga in the mid-1980s completely by accident. At the small software company where I was then working as a technical writer, some of us decided we should have an in-house exercise class, and one of the programmers suggested that his wife could teach it. So, we decided to give her a go, and the class she taught turned out to be a yoga class! I liked it immediately because it just felt like the right thing for my body to be doing.

It turned out that the teacher, Rylin, who I came to love, was teaching us Iyengar-style yoga. And because I found that style such a good fit for me, I decided to stick with Iyengar-style yoga after I moved away from the area and could no longer study with her. Over the years, I took yoga classes from several other Iyengar-style teachers, and I gradually learned that many of them, even those who had studied with Iyengar himself, were no longer part of the official Iyengar system. There were a number of reasons for this: they didn’t feel comfortable with B.K.S. Iyengar now being called a “guru,” they felt there were now too many rules and restrictions in the system, they felt uncomfortable with the harsh way Iyengar and some Iyengar teachers treated their students, and they didn’t like the official response to a prominent teacher who was credibly accused of sexually abusing students.

No Yoga Lineage. So, as a student, I was never actually part of any official lineage. And when I ultimately decided to do a teacher training, I chose a program at the Berkeley Yoga Room, which was run by teachers who had once studied with Iyengar himself but who had since parted ways with him.

I sometimes felt uncomfortable not being part of a lineage—it was as if I was somehow “less than” people who were fully committed to a certain teacher and a certain yoga path—but I agreed with my teachers’ reasons for parting ways with Iyengar. And I also never found any other lineage that I wanted to commit to instead. Over the years, as I looked into the various yoga traditions, it turned out there was a problem with sexual abuse in virtually all the lineages, teachers made claims about poses, practices, and even yoga texts being ancient that turned out not to be true, there were health claims made for poses and practices that were just not believable, and many of the founders of these yoga schools were being treated as “gurus,” as if they were enlightened beings.

Kitchoree Yoga. After training to be a yoga teacher, I wanted to learn more about yoga history and yoga philosophy. So, I began to read and study on my own (and with a friend), something I’ve continued to do ever since. I learned about the incredibly wide variety of types of yoga that were practiced throughout Indian history, which helped me understand that there wasn’t just one way to practice or even think about yoga. And I also learned about how Modern Postural Yoga—the kind yoga most of us do now in the West—came to be, with most of it being invented during the early 20th century. When I realized that most of the yoga poses I had been practicing weren’t actually ancient at all and that some were based on Chinese acrobatics and British gymnastics, I began to venture into customizing my yoga, mixing in Viniyoga poses with my Iyengar poses, for example, and incorporating practices and ideas that I picked up from a wide range of teachers. I also started learning about how yoga related to neuroscience, human evolution, and psychology and added all that to the mix of how I thought about and practiced yoga. I did feel a bit uneasy about this, though. I wondered, was I some kind of yoga dilettante?

But eventually when I was reading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin Byrant, a comment he wrote about how yoga was like a “kitchoree” (an Indian dish that is a combination of rice legumes, various vegetables and spices all blended together) made me feel relieved. He said that mixing yoga from different traditions into one kitchoree was not only something that generally was happening in Modern Postural Yoga, but it also occurred in premodern India as well. Here’s how Bryant described it:

“Thus one finds a generic sort of yoga as presented here in the bits and pieces of Patanjali-type practices as presented here in the sutras but articulated with neo-advaita-vendanta/Brahman terminologies and flavored with elements from tantric subtle physiology, all blended together as if representing a single coherent homogenous tradition. This is understandable—and with plenty of antecedents in premodern Indic traditions themselves one might add (indeed it can be argued that such blending is the very nature of religious traditions)—and perhaps inevitable in the modern West.”

Many Yoga Paths. Although I felt relieved about practicing my own form of yoga I did continue to wonder where I was going with my practice. When I studied the Yoga Sutras in depth, I realized clearly that the end goal of the eight-fold path, which is to abide in perfect aloneness (kaivalya), was not even a goal I wanted to achieve. Following the eight-fold path meant I would have to become a renunciate because even being attached to people you love, including your family, interferes with your ability to achieve samadhi, the state of consciousness needed to achieve liberation. And the path itself—with its intended goal of liberation from everyday life as we know it—is really quite arduous and severe as I would eventually have to let go of all connection to external reality.

So, I looked into other yoga paths. In the end, I decided I most liked the path of Karma Yoga in the first half in the Bhagavad Gita. However, it turned out that some scholars says that the path in the second half, Bhakti Yoga (adoration of Krishna), was actually the final stage of a single yoga path described by the Gita. I definitely wasn’t on board for the adoring Krishna part of the path; after all, I’m not a Hindu or even religious at all. Then, I had an epiphanette (a tiny epiphany): I could just take the path part way up the mountain if that was what I wanted. In other words, I could just do yoga practices to make my life better and not even aim for total “enlightenment” or the final stage of any path at all.

Recently, as I felt validated in this approach when I read Robert Wright’s book Why Buddhism is True. His is a very pragmatic approach to Buddhism, in which he, too, is using the practice to make his life better rather that aiming for the type of enlightenment the Buddha was teaching his followers to aim for.

“The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment—with a capital L and E—on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on a not-so-distant day. Like today! Or, failing that, tomorrow. Or the next day. Or whenever. The main thing is to make net progress over time, inevitable backsliding notwithstanding.”

Although that quote is about Buddhism, it’s obvious to me that applies to any type of yoga as well.

Post-Lineage Yoga. So that’s how my yoga practice and the way I think about yoga have changed over these many years. I learn from my latest teacher but also from my colleagues and friends. And I change my own practice to incorporate the new practices I learn and those concepts I’ve reached new levels of understanding about. As a writer, I communicate these evolving ideas about yoga with a wide range of people, sometimes as a teacher but mostly as a person who just likes to share what’s helped her recently or what she’s currently thinking about. This following advice from Georg Feuerstein is something I always take to heart, and as we move toward a future where I hope post-lineage yoga will play a big part, I hope you will, too.

“In our struggle for self-understanding and psycho-spiritual growth, we can benefit immensely from a liberal exposure to India’s spiritual legacy. We need not, of course, become converts to any path, or accept yogic ideas and practices without questioning. C.G. Jung’s warning that we should not attempt to transplant Eastern teachings into the West rings true at a certain level; mere imitation definitely does more harm than good. The reason is that if we adopt ideas and lifestyles without truly assimilating them emotionally and intellectually, we run the risk of living inauthentic lives.”

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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  1. I actually heard of "post-lineage yoga" very recently and really like the term/concept. I'm a clinical psychologist, and it's common for therapists to describe their methods as "eclectic" (as opposed to Freudian, cognitive-behavioral, etc). I see the evolution of my yoga teaching as very similar to this; I teach with flavors of all that I've been taught/exposed to, but I have become eclectic in my yoga teaching, too. :)