Navigating the yoga world can be frustrating. There are so many different styles and so much history underpinning the practices. Not everyone thinks that yoga's history is important, but many find value in the traditions. If you are someone who cares about — or wants to care about — yoga's history and traditions, here are four important concepts, explained as simply as we can.
The word Veda (pronounced vay-duh) means 'knowledge'. This is the name given to the sacred scriptures of Brahmanism/Hinduism. Sometimes these traditions (like Hinduism) are even called Vedic religions because they are largely defined by their reverence for these holy books. The Veda is considered to be revealed knowledge, meaning that it was not written or composed by a human. It was simply written down by humans, sages with special abilities of sight. The knowledge within is thought to be universal, eternal wisdom, something akin to 'the word of God'.
The Upanishads are the last group of books in the Veda. It can help to think of them like the New Testament of the Christian Bible. They are grouped with the rest of the Veda as revealed knowledge, but they present a somewhat different view of the world and spiritual effort. The Upanishads introduce an internal spiritual path, where rituals are carried out in one's own heart rather than externally. This is also where the concept of 'yoga' is introduced, an inward linking of one's awareness to the infinite consciousness within.
Yoga means 'linking' or 'harnessing'. In the Upanishads, where the concept of a spiritual practice named 'yoga' first arises, it refers to linking our awareness within rather than to the world outside. At other times, in more God focused traditions, yoga can refer to linking one's awareness or being with God.
In medieval systems of hathayoga, abstract concepts of non-duality became common. Much like the concept of yin and yang, where two opposing forces combine to create balance, yoga could mean the balance of male-female, sun-moon, hot-cold, etc. In this way, many people now define yoga as 'union', which usually refers to some sort of balance or non-duality. In the modern West, most will relate yoga to a physical routine of stretching and relaxation. This type of yoga is pretty new, about a hundred years old.
Hathayoga developed about a thousand years ago. It was a method of using the body to force an effect on consciousness. This is probably why it was called hatha, which means 'force'. A more poetic explanation of hatha developed a little later: it is the union of masculine (ha) and feminine (tha). Much like 'yoga', above, this understanding appeals to balance and unity.
In the last couple hundred years, hathayoga has taken on the meaning of 'any physical practices, like postures or breathing'. As such, a lot of modern yoga refers to itself as hathayoga. But modern yoga is a pretty new phenomenon, quite different in practice and belief from the hathayoga of 500 years ago. So most scholars hesitate to call modern yoga hathayoga, instead adopting other labels, like neo-hathayoga or modern postural yoga.
Scott blogs about his experience researching and writing a dissertation on Yoga Studies at SOAS. You can read all about the challenges he faced, how he'll choose topics in the future, and how he feels about the process. Read the blog here.
You can download his dissertation entitled Early Samādhi: Evolution & Meaning in the Nikāyas, Upaniṣads & Mahābhārata on Academia.edu here.
Do I exercise to be healthy or to look a certain way? If being healthy meant looking unattractive, which would I choose? Or consider the question the other way around: if looking attractive meant being unhealthy, which would I choose?
Let's start with something simple: health. It is a big reason why I personally do physical exercises and make nutritional choices. Based on scientific as well as cultural knowledge, I believe that moving my body around — getting my heart rate up, maintaining the strength and mobility of my joints — will cause my life to be freer from pain, and perhaps even cause me to live longer and stay physically capable longer.
This leads us to two further inquiries: why do I want to be free of pain, and why do I want to live longer? The pain aspect is pretty straightforward, as every living being can feel pain and strives to avoid it. The question of longer life is more interesting, especially to a yogi. Do we want to live longer because of the important work we are doing? Or because we want to travel as much as possible? Or because we are afraid of not being alive anymore? These questions are worth considering in your own life.
Let's move on to a further implication of exercise and health: it generally causes the body to burn fat, build muscle, and be what is culturally accepted as attractive. Indeed, some conceptions of beauty consider that it is connected to health — that we are subconsciously attracted to healthy people because they will make more robust mates. It is probably a bit more complicated than that, as different eras and cultures find different qualities physically attractive. At the moment in the West, thin and athletic bodies are all the rage.
In my own physical practice, my purposes are health and function. Regardless of how my body ends up looking, I try to do the practices that will make me healthy. If it is healthy for me to have big shoulders and a big butt, I am fine with that. If the opposite is true — small shoulders and a small butt — I am fine with that too. I try not to focus on the aesthetic outcome of the practices, but rather the functional outcome.
It's easy to find things that pique our interest. We see or hear about something new—a new posture, sport, skill, craft or hobby. We think, "That would be good for me!" Or, "I might like that."
Soon, that initial excitement starts to fade. But, committed to the idea of our new passion, we still gather equipment, books, videos and anything else that we think might help us develop our new curiosity.
Then those things sit there.
The how-to books are in a pile, the equipment in a corner. Now we are left with a different type of wanting. This is not the desire to actually do or learn, but the want to want to do it.
Now we have a choice: use discipline or move on. We can either double down and do the activity anyway, despite our lack of enthusiasm, or we can give it up and move on to something else. Either can be the right answer. It just depends on the goal.
To determine which answer is the best one, we should consider the why. When it comes to a yoga practice, the why is very important.
It is not a good reason to take up a yoga practice if we just want to see ourselves as a yogi, or have others see us this way. It's easy to get caught up in the idea of appearing spiritual without having the desire to actually walk the path.
This is one reason for wanting to want to practice: we like the idea of what it would mean, but don't want to actually do the work.
There may be other simpler reasons for wanting to want to practice. It could be that we simply feel tired and need to rest. But the desire to appear as though we practice yoga is important to be aware of. In this case, it may be better to give up the practice entirely.
If our desire to practice yoga comes from the desire to strengthen our egoic self, it may be a more yogic action to give up yoga.
Nowadays, ujjayi is a term that is often used in yoga classes. It is said that ujjayi creates a snoring sound, focuses the mind, slows the breath, heats the body, or is a constriction in the throat. Let's examine ujjayi from a historical lens and see if these ideas can be supported.
HATHA YOGA'S UJJAYI
In the 15th-century text the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP), the instructions for ujjayi are as follows:
Close the mouth. Slowly draw the breath through both nadis so it resonates from the throat to the heart. Form the kumbhaka as before. Exhale the prana through the Ida. This kumbhaka called Ujjayi can be done walking or standing. It removes phlegm diseases in the throat, increases digestive power in the body, and destroys dropsy and diseases of the nadir and of all bodily constituents. (2.51-53)
There are quite a few terms that may be confusing, but essentially this instructs the practitioner to inhale through both nostrils and exhale out of the left side. This is not what we have come to know as ujjayi today, in which we exhale through both nostrils or even out the mouth. However, as we will see, ujjayi with the exhalation out the left nostril is a consistent instruction up until very recently.
The exact same passage from the HYP is found in the Hatharatnavali from the 17th-century. This translation states that we should breathe "with a frictional sound" rather than using the word "resonates" as found in the HYP translation. Either of these instructions could support the idea that ujjayi is practiced with a snoring or whisper sound.
Another text of hathayoga, the Gheranda Samhita states:
Draw in air through both nostrils and hold it in the mouth. After drawing it through the chest and throat, hold it in the mouth again. After rinsing the air around in the mouth, bow the head, perform Jalandhara, and hold the breath for as long as is comfortable. After performing the Ujjayi kumbhaka, the yogi can succeed in everything he does. (5.64-66)
Here we have instructions to breathe in through both nostrils and move the air around in the mouth. However, the next passage is potentially where the mix-up happens. The instructions then say to "perform Jalandhara". The instructions for Jalandhara mudra are to "contract the throat and put the chin on the chest."
We would argue this does not mean "constrict" the inside of the throat, but rather contract the muscles on the front of the throat to put the chin on the chest. (This is in line with the common understanding of jalandhara.)
Ujjayi requires Abhyanatara Kumbhaka, that is Kumbhaka practised after deep inhalation. The first thing that demands our attention is the complete closure of the glottis. This thoroughly shuts off the passage to and from the lungs. The second thing is the practice of Jalandhara-Bandha and the third is shutting of the nostrils.....When Kumbhaka is to end, first relieve the pressure from the left nostril, then unlock Jalandhara-Bandha and afterwards partially open the glottis. Rechaka is done through the left nostril.
Here again we have the instruction to hold the breath after the inhale. The throat lock is applied to keep the air in, and here the nostrils are also closed. Again, exhalation is done through the left nostril. We see the move toward teaching the throat constriction with anatomical language. Kuvalayanada clearly states to close the glottis.
In 1931, Swami Shivananda instructs:
Inhale through both nostrils in a smooth uniform manner till the breath fills the space from the throat to the heart with a noise. Retain the breath as long as you can comfortably do it and then exhale slowly through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with your right thumb.
Shivananda writes that ujjayi "removes the heat in the head" yet he also says that it increases the gastric fire. Whether this supports removing heat or building heat is up for debate. Either way, this is the only mention of heat in all of the sources examined here.
It is no surprise that Shivananda's disciple Swami Vishnudevananda in his popular book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga instructs the practice in the same way. Vishnudevananda quotes the HYP. The benefits he lists for ujjayi suggest it removes "phlegm from the throat" and prevents a handful of diseases. He says nothing about internal heat.
In 1962, Patthabi Jois mentions ujjayi only in a list of pranayamas that pregnant women can do in Yoga Mala. There is no description given.
In Light On Yoga from 1966, Iyengar teaches ujjayi as follows:
Take a slow, deep steady breath through both nostrils. The passage of the incoming air is felt on the roof of the palate and makes a sibilant sound (sa). This sound should be heard. Fill the lungs to the brim....Hold the breath for a second or two....Exhale slowly, steady and deeply, until the lungs are completely empty. As you begin to exhale, relax your grip on the abdomen.
Iyengar instructs that mula bandha is to be used and states that "ujjayi pranayama may be done without the Jalandhara Bandha even while walking or lying down".
Iyengar removes the instruction to exhale out the left side only, but he maintains the use of jalandhara bandha and emphasizes the sound of the breath. Though Iyengar shortened the retention to just a few seconds, there is still a retention. It is not a smooth or even breath cycle.
Ujjayi is rarely referred to in the Ghosh lineage. In Gouri Shankar Mukerji's 84 Yoga Asanas from 1963, it appears only in mention of additional pranayama practices and is one in which "longer pauses are inserted between the inhale and exhale".
RECENT DESCRIPTIONS OF UJJAYI IN YOGA
Very recent passages such as David Swenson's in his 1999 book Ashtanga Yoga explain:
This unique form of breathing is performed by creating a soft sound in the back of the throat while inhaling and exhaling through the nose....The main idea is to create a rhythm in the breath and ride it gracefully throughout the practice. This sound creates a mantra to set the mind in focus.
In 2006, Gregor Maehle writes:
Ujjayi pranayama is a process of stretching the breath, and in this way extending the life force. Practicing it requires a slight constriction of the glottis....Start producing the ujjayi sound steadily, with no breaks between breaths.
These passages don't refer to creating internal heat, but the sound created is given deep importance. It is surprising to see ujjayi become an even breathing technique. However this makes more sense if we look at descriptions of breathing techniques in systems outside of yoga.
BREATHING IN PHYSICAL CULTURE & GYMNASTICS
JP Mueller was a Danish instructor of gymnastics and physical culture in the early twentieth century. Mueller's "System" manuals deeply informed the practices of modern physical culture, and in turn, modern yoga. (For more on this see Mark Singleton's Yoga Body.)
Instructions in Mueller's My Breathing System are more in line with today's descriptions of ujjayi which emphasize rhythmic breathing. Mueller writes:
I do not advocate any breath-holding exercise. It must also be remembered that it is not only the action of the lungs and heart which is disturbed by holding the breath. What stimulates the stomach, liver, bowels and intestines is just the internal massage produced by the movements of the lower ribs and the diaphragm, when full, deep, correct breathing is performed.
Furthermore, there is emphasis on the importance of rhythmic breath for vitality as early as 1892. Genevieve Stebbin's writes in her book Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics:
...the truth that deep, rhythmic breathing combined with a clearly formulated image or idea in the mind produces a sensitive, magnetic condition of the brain and lungs, which attracts the finer ethereal essence from the atmosphere with every breath, and stores up this essence in the lung-cells and brain-convolutions in almost the same way that a storage battery stores up the electricity from the dynamo or other source of supply, and is held in suspension amid the molecules forming the cellular tissue as a dynamic energy, possessing both mental and magnetic powers, always ready for use whenever required.
It is here that we see the distinct link of breath to cultivation of life force in the body. Where hathayoga texts suggested ujjayi removes phlegm, in sources outside of yoga we see the focus on building vitality. This is still common in yoga classes today and is another display of the outside influence on modern yoga.
Early- to mid-20th-century conceptions of ujjayi in yoga instruct retention of the breath. Most instruct the exhalation out of the left nostril, with the exception of Iyengar. While there is a sound and constriction of the throat associated with the practice, that constriction often means jalandhara bandha, or tucking the chin to the chest. There is no mention to creating internal heat except when Swami Shivananda mentions gastric fire and removing heat from the head. With the exception of Iyengar, all of these descriptions follow the hathayoga instructions quite closely.
Ujjayi has undergone quite a transformation in the centuries it's been taught. If we look to instruction on breathing practices from systems outside of yoga such as physical culture and gymnastics, we get a glimpse at how ujjayi evolved into what it is today.
Sources: Akers, Brian. 2002. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. (p. 45-46)
Gharote, Devnath & Jha. 2014. Hatharatnavali (p. 46)
Iyengar, BKS. 1966. Light On Yoga. (p. 442)
Jois, P. 1962 (in Kanada, 1999 in English ) Yoga Mala. (p. 67)
Kuvalayananda, S. 1931. Pranayama, (p. 76-78)
Maehle, G. 2006. Ashtanga Yoga. (p. 9)
Mallinson, J. 2004. The Gheranda Samhita. (p. 62, 105)
Mukerji, GS. 2017. 84 Yoga Asanas. (p. 3)
Mueller, JP. 1914. My Breathing System. (p. 17)
Shivananda, S. 1931. Yoga Asanas. (p. 85)
Singleton, M. 2010. Yoga Body
Stebbins, G. 1892. Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics. (p. 53)
Swenson, D. 1999. Ashtanga Yoga. (p. 9)
Vishnudevananda, S. 1960. The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. (p. 249)
We expect to get better at what we practice. When we don't, it becomes difficult to carry on. We can easily get frustrated, disheartened or fed up all together.
When it comes to posture practice, there are three main reasons why our postures may not be improving despite our best efforts. Let's explore them one by one.
A posture is not simply a shape. It is a set of muscular engagements and relaxations. When done correctly, certain parts of the body are exerting effort while other parts relax.
The problem is that we can make shapes that resemble the posture, without building the skills to do the posture correctly. What we do may look like the posture, but in fact we are teaching the body to do the wrong thing. To make matters worse, the more we practice incorrectly, the further from the posture we get. More effort takes us in the wrong direction.
A good example of this is a standing backbend. If we lean backward, we may resemble the shape of a backbend. But what is engaging and what is relaxing makes all the difference. If our abdomen has engaged, we are not in a backbend. In this case, we are actually using the muscles of forward bending! If our back is engaging, we are moving in the right direction. If we practice in the right direction progress is inevitable.
STRETCHING NOT STRENGTHENING
The body relaxes when it has the stability to do so. Tension, or tightness, is a result of weakness. If a joint is weak it will be unstable. If it is unstable, the areas around it cannot stretch or relax without making the joint susceptible to injury. The body does not want to risk injury, so it would prefer to maintain tension in order to keep itself safe.
If we want to gain flexibility or remove tension, we have to strengthen our muscles. Once we have strength in the body, it will be safe for the joints to move in a greater range of motion. This greater range of motion is what we call flexibility.
We must know what we are trying to accomplish. If we are practicing in the wrong direction - even if that direction is good for someone else - we will never get where we are trying to go. If a baseball player works on dribbling a basketball it will not help them.
In the same way, we have to practice the things we want to get better at. If we are trying to get better at a certain posture, we have to practice that posture. The more we understand the purpose of each posture, the better we can tailor our effort toward accomplishing that purpose.
Modern yoga practitioners often embrace the idea of equality and relate it to the ancient spiritual teachings of yoga. This can lead to positive developments like the cultivation of compassion and humility. But it can also lead to more troublesome developments like the belief that any suffering is in our own minds and therefore our own fault, which can cause us to be apathetic, overlooking ingrained prejudice and inequality.
Let's take a look at where the concept of 'equality' in yoga comes from, and what it means when someone says 'we are all one'.
In many ancient yogic texts, there is the belief that all of reality is underpinned by a single universal consciousness, called brahman. This means that a computer is nothing but brahman, a dog is nothing but brahman, you are nothing but brahman, and I am nothing but brahman. It is not unlike the recognition that all the objects in the universe are made of energy, whether that energy manifests as light, a hydrogen atom, a drop of water or a human being. When you look underneath the differences in external appearance, the same essence underlies everything.
So when a yogi says 'we are all one', this really means that the essence which underlies all existence, including yours and mine, is the same.
NAMES AND FORMS...AND HUMAN IMBALANCE
But what this does not mean is that you and I are the same, nor that our experiences are the same. In the very same ancient texts is the recognition that when we are born as humans, we take on a distinct physical form that is separate from other forms. For example, I am separate from the computer, and I am separate from you. We take on a name and a form. Our essence is still brahman, but our names and forms are different.
The goal of spiritual practice in this vein is to recognize our true essence as brahman rather than this body and mind. But it does not mean that our bodies, minds, histories, goals and identities are the same. The physical world is quite different from the spiritual world.
We must recognize that we, as humans, create imbalance in the world. We take objects from one place and move them to another. We cut down trees to build houses, and we protect our own families by destroying others. While these things are all, by definition, brahman, that does not mean that our 'names and forms' are all inseparable. If it did, we would be just as happy to be eaten by a fish as to eat the fish ourselves.
SPIRITUAL EQUALITY vs PHYSICAL EQUALITY
While we may believe that we are the same on an essential, spiritual level, this certainly does not manifest into the physical realm of human bodies and minds. The way that the yogic concept of spiritual equality — that 'we are all one' — manifests in the world is infinitely complex and frustrating.
Our human minds and bodies are designed to be selfish, even if our spirits are 'one'. We are born with the need to feed and protect our bodies at the expense of pretty much everything around us. This is what the yogis call 'ignorance' (avidya) and 'ego' (asmita), two foundational problems of every human.
So next time someone says 'we are all one', recognize that it is a spiritual statement but not a physical, human one.
If we seek to make the physical world more like the spiritual one, we must make the effort to subordinate our own desires to the good of others, and to make the human world more equal through our own action.
Two weeks ago, the state of Alabama overturned a 30 year ban on yoga instruction in public schools. Now yoga can be taught in schools there, with a few caveats.
The bill continues the transformation of modern yoga into a secular, physical, health-centric exercise practice, a process that began about 100 years ago in India. As far as the bill promotes health in students, it is to be applauded. But its understanding of the essence of modern yoga is off the mark, which leads to a couple mistaken restrictions, like the exclusive use of the English language.
According to the bill, "All instruction in yoga shall be limited exclusively to poses, exercises, and stretching techniques. All poses shall be limited exclusively to sitting, standing, reclining, twisting, and balancing. All poses, exercises, and stretching techniques shall have exclusively English descriptive names. Chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, and namaste greetings shall be expressly prohibited."
These stipulations come from concerns over the possibility of yoga's inherent religiosity or spirituality. Religious teaching of any kind is not permitted in public schools, and some worry that even non-religious yoga practices are a trojan horse, smuggling Hinduism or Buddhism into the curriculum.
At the root of the confusion is a common term: yoga. It can refer to old practices or new, spiritual, religious or physical. The confusion arises when we do not know which are being taught, or when we think they are all the same. The Alabama bill makes this mistake, equating yoga practice with Hinduism. It requires parental permission for any student to participate, including the statement, "I understand that yoga is part of the Hinduism religion.” Let’s look at this misunderstanding in a little more detail.
Practices called yoga have been around for thousands of years. For most of history, yoga was spiritual, a practice of linking one's awareness with the eternal soul within, or with a deity. In this way, yoga can be associated with Hinduism. But yoga that is practiced today is different. In the early 20th century, yoga practice became largely physical and focused on health, downplaying or entirely dropping its spiritual and religious elements. According to yoga scholar Mark Singleton, conceptions of yoga in the 20th century are shaped by "modern physical culture, 'healthism', and Western esotericism." In other words, modern yoga is closer to gymnastics than prayer. Even though they share the same name — yoga — modern practice is fundamentally different from earlier spiritual forms.
Confusion is common. Most people who do not practice yoga, and even many who do, mistakenly think that the postures and exercises in a yoga class are ancient and inherently spiritual in nature. But most of the stretches and asanas in a yoga class come from calisthenics, gymnastics and dance as recently as the last few decades. As such, they are exercises that look good, feel good and improve our health. Singleton writes, "among outsiders and practitioners alike, there is often little awareness that these modes of [modern] practice have no precedent (prior to the early twentieth century, that is) in Indian yoga traditions.”
So it is no surprise that parents and politicians fear inherent Hinduism in yoga, even though little or none exists in its modern iterations.
THE SANSKRIT LANGUAGE
This same misunderstanding appears in the Alabama bill with regard to language. Though it is not stated explicitly, the insistence on "exclusively English descriptive names" seems to be a way to prevent the use of the Sanskrit language, most likely due to fear that Sanskrit will smuggle in Hinduism or Buddhism. But non-English languages are fundamental parts of many disciplines. In music, every student learns the Italian allegro, andante, forte and piano, words meaning fast, slow, loud and soft. And biologists often use Latin to classify species like homo sapiens.
Some yoga postures are named after Hindu deities. For example, Hanumanasana is named after the god Hanuman; Virabhadrasana is named after Virabhadra; Vasishthasana is named for Vasishtha. These names and their deities are rightfully forbidden from public schools, just as any mention of Moses, Jesus or Mohammed would be.
But other postures are named for secular objects like shapes and animals. There is Trikonasana, the Triangle Posture; Vrikshasana, the Tree Posture; Bhujangasana, the Cobra Posture, among countless others. Surely these names do not infringe upon religious freedom or inherently imply Hindu worship, whether in English or Sanskrit. And there is no harm in learning the Sanskrit word for tree.
At its core, then, the new bill in Alabama continues the secularization, exercise and health focus of modern yoga. In this way, it isn't terribly different from the twentieth-century innovations of Vivekananda or Yogendra, who removed unattractive traditional beliefs in favor of modern ones.
— Singleton, Mark. 2010. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press.
The issue of cultural appropriation has been troubling yoga lately. Did the West steal yoga from India? Does India own yoga? Do Indians naturally and inherently understand yoga because of their cultural heritage? Is it in their blood? Some have suggested that non-Indians should not teach yoga.
Three elements are worth stating briefly before we answer the central question. First, any claim that intelligence, knowledge, understanding or ability can be judged by a person’s heritage or race should be recognized for what it is. At best it is nationalism, at worst it is racism. With yoga, the sentiment is understandable on several levels. Yoga has become a billion dollar industry beyond India's borders. Furthermore, much about what modern yoga is today shifted drastically while India was under British rule. The desire to reclaim a popular system as one’s own is relatable.
Yoga, like many other trades, practices or professions can be passed down generation to generation. At a young age, the next in line takes over the family business. They grow up around it and learn everything there is to know about it from the older generation. This is different. This is closer to a master/apprentice or guru/disciple relationship. In this case, the second generation will have knowledge and understanding that the outside world won't have. But this is because of the immense time spent learning and studying the craft. If the child of an expert chooses not to study or practice yoga for example, they cannot expect to know a great deal about it even if they are directly related to an expert.
Second, heritage of a subject or art form in a country does not give that country exclusive ownership of it. Ideas and goods have been traded internationally for thousands of years, evolving as they go. The Chinese cannot claim the exclusive right to make paper, the Babylonians mathematics, nor the Indians yoga.
Third, we need to be clear about what we mean by 'yoga'. This may seem obvious, but it is nuanced enough to deserve a little explanation. There is no doubt that yoga originates in India. The ancient Katha Upanishad is its first known explanation. For thousands of years, yoga was a spiritual practice of uniting one’s awareness with an eternal spirit within, or with a deity. In the twelfth century, a practice with bodily elements developed, called hathayoga, the 'yoga of force'. But the goal was the same, to create spiritual unity with a higher being.
In the early twentieth century, this changed drastically. Over the course of a couple decades, yoga was refashioned as a modern, scientific, physical practice for health. Modern yoga represents a fundamental break from the older spiritual iterations. It shows influence from European physical cultures like gymnastics and calisthenics. As such, even India’s claim as the singular authentic source of modern physical yoga is worthy of healthy debate.
But let’s get back to the central question: who should be teaching yoga? The answer is the same as for any topic, whether mathematics, physics, astronomy, music or literature. A topic should be taught by those who have knowledge of it. Regardless of their age, gender or race, a teacher needs no more — and no less — than expertise of their subject.
This gets more complicated because of the unequal power structures permeating the world. Those that know should teach. However, those that have resources should work to make sure that those who have less still have the opportunity to learn if they choose to. Perhaps the question is not who should teach, but rather how do we make high quality education affordable and available. This issue has quickly moved in the wrong direction as more and more "teacher" trainings see big money to be made. This is in exchange for the promise of the title of teacher, often with not enough regard for the task of actually training a teacher.
As for the suggestion that non-Indians should not teach yoga, the nationalistic element should quickly be discarded. Furthermore, we need to address the quality of yoga teachers. The only worthwhile question to ask about a potential yoga teacher is this: do they know what they are doing?
Today we mourn the passing of yet another important figure in the Ghosh yoga family. Montosh Choudhury was a lifelong yogi, a performer, a teacher, a husband and a father. He will be missed tremendously.
I had the chance to spend some time with him over the past few years. I will share some stories along with some details about his life.
In 1944, Choudhury was born in Burma (present day Myanmar). As a young man, he sent a letter to Bishnu Ghosh. He requested that Ghosh teach him and Ghosh agreed. Choudhury then went to India and began his training. He trained in stunt work like bending iron rods and mastered difficult yoga asanas.
As a young performer, Choudhury won bodybuilding awards and was recognized for his physical abilities. He was part of Bishnu Ghosh's performance troupe that went to Japan in 1968. There he was recognized by Fuji Telecasting as a very popular performer.
History in the form of photos and documents is easily lost in Kolkata. The heavy rains and humidity make preservation difficult. It is rare that someone is a good record keeper who has held onto photos.
Luckily, Choudhury was this rare exception. He had scrapbooks and boxes of well kept photos. Furthermore, he was a generous, patient and kind person and eagerly shared his treasures. He shared photos of his stunts and asanas like the one pictured above.
In 1986, Choudhury founded the Swasthyasri Yoga & Physical Culture Center. Until very recently, he was still writing yoga prescriptions and running the center. As I sat with him, our discussion would occasionally be interrupted by yoga patients coming to see him. I would immediately get up to leave to give him privacy. He would say, "No, no, just a minute." One one occasion, a woman carrying a young toddler walked in. I sat, eating the sweets he had given me, while he examined the toddler's legs. They were slightly bow-legged and the mother was concerned. He wrote a list of exercises for the child to do and tore the list off of his prescription pad. Choudhury's assistant then took the mother, child and list of yoga exercises and away they went. He was knowledgeable and confident. He had likely written thousands of prescriptions by that point.
Though he was nearly 80 years old, he was still quite strong. On one meeting, he requested that we "test his abdominal strength." I was visiting with Jerome Armstrong, author of Calcutta Yoga, and Mukul Dutta. Choudhury asked Jerome to press on his abdomen. As he did, the roller chair Choudhury was sitting in slid back. Mukul Dutta came and held the chair in place. They were all laughing and enjoying the playful and boyish moment. Dutta and Choudhury had not seen each other in many years. It was a lovely reunion.
Like many from his era, Choudhury worked tirelessly throughout his life. He promoted yoga in West Bengal through competitions, seminars and shows. He did not show any sign of slowing down or that he felt his work was done. After one meeting, he asked that we shake hands for a picture. He wanted to stay in contact so that he could visit America and continue spreading his knowledge of yoga.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are scholars as well as practitioners of yogic postures, breath control and meditation. They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga.
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