A History of Yoga in 5 Big Steps

With yoga’s surging popularity comes increased interest in its origins. Several popular histories have recently been published (some of which I’ve written about on this blog). The scholarly consensus is that, while yoga draws from a very old set of traditions, the ancient practices are quite different from modern yoga. Despite what NPR says, there is no “huge scholarly debate about yoga’s origins.” There is a movement to “take back yoga for Hinduism,” a position that meshes with the mainstream story about yoga’s origins. But that story is more informed by cultural politics than by accurate historiography.


Step 1: Sramana Asceticism

As early as 3000 BCE there are depictions of people or gods sitting in what look like yoga poses. The earliest textual evidence we have, dating to 1200 BCE, mentions yogis as forest-dwelling, world-renouncing magicians. Vedic (what would later be called Hindu) sources tell of the god Rudra, an outsider like a wild beast, a hunter and cause of disease. We know that there was an experiential and oral tradition of asceticism among sramanas who were outside normal society. But we don’t know what these people were doing, or more importantly, why.


Best Albums of 2011

Legitimately creepy, emotionally claustrophobic, uplifting.

Some people think anything in a minor key is ‘dark’ – Austra is peppy and upbeat, a bit dramatic, but fundamentally happy dance music.

Mangled slow jams remade into stately chamber music.

Looped and layered choral voice-scapes.  Cleaner production than her earlier stuff brings this into Brian Eno territory: background music you can also pay full attention to.

Exuberant, simple, frustrated bedroom punk.  Reminds me why I started writing songs and playing guitar.

Think early Weezer.  Smile.

Graham Smith’s songwriting is always top-notch, but this is the strongest set in years, with driving guitars and an urgent energy.  “Let’s put the ‘hot O my’ back in our dichotomy.”

  • Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica

Headphones, 3am, lights off.

  • Peaking Lights – 936

Hazy, mellow summertime beats.

Reverby lo-fi jam-band with folsky harmonies… is the Velvet Underground ever out of style?

Polmo Polpo producer takes on hi-fi space psych.  I can listen to “Wolfman” on repeat all day.

Another electronic act turned live, with mind-blowing results.  Best sound aesthetic of the year, hands down.

The converse of the Austra argument:  transcribe these songs and you’ll find cheerful major-key rock; listen and you’ll feel fuzzy & out of sorts, like fluorescent-lit shoe shopping with a hangover.


Mishka NYC

Infrastructure consultation for Brooklyn clothing designer.  Network installation & traffic shaping, hardware & software support, IT strategy & planning for a global brand with a small-business staff.


The Origins of Yoga and Tantra

As I’ve written previously, the only feature of yoga that seems consistent from ancient times to the present is its ability to incorporate different perspectives and approaches under a single heading.  Rather than being a meaningless catch-all term, or simply reinventing itself when socially or politically convenient, I’ve argued that yoga has adapted to practitioners’ changing needs and situations.

Geoffrey Samuel’s dense, scholarly 2008 history, The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, takes that type of argument to where the rubber hits the road – historical evidence of changes in the material, social, political, and philosophical situations of Indian spiritual practitioners.  If changes in practice corresponded with changes in situation, it makes sense to guess that the practice adapted to reflect those changes.  This history of change begins around 2600 BCE, with the Indus Valley civilization.  Artifacts depict ceremonial deity worship, but without textual evidence to explain the art, it is unclear whether these deities became the later Hindu gods or were superseded by them.  Whether a horn-headed deity is “proto-Shiva,” and whether his seat is a yoga pose, are debatable.

With the decline of this first urban civilization around 1900 BCE, the record again goes silent until the second urbanization, somewhere between 750-450 BCE.  As people again gathered and traded in cities, new spiritual practices emerged.  The Vedic-Brahmanical tradition’s ritualized offerings to the gods, burnt in a literal fire, became a small household flame, or even more abstract, austerities directed to an internal fire.  The forest-dwelling sramana ascetic traditions, once a way for young men to play out heroic roles in the hunt or in battle, became less a matter of physical separation from everyday life and more an abstract philosophical or ideological separation.  Buddhist and Jain schools of thought offered methods of achieving spiritual insight without the mediation of professional clergy.  Local gods were brought into pantheons where they served as underlings to, or incarnations of, more universal deities.

As Samuel explains, the reason more abstract, complex versions of older traditions became current must be that they were particularly appealing to the new city dwellers as they came into contact with various different lifestyles and foreign traditions.  Since their lives no longer followed hereditary paths, their traditional rituals no longer served.  It became clear that spiritual practices were not set in stone but reflected the lives of their practitioners.  When people could no longer follow the literal rituals of their parents, they chose practices that abstractly accomplished the same things.

At the same time, the expansion of central state government coincided with the idea of subsidiary deities – for instance, Buddhist mandalas placing the Buddha-form at the center and fierce gods in the four cardinal directions.  Tolerating local beliefs while subordinating them to a greater universal order was an approach that central government could appreciate. Ascetic Buddhists and Saivas found a role as ‘professional outsiders,’ dealing with death and burial and therefore performing a service for the society they distanced themselves from.  Brahmins were regarded as hereditarily qualified to perform magical rituals for state functions.  Thus the ideas of separate realms of professional vs. lay practice, and of hereditary vs. self-selecting practitioners, became accepted.  While there is no evidence of direct political influence on theology or ideology, Samuel argues that affinity with current politics must have contributed to the expansion of some spiritual practices and the contraction of others.

By 700 CE, death-related rituals began to mix with sexual rituals in the intentionally transgressive kapalika Saiva practices.  By taking actions that would usually be sinful – such as eating meat, disturbing a grave, or having sex with a prostitute – with pious intentions, these practitioners meant to subvert and undo the power those actions held.  There is evidence of religious communities using sexual initiation rituals under the same logic.  The use of transgression and sexual practices was not unheard of in Mahayana Buddhism as well.  However, both Buddhist and Saiva traditions were suddenly transformed by a surge in popularity of Tantra.

“A new set of techniques, closely related to and perhaps influenced by the Chinese qi cultivation and ‘inner alchemy’ practices, started to spread throughout South Asia in the seventh or early eighth century.  The Indic versions of these internal practices involve the movement of prana through the channels of the body and are closely linked to the conscious control of bodily processes during intercourse, and so to the practices of sexual yoga.  … These new techniques allowed for an internalisation of the deity practices.  They were adopted both by kapalika-style Saiva ascetics and by Buddhist practitioners of mahayoga Tantra, who were beginning to incorporate increasingly transgressive elements within their own practices.” (p. 341)

These practices were not so much a new religion as a new set of technical means.  They were adapted into both Saiva and Buddhist traditions, though in large part abstracted and applied to the internal desire to transgress rather than to literal transgressive behavior.  By 1000 CE, Tantra techniques were an accepted part of several traditions, and the idea that spiritual suffering and liberation were embodied (even if not literally but in an ‘energy body’) was on its way to inspiring classical Hatha Yoga.

I want to point out that inspiring classical yoga is one thing, and underpinning its validity with years of practice is quite another.  This tradition, again, is discontinuous – it adapts to new realities in the political, practical, and spiritual lives of its practitioners.  Just as the modern version of postural yoga that emerged in the middle of the 20th century, and which is now practiced around the world, involved a radical shift from the classical Hatha Yoga which the textual tradition documents, there is no evidence that the origins of yoga and tantra contain continuous functional features with the classical or modern practices.  The consistency of yoga remains its thoroughgoing adaptability.


Existential Tech: Ernest Becker

In my essay on the historical development of yoga, I found that the value of practicing yoga is not derived from any continuity with ancient wisdom.  The value of the practice lies not in its content per se, but in its function:  its ability to address the needs of its users.  I made the distinction between a ritual and a technology – a ritual must be done according to tradition, or a rigid formula, because how it works is unclear, magical.  A technology has “moving parts,” is understandable in terms of its effects and not just what its originator intended.

We all need to define ourselves and our place in the universe; to feel that what we are doing is worthwhile and meaningful.  The same needs drive people to religion, ideological and group affiliation, and all sorts of ways of feeling connected, a part of something larger.  Understanding these cultural practices in terms of their function has allowed us to see inside their stories about themselves, and into their “moving parts,” into how they are effective.

Ernest Becker’s classic 1973 book The Denial of Death is a masterpiece of functional analysis, asserting that every system of meaning to which people subscribe, every mythology about their origin and place in the universe, serves basically to prevent people from fully acknowledging that the universe is far vaster than humanity and is plainly not organized around human concerns.  Any animal, in order to survive and prosper, needs a sort of reflexive self-importance.  An animal that didn’t assume it was the most important thing in the picture wouldn’t take care of itself as a matter of course.  The trouble with this reflex, Becker argues, is that it is not justified by any evidence in the world – the inevitability of death and the overwhelming irrelevance of one animal, or one species, in the larger scale, argues that this belief in our own importance is fundamentally an illusion.

In order to perpetuate this “vital lie,” we need to pay attention to only a subset of the universe, the important stuff.  By evaluating our lives in relation to principles, groups of people, ideologies, etc., we become part of a larger reality.  Larger, but not too large, or our insignificance is again revealed; small enough to understand, but not too small, e.g. getting fixated on the approval of just one person, or we become neurotic.  The difference between the neurotic or psychotic and the normal functioning person, according to Becker, is not that one is illusioned about the universe and the other is not.  The neurotic or psychotic person has a poorly functioning illusion, one which doesn’t adequately protect them from perceiving the meaninglessness of their life; “healthy” people have robust, acceptable illusions.  The neurotic or psychotic is overcome by their fear of death or of experiencing life; “healthy” people repress these fears.

“What would the average man do with a full consciousness of absurdity?  He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness.  He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory:  the ability to be smug about terror.”

Becker concludes that while most people choose a “safe beyond,” a larger reality that is still known territory where one can assume a culturally given identity and walk a path others have found, some people have the skill and determination to take on larger and larger “beyonds” as they negotiate their own relationships with the universe.  Eventually, such a genius or artist or visionary has basically created their own religion.

While Becker, and the psychoanalysts and philosophers he references, argue that the human condition is one of insoluble conflict between reality and this necessary illusion, I wonder if that is the case.  Someone (not necessarily a visionary) who is constantly reconciling her understanding of the universe with new information is not defining herself in terms of her current mythology in the same heavy way of someone who never changes views.

In fact, if one can practice continual displacement of worldviews and challenging of assumptions, that process can destabilize the personality without descending into fear or dysfunction.  If someone practices this sort of existential shifting with continuous discipline, that practice itself may provide the feeling of security necessary to let go of any fixed definition of one’s importance in terms of an illusion about the universe.  While Becker views the process of shifting mythologies as a sort of progression from smaller to larger visions, the content of those mythologies is not as relevant as their function.  As they shift, the feeling that each one is real and solid must be undermined as well.

When we view the process of understanding one’s place in the universe as a technology, rather than a ritual, we can be critical about the choices we make in deciding what’s important.  If someone can reevaluate their most fundamental beliefs, I call that less illusioned, less afraid, and more honest.


The Discontinuity of Yoga

This essay represents a year-long research project I completed for my advanced yoga teacher training at OM Yoga.  It is currently fairly narrow and technical, but I intend to publish another draft for more general audiences.  Any comments or questions would be much appreciated!

Click through to Google Docs for the full document.


What are we doing when we take a yoga class? The name ‘yoga’ ties the modern practice to an ancient Indian system of belief and practice designed to address human suffering. But is 21st- century Hatha Yoga actually a continuation of an ancient tradition? If we are doing the ‘same thing’ as ancient yogis, we might expect that we can move toward the ‘same results’, making progress toward the physical, mental, or spiritual enlightenment proclaimed in the oral and written traditions of yoga.

On the other hand, if there is no clear historical continuity between ancient and modern yoga, then are the movements and ideas presented in the modern practice really likely to achieve the results that we read about in yoga texts or hear about from yoga teachers? Since its first presentation to the west, yoga has been characterized as a ‘technology of freedom’ – as opposed to a ritual whose effectiveness would be magical. Yoga techniques such as asana and pranayama are valid not because they are traditional, but because they are effective. But if ancient techniques are effective, then fidelity to tradition would be an obvious way of preserving the effectiveness of yoga. Considering yoga a technology implicitly gives us a mental model of how changes to the yoga practice could be beneficial: yoga techniques could have been refined over time to become better at their jobs.

If we admit that yoga has changed and adapted as it has become westernized, the question becomes whether those changes have been cosmetic or functional. Has yoga changed its engine or just its paint job? Debate is basically polarized around this question. The first possibility is that modern yoga bears some essential similarity to authentic ancient yoga. While there is ample evidence that yoga has become adapted to modern a western(ized) group of practitioners, perhaps some of its ancient features remain, and therefore the modern practice benefits from the time-tested refinement of this core feature set. However, as we will see below, historical, textual, and philosophical analysis leave no plausible candidates for what this unchanged core set of features would be.

The second possibility is that modern yoga derives none of its effectiveness from a tradition of refinement stretching back to ancient India – that its functions are not refinements of those described in ancient yoga texts and philosophies. As a health and wellness regime designed to appeal to middle class, western(ized) practitioners, yoga has perhaps been refined over the last 100 years to help those practitioners with the concerns particular to their lifestyles. But modern yoga does not benefit from any refinement over the thousands of years of yoga’s history, nor is it likely to address the radical transformative agenda described in ancient yoga texts and framed by yogic philosophy. Whether modern yoga is effective, according to this view, is something that can only be determined using current evidence like your own practice and modern medical studies. Yoga’s history of development lends no weight to its effectiveness.

Under the assumptions of the debate, these seem to be the only two options.  There is, however, a third possibility: that without a consistent set of essential features, modern yoga has still developed as an effective ‘technology of freedom’. The all-or-nothing choice between continuity/validity and discontinuity/invalidity is built on assumptions about how a technology must develop if it is to benefit from a tradition of refinement. Observers of the internet’s impact have good reason to question whether developing an effective tool requires a stable purpose, set of features, or organizing authority. We now have vivid examples of how effective technology can be built without fidelity to a central authority or continuity of core features. Because yoga techniques are not just static artifacts like a poem or painting, but tools, they can be used for purposes unintended by their originators. Viewing yoga as a ‘crowdsourced’ effort to address changing needs, discontinuity with tradition is not necessarily a detriment, but can serve as evidence that yoga has effectively adapted to meet the current needs of its users.


"Change Your Mind, Change the World"

I often hear in yoga classes the idea that, by changing one’s reaction to the current situation, the situation might subjectively change from suffering to something more like curiosity or contentment.  Clearly, detachment from the biases and subjectivity of everyday perception and thought is a very healthy thing to cultivate.  But it seems to me that an emphasis on awareness, without a subsequent use of that awareness to make changes, leads to a sort of complacency about the actual material problems facing us.  I have no objection to modern yoga’s presentation as a practice that is compatible with everyday life, including having a job and participating in consumer capitalism.  But the implication that the problems of living today are all subjective ignores the real changes that need to happen.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris has written about the myth that modern life is dominated by a rationalist, objectivist, competitive orientation and that the appropriate response is to subjectively snap out of the dominant ideological narrative.  The problem is not that this narrative isn’t wrong; it’s that the narrative isn’t the cause but the effect of the material organization of society.  The stories in our heads are more than just a distraction from the current moment:  they are also persistent ideological roadblocks to addressing socioeconomic issues.  In other words, the powers that be benefit from you being more content with your given material situation.

“Doctrines that prevent people from understanding the causes of their social existence have great social value.  In a society dominated by inequitable modes of production and exchange, lifestyle studies that obscure and distort the nature of the social system are far more common and more highly valued than the mythological ‘objective’ studies dreaded by the counter-culture.  …

“None of the pathologies of contemporary life can be blamed on an overdose of scientific objectivity concerning the causes of lifestyle phenomena. … And what has scientific objectivity got to do with the infinite itch of consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and conspicuous waste, built-in obsolescence, status hunger, the TV wasteland, and all the other weird driving forces of our competitive capitalist economy?  …By struggling to demystify our ordinary consciousness we shall improve the prospects for peace and economic and political justice.”  (Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.  Random House, 1974:  pp.257-266)

Noticing when we are stuck in our heads, living in an idea of reality instead of on actual perceptions of reality, is immensely useful.  But the fact is that those ideas are not only a product of neutral laziness or even neurosis, but also serve to explain and justify the status quo.  Just “dropping out” of the mainstream way of thinking does not erase the socioeconomic organization that it defends.  The way forward is not to trip out on the fact that there is no real justification for modern middle-class lifestyles.  (And from there, to find some other, exotic, source of meaning…)  By the same token, the way forward in dealing with tight shoulders is not to just bask in observing their tightness.  Sticky situations are more difficult precisely because they require vigilant mindfulness to navigate without making things worse.  But if we want to change the world, awareness is only the first step.


2010 Best Records

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – “Before Today”

So catchy, so weird…

Boston Spaceships – “Our Cubehouse Still Rocks”

I know I put a Bob Pollard project on every list, but this one is as good as 90s GBV!
Das Racist – “Sit Down, Man”

“These zooted brown weirdos is wildin’ but they can really rap”!

Lower Dens – “Twin-Hand Movement”

Instant classic <3 <3 <3

Midlake – “The Courage of Others”

Beautiful melodic psych

Nightlands – “Forget the Mantra”

Mind-blowing headphone psych

Owen Pallett – “Heartland”

Epic violin loops, rocks harder than described

Salem – “King Night”

OK OK witch house is pretty cool

The Tallest Man on Earth – “The Wild Hunt”

Early Dylan via Sweden?

Woods – “At Echo Lake”

Complex sad lo-fi weirdness

And a couple of great EPs:

  • The Ribbons – “Love is Mysterious”
  • Wildbirds & Peacedrums – “Iris”

Convenience is Overrated

I ran into a fascinating blog post by an 18-year-old who’s going back and playing video games older than him:

“Now compare this to any modern game and tell me if you have played anything even remotely this difficult recently. You know why? Because today’s generation of gamers don’t like to die in our games. We don’t like the difficult games that make us practice levels again and again until we finally get it right, just to go die at the next level and have to start all over…

“And after retrying for about an hour, I finally was able to beat the first level and I felt this odd feeling. It was a sense of accomplishment that washed over me and, to my surprise, made me keep playing this game that I kept dying in…”

You should read the whole article, but the game he played, Contra, was not actually that hard.  Although you could ‘cheat’ and get 30 lives, it was entirely possible for someone with my moderate skill to beat the game with the standard 3 lives.  Today’s gamers are happy to be challenged by complex and demanding games.  As I recently found out playing Call of Duty 4, the  precise timing and strategic decision-making required in modern games are equal to or greater than what we needed to beat Contra.

The issue is not really one of difficulty: dying after getting shot once is just too inconvenient for the kids these days. But that sense of accomplishment at having put a game’s logic into your muscle memory – which takes days no matter how you slice it – was in the center of the gaming experience back in Contra’s day.  Dying all the time was part of the frustrating journey from incompetence to competence.  That journey hasn’t changed – even new “casual games” are satisfying to the extent that you figure them out.  The Trophies for Everyone approach doesn’t actually increase your self-esteem, nor should it.

Making the game more convenient is an attempt to make your unavoidable incompetence seem less unpleasant.  But incompetence is its own punishment, and competence is its own reward.  Anyone who beat Contra will tell you the ending credit sequence wasn’t what made it worthwhile… and as the credits end, you continue playing from the start of the game, from a narrative perspective having accomplished nothing!  In its laughable disdain for the trappings of accomplishment, Contra actually sets up an environment where you can feel competent.  If I can’t feel bad at something, why would I bother getting good?  I want to practice!  In the end, of course, this is a useless competence to have, but then, nobody gets a swelled head about being good at Contra.


Top 10 Records of 2009

Merriweather Post Pavilion
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

What Will We Be
Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be
Undeniably legit, and I don’t usually like him

March of the Zapotec
Beirut – March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland
Realpeople Holland is the best electronic music I’ve heard in ages

Upper Air
Bowerbirds – Upper Air
Folk with a pop sensibility that doesn’t de-folk it

Love is Not Pop
El Perro Del Mar – Love is Not Pop
Cheesy but brilliant or brilliant but cheesy?

Fever Ray
Fever Ray – Fever Ray

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Instant classic

On the Knife
Little Gold – On the Knife
Sad hooky country-inflected lo-fi

Wind's Poem
Mt. Eerie – Wind’s Poem
Heavy and gentle

Gorgeous Johnny
Skygreen Leopards – Gorgeous Johnny
Meticulously lazy

Songs of Shame

Woods – Songs of Shame
Yay home recording