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.