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.

In considering the possibility of a continuity in some features of yoga practice from ancient times to today, there are three broad categories to investigate: the substance of the physical practice (asana), the approach to practice (its goals and orientation), and the meaning or interpretation of the practices. Each of these types of continuity could possibly stand alone in establishing the historical validity of yoga: if we are doing the same physical poses and movements as ancient yogis, they may be time-tested. If the physical poses vary but the approach is the same, then we may be accomplishing the same philosophical objectives with different tools. And even if modern yoga differs from ancient yoga in these two categories of features, if yoga provides a worldview, an interpretive structure for understanding life and suffering, then it may be that both the substance and the attitude of the practice could change without losing the essential meaning that yoga conveys.

Historical evidence of continuity in the substance of the physical practice is thin on the ground, but thanks to Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body (2010), the picture is a bit clearer: the physical practices of yoga developed in response to a 19th-century British colonial model of physical culture, presenting ostensibly ancient native Indian practices as compatible with, or superior to, western physical culture. This development coincided with the movement toward Indian self rule and thus had to show that Indian wisdom met western standards. Thus, practices that may well have been Indian in origin were fit into a western model, recontextualizing previously separate strains of physical practice, and blurring Westernized Indian techniques with Indianized Western ones.

As Sarah Strauss has pointed out in Positioning Yoga (2005), modern yoga was shaped by a decentralized, multinational cohort of practitioners, and its relationship to ‘authentic’ native practice is subject to the “pizza effect.” (Bharati 1970)  Pizza, while nominally Italian, is actually the result of a transatlantic food collaboration, achieving its canonical form in New York City.  Its ‘real’ version is neither traditional nor entirely new, but a mixture.  Yoga’s success with a modern trans-national audience meant adaptation to modern forms and constraints, including intelligibility to westerners as a health and wellness regime. As Singleton points out, It also meant discarding yoga’s traditional association with street contortionists and radical politics. As we will see, these pressures seem to have outweighed traditionality of practices when it came to selecting which physical practices were included in the modern yoga canon.

Historical evidence of yoga’s approach, its orientation, is easier to find. Textual evidence exists from as much as 2000 years ago describing why yoga practices are to be done – even though exactly what is to be done was much less clear before the advent of inexpensive photographic reproduction. Mircia Eliade, in his still-classic exposition Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, (1958) locates yoga’s key approach not as union, but disunion; the ancient practice was, Eliade maintains, a detachment from everyday life. Georg Feuerstein characterizes the practice as a profound “interiorization.” (YSP 7) In the terms of yogic philosophy, ceasing to identify purusa (the seer) with prakriti (physical and mental ‘stuff’) effects a radical disconnection between the yogi and the mainstream of human life. Various interpretations of the Yoga Sutras (yoga’s key early text) are hard-pressed to interpret ancient yoga’s approach as anything but fundamentally ascetic.

This asceticism is clearly at odds with modern yoga’s philosophical accessibility. Elizabeth De Michelis, in A History of Modern Yoga (2004), identifies modern yoga’s key feature in this regard: its “flexible and polyvalent (read secular)” model of participation. Yoga practitioners are free to take what they want from the yoga practice without necessarily uprooting themselves from middle-class lifestyles. The teachings are suitable for practitioners with a variety of agendas, rather than a single monkish path of detachment. It is difficult to reconcile the two approaches.

Finally, yoga’s continuity may lie in its function as a worldview, a framework for interpreting the experiences of practice. Yogic energy anatomy (such as the Kundalini serpent wrapped around the chakras) offers a reference scheme for identifying and manipulating subjective, interior experience to achieve effects that are best described as a cross between physical and metaphysical. While this interpretive structure is not rendered useless by modern western physical science, the two worldviews are irreconcilable – in terms of translating claims in one view to claims in the other, yoga and western bio-medicine are two ships passing in the night.

As Joseph Alter writes in “Modern Medical Yoga: Struggling with a History of Magic, Alchemy, and Sex,” (2005) “there is no history of yoga as medicine (if we define medicine as the apparatus for treating disease) that extends back more than 80 years.” (134) Yoga is not indigenous medicine, with a different but comparable set of treatments for the same conditions. Since the problems ancient yogic practices were selected and refined to deal with are entirely different, there is no reason to assume that ancient yogic practices have any effect recognizable to modern western medicine or science.

How can a practice that has changed its substance, approach, and interpretive framework still benefit from a history of development? Without an authority determining which contributions are valid, how could effective tools emerge?    This is the same question that entrenched software developers asked about Free/Open Source Software – how could a bunch of amateurs guided only by their mutual interest possibly produce something rivaling the product of a corporation or government? As Microsoft’s Bill Gates famously wrote in his 1976 “Open Letter to Hobbyists,” “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can afford to put 3 man-years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product, and distribute for free?” (Gates 1976) With the advent of the internet and the F/OSS development model, it is so easy to contribute and distribute that this sort of thing happens all the time. Twenty years after Gates’s letter, the question was answered definitively with the release of Linux, a completely ‘crowdsourced’, free alternative to Windows.

We are used to thinking of technology development as a linear process under centralized control and motivated by adherence to a core identity. Technology writers and advocates like Richard Stallman, Lawrence Lessig, and Clay Shirky have articulated the novel possibility and potential superiority of this new, internet-based model of free participation and common development. Because some of the people who are interested in the technology are the same ones who are developing it, changes in their interests are reflected in changes in the features and capabilities of the tools. Technology is not just an artifact like a poem or painting. It has functions, and therefore it has users. If we are serious about considering yoga a ‘technology of freedom,’ we should consider the possibility that its validity derives from its effectiveness for addressing users’ needs and not just its inherent qualities.

Yoga’s substance has been irretrievably mixed with other physical cultures, its approach has become a modern polyvalent offering, and its meaning has been transplanted from one (meta)physical universe to another. No essence remains of the ancient practice which would confer a time-tested stamp of approval on the modern practice. Nevertheless, modern yoga’s development model, which has allowed it to change every element in its relentless adaptation to current needs, confers a validity to the practice beyond the (in)authenticity of its techniques. The history of contributions from millions of yogis has changed the practice, on the whole bending it toward usefulness in easing human suffering.

Even though modern yoga does not share ancient yoga’s substance, approach, or meaning, it has developed to successfully address modern yogis’ suffering. Modern yoga’s effectiveness is not due to its continuity with tradition, but to its adaptive development of useful tools.

Continue at Google Docs for the full text.

Thanks to Natalie, Frank, and Elizabeth for talking me through this!

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