"I glimpsed it for fifteen seconds and it made me a servant for life." ~ Kabir
In the west when we think of yoga, many of us imagine a bunch of skinny people in stretchy pants performing exotic physical contortions on a sticky mat while breathing heavily. We consider yoga akin to any other type of physical conditioning class like Pilates and Cross Fit. This is because it has been rebranded and marketed to a western audience as such. The high emphasis on the physical aspects of the practice and the exclusion of the religious, philosophical and psychological underpinnings is just the latest iteration in Yoga's five thousand year history.
Yoga arose in India around the fifth and sixth centuries BCE and became one of the six orthodox philosophies in Hinduism. From the pre-classical through to the medieval periods in India saw the composition of several profoundly impactful religious and philosophical texts that influenced belief systems throughout the eastern world. These jewels of human contemplation were committed to history in the deeply symbolic language of Sanskrit.
The Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, amongst others, describe a world view that is very different to that which we hold in the west. In the west, we see ourselves a separate, autonomous units acting in the universe and being acted upon by the universe. In eastern philosophy there is no individual isolated self separate from the universe. All is one and therefore the self is the universe.
The goal of yoga is to attain liberation from the small view of self as a separate entity operating within the whole by experiencing union directly with the whole. In fact, the word Yoga translates to mean to yoke or to unite. The yoga practitioner disciplines her mind through yoga practice so as to reside in the perceptual state of experiencing herself as synonymous with the universe or, put another way, to remember that she is God. That's a little more lofty than standing on your head or getting your leg behind it wouldn't you say?
The method of attaining liberation differs slightly depending on the type of yoga you practice. There are four types of yoga: Jnana Yoga - the yoga of knowledge: Bhakti Yoga - the yoga of devotion: Karma Yoga - the yoga of action; and Raja Yoga - the yoga of meditation. Even if you are a regular yoga practitioner in the west you may never have heard of these four types of yoga. Allow me to explain the long thread that links the yoga we practice on sticky mats in tight pants to the original yoga.
Raja Yoga (or royal yoga) is described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a systematic eight step linear process of attaining liberation. Step one and two of Raja Yoga are the Yamas & Niyamas which involve becoming a disciplined, moral person. Step three, Asana means posture, but in Raja yoga there was only one posture, a seated posture called padmasana or lotus. Step four is Pranayam or breath exercises. Step five is Pratyahara which involves learning to turn ones attention inward. The sixth through eighth stages are Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi or concentration, meditation and self knowledge. The practice of these three is what results in Moksha or liberation. Everything beforehand is prep work.
At a certain point in Raja Yoga's history there was little revolution. Some yogi's (yoga practitioners) believed the Brahmans (the priesthood caste in Hinduism) had become a little corrupt. The Brahmans, by insisting upon the system of Raja Yoga starting with the very difficult stages of Yama and Niyama, made yoga the exclusive domain of aesthetics. These were the very severely disciplined practitioners who would abstain from all indulgences. We are talking about people who would live in caves with no possessions, relying on alms to survive so they could spend all their time meditating.
Some yogis believed Raja Yoga excluded normal house holders from practicing yoga. They branched out, creating a seven stage system of yoga that deemphasized the Yamas & Niyamas in favour of a practice that had a lower bar to entry and was more physically tangible.
Philosophically Raja Yoga was very reality negative and the physical body was seen as something to be transcended. One was trying to escape reality and the body through the practice of Raja Yoga where as Hatha Yoga was far more reality affirming. One could practice Hatha Yoga and hope to achieve liberation while holding a job, getting married, having children and all the other activities that make up human life.
In Sanskrit the word Hatha breaks down into ha and tha which mean sun and moon. The sun represents divine masculine while the moon represents the divine feminine. Therefore Hatha Yoga is about uniting the masculine with the feminine.
Going way back to Samkhya, another of the six orthodox philosophies in India, the two irreducible elements that gave rise to all manifest reality were purusha (consciousness) and prakrti (matter), also represented as divine masculine and feminine respectively. In Hatha Yoga the practitioner achieves liberation through the pathway of prakriti (matter) or the body, uniting it with consciousness.
In Hatha Yoga the first stage is Shatkarma or physical purification. Many of us in the west are now familiar with the Netti pot for cleansing the nasal passages with salt water. Jala Netti is one of the Shatkarmas. Stages two through seven are Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana & Samadhi.
The manual on Hatha Yoga, called The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, gives the first mention of yoga postures (or asanas) besides padmasana but lists only fifteen, non of which are standing postures. Another text on Hatha Yoga called the Gheranda Samhita lists only thirty two asanas. This is a far cry from the thousands of asanas we have today in modern yoga practice. Bear with me a moment longer as I explain how that all came about.
All the countless styles of yoga that we practice today in the west came from Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga developed in India between the 600 CE - 1500 CE but fell into relative obscurity for a long time until a remarkable Indian master practitioner named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya taught a small contingent of students who went on to popularize Yoga in the west. Please note that there were other teachers who brought yoga to the west whom I do not have time to go into detail about. However, because Krishnamacharyas impact was so extensive, we can understand the evolution of modern yoga almost exclusively from his teaching lineage.
Krishnamacharya was a remarkable scholar and renown healer in India who lived in exceptional health right up to the age of 101. He taught B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, Pattabhi Jois, and his son T.K.V. Desikachar. These four teachers developed their own schools of Hatha Yoga that emphasized slightly different aspects of the practice. Many students of these four teachers went on to create their own styles of yoga within the school they had been certified. The students of those teachers went on to start brand naming their unique spins on the styles of yoga they had been certified in. Along the way, the practice of Hatha Yoga has been the subject of constant evolution in the absence of regulation. Therefore, modern yoga practice in the west is the result of countless teachers putting their own unique spin on an ancient psycho physical spiritual practice.
In this blog series I will be talking a lot about modern Hatha Yoga as it pertains to improving the health of a Skier, and by extension, skiing performance. Through the practice of Hatha Yoga, skiers can improve their physical conditioning, prevent injury, refine kinesthetic awareness, accelerate learning movement patterns, and better cope with stress.
However, when it comes to The Spiritual Skier, I am talking about skiing as Karma Yoga. Skiing as Karma Yoga elevates skiing to an art. For those who have dedicated their lives to skiing, it is a sacred duty. Skiing as Karma Yoga becomes an end in itself - meaningful, purposeful and the access point to awe. I will have the opportunity to elaborate on what Skiing as Karma Yoga means when I get to blog entry on Flow.
Next Week: How Yoga Saved My Life
Christine Davidson is a Ski Instructor, Yoga Teacher and Peak Performance Coach on a mission to make humans awesome!