The Evolution of Yoga

Every time I tell someone I study tantra, their eyebrows go up. That’s usually followed by some sort of comment about how I must be very flexible and then an aside to my fiancé, “No wonder you’re marrying her!” Sex and the Kama Sutra are included as tantric techniques for finding Union, or Yoga, but they are small branches on a very large tree.

Once, largely a tradition followed only by men, yoga is now predominantly the terrain of Lululemon clad, Tom’s shoe wearing, Whole Foods shopping ladies (like me, except we get a CSA box, ‘cause there’s no organic grocery in Mojave!). What we know as yoga today — flowing through sun salutations and balancing in Tree Pose — is also only one branch of a larger tree. The physical practice of yoga, which deals with stretching the body and breathing with some rhythm and control is called Hatha yoga.

Under this umbrella, there are many styles or schools of yoga. This article is not about delineating those styles (If you want more on that, click here) but about understanding the different frameworks from which they come. The philosophical background of yoga is important not only for knowing what you’re getting yourself into, but also for gleaning a deeper understanding of life.

Yoga philosophy, just like asana (yoga pose) practice, has evolved. No longer are we bound to caves, sitting for hours, weeks, or months in meditation, trying to reach enlightenment. Today’s yoga — Tantric Yoga — is for the working person, the householder who participates in, rather than renounces life.

A Brief History Lesson

Here’s a short description of only three of the many darshanas, or schools, of yoga philosophy as they have evolved through history. Keep in mind this is a very brief whitewashing of some incredibly deep topics. If you want to dig deeper, click on some of the included links. And keep reading my posts; more is coming…

Classical Yoga

Classical yoga, or Patanajali’s yoga, is the oldest of these three schools of thought. It’s a dualistic system, which essentially means there’s God, and then separate from, or less sacred, than God, is everything else, including you, me, the tree in the front yard, and the cat next door. Spirit (Purusha) and matter (Prakriti) are separate. To transcend the latter and reunite with God is the goal.

Being embodied in the world (i.e. separate from God) is the cause of suffering. Practitioners of classical yoga find a solution to this problem by renouncing the world. They seek freedom by isolating God from the material world. This includes (but isn’t limited to) stopping the fluctuations of their own minds and emotions. Classical yoga takes a dogmatic and structured approach to practice (think Iyengar or Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga). There is a metaphorical ladder to climb with very specific steps meant to lead the practitioner out of suffering and away from the problems of embodied life.

Advaita Vedanta

One of Patanjali’s students, Shankara, is the sage associated with this system, which is the next step in the evolution of yoga philosophy. Here, the belief is non-dual; there is only God. There is no individual soul, only a Universal one. All of this world, like a crazy fun house mirror, is an  illusion. Your body, your thoughts, your emotions, and even the cat next door are part of the illusion.

Believing that the illusion is real is the source of suffering for the followers of Advaita Vedanta. To find freedom from the problem, Vedanta shifts perception to see God everywhere and in everything. The solution is to remember that what appears as difference in the material world is actually only an illusion.

Tantra

The most recent of these three schools of yoga philosophy is Tantra. It’s a monistic system. Mono, as in one, as in we are not separate or disconnected form God; it’s all God. God chooses to embody as you, me, the tree out front and the lucky cat next door. Embodiment is simply a contracted or limited form of God. Spirit and matter are real and both are equally sacred.

In this philosophy, embodiment is not a problem to solve, nor is it a karmic punishment. Instead, it’s a gift we can’t sell, get rid of or give back. Practitioners of Tantra seek to engage in life more fully, with a deep sense of gratitude for the gift that it is. The sage most associated with Tantra, Abhinavagupta, taught that each person is equally divine and whole. His revolutionary thinking made yoga accessible to women and the lower caste, both previously forbidden from learning the art of yoga.

Suffering arises for Tantrikas when they disconnect from the world, and forget their connection to God. To find freedom, they embrace the physical experience, through their bodies and senses, remembering that all is God. The ups and downs experienced while embodied aren’t a punishment, just a natural pulsation of life. Followers of Tantra align with this natural pulsation, or flow, and go deeper into the experience and the moment in order to reconnect (think Anusara or Prana Flow Yoga). Tantrikas tend to be less rigid and more willing to look for the good in the mundane, sometimes even to a fault.

Where Will We Go Next?

I wonder what the next step for yoga is? Today we see it being taught to people with spinal cord injuries, people who suffer from PTSD and even prisoners. I believe it’s important, from time to time, to re-evaluate our belief systems and make sure we are where we need to be. A good starting point for us to evolve ourselves and our yoga is to learn a little more about our history. Then take the time to question where you sit, how you feel and what you believe.