The Evolution of Yoga (& Why Yoga Classes Can Feel So Different)
While today’s yoga is heavily based on a physical practice, it is built on an ever-evolving philosophical backbone. The roots of yoga have more to do with spirituality and the nature of existence, than with touching our toes or becoming “more flexible.”
This article is not about delineating all the different styles of yoga (if you want more on that, click here) but about understanding the different frameworks from which they come.
The physical practice is crucial to alleviating the aches and pains that create agitation, and building the conditions for a calm, clear mind. But it is only one piece of the bigger picture.
While many conversations around the “its more than just a physical practice” topic lead us down the road of yoga’s eight limbs, this one will not. Instead, let’s take a look at the evolution of yoga philosophy beyond the yoga sutras.
A Brief History Lesson
Following are three of the 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.
Classical yoga, or Patanajali’s yoga, is the oldest of these three schools. It’s a dualistic system, which means there’s God, and then separate from God, is everything else.
The “everything else” in this model, is called prakriti, and it includes all of the tangible world, including humans and all matter.
Purusha is the sacred Spirit of God, and is forever separate from prakriti. Suffering arises out of this separation, and its cure is found in controlling the mind and restraining the body in order to isolate God out from the material world.
Classical yoga is a guru model; the seat of power is held by the guru (teacher), not by the student. There is a dogmatic and structured approach to this kind of practice —think Iyengar or Ashtanga Yoga— where students follow unquestioningly, trusting in the method and the teacher.
The next evolution in yoga philosophy comes from one of Patanjali’s students, Shankara. Advaita Vedanta shifts out of duality to the belief that everything is God.
Here, what was once seen as prakriti is now seen as an illusion. There is no individual soul, only a Universal one, called Atman. Believing the illusion of separation is real is the source of suffering.
Vedanta shifts perception to see God everywhere and in everything. Freedom from suffering comes by remembering that what appears as difference (all the variety of nature and humans) is actually only an illusion.
Vedantans practice “neti, neti” or “not this, not this” as an analytical meditation, helping to understand the nature of God by first understanding what is not God.
The most recent of these three schools of yoga philosophy is tantra. Tantra, too, is a non-dual system, but unlike vedanta, it affirms that there is nothing that is NOT God, and the world of matter is very much real.
Embodiment is a contracted or limited form of God, not an illusion, not something separate, not a problem to be solved, but a gift for which to be grateful. In this philosophy, God chooses to embody as all things, all beings, all of matter.
Suffering, according to tantra, comes from disconnecting from the world and forgetting the connection to God. The solution is not to disengage, but to engage in life more fully.
In tantra, the seat of the guru shifts from person to person rather than existing only in one individual. It is a system of deference, where individuals are honored for their uniqueness, knowledge and skill —community, or kula, is emphasized for this reason. Styles of modern day tantric yoga are Kundalini, Anusara or Prana Flow Yoga
The sage most associated with tantra, Abhinavagupta, taught that each person is equally divine and whole. This revolutionary thinking made yoga accessible to women and the lower caste, both previously forbidden from learning this sacred art of yoga.
Author’s note: this article was originally released in 2013 but has been heavily re-written and edited for clarity and relevance.