The Roots of Modern Postural Yoga

Yoga has become such a mainstream activity that people in the urban areas of Vancouver Island speak about the principal challenges and benefits with some agreement. For example, flexibility, stress management, some therapeutic applications, improvement in balance and stamina were mentioned in a university class I attended recently.

How did yoga as currently defined, develop those characteristics?

In the West, specifically in America, Modern Yoga dates from 1849 and 1896. The first event is ascribed to Henry David Thoreau’s, Writings ,1849,"To some extent and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi." Thoreau is credited with the first explication of modern environmentalism in his essay, Walden Pond.

Swami Vivekananda’s visit to the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893 presaged his volume ,Raja Yoga, published in 1896 in America which excited American interest and practice of yoga. During his 4 year stay in the West, Vivekananda was influenced by avant garde occultist Americans such as the Theosophists and Christian Scientists.

And so the blending between Eastern God-realization and Western self-realization began. Vivekananda melded anatomy, breath control and superconsciousness. However the primary practice was seated and meditative. The focus on physical postures or asanas was to come later.

How, from yoga’s early introduction, has Modern Postural Yoga become a world wide phenomenon?

Enter the influential grandfather of postural yoga, Krishnamacharaya, teacher of the three giants of Modern Postural Yoga; BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and TVK Desikechar.

BKS Iyengar popularized yoga with his seminal book, Light on Yoga,1966. More than any other, he is credited with setting out the framework for Modern Postural Yoga. His evolution is marked by further publications which provide modern yogis with direction on breath-work, Light on Pranayama,1981, study of classical yoga philosophy, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1993, and finally Light on Life, 2005. In his 88 years, Iyengar’s teachings have reached millions of yoga students globally.

Iyengar’s links to Vivekananda are clear. Self realization is the purpose of practising yoga. The body and breath are cultured by yoga postural practice to produce a state of mind and body from which intuitive realization of union with the Divine is experienced.

However, that process, called samadhi, is the final stage of a yogi’s evolution. To experience it, yogis must adopt the precepts, set out by Patanjali, governing behaviour towards self and others which might be summed up in the first of them: harm none.

From Thoreau’s roots in nature and yoga, Westeners are developing a disciplined spiritual practice linking humans with all life in a web of respect for our mutual Divinity.

True, the physical benefits the university students identified are inherent with practice. But greater still is the benefit to all life on the planet when yoga is practiced with the commitment to eliminate harmful behavior. Simple?

Not even a little bit. To identify our harmful behavior is the beginning of self realization. To staunch it is a daily movement toward the fullest practice of yoga.

How can we begin? Vivekananda wrote," Remove all obstacles on your spiritual path." And BKS Iyengar added, "Yoga is a practical path." Begin with what you know, the body, and as your practice deepens, add breath work. Ripen all of that with study of those whose spiritual experience inspires you.