Yoga Off the Path

Many people practicing within the Western yoga tradition, and perhaps as many who are not, share a belief that “hatha yoga” is an ancient spiritual practice. It is not. Yoga Off the Path refers to the fact that I don’t consider my yoga practice and instruction to be in accordance with this belief nor even explicitly spiritual. I say, “explicitly” because I also believe there is nothing we do, nor any part of who we are, that is not inherently a reflection of our spiritual existence. This is why I refer to myself as a non-practicing atheist.

Contemporary hatha yoga is a worldwide phenomenon that began in the early 20th century as a synthesis of Indian nationalism, Western physical exercise regimes and yoga which was primarily a meditation-based spiritual practice. Elizabeth De Michelis, in A History of Modern Yoga, dates the emergence of Modern Yoga with the publication of Vivikenanda’s Raja Yoga in 1896.

It was around this same time that an international physical culture movement was taking shape.  The roots of physical culture include Scandinavian gymnastics, bodybuilding (as exemplified by Eugene Sandow), the Indian YMCA and even something known as “harmonial gymnastics.” The latter was mostly practiced by women making it not surprising that women practitioners have dominated yoga as we know it, although that’s changing.

The next time you hear a hatha yoga instructor refer to Standing Bow Pulling Pose—or any other non-lotus posture—as something that has been practiced for “thousands of years,” buy them a copy of Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.

Mea culpa. I was as ignorant as anyone about this in my early years of teaching yoga. Most yoga teacher trainings include little to no information about the history and tradition of Indian yoga. If there is any attention paid to the philosophy of yoga, it is typically misplaced on Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a compilation of yoga aphorisms that include only 2 or 3 references to asana practice. I’m innately inquisitive and grateful for having discovered Singleton’s book which introduced me to the fascinating and recent history of contemporary hatha yoga.

… consider the term yoga as it refers to the modern postural practice as a homonym, and not a synonym of the “yoga” associated with the philosophical system of Pantañjali, or the “yoga” that forms an integral component of the Śaiva Tantras, or the “yoga” of the Bhagavad Gītā, and so on. In other words, although the word “yoga” as it is used popularly today is identical in spelling and pronunciation in each of these instances, it has quite different meanings and origins. It is, in short, a homonym, and it should therefore not be assumed that it refers to the same body of beliefs and practices as those other homonymous terms. —Singleton in Yoga Body

The yoga I practice and teach has its roots in physical culture and is related to what was sometimes referred to as “householder” practice. I think of it as mindful exercise with the goal of creating healthy habits and cultivating self-awareness to live a more intentional and meaningful life. Traditional Indian yoga was practiced by ascetics and monks. Physical culture gave birth to what Singleton calls “transnational anglophone yoga” but I didn’t think that would work well as a title. Yoga Off the Path means basically yoga for the rest of us.

Another topic I write about is recovery from male childhood sexual abuse. (I say, “male” only because I am one so that’s the experience from which I will be speaking. I’m not part of any men’s rights movement and I don’t mean to ignore the fact that the majority of sex abuse victims are female.) In the more esoteric yoga teachings, it is said that we practice (meditate) to remember our true nature, which is that we are already self-realized beings. The description mirrors perfectly the process of recovery from childhood trauma.

My yoga practice is at once a tool for and a mirror of my personal recovery and growth. I learned to dissociate from my body at an early age and yoga has enabled me to re-inhabit it. Simultaneously, through introspection (meditation) I am seeking my pre-abused self so that he may claim the happy and productive life that is rightfully his.