Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something True: Or Why We Can’t Just Let Well Enought Alone

We Americans are enthralled with the new. Founders of the New World, we have made our almost blind faith in the value of innovation our calling card on the world stage. It’s hard to imagine a Roman or a Mandarin so lightly casting off the layered vestiges of history that dominate the Italian and the Chinese landscapes. But for us, new is good, “good as new.” We don’t preserve our old buildings but raze them to make way for newer, shinier models. We bandage midlife crises with trophy wives and line up around the block for the newest I-gadget. We celebrate New Year’s Day by resolving to become new, better versions of ourselves.

This eagerness to plow ahead does meet resistance in the Conservative tradition, which weaves its way through our juvenile history and pulls on the threads of our drive to toss out the old and hail the new. Someone is always calling for stability, for stasis, for an end to change, even to a return to “fixed” values like those espoused in the Bible or the Constitution. Conservatives may not be delighted with the world as it is, but their fear that it could be much worse if allowed to fall into meddlesome hands has them white-knuckling in the political, cultural, and social arenas.

I’ve thought a lot about how our predilection for the new plays out in our yoga as well. We throw around references to the Yoga Tradition as though it is some fixed, cohesive body of teachings upon which we can draw in confidence that we are tapping into something (very old! and) authentic. We adapt yogic practices (postures, breathing techniques, meditation, moral principles) like obedient schoolchildren, despite the fact that, deracinated from their original contexts, they may be of little use and less meaning. Ever chanted in Sanskrit without having a clue what you were saying? Have you indulged in the dairy and carbs heavy yogic lacto-vegetarian diet, invented by a culture that reveres the “sacred” cow? Worse yet, they can lead to harm: how many of us have gotten injured by bending and eventually breaking our shoulders, knees, or lower backs in slavish adherence to Ashtanga Yoga’s challenging “primary” series (reputedly designed to work the nervous energy out of a pliable young Indian teenager, and not for middle-aged Americans who’ve been sitting in chairs since first grade)?

And yet far more common is our seemingly limitless impulse to transform whatever comes our way. Not content with the heat built up in the body during active asana practice, and in a hurry to get more flexible faster (because the goal is everything and the journey, well, often tedious), we heat the room to 105 degrees. Bored with Ashtanga Yoga, we create Power Yoga (actually little more than a change in name but a stroke of marketing genius, as we emerge from our morning Power Yoga practice to enjoy a Power Breakfast before our Power Point Meeting and so on through the day). Bored to distraction with the focus on ujayii breathing, we pipe a booming rock-and-roll soundtrack into the room, deafening any sound of the breath.

For others, pure yoga does not suffice. Thus was born Yogalates (a fusion of yoga and Pilates), Lotte Berke method (yoga, Pilates, ballet), Pilates itself (yoga, ballet, physical therapy). Yogic Arts (yoga and the martial arts). Partner Yoga. Acroyoga. Yoga on standup paddleboards. Yet these do not really propel the tradition forward as slide it sideways, linking yoga to other existing activities, creating hybrids of this n that.

To gauge whether someone has come up with something both new and meaningful, you do have to know a little history. Poet and essayist T.S. Eliot wrote in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that no relevant poetry can emerge from a vacuum. The poet must steep herself in the vast sweep of writing that has come before, in this case the Western tradition from the Ancient Greeks onward. Only then will she understand where and how to innovate. Eliot went one step further, however, to deny the existence of inborn talent or originality altogether. For him, the poet was but a skillful medium, a transistor whose antennae were more finely tuned to both past and present than the rest of ours and so could channel the words most suited to our moment. In other words, it wasn’t personal, and you didn’t really have a choice.

So where is the evidence, if there is any, of true innovation in yoga today? Who are yoga’s radicals, and are they doing any good?

To sort things out, I had of course to look backward. First, to get a grip on what yoga looked or looks like in its native land. And second, to get a little distance from the cacophony of voices calling for attention across current Yoga Journal conferences, YouTube videos, Facebook comments, Twitter soundbites, and online offerings like yogaglo.com. It’s hard to see today’s forest for the trees, so let’s look back at the 20th century. The first examples that pop into my mind are not from yoga at all but from the related fields of body awareness and healing. Here are a few true paradigm-shifters:

• Frederick Matthias Alexander: Creator of the Alexander Technique. This Shakespearean actor cured his stage-fright induced laryngitis by systematically reducing the tension in the muscles of the upper torso and neck. He advocated retraining of the ways in which we move and hold ourselves upright and created a systematic way of doing so that has left millions happier at home in their bodies.
• Ida Rolf: Creator of Rolfing, that insanely painful but equally powerful bodywork that transforms bodies and changes lives. Rolf figured out that in order to effect lasting change and eliminate chronic physical discomfort, massage had to go deeper than the muscles and attack the tough connective tissue (fascia) that holds us together. Her work spawned all of the “deep tissue” massage now on the market, from the Heller method to Structural Integration to those “sports” massages you get at spas and Thomas Meyers’ Anatomy Trains.
• Sigmund Freud, who famously shifted attention to our unconscious minds and their ability to shape who we are and what we do and gave us talk-therapy to shed light on the darkness–listed here because it segues into yoga’s theories about samskaras (deeply ingrained mental and emotional ruts that practice can dispel).

Closer to home, I’ll cast my votes for the following yogis:
• B.K.S. Iyengar: Hands-down, the greatest living yogic innovator. Iyengar, born and trained in India under master teacher Krishnamacharya, served as a young man as a medical model for an anatomy class. Standing in his loincloth while the professor pointed to each muscle and joint and explained its construction and functions, Iyengar absorbed a heavy dose of Western anatomy. Later, when teaching yoga to students neither as supple as he nor of the same bodily proportions, Iyengar devised props (originally bricks, ropes, and blankets and barely changed in form or function since his breakthrough) so that students could do the postures without compromising their bodies. Before Iyengar, yoga had seen the body as an energy field and passed over such structural components as muscles, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.
• Sharon Gannon, David Life, Mati Ezrati, Tim Miller: These hipsters modified the rigid sequencing of Sri K.Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga, preserving the flow but reshuffling the mix of poses to create what is today widely known as “vinyasa” or “flow” yoga. Adding in a dose of rock music, these teachers offered a practice as exhilarating as a good dance party without betraying the essence of the original.
• The nameless/faceless person(s) here or in India who first offered group classes. Now the most widely practiced format for yoga instruction, the group class signaled a radical departure from a tradition that had always been handed down from teacher to student one at a time, with the instruction tailored to that student’s needs.

Peering however recklessly into the present, I wager that Anusara Yoga will stand out going forward for its cutting-edge biomechanics, its incorporation of life-affirming nondualist Shiva-Shakti Tantra, and its notion that asana practice is itself a deep spiritual endeavor and not a mere stepping stone on the uphill climb to meditation. John Friend has nailed what we need now and why we need it:
• We have become a nation of asana practitioners, and we need state-of-the-art technique to navigate our way out of the morass of yoga-induced injuries that is filling orthopedists’ and chiropractics’ bank accounts. John Friend studied Western anatomy, bodywork, and yoga, experimented on his own body and those of thousands of students, and arrived at a set of Universal Principles that seemless link the anatomical to the energetic body.
• We need a yoga that does not ask us householders to abandon this world, cast off our possessions, sever our relations (sexual or otherwise), and retreat to caves. We are not all cut out to become monks.
• We want desperately to find meaning in all of the bending and stretching, the balancing and the strengthening. We want to know that here too lies a means to connect to ourselves, the world around us, and all that lies beyond.

Yoga has blanketed the U.S. and is rapidly spreading around the world to places as unlikely as the People’s Republic of China (thanks at least in part to yours truly) and the Middle East. Along the way, it’s falling into the hands of all kinds of people, inspired or otherwise. Stay tuned: you never know where and when the next big shift will occur. There are no gatekeepers in our cyberworld, no filters, no quality control, so we owe it to ourselves and each other to separate the wheat from the chaff and to share the best of what we find.

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