I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a guest instructor with our History and Cultures of Asia class. The plan is to present a very brief history of yoga and relate it to modern times. If I can accomplish this in 5 minutes, we will have 45 minutes to put history into practice.
History is an element of yogic practice which is often forgotten. We often focus on what we are doing right now—the movement of body and mind, the breath, and the future (c’mon, admit it, we all think about our progression: physical, mental, and spiritual, physical, physical, physical at least some of the time), but it is not often that we take the practice as living history.
Starting with OM we connect with and acknowledge the subtlest form of creation itself. OM is not the actual vibration which emanates from the divine, it is the name of that vibration. It is old. I open my personal practice, and sometimes classes, with OM saha navavatu / saha nau bhunaktu / saha viryam karavavahai / tejasvi navadhitam astu ma vidvisavahai / OM shanti shanti shanti [Accept us both together, protect us both together, may our knowledge and strength increase, may we not resent each other, OM peace, peace, peace]. This chant opens some of the Upanishads, meaning it has been spoken since Vedic times. The knowledge of the Vedas was imparted to the minds of sages directly from the Divine. These 17 words have been chanted in this order, in this language for tens of thousands of years, and come directly from the Divine. Think about that the next time you chant, alone or in a class. Most of these chants are incredibly old and unchanged.
In the lineage that I follow, asana practice begins with Surya Namaskar A. It is not a warm up, it is an invocation, a complete practice within itself, and the link which weaves the story of every other posture which follows. According to Vamana Risi, all movement is initiated by a breath, and every breath is issued a count. This one breath/one movement combination is called Vinyasa. Surya Namaskar A has 9 vinyasas. The first movement is on puraka (inhalation), raising the arms above the head, gaze between the eyebrows. It is counted as Ekam “One.” Traditionally this is done facing East. These 9 movements represent a prostration, and acknowledgement of and respect for something greater than ourselves, without which we could not exist.
In the Ashtanga series (the series’ proper, not the standing sequence), all asanas are a function of Surya Namaskar, either explicitly or implicitly. Every Asana is a stopping point in a series, and every series begins with Ekam, one. Most of the time we do not see this because it is customary to practice a “half-vinyasa” (in this case, vinyasa has come to mean the process of jumping back to chatauranga dandasana, urdhva mukha svanasa, adho mukha svanasa, jumping forward to dandasana. Dandasana is counted as 7, the first six, rarely done, are the first 6 vinyasas of Surya Namaskar A). Pashimottanasana, for instance, has 17 vinyasas, if done completely, from standing, the 9th being the recognizable state of the posture. The state of the asana is only a function of the prostration. So much for a simple forward bend.
Every asana fits into one of four categories (lifeless forms, animals, human forms, or divine forms) and each tells a story. Is it important that we know the history of Drona and Drupada or Arjuna or Rama to lift into dhanurasana (bow pose) or that we understand the conflict between Shiva and Brahma to put our foot behind our head? No.
But we could. And if we did, the postures would be come more than just contortion, more than just a physical focal point. They can become living lessons of history.
“It is important to have a perspective on history in order to move forward.”
~ Dr. Nathan Myhrvold