More and more studios, gyms, holistic centres, spas, recreational clubs offering yoga classes. You can see all sort of things: hot yoga, beer yoga, naked yoga, dog yoga, boxing yoga and so on and so forth. There are many who practice it following this or that trend. But do they really know what it is? What distinguishes a defined yoga practice from another that is not? Where do the asanas, or positions, of yoga come from? We have already seen in this in-depth article about its origins what was traditionally yoga and how it was different from today’s yoga. But then, what is this modern yoga? Is it a reality that concerns India and its millenary tradition or is it a new practice born in the West?
What is modern yoga?
“Yoga means union: union of mind and body, union of oneself with the divine, union with others and so on. It is a discipline that starts from the body and extends to philosophy and meditation; work on the concrete to probe the self and what is beyond. Most of all, Yoga is 99% practical and 1% theory”Pattabhi Jois
To understand what yoga is today, just go to any studio, centre or gym that provides courses and sign up for a trial lesson (almost always free, at least in Italy). The scenario that we will see is the following: a room more or less wide, usually with a wooden floor, a row of neatly arranged mats and some tools like straps, blankets or cushions. A teacher who shows positions at the back of the room and guides his/her students by voice. An indefinite number of people who, dressed in typical gym clothes, try to hold the position.
Variations to the picture can be mirrors on the walls, a greater or lesser number of tools, any incense, relaxing music, images of Indian, Buddhist or new age tradition. Lessons start with an initial warm-up, sometimes done after a short relaxation or after singing some mantras, they reach a peak in the effort roughly in the middle of the lesson, and then return slowly to a less demanding level that ends with a final relaxation. Sometimes breathing exercises are done, the so-called pranayama.
The yoga today
When was all this born? Several books and newspapers talk about yoga as an age-old tradition, but we have seen in my article that traditional yoga has very little to do with the scenario described above. How did we come to make yoga a gymnastics not so different from the others? We must take a dip in the past, without bothering ourselves too much, going back who knows how much more, it is the spatial commitment that drives us to go as far as India.
With the term modern yoga, in fact, we are referring to a reality that was born in India together with the Indian nationalist movement of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. It is one of the many projects to bring lustre and importance back to a nation that in many ways had fallen into disgrace and that saw the Indian government engage in many sectors, exploiting lofty minds fighting for a free, strong independent India, culturally advanced. However many teachers or practitioners of yoga can blame the West if today’s yoga is strictly physical, it is mainly because of India itself that asanas are associated with yoga at a near equivalence level. But let’s see where these famous positions are born.
The asanas or poses
Although in the first texts of yoga, including the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there is no mention of positions (only of one, the seated on during meditation), there is evidence from the first century CE of physical practices by so-called sannyasins (ascetics) in Hindu texts, but also by monks in the Buddhist texts and by the followers of Jainism in the Jain texts of the same period. It is not clear what these physical yoga practices were. Only around 1000 CE some writings appear with the first descriptions of asanas and subsequently, more and more thoroughly, in texts related to traditional Hatha yoga. These are written more or less from the thirteenth century onwards with a limited number of asanas and mainly sitting positions. With the passing of the centuries and the proliferation of Hatha yoga, the texts are enriched with physical exercises and postures up to the Gheranda Samhita (XVII or XVIII century) which claims that Shiva taught mankind 8.4 million asanas, but then, in fact, it describes only 32 of them. In the Hatha Ratnavali, written in the seventeenth century, 84 positions are listed.
Naths or street yogis
Around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the phenomenon of Hatha yoga declined decisively, also due to the English occupation. Since the 11th or 12th century the movement of the so-called naths or wandering yogis was present, which referred to Shaivism, Buddhism and Hatha yoga. Some of them mobilized in armed forces fighting the Islamic invasion first and then the English one, taking military control of some British businesses. With the decline of yoga, many of these naths earned their living by doing asanas on the street, especially the most acrobatic ones, attracting the attention of passers-by and thus receiving alms. For this reason, and for the previous acts of banditry, they were frowned upon by the British but also by the Indians themselves. Thus it was that asanas and Hatha yoga were considered inferior practices relegated to poor castes.
Under the impetus of the new nationalist culture that was breathed in most countries around the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which masculinity was celebrated in the form of physical strength, many exercises in gymnastics, military callisthenic, wrestling are introduced in India and sports. In the meantime, the British government changed course and committed itself to pursue policies of reconciliation towards the local culture of India. As a result of this policy, many Indian and European administrators, intellectuals and public officials began to support the creation of a new and modern India that combined the best of what modernity and the West had to offer, but in a traditional Indian form.
Thus, a large number of schools and movements are born to revalue the Indian tradition above all in the form of yoga. In 1918 The Yoga Institute was founded in Mumbai by Yogendra: the oldest organized yoga centre in the world (and has only a hundred years …). In 1924, Kuvalayananda created his Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in Maharashtra. In 1926 Krishnamacharya began teaching in the palace of Mysore, under the direction of the Maharaja, creating a yoga school for the children of wealthy Indian families. Prabhupada’s ISKCON was founded in 1966 also known as Hare Krishna), the Osho movement called Rajneeshism in ’64 and the transcendental meditation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s. Just to name a few, let’s now see in detail the development of modern yoga.
The four great schools of modern yoga
“Assessing and presenting degrees of innovation and continuity in contemporary or revived traditions like transnational yoga is always fraught, insofar as modification is typically (although not always) presented as the transparent transmission of ancient and unchanging teachings.”Mark Singleton
Although not all scholars agree with this classification, we use it because it simplifies everything. According to Elizabeth de Michelis this yoga revival movement can be divided into these four main categories.
Modern Psychosomatic Yoga
Modern psychosomatic yoga is a type of yoga that involves body-mind-spirit training. According to De Michelis, it emphasizes practical experience, places relatively little attention to doctrine and is practised in an intimate environment. Representatives of this school are the aforementioned The Yoga Institute of Mumbai, the Divine Life Society founded by Shivananda in 1936, the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center of Maharashtra and Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, founded in Los Angeles in 1925. There are many others, but what I really want to say is that these are schools, approaches, in which yoga is seen as a means of psychophysical realization of the individual in society. A tool to treat physical, mental, emotional and spiritual problems. A way to realize all human potential and to flourish to the full.
Modern Meditational Yoga
It is a yoga movement based on meditation techniques of different types. One example is the transcendental meditation as it was taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s, famous for being the guru of the Beatles and other celebrities. Transcendental meditation is done sitting in silence, mentally repeating specific mantras, so as to enter this state of depth and relaxation. To practice daily. Another exponent of this type of yoga is Shri Chinmoy who founded many yoga centres in which he spread meditation, prayer and chanting mantras, combining them with art, music and sports. Some of these meditative yoga schools are areligious, while others are religious, for example, those of Buddhist nature.
Modern Denominational Yoga
Also called neo-Hinduism, this type of yoga is devotional. It is based on the teachings of gurus who have devised their own system of beliefs, rituals, hierarchies in which asanas and meditation are also used. These are true cults, sometimes of a sectarian nature. Some clear examples are the Hare Krishna or the ISKCON of Prabhupada, the Sahaja Yoga of Nirmala Srivastava, the Rajneesh movement of Osho and the transcendental meditation in its institutionalized form. In these forms of yoga, a vision of God is proposed which we can approach through different stages of meditation, prayer and practices, moral and religious precepts. In others there is no mention of God but of awakening and liberation and life in community is promoted in the countryside with free love and dynamic meditation that helps to free oneself from one’s own follies. However, the figure of the guru remains central and the devotional aspect is the basis of each of these schools.
Modern Postural Yoga
The father of postural yoga is undoubtedly Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who in the 1930s, under the will of the Maharaja of Mysore, taught what Singleton defined as “a marriage between Haṭha yoga, wrestling exercises and modern Western gymnastic movements“. He resumed the sun salutation created by the Raja of Aundh a few years earlier and inserted it into his dynamic practice. Among his students, there were those who became important teachers in their turn, such as Pattabhi Jois, promoter of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, Iyengar creator of his namesake style, Indra Devi and finally his son Desikachar, who spread the Viniyoga. This yoga is based primarily, but not exclusively, on the famous positions called asanas.
Before 1900 there were very few standing positions. To date, postural yoga styles are innumerable, with thousands of asanas. Each style focuses on a peculiar aspect, be it breathing, aerobic work, precision in alignment or even the spiritual part of Hatha yoga. With the spread of this type of yoga in the West, new styles are born, together with the first registered brands and associations that recognize or not the various yoga teachers and schools in the world (like Yoga Alliance). There is also a myriad of teachers who do not refer to any specific style but teach a generic custom modern Hatha yoga. What has become yoga today is the result of this type of school, which is by far the most widespread, even in India. By now yoga is seen as a gymnastic that brings wellness, helps eliminate stress, excess weight, increases flexibility and lets back pain pass. All things that if Patanjali knew them he would burn his Yoga Sutras…
Early modern yoga
I want to say a few words about this form of yoga spread all over the world at the end of the 19th century by Vivekananda and Madame Blavatsky, just to mention the most famous ones. This is a movement that reflects the disgust of the practice of asanas widely used by the aforementioned naths. Blavatsky, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, paved the way for the spread of this yoga in the West, encouraging interest in the occult and in esoteric doctrines by building a vision of the “Mystical East”. After travelling for a few years in India, she became increasingly interested in yoga, despising the practices of asanas that contrasted her idea of ”true yoga“, relegating them to mere physical exercise. Blavatsky was interested in the mantra yoga as a means of developing spiritual awareness, bhakti, karma and jnana yoga, forms more understandable from the Western mentality and finally Raja Yoga (or that of Patanjali), considered the royal road to reach the state divine and which contains within itself all the most important techniques and beliefs of the other ways of yoga.
Vivekananda, for his part, released a yoga based on pranayama, meditation, positive thinking (derived from the New Thought movement born in the USA). He explicitly refused any form of asanas. This is also explained by his high social status which led him to not like people like fakirs and naths to practice postural yoga and asceticism on the street in exchange for money. He followed the philosophy of the Advaita Vedanta which he considered the one that best explained the essence of Hinduism, although he considered the Absolute to be immanent and transcendent (going against Advaita Vedanta itself and thus reconciling dualism with non-dualism). He rode the wave of the Indian nationalist movement to bring Hinduism to the main religion in India and is therefore considered a patriot saint. His form of “yoga” is in line with contemporary esoteric movements, such as the aforementioned theosophy, New Thought and US transcendentalism. His figure was fundamental to the rebirth of India both nationally and on a religious and spiritual level.
The most popular styles today
From Modern Postural Yoga, the styles of yoga that are practised all over the world today, including India, have spread under the generic name of Hatha yoga (modern, of course). Let’s see what are those born in India and those created in the West.
Despite the name, it has very little to do with Patanjali’s Raja yoga. Designed by Pattabhi Jois, a disciple of Krishnamacharya, in Mysore, it is based on 6 predefined sequences executed in a dynamic way. This technique combines breathing (in particular the ujjayi technique which consists in almost completely closing the glottis while breathing) with the movement of the asanas and the use of the bandhas, or the closures of the body (the perineum, the diaphragm, the throat). The positions are made dynamic by the vinyasa, or synchronization of breath and movement. Finally, the fixation of the gaze, called drishti in Sanskrit, completes the list of the fundamental characteristics of this discipline. In particular, for Pattabhi Jois, the most important elements are three, called tristhana: breath, asana, drishti. Everyone works at a different level, or body level, of the nervous and mental system.
Practising the series, which have a progressive order of difficulty, a maximum of 5 complete breaths are kept for every single asana, always using ujjayi breathing, fixing the gaze at a certain point, which varies from asana to asana and a specific bandha is practised. It is considered a moving meditation and the fluidity between one position and the other reminds us that everything is impermanent and constantly changing. It is a very demanding style from a physical point of view, which requires extreme flexibility and strength. Ujjayi breathing heats the body and by sweating it eliminates toxins; concentration on one point helps purify and stabilize the functioning of the mind; the bandhas give stability to the asana and allow the use of vital energy (prana) at its best; finally, the vinyasa makes the breath and position combine in a fluid dynamism.
Also a disciple of Krishnamacharya, due to some physical problems, has adapted the practice of the master by creating his own style. This is based on attention to detail, alignment and precision, obtained, when necessary, through the use of special props (belts, blocks, bolsters, blankets, ropes, etc.). Each asana must be performed in an extremely precise manner down to the smallest detail, in order to obtain the greatest benefit and avoid any accidents. Sequences and variables are designed to work on specific goals to be achieved by executing the series. The teacher of this style must necessarily be qualified by the school of Iyengar (as a registered trademark), whose head office is located in Pune, India.
His approach is to actively intervene in the constant correction of his students. The positions are held for a long time in order to strengthen the active muscles and relax those that are not necessary and thus allow them to stretch. Thanks to the use of tools, it becomes much easier to execute the asana in the correct way and thus derive its benefits. Once the body’s awareness increases, the muscles are stretched and strengthened, the tools are slowly abandoned. This style also includes the practice of pranayama but is “subjected” to postural alignment. In other words, to practice breathing exercises correctly one must first gain a correct posture that allows us to perform them without errors. Even in this case, we talk about meditation on the body: the practice of positions, held for a long time and combined with breathing, leads the student to live a meditative experience.
Taking the moves from the Ashtanga Vinyasa of Pattabhi Jois, it is a dynamic style based on the fluidity between one asana and the other. Thus Called also Vinyasa flow. Unlike Ashtanga Vinyasa, it has no rigid sequences and these are easier to approach for people who are not super flexible, as Ashtanga requires. The positions are kept little and there is the usual connection between breath and movement of its inspiring style. As for the other aspects of Ashtanga, such as drishti (focusing one’s gaze on a point) or bandhas (locks of the body) depends very much on the teacher. A more intense form of Vinyasa is called Power yoga, where more complex asanas or more demanding sequences are practised. Developed in 1995 by Bender Birch, in the USA, it takes inspiration from Ashtanga Vinyasa, just like Vinyasa flow.
As already mentioned in the article on the origins of yoga, it is a style devised by Yogi Bhajan in 1968 in the USA. In it we practice asana sequences called kriyas, dynamic breathing techniques, we chant mantras of the Sikh tradition and we make a particular form of meditation. This is a complete tantric discipline and does not belong to the Modern Postural Yoga movement, which is based mainly on positions. The goal of this yoga is to awaken the kundalini, the vital energy that is usually dormant, coiled upon itself at the base of the coccyx, and make it rise along the spine to make it reach the last chakra. To do this, techniques derived from traditional kundalini yoga, layla yoga and tantra are used, as described in my article, adapted by Yogi Bhajan to the modern Western lifestyle, but with the same purpose of creating a complete discipline that embraces the whole human being and not just his physical part.
Conceived by the Indian Bikram Chudhury some thirty years ago, it is a sequence of 26 asanas practised in closed rooms and heated around 35-42 °C. The sequence is always the same, in all the Bikram yoga studios of the world. Heat allows the body to be much more elastic and to sweat profusely, allowing toxins to be eliminated. No supports are used but a towel is recommended as an excellent non-slip mat. From this style, which is a registered trademark, was born the Hot yoga: it is based on the same identical concept of doing yoga in a heated room but without following the strict sequence established by Bikram (and without having to pay good money to have the registered trademark). Hot yoga varies in the choice of asanas, in the duration of the positions, in the eventual flow depending on the teacher.
A discipline developed in the late 1970s in the USA by Paulie Zink, martial artist of Kung Fu. After practicing for 10 years with a master of the Monkey style and winning several martial arts awards, Zink starts teaching a style of yoga mixed with the Dao Yin, Taoist exercises that include long-standing static positions, dynamic positions and visualisations combined with self-massage and stretching, all of which are always accompanied by breathing, to allow the vital energy, called Qi, to flow freely. Zink called it “Yin Yang Yoga” and is based on positions held for a long time in a passive way alternating with dynamically practised actively. Zink also teaches, during his lessons, breathing techniques taken from Qi Gong and the Taoist alchemy based on the 5 elements and on how to develop the relative qualities, and those of some animals, embodying them.
Paul Grilley, a student of Zink already an expert on Bikram and Ashtanga, has further developed Yin Yoga by mixing anatomy, the physiology of the meridians of Chinese medicine developed by Motoyama and exercises by Dao Yin, aiming to create sequences of postures that had the same effect of an acupuncture session. Sarah Powers, a Grilley student, teaching the same style as her teacher, incorporated Buddhist psychology and added more emphasis on targeting meridians to achieve better health and enlightenment. In her book, she also explains a conscious and systematic breathing technique to use during practice. Under the teaching of these three figures, Yin Yoga soon became famous and spread throughout the world. The lessons are therefore mainly based on sitting or lying positions held for a long time (from 45 seconds to a few minutes) in a passive way, so as to work mainly on the connective tissue (fascia). During the position, the teacher explains which meridians are involved during the execution of the asana.
Become famous recently especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, the Restorative Yoga was conceived by one of the first disciples of Iyengar, Judith Hanson Lasater. It is based on a technique in which tools derived from Iyengar are used to passively hold yoga positions (even 20 minutes each). It is a style especially suitable for people who have physical problems, close to nervous exhaustion, burnout, under stress or who are recovering after a major operation or accident. It differs from the Yin in the use of tools, for the holding time of an asana and because it is aimed at people with problems, while the Yin is meant for healthy people (besides having all the part related to Chinese medicine that the restorative yoga does not have).
Also called Vinyasa Krama Yoga, it was designed by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and taught by his son Desikachar. It does not differ significantly from other postural yoga styles, it simply believes that teaching should be highly personalized according to the needs of the individual student. The teacher-student relationship of the classical yogic tradition becomes so important, if not fundamental. The motto of this style is that the person does not have to conform to yoga but the latter must adapt to each person. We must keep in mind the specificity of each individual, his/her needs and his/her potential, but also his/her history and his/her present. This approach is not only followed in individual lessons but also in group lessons.
Real benefits of modern yoga
One of the things on which practically all modern yoga styles point is the alleged psycho-physical benefits of its practice. Articles constantly come out about it, mainly in journalism related to yoga. In fact, yoga has real health benefits, both at a postural or physical level in general (back pain, muscle, tendon, joint stiffness, improves the functioning of the endocrine system and the sympathetic system) and psycho-emotional (helps release stress, anxiety and build self-confidence) but these are benefits that can be found in many other physical disciplines of various kinds. There are also situations, incidentally never reported in the articles, of people who got hurt during yoga classes, sometimes even permanently. The tendency to push students over the limit is a temptation that different teachers have and can lead to serious damages.
One of the benefits of yoga and meditation (or mindfulness as it is called by some) is to reduce stress significantly. Without too much arguing whether it actually works or not, what we want to point out is that
society tends to push the individual to find ways to reduce the stress created by the companies themselves, especially in relation to the world of work, but not only, instead of trying to find new ways of life, work and sociality that reduce the generation of stress itself.
More and more companies nowadays introduce yoga, meditation and other wellness techniques to help their subordinates deal with work stress, instead of thinking of finding ways to avoid stressing employees. This is a type of approach called “blaming the victim“, which drives those who are victims of stress to find a solution to a problem created by the society itself. There would be a lot to say about this, but we will just mention this article.
What is evident from this article and my precedents regarding yoga is that what is practiced today has almost nothing to do with traditional yoga but is an invention of India itself which, to keep up with Western powers, it has created and adapted its traditional practices by developing a new form of gymnastics, borrowed from traditional asanas and modern gymnastic exercises, and passing it off as millennial knowledge. It must also be considered, however, that yoga has never been a systematized and unitary discipline and that in the various centuries and in different places it acquired different connotations depending on who taught it and practised it. So, on the one hand, we can continue to consider modern yoga as a further evolution of the traditional discipline more suited to contemporary man. It is also true, by contrast, that there are still some realities that try to carry on what is considered traditional yoga in a genuine way.