The Yoga Debate: How ancient and authentic is yoga?

By Erin O'Brien

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The popularization of yoga practices in studios has sparked a heated dialogue and some confusion about the origins of yoga. Is yoga really an ancient practice? And, if yoga really does go back thousands of years, does that make modern-day popular yoga inauthentic? In other words, are we totally butchering yoga these days?


The modern yoga debate is centered around authenticity and interpretation.


The simple answer to the question about the longevity of yoga is yes. The origins of yoga date back thousands of years. I learned from Don Stapleton of Nosara yoga that, although the language of yoga (and even the word yoga) is tied to the Hindu religion and originated in the Hindu society of ancient India, yoga is not religious. And although yoga originated in India, the concept we have of yoga in the West is foreign to the vast majority of modern day East Indian people. Yoga, in fact, has shamanic roots. The first yogis were rebelling against the caste system closely tied to the Hindu traditions of that time period, using Hindu terminology to protect themselves from being discovered. The first yogis practiced in forests and caves discovering deep meditations that moved their bodies into postures that we still practice today. They would meet up in secret to share their discoveries and pass on their wisdom to selective students. This morphed into a system of students and gurus, or teachers. The word "guru" means "darkness to light." The idea is that a teacher helps to facilitate the process of awakening. Non-authoritation teachers focus on the inner guru, or inner teacher. This is the wise part of each practitioner who facilitates her own awakening through dedicated practice and self-study. 


So what is yoga? Yoga is a science, where each practitioner learns from her own direct experience. And yoga is an art form, where our expression of prana evolves over time into an authentic way of practicing and being in the world.


The reality of how yoga made its way to the West and continues to be interpreted is more complex. The ways in which we practice yoga do not resemble the original practices of yoga, which were focused primarily on seated meditation, allowing prana to build and move the practitioner into ananas (postures). Yoga, from the beginning, has been an inward journey to the Self, where each person is her own scientist, learning from her own direct experience. The circumstances of our lives and the cultures that we live within are incredibly different from the first yogis practicing in seclusion. The yoga that we see today has been interpreted from the lens of the times we live within. Rather than try to emulate the practices of the past with perfection in mind, we can allow yoga and its many, sometimes divergent, interpretations to evolve alongside the practitioners of today. Check out this article in Yoga Journal to go deeper.


The simple answer to the question about authenticity is it depends. I believe the answer to the question of authenticity depends on what we are claiming about the yoga we are offering and why we are practicing in the first place. It also depends on what we are taking away from the experience and whether or not we are showing up as our authentic selves, as students and teachers. Our yoga practice is, like anything else in life, what we make of it. Regardless of the fact that our practices may not be accurate renditions of the practices of the ancient yogis in India whose origins are part mythical, modern yoga is influenced by texts, myths, songs, mind-body disciplines, and people of the past and present.  


That said, I understand the purpose of the debate. Sometimes it gets weird when Western pop culture and ancient practices are blended together. I have definitely left some classes with a strange taste in my mouth.


Our practices are authentic when we, as educators and students of yoga, are being ourselves, embracing our own strengths and also being clear about our limitations. Yoga teachers do not possess special healing powers. And, most yoga teachers are not trained doctors and therapists. That said, the awareness and presence some yoga teachers embody can seem like a healing superpower. My philosophy is that each yoga student is his/her own healer. I believe that a yoga teacher can support students as they develop awareness and presence in their own bodies and minds by providing a safe and nurturing environment. And some students may find this awareness, movement and meditation helps them to heal themselves. As a caveat, when you are facing health problems, consult a qualified healthcare practitioner rather than your yoga teacher.


The following four practices help me to sift through my own confusion about modern-day yoga and the wellness industry in general:

  1. I put my trust in my inner teacher to discover practices and tools that support my well-being. I trust my intuition and run gut-checks on people and practices.

  2. I find teachers or guides who believe their students are their own greatest source of wisdom about their own physical and spiritual bodies.

  3. I look for well-trained leaders who will guide me into postures in a safe way.

  4. I understand different approaches to yoga work at various times of my life, even within the same day. For example, I prefer a challenging vinyasa practice coupled with self-awakening yoga therapeutics most mornings and yin yoga with seated meditation during the evening. Some days, a walk on the beach is my yoga practice. Other times, digging in my garden is my chosen practice.   


Given the context of the fast-paced society we live within, it is no surprise that research is now showing that modern yoga works to improve our physical and mental health. Although it is wonderful that the subject of yoga is being studied in universities, yoga invites us to be the scientists of our own bodies. During our practices, we explore our own range of movement, breath, energy, feelings, thoughts, and spirit.


We know if yoga works by paying attention to our own experience of yoga. I have experienced so many benefits of my yoga practice. For me, yoga works. But we are all different. What is your experience with yoga? Does yoga help or hinder your physical and mental health?