July 14, 2011

You did not help yoga evolve. (It’s the other way round…)

There is a lot of talk lately about how we have ‘evolved’ yoga.

There are a number of recent books (not to mention the seemingly vast yoga ‘blog-o-sphere’) that talk of a ‘Modern American Yoga’ that has developed, or matured, or progressed yoga into a new age.


Yoga is an ancient spiritual tradition. It is one of the oldest systems of personal development in the world. No one can say how old it is, but there is archeological evidence that it existed 5000 years ago. There are various texts and scriptures that are many hundreds of years old. So we can say without doubt that the Yoga that came to America last century was unchanged for many centuries before that. And many people believe that yoga may in fact be much older than we can even imagine…

Evolution means progress; expansion; development.

When something is already perfect, there is no longer a need for evolution – the evolution is complete. This is the case with yoga: it has essentially remained unchanged for many centuries because it does not need to change. It is perfect.

In fact, Yoga was brought to us (in the West) last century by great, disciplined, devoted, and adept yogis, who taught, and had themselves been taught, by example. Traditionally yoga was handed down from master to student by word of mouth (the Gurukula system). That is why there is relatively little (and almost exclusively very vague) written instruction of the yogic techniques in the yoga scriptures: they are written in an enigmatic, mysterious way because a basic knowledge on the part of the reader was expected (a basic knowledge that was not learned from texts, but transmitted directly from master to pupil).

Those great teachers who came to the West to bring us the wisdom of yoga would laugh out loud if you told them that yoga had ‘evolved’ recently. To say that to them would be like saying that God had come of age lately! In fact, it is said that the first yoga teacher was Siva himself – I wonder, if he were here right now, what he’d think of the idea that his many thousand-years-old yoga had been evolved in the last century?!

Siva's reaction!

Let me be clear about something: I am not criticizing any particular style or teacher of yoga. ‘To each his own’, and I really mean that. If someone wants to practice Hot Power Yoga, or Running Yoga, or Disco Yoga, or Yoga-lates, or Yoga Boxing, or any of the other countless adaptations that have sprung up in the last 10 or so years, please feel free. I genuinely believe that any and all of these things may be just what someone needs; perhaps even a great introduction to something deeper.

What I am criticizing is the ego-centric view that we in the West have taken an ancient, perfect spiritual practice, and made it better.


When I was introduced to yoga it was to asana. I came to yoga as someone that lifted weights, went running, and had little knowledge of the other aspects of yoga.

I’d never even practiced pranayama, mudra, or bandha, nor had I tried to improve my concentration. I thought chanting was a very flakey activity that Western people only did after being heavily brainwashed, and if you had asked me to clean some toilets in the name of Karma Yoga I would have assumed that you were a con artist (a bad one).

I had done a little meditation, and I got it. But as far as I was concerned, Yoga was Asana, and Asana was Yoga, and you could keep all your spiritual fluff. Or shove it. I didn’t care one way or the other.

I traveled to India with the intention of becoming adept in asana – and on arrival there got the shock of my life.

On the morning of my second day in India I was on the beach. I got talking to a group of University students who were splashing about in the water, pushing each other around, having fun.

They asked me what I was doing in India and I told them (proudly) I was going to train to be a yoga teacher. They all burst out laughing! One of them asked me:

“So you’re not afraid to die?” (cue: more hilarity and splashing).

At the time I had no idea what he was talking about! I mumbled something and laughed along with them, shrugging it off as an in-joke that I was destined to not ‘get’. However, in the days and weeks that followed I came to understand very well what he meant. He knew that to experience the essence of Yoga is to surrender the ego: the death of the ‘self’ that leads to the birth of a higher awareness. That is the real meaning inherent in the yoga that was said to be handed down by Siva many ages ago.

Yoga is a complete system of personal development that is based upon a very scientific understanding of human being-ness. What I learnt during those six weeks in India unraveled all of my prior education, and shook the foundations upon which my shaky life had been built.

I realized that 5000 years ago (or whenever it was) the sages and seers faithfully propagating yoga by word of mouth knew much, much more about what it is to be human – biologically, psychologically, and energetically – than we do today! Yes, even with all of our apparently advanced sciences and civilization.

In fact, the modern sciences (like quantum physics and epigenetics) have recently been discovering to be true claims that yoga has been making for millennia!


I was very ill on that yoga teacher training, and as my opportunity to become an Adept Asana God faded I had a stark choice: quit the course and go home ‘with my tail between my legs’, or surrender my ego and give myself fully to the wisdom and power of those ancient teachings. Thankfully, I chose the latter. Actually, I remember the exact moment of my decision. It was quite literally a dark night of my soul.

I was lying in bed. It was about 4am. I wept with self-pity. Every muscle in my body ached. My throat burned; I had a fever and I hadn’t slept deeply for weeks. Every night I went to bed late after a very long day (hours of chanting and meditation, karma yoga, four hours of asana and pranayama, many lectures and study) – to be regularly woken by my illness; the utterly ruthless mosquitoes of Southern India; and my roommate’s snoring, late-night (extra) meditation, and loud, early morning neti nasal cleaning.

As I listened to the wonderful sounds of the inside of this man’s sinuses splattering the tiles in the tiny bathroom we shared, my ego crumbled. I had nothing. My health, my dignity, and my pride, had all apparently refused to get on the plane with me to India. I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life. I lay in bed and thought of my girlfriend back home, and of the warm hug she would give me as I stepped off the plane to meet her. A large part of me was seriously considering giving up. The thought of another day dragging myself around the ashram… chanting alien sounding words and forcing my aching body to undergo the humiliation of another asana class (in which I could barely hold a single position longer than a few seconds)… it was simply too much! My ego crumbled. It had nothing to hold on to. I was in a corner, with only too choices: run home for a hug that I knew would be only a very temporary comfort, or stay on here in total uncertainty, discomfort, and enforced humility, to stick it out. Fight or flight, without a drop of adrenalin left.

Something shifted in me. I realized slowly that I wasn’t going anywhere. I inwardly decided that I was staying the course. I felt deep down that if I ran away now, my running would be for the rest of my life. On the other hand, if I stayed, that perseverance would define me forever. So I felt something shifting inside me as I said no to my ego, and to the thought of a loving hug, and to the comforts of home. In that moment I felt a softening and an opening in my heart, and I fell asleep.

Once I stopped resisting what I was being taught – once I gave up my preconceived ideas of what I would learn – and embraced the ancient teachings fully, everything changed. My health started slowly returning, along with my dignity. My heart stayed open, and I began to understand the beauty and wisdom of chanting. My meditation, in which I’d previously been aware only of aching bones and weary muscles, went deeper, and I began to embrace and enjoy the silence within. I felt lighter than ever before.

Suddenly a whole new world had opened up before me.

This is the potential and the promise of yoga:

“Yogas chitta vritti nirodaha”

Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind. Projection ends, and true perception begins.

How can you better that?

You can’t.

So please beware of people that say that they have contributed to an evolution of yoga. It’s a contradiction in terms. You cannot evolve something that is perfect – there is no need!

The danger is that yoga becomes nothing more than an exercise in egotism; a practice intended to relax the ego ends up in fact stimulating it.

Of course it’s no danger at all: evolution is a natural and inevitable process, and the evolution of consciousness demands that at some point, each of us must let go of the ego and go beyond. But this is a warning: choose carefully how you practice. Because fuelling the ego now makes for a more difficult transition later– that’s the true meaning of karma.

Respect the ancient traditions. Realize that we know very little about them, and study them with wonder.

To do anything else is, to my mind, to suffer from the same arrogance and lack of respect with which I suffered before that dark night of my soul.

Please ‘like’ it up, share, and spread the love, as always! Oh, and leave a comment! Thank you…

(If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy Get Out Feeling Good (The wise grieve neither for the living, nor for the dead) )

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