Control of the breath - or pranayama - is one of the earliest recorded forms of yogic practice. It was described by the Buddha, and in Vedic Upanishads, which describe how it helps to train the mind. The ultimate aim of manipulating breathing is to eliminate obstacles to getting absorbed in meditation. In contrast to the modern fixation on bodily postures, the defining practice in ancient texts is pranayama.
As you may be aware, the best-known text about yoga philosophy has little to say about modern yoga. But what if someone told you that Patanjali's sutras weren't even a practice guide, because they only existed to be chanted by priests? This is what happened on a recent course with Michel Angot, the latest charismatic teacher to use the Yoga Sutra to promote other ideas: in his case, the importance of Brahmins and their role in oral transmission of sacred teachings.
Mindfulness adapts Buddhist meditation to everyday life. It seems effective at managing depression and anxiety, and is taught in schools to boost resilience and grades. Whilst it can help to share techniques to cope with stress, this limits the scope for transformation. A fixation on self gets reinforced, which serves a brutal market system. However, if mindfulness in schools were to cultivate "moral and civic virtues," as British MPs suggest it should, it could foster compassionate "pro-social" action.
In which Hamish Hendry, a certified Ashtanga teacher, talks about putting yoga theory into practice. Pushpam, his new magazine, aims to help students do this. The latest issue, on the Bhagavad Gita, has just been published. It features essays on philosophy and personal experience, some practical guidance, conversations with teachers and even a recipe. Oh, and a free origami Ganesh.
Buddhists have engaged with science since Christian missionaries called them backward. Inspired by Western scholars, who saw in "human Buddhism" a psychology "of incontestable value", 19th century modernisers rebranded Buddhism as a science of the mind. In the latest cross-cultural fusion, Tibetan Buddhist meditators are being studied by scientists in the lab, but scans of their brains have yet to yield major breakthroughs. Insights from practice can't be measured on a screen.
Modern yoga seems synonymous with postures, yet very few of them are described in ancient texts. So where did they come from and what are they for? And how does one practice authentically? Try sitting and holding an arm above your head for several decades. That's the essence of original yoga in ascetic traditions. This got combined in the medieval era with esoteric techniques from Tantric sects. Modern styles are a hybrid of exercise, wellness and threads from the distant past...
After dropping nuclear bombs on Japan, Americans hungered for its wisdom. The spiritual teachings they lapped up as Zen owed as much to interpreters as to ancient Asian ways. These mystical insights helped dropouts and "squares" to find new meaning. They also fired up debate on transcendent experience. But beguiling suggestions of change in social order petered out. Buddhism quietly endured. It's resurgent today in psychologised mindfulness. Practice might help free our minds, but where that leads is up to us.
If you practise postural yoga, you almost certainly use props. Mats prevent you sliding on the floor. Other equipment is more versatile. "Props are guides to self-learning," said B.K.S. Iyengar, who invented many of them, over almost 80 years of teaching. He used straps, wooden blocks and other objects to teach people's bodies correct alignment. If this sounds like remedial yoga, think again. Like a hands-on adjustment, props imprint the actions that make postures possible. Two new books show how to use them more effectively.
Modern yoga is synonymous with postures. Hardly any of these are described in ancient texts. They get performed for a mix of contradictory reasons, from working out (and showing off the results) to quests for internal transformation. The latter are in keeping with tradition. Physical practice began with ascetics, whose austerities had esoteric rationales. They got combined in the 20th century with health and fitness. Disentangling who does what, let alone why they do it, became more complicated.
The Iyengar style of yoga is precise. It lines up the body to still the mind and access insight. It's renowned for strictness and control. Its founder, B.K.S. Iyengar, was bullied by his guru. He passed this fierceness on to students via his family. Their teaching is often dogmatic: it seeks obedience in the name of liberation. It's helped me a lot, but I find it stifling in some ways. I've learned to combine it with other techniques. No approach to yoga works for everyone; to be devoted means exploring for oneself.
Practitioners and scholars can see the world through different lenses, which are challenging to reconcile. We cannot observe what another perceives, just what they say about it, or the neural activity it entails. The experience of insight amounts to: "I do not think, therefore it is." And yet precisely what it is, we cannot say. Academics still need to engage with first-hand evidence. More subjective research should be inter-subjective, acknowledging fluidity between observers and the observed.
Justice is criminally unjust in the United States. Bankers and warmongers rarely face charges, but prisons are packed with impoverished small-time crooks. If the cells were a city, it would be the fourth largest after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago: 2.3 million Americans live behind bars. One in 100 adults is a convict, a rate that rivals North Korea. The figures shot up when the War on Drugs began in the Seventies. The result is a nationwide "prison-industrial complex", which a new book compares to the Soviet Gulag.
Even 10 years after the invasion of Iraq, few journalists talk about a crime. They might rue the "catastrophe", "horror" and "obscenity" of a war that killed hundreds of thousands of those it was meant to be helping. The timid still passively say "mistakes" were made. They list "failures", "setbacks" and "lessons" for "the West", but not the case to be made against those who launched the war. Instead of challenging people in power, most reporters assist them - and then claim to oppose what turns out badly.
Straddling the Ganges, beneath Himalayan foothills, Rishikesh calls itself "Yoga Capital of the World". As Yoga Journal tells visitors: "your destination is ultimately the Self.” Spending a morning in one of its cafes makes this clear: plenty of tourists are getting absorbed in self-indulgence, along with higher-minded matters (sometimes drug-fuelled). Still, it's a beautiful place, and you can train to teach yoga in less than a month, with no experience. Which isn't to say there aren't good local teachers...
In memory of Douglas Hamilton, a Reuters colleague. Instead of cultivating powerful sources, or his editors, Doug tried to tell the awkward truth, in ways that Reuters rarely valued, despite its commitment to "freedom from bias". Had he worked elsewhere, he'd have had more freedom to express himself. Yet for all its frustrating limitations, he believed in writing for a newswire, from which other reporters lift ideas. If it were edited with Doug's humanity and insight, we might be better informed, with far less cant.
A decade ago, hardly anyone in China practiced yoga. Now it's almost as popular as in America. Recently, China and India staged a "yoga summit". Aged 92, B.K.S. Iyengar taught a masterclass. He urged the Chinese to practice deeply, for liberation. The one-party state appears enthused. Yoga isn't seen as a threat like Falun Gong, or the Dalai Lama; it supports "social harmony". Besides, a summit organiser said: "China has a tradition of embracing foreign cultures and making them its own. That's why it's been so vibrant."
Of all yoga's swamis, gurus, babas and celebrities, none is as widely respected as B.K.S. Iyengar. Half a century after his debut book was published, Light on Yoga still gets called "the yoga Bible", a manual of postures used by teachers round the world. Although his name isn't frequently dropped at the average studio, Iyengar's method helped bring yoga to the masses, and it shaped how other styles are taught today. I had the privilege of being taught in person by Iyengar, on a visit to China in 2011. This magazine feature tells the story.
Last year, I met one of the world's first Iyengar yoga teachers. She attended B.K.S. Iyengar's first class in London, and was accredited at once, although she was an inexperienced housewife. When she started, hardly anyone taught yoga. To learn, you'd have to study in an ashram, or read an esoteric book. That's what Diana Clifton did. The tome that led her to Iyengar was also written by a woman - Indra Devi. Like Diana, she'd once been exhausted and frustrated, but wrote about how yoga changed her life.
In some ways, my first yoga class was dull. I didn’t spontaneously levitate; nor were we asked to try, let alone fail, to wrap our knees behind our heads and lie down. Instead, we lined up on what felt like carpet underlay, in a room that resembled my junior school assembly hall. Back then, I was unemployed and depressed. The practice helped quieten my mind and freed up space for new ideas. Attending classes stopped me smoking too much dope. I felt re-energised, and eager to return. Many years later, I'm still learning.
What Barack Obama might have said to deserve the Nobel Prize: we're closing all overseas bases, ending the world's biggest arms trade, and spending the savings on weaning America off fossil fuels. As this censored speech explained: "No longer will we need foreign outposts to protect resources, or the shipping lanes and pipelines that ferry them. We can leave that work to regional powers, and resume our rightful place in our own backyard." If Obama really channeled Martin Luther King, he might have wound up getting shot.