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.
It was an honour to be part of this discussion with two of the foremost scholars on yoga, James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, reflecting on the work behind their book Roots of Yoga, which was recently published. The conversation took place in the members' room at the New York Society Library, and was filmed. An audio recording is available for download.
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...
I make a few huffing-and-puffing contributions to this week's Something Understood, discussing yoga and demonstrating pranayama breathing. The programme, entitled "Breath, You Invisible Poem", was broadcast this morning on Radio 4. It features readings from Rilke, Haruki Murakami and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. There's also music from Maria Callas and Nick Cave, plus a haka by New Zealand's All Blacks - and Sanskrit read by me.
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.
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.
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...
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."
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.