I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ranju Roy and Dave Charlton, who have written a book about practical engagement with yoga philosophy (which I recommend). Their approach to the Yoga Sutra is a refreshing combination of accessible and scholarly, as we discuss on their podcast. Although the text has the ultimate aim of renouncing the world, they show how its underlying psychology can also be applied in daily life - improving our relationships with each other and ourselves.
It can be hard to express liberating insights without sounding banal. Perhaps mindful of the limits of words, some of the earliest teachings on oneness say it is conveyed by a single syllable. Chanting Om is said to teach the meaning of all of the Upanishads. This message is meant to be realised, not discussed, but some interpretive guidance is helpful. The first author to offer it as a philosophy was Gaudapada, whose verses - or Karika - on the Mandukya Upanishad laid the foundations of Advaita Vedanta, a widely influential system of ideas.
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.
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.
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.
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 ever 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, smoking too much dope. The practice helped to quieten my mind and freed up space for new ideas. I felt re-energised, and eager to return. Many years later, I'm still learning.