Monday, September 01, 2008

Digging Up Yoga History

I tell students who complain that history is boring that whatever they are into, it has a history: music, sports, fashion. The most boring way to approach history is the way we're forced to do it in school -- broad, sweeping survey courses where you have barely time to get the gist of what was happening before moving on to the next chapter. History buffs are invariably into small slices of history -- like the Civil War, or local history.

Grandma still laughs about my tendency, as a kid, to look up the history of whatever I was doing. When she taught me to crochet, I tried to find out where it came from. I haven't changed much.

I've found myself curious about the history of yoga in America. As far as I know, nobody has written a book about that, and I've only been able to get bits and pieces. I know that it was brought here by Swami Vivekenanda after the World's Parliament of Religions in 1893, and that it was enthusiastically promoted by Sara Bull, Sarah Farmer's friend at Green Acre. Yoga was one of the many new religious ideas floating around at the time, and arguably the most influential in the long run -- although it has achieved that status partly by being separated from its religious roots.

Anyway, my husband and I happened to be cruising a used bookstore with a large metaphysical section. I found some old Baha'i books there, too, like Horace Holley's *Religion for Mankind*. (Baha'i books always end up in the metaphysical section of used bookstores, although they really don't belong there.) I found a couple of old yoga books. One was from the 1960s, rather quaintly old-fashioned, like Richard Hittleman's books seem now. (Hittleman dominated the yoga bookshelves when I was young.) Iyengar's *Light on Yoga*, written around the same time, holds up better.

A more interesting find was *Hatha Yoga* by Yogi Ramacharaka, which was copyrighted 1930, although I found mention of an earlier edition in 1906. I went digging through Project Gutenberg, and found a few more very early yoga books, ranging from 1906 to 1922 -- and it's clear that yoga was taught very differently back in the early days. Annie Besant's book on yoga is entirely metaphysitcal and focused on meditation. She mentions Hatha Yoga, but doesn't give any clues on how to practice it. These early yoga books, when they do mention the physical practices, spent many chapters on diet and healthy living. Pranayama, or breathing exercises, are emphasized a whole lot more than asanas, or the actual yoga poses. Ramacharaka's book has one small chapter of thirteen exercises, only four or five of which were familiar to me. Another startling omission is the static hold -- one of the things that differentiates yoga from other forms of exercise is that you stretch into a position and hold it for a period of time, sometimes several minutes. There is not a hint of that in these books. In fact, a couple of the exercises reminded me of warm-ups I've learned in tai chi class.

So, when Sara Bull was practicing yoga at Green Acre, she was certainly doing something that looked very different from my morning practice. I find myself wondering when the more familiar yoga poses began to be practiced. What's curious is that these early teachers were from India, and one would think that an older, more authentic yoga would have been taught in those early days, with Western adaptations gradually creeping in as it became popular. Of course, another thing we don't know is how much reliance there was on oral instruction -- it could be that some things were considered too esoteric to be published for a general audience.

Anyway, I'm just collecting information as I come across it.

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