Modern Yoga which has spread in the West over the past 60+ years from its Indian origins is widely recognized by postures popularized by well know teachers such as BKS Iyengar and the late Pattabhi Jois. Both were students of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) who in the 1930’s taught at the Mysore palace in South India and helped resurrect the tradition of Yoga when it had virtually died out. Iyengar who went on to teach mainly sick people refined the postures with a focus on alignment with the use of belts and blocks and his students out of respect called his style Iyengar Yoga however BKS never indorsed this himself. His approach differed as the more ‘static’ style did not include the connection of postures using the Vinyasa element to move from one posture to the next which was taught by Krishnamacharya. The term Vinyasa means ‘to place in a special way’ so when linked with Yoga postures they can be broken down into steps to move into and out of a posture with attention and safety so always to suit the level of the student. BKS Iyengar still teaches in Pune in India and is now 94 years old, he still takes regular classes, practices himself and has been a key figure in the spread of Yoga over the past 70+ years.
During the time in Mysore in the 1930’s and 40’s the students were mainly young boys and Pattabhi Jois carried on teaching the Vinyasa method which suited the students various ages and capabilities. Jois studied longer with Krishnamacharya and to promote Yoga they travelled round and did demonstrations, the postures were separated into sequences of difficulty originally known as primary, intermediate and advanced A & B, it was these sequences which Jois then taught for the rest of his life until his death in 2009 and over time developed them making various changes. It was a common myth for many years that the source of the Vinyasa method and sequences which Jois taught came from a now lost text called the Yoga Korunta but this is not the case, the text did contain postures but with the use of belts and supports. In the early 1970’s Jois decided to rename the sequences of postures Ashtanga Yoga and it is now a popular brand like Iyengar Yoga, he was first invited to come to the west by David Williams in 1975 and from then over the past 35+ years his method has spread and influenced many other teachers and styles. The Ashtanga approach is loosely based on the philosophy of Pantanjalis Yoga sutras and the 8 limbed method associated with it which dates from around 200, however modern day Ashtanga practice is recognised mainly for the sequences of postures taught.
Some of Krishnamacharya’s other well known students included his son TKV Desikachar who promoted the broader range of his father’s teachings on Yoga therapy and teaches in Chennai, India, the late Indra Devi, A G Mohan, BNS Iyengar and Srivatsa Ramaswami who was his longest term student of 35 years outside of his direct family.
Modern approach vs. a few 100 years ago?
Yoga in the west is very posture based and bears little relation to how it was originally taught even 150 years ago in which it was passed on from teacher to student on an individual basis. In the traditional Hatha system which evolved from Tantra sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries the posture (Asana) aspect was about 15% of the tools used by the Yogi and incorporated a much wider range of practices such as Pranayama, Bandha, Mudra etc. In the older medieval texts on Yoga there were no more than 84 Asanas all of which were seated postures and out of those only a few were considered important. Asana comes from the root word ‘As’ which means ‘to sit’ and the earliest text to show any standing postures comes from 1914 so the majority of postures both standing and seated have evolved only over the past 80+ years.
Originally the Hatha system was a spiritual practice with the aim to transform the body into a vehicle for self realization. The term Hatha means ‘to force’ however this does not mean to force any posture or practice but to make ‘effort’ with regard to which ever practice is being done. When Yoga was exported to the west alot of the more subtle practices were given much less focus and the emphasis put on the postural aspect which appeals more to the western mind as it is more tangible, suits modern life styles and is a very good introduction to it. On the downside it has lost its spiritual focus and most people assume that posture work is Yoga and nothing more and is viewed as an alternative to exercise. Even though there are many physical benefits, over time and with diligent practice the student should become more aware of the subtle aspects going on behind the physical.
As there are so many Yoga brands in the west today this causes confusion with students and it is assumed there are many different types of Yoga when in fact much of modern Yoga in the west is a watered down reinterpretation of traditional Hatha Yoga which focuses on just postures being done in a slightly different way or approach with a brand name attached to it.
Some useful books
Eighty four Asanas in Yoga, a survey of traditions – Gudrun Buhnemann
Hatha Yoga – Theos Bernard
Hatha Yoga Pradipika – translation by Swami Muktibodhananda
Light on Yoga – BKS Iyengar
Original Yoga – Richard Rosen
The Deeper dimension of Yoga – Georg Feuerstein
The Heart of Yoga – TKV Desikachar
The Yoga of the Yogi – K Desikachar
The Yoga sutra of Patanjali – translation by Georg Feuerstein
The Yoga tradition of Mysore Palace – NE Sjoman
Vinyasa Krama – Matthew Sweeney
Vinyasa Yoga – Srivatsa Ramaswami
Yoga body – Mark Singleton