Why I don't practice yoga anymore?
As a teenager, my life was buzzing, complex and confusing. At some point, I’m not sure when I started to crave clarity and stability. In my search, a friend gave me her subscription to the ‘Iyengar Yoga Club’. I liked it from the doorway, which was a modern minimalistic design, nothing esoteric or marginal. The place was full of beautiful well-dressed people, which was in utter contrast to the hippie life I led.
During the classes, the teacher gave clear instructions, called asanas in Sanskrit and named the muscles involved. Sometimes she could add a couple of anecdotes about Indian gurus. It seemed exactly what I required to place an order into my life. It was rational, useful while at the same time “spiritual”. I liked the idea that I wasn’t just doing physical exercises, but also practising an “ancient wisdom”. I was hooked immediately!
At that time in my life, I didn’t understand English, written or otherwise and I couldn’t find any sensible reading on the history of yoga in Russian. So I was limited to the books by Iyengar and his students. I read all his works; his comments on yoga sutras, books by senior teachers and all his references: Patanjali’s yoga sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Bhagavad Gita. With my desire and motivation for knowledge on the subject, I was swiftly becoming skilled. However, rather than satiating my thirst, it revealed contradictions. My desire to find a harmonious philosophical system left me with many questions that my teachers could not answer.
Despite my frustration, I liked this studio, the people, the teachers and some back exercises, so I kept practising. For the first couple of years, I experienced only benefits, but as time passed I started having pains in my knees, and then in my elbows. Teachers advised adapted postures, yoga therapy and special seminars. I even got a half-time administrator job at the yoga studio, which enabled me to attend all these classes, a benefit that provided a discount because I could not afford the full cost of the tuition. Sadly and despite my persistence, the pain in my joints intensified and only receding if I missed classes. After a medical examination the orthopaedic surgeon said “just leave the joints alone”, but I needed yoga wisdom and so I did not stop.
In 2014, I saved money and went to a yoga institute in Pune, India. My mission was to learn the whole truth of yoga first hand. The trip, however, was a disappointment – I discovered even more conflicting information, and the Ayingar family made an unpleasant impression on me. At this time I had just started learning English and was afraid if maybe I misunderstood something on my voyage of discovery so far. But in retrospect, I realise that the institute distorted the facts and created their own version of yoga history.
While in India I wondered, if yoga is so ancient then why are there no images of “downward facing dog” or “hero's pose” on the temples? Why do local people say that yoga is against ‘physical’ and that only foreigners practice it this way? As I didn’t have money for a hotel, I lived with locals via CouchSurfing and spent my free time with residents. This as luck would have it became the most important information-gathering part of my trip. While at the same time, raising even more questions.
On my return to Moscow, I was disappointed and tired but committed to continuing with yoga. I found answers to my questions and doubts in 2017 in the book “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” by Mark Singleton. The book was published in 2010 at Oxford University Press and is currently the most accurate and complete work on this subject.
I learned several important points from the book: modern yoga has nothing to do with ancient yoga and was formed in the 1920’s-30s under the influence of Western physical culture, gymnastics and bodybuilding. Accordingly, modern yoga has no relation to such books as Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Bhagavad Gita. It is for this reason, in ancient temples, there is no “downward facing dog”.
But yoga gurus continue to create around themselves an aura of antiquity and wisdom and refer to the above texts, and sometimes invent texts themselves. For example; Krishnamacharya, “the father of modern yoga” said that he had learned all asanas from the book called “Yoga Kurunta”, which as he said was written 5,000 years ago. According to him, he found the last copy of this book in the Himalayas, but as soon as he finished reading it, ants ate it. The last detail is especially funny because even children's stories about homework being eaten by a dog sound much more realistic. But such a passion for manipulating facts and writing is not surprising, because that makes yoga sell.
Of course, such falsifications affected the quality of physical exercises as well. Many asanas are stylized to be different from European exercises from which they originate. Sadly, yogins were more engaged in a hoax than in studying the human anatomy. Most of the asanas are not built on the principle of efficiency, but on the principle of aesthetics, to look yogic and meditative. Therefore, they cannot be effective. For full physical development, three types of movement are needed: cardiovascular exercise, strength training and stretching. All modern yoga comes from the two most prominent students of Krishnamacharya - Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. The first one founded Iyengar Yoga school with a focus on stretching and static isometric exercises and the second founded Ashtanga Yoga with a focus on the cardiovascular exercise which he called “flow”. Both of them ignored serious strength training. It explains why a lot of yoga practitioners eventually get problems with their joints.
In general, after reading “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” everything fell into place and I quit yoga. After all, why do “salabhasana” and “urdhva dhanurasana” when you can make a “boat” and a “bridge”?
I spent seven years practising yoga to understand that you can just do physical education and find harmony with yourself without the help of a guru. Without yoga and with a new fitness routine, my life became simpler and better, and the pain in my joints went away. But somehow I needed these injuries and disappointments to better understand myself and the world around.