Tradition versus Adaptation

Posted By Maya on January 5, 2011

Just to improve the physical health is not enough. The mental health must also improve,  nature must change, the personality must change, the psychological and the psychic framework also has to change. You should not merely feel freedom from disease, but freedom from bondage and from the vagaries of the mind. Now the time has come when teachers in every part of the world must understand and transmit the true spirit of Hatha-Yoga.

Swami Muktibodhananda

The science of yoga has developed over many thousands of years. With its relatively recent transfer to the West, the traditional ways yoga has been taught need to be adapted to meet the needs of new practitioners. At the same time there is a danger that this transfer is at risk of losing the essence of the tradition whose fundamental purpose was the purification of the body, speech and mind in order to reduce suffering in our lives.

The practice of yoga helps us as individuals to develop the knowledge, through direct experience, that we suffer in our minds and that our bodies are an important instrument in determining our state of mind. Yoga is essentially an ancient scientific method for achieving physical, mental and emotional well-being. This ‘spiritual’ goal is the ultimate purpose of yoga in the traditional sense.

The Liberation System written by Patanjali around 280 has at its foundation the desire to go beyond our current habitual patterns of body, speech and mind, which are said to lead to suffering, and move us towards a more expansive, clear understanding of ourselves and of the world around us.

The traditional system outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras comprise four chapters which make up the Eight Limbs (ashtanga) or stages of classical yoga; yamas (non-violence, truth, control of one’s body, non-stealing, covetousness – ‘universal morality’); niyamas (purification, contentment, austerity, self-study, surrender); asanas (postures); pranayama (breathing techniques); pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses); dharana (concentration); dhyana (meditation); and Samadhi (contemplation). The Eight Limbs are laid out in a sequential order to enable the practitioner to progress towards the ultimate goal of greater spiritual wellbeing and ultimately, enlightenment. In the same sense, the construction of a house starts with laying the foundations and works up towards the roof, before the house is actually completed. Patanjali’s sutras are brief but the wisdom emanating from them is profound.

The physical asanas, the third Limb, are only one aspect of the yogic path, and are mainly preparation for meditation practices. Specifically, the asanas are designed to energize, balance and purify the bodily organs and systems of toxins which has a positive effect in clarifying and stabilising the mind for meditation.

Underlying the Eight Limbs of traditional yoga is the principle of ahimsa, or non violence, which is the first yama or ‘starting point’ on the yogic path. Ahimsa here is taken in its wider philosophical sense but also specifically in relation to one’s own yoga practice. To practice or teach the asanas without ahimsa will lead to physical and potentially mental injuries. Working in a gentle, tolerant and patient way with ahimsa in our hearts, cultivating the other principals of morality and ethics as well is the only way to truly guide ourselves and students safely into the asanas.

Furthermore the attitude of ahimsa helps to create the right mental and emotional ground upon which the internal work of meditation is based.

Another important aspect of traditional yoga is lineage based with respect and reverence for the teacher who embodies the ancient heritage of the practice. From a traditional perspective a root teacher should embody the wisdom of yoga including an in-depth and expert knowledge of the practices. His or her presence is said to be transformative in itself as they embody the ‘end result’ – mastery over the body, speech and mind. Choosing a teacher is therefore a very important matter. Once found it is important to spend an extensive period of time with him/her in order to fully learn, study and practice the system that has been taught to them in their lineage. The knowledge, experience, and expertise are therefore transferred from the guru to the disciple.

This relationship is vital as it gives the student a point of reference which they can constantly refer back to in order to see where they should be going and how they should be approaching their practice in order to get there. Again, from a traditional perspective the student’s dependency on the guru is so vital that it is said devotion and gratitude naturally arise. This in turn helps students cultivate a humble, quiet, and kind attitude towards their practice and internal development. From this teacher-student relationship a deeper transformation can take place. Without it, together with the wider spiritual practices (Eight Limbs) based on a solid foundation of ahimsa, the essence of yoga in its deeper traditional sense is lost, leaving yoga to become a purely physical obsession whilst losing the wider emotional and mental benefits.

Sadly, these wider traditional aspects and qualities appear to be lost in many of the quarters yoga is practiced in the West today. Of course, the motives of individuals coming to yoga classes differ widely. Traditionally, in India for instance, students would have approached the practice of yoga primarily for its spirituality, whereas today the emphasis tends to be focused, sometimes exclusively, on the physical benefits. Understandably, within a free-market and materialistic society, businesses and teachers will address this demand and focus on the physical side.

The busy Western culture and often low emphasis on spirituality cannot be compared to the ancient Indian culture where spiritual development had primacy, and ahimsa and devotion to spiritual teachers were widely accepted and taken as sacrosanct. With the vast differences between the two cultures it is no wonder yoga has changed and adapted to its new surroundings.

However, if all we are left with is a purely physical form of exercise that is no more than a glorified ‘Bums & Tums’ class, then we are seriously losing the original purpose of yoga, its deeper benefits, and impoverishing our students’ practice. Surely the practice and teaching of yoga has to have one eye on the current context and needs of students, but also a second eye kept firmly on the tradition and overall purpose of a yoga practice which is spiritual development.

In Mysore, India, where Guruji teaches, the asanas are taught in their original form to dedicated students practicing daily who for the most part have established practices. This differs greatly to classes in the West where students of varying physical capacity, ability and dedication, who may only practice once or twice per week, need to be catered for. For beginners and those less proficient in the asanas leading students into the full postures without the attitude of ahimsa can often lead to students sustaining injuries. There is therefore a need to offer modifications where full postures are broken down into their component parts to enable the student to progress safely and within their capacity. No one modification is good for all students. As Patanjali said, teach according to the limitations and strength of the students. That said, it is still a teacher’s responsibility, guided by a genuine desire to care for the wellbeing of the students, to assess the individual’s needs by observing their practice, asking them questions, and listening to their feed back.

The challenge for us today is to meet the new needs and expectations of students but not lose the essence and essential point of practicing yoga. To teach or practice yoga without reference to the Eight Limbs is to denude yoga into a mere form of physical exercise.

To teach or practice yoga without the strong presence of ahimsa leads to the very real and serious possibility of injury – both by students trying to aggressively force themselves into postures they are not yet ready for – and by teachers who are not fully and compassionately considering the abilities of their students.

Lastly, to teach or practice yoga outside of the traditional teacher-student relationship robs the student of the real opportunity to travel deeply within themselves through their practice. Without a mature teacher-student relationship the student’s practice will not be able to develop further than the gross physical level – the more subtle physical, mental, and emotional benefits of yoga follow from the guidance of an accomplished teacher.

The more these traditional aspects of yoga can be brought into the modern practice environment the more likely students will practice safely and progress further and deeper along the yogic path. Equally, it is the responsibility of teachers to respect their lineage, embody the practice, and be guided by ahimsa and the genuine desire to benefit others.

So it’s not really a question of tradition versus adaptation, it’s a question of how tradition can be adapted to meet the new context within which it is being taught so it may be of benefit to practitioners of the present and future whilst honouring the Masters of the past.

Maya Savati

Recommended Reading:

Alain Danielou

The Deeper Dimension of Yoga
Georg Feuerstein

The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace
N.E Sjoman

The Shambhala Guide to Yoga
Georg Feuerstein

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – The book of the spiritual man – an interpretation
Charles Johnston

Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Swami Muktibodhananda

The Heart of Yoga
T.K.V. Desikachar

Yoga Mala
Sri K.Pattabhi Jois

Light on Yoga
Sir B.K.S. Iyengar

The Tree of Yoga
Sir B. K.S. Iyengar

The Yoga Matrix
Richard Freeman