Yogas in History (Plural)

By Mark Stephens on Tue, 05/03/2016 - 07:15

Yoga has evolved more in the last seventy-five years than in the previous thousand years. This assertion deserves some explanation in order to shed light on what this might mean for teachers and teaching in the present day and going forward. What are the evolutionary trends? How is yoga changing? As yoga teachers, what might we anticipate in the coming years, and where are we in the evolutionary process of yoga? 


In nearly every field of human endeavor, we find various perspectives that attempt to define or at least characterize what it is all about, including where it came from and where it is headed. With respect to yoga, there is a tremendous diversity of views about how and where it originated and how it has evolved. Much of the literature and commentary on the origins and historical development of yoga rest on assertion or conjecture rather than careful research and methodical consideration of the evidence. This tendency has generated many fascinating stories about the history of yoga practice and teaching, many of which contain beautiful and inspirational myths that for many people are at the heart of their sense of it all. Even suggesting the questions posed here can be anathema to all that yoga means to some people, even irreverent given the religious tenacity with which some cling to their beliefs about yoga. 


While respecting even the most mythical or fundamentalist of yoga beliefs, we can now confidently state that one of the most common and enduring yoga myths is that there is one yoga, or that some idealized, unadulterated form of yogahas evolved in a unilineal or unilinear fashion going back thousands of years. The romantic notion that there is “one yoga” that has evolved in such a way is explored in yoga scholar David Gordon White’s recent anthology Yoga in Practice (2012). Noting that “people have ‘reinvented’ yoga in their own image” for at least two thousand years and that “every group in every age has created its own version and its own vision of yoga,” White and the contributors to his anthology dig into the historical sources to reveal a diverse array of practices that are just as likely to have missed one another like the proverbial ships in the night than to have cross-fertilized, all evolving in ways punctuated or even defined more by discontinuity than with a consistent thread of technique or even purpose.