The first question that comes to mind when reading this article is: should we stop chasing "traditional" or "authentic" yoga ?
Yes. End of article.
Immutable, pristine, yoga would, for some, be the only cultural or religious object in the world (apart from the Bogdanov brothers) that would have magically crossed time without undergoing a shadow of change. Thus, adorned with its millennial authenticity, it would have reached us today, started from the bottom of the Himalaya now we’re here (here being a random yoga studio in the West in the 21th century).
Authenticity, double standards?
Ainsi, sans doute face à la marchandisation du yoga, devenu depuis les années 80 un objet de consommation parmi d’autres (see Jeanne's article on ClassPass), the need to distinguish oneself as belonging to an ancient, authentic, and therefore more correct, more noble, more honorable lineage, seems to tickle some teachers and practitioners, who compete with more or less convincing guarantees of authenticity: an Indian master in a Rishikech ashram for white tourists, ostentatious display of spiritual signs (white clothes, mâlâ, Sikh turban), purity and detachment carried as a banner, Indian spiritual name, condescending look on deviant practices... does that remind you of anything? Oh yes, fanatics. A Westerner who practices a so-called "authentic" or "traditional" yoga is endowed with a certain cachet, a certain aura, that of the one who would have had the unequalled chance to receive an uncorrupted teaching by modernity, touched by grace, thus being part of the elite of the initiated, unlike the poor sheep that we are, practicing vinyasa like numskulls numbed by consumer society. Note that the majority religions in our latitudes do not benefit from the same benevolent gaze: thus, if a person announces that they practice a certain monotheism in a "traditional" way, the admiring gaze would quickly turn into incomprehension, if not reprobation. Two different rooms, two different atmospheres, and this is not unrelated to the colonial gaze we cast on yoga, which is simplifying and folkloric.
Authenticity, a reactionary thing?
The quest for authenticity is emblematic of our time. The underlying idea is that modernity, advances in techniques and science, and the rational approach to the world have "uprooted" people by cutting them off from nature (necessarily beneficial, by the way hello Covid, vipers, and tsunamis, all made in Pacha Mamma). We would then be living in a "corrupted," "degenerated" society due to progress, which would have lost contact with its "true" roots, which we should reconnect with. If this reminds you of far-right discourse, it's normal, it's the same ideological melting pot (see Jeanne's article on conspiritualism). Rest assured, the quest for authenticity and the critique of modernity are not the exclusive domain of the far right (phew, we can breathe), but the motif of "mythifying a supposedly 'golden age' to alert about a 'fallen humanity' and a 'degenerated man'", in general, it stinks. In short, this quest for authenticity also finds its roots more recently in the critique of consumer society, booming after the 2nd World War, which tends to standardize and commodify everything in its path. Thus, nothing seems to escape the reign of money, and objects, whether material or cultural, now tend to standardize to optimally and efficiently (economically) meet demand. This is the birth of "non-places," generic places that all look alike in the four corners of the world (airports, roundabouts, shopping centers, McDonald's and now, coffee shops and Airbnb with overdone Scandinavian decor ad nauseam).
Authenticity, a marketing antidote to the standardization of the world?
In the 1960s, some judged this standardization of the world as alienating, suffocating, and turned to Eastern wisdom in search of reconnection with the mystical and spiritual: the counter-culture was born. This quest for authenticity was at the time the prerogative of a marginal fringe of the population, which then mixed ideals of community living, New Age religiosity, and social protest. Today it has become widespread, and especially consumable. Thus Raphael Liogier, a sociologist and philosopher of religions, hilariously demonstrates this in the introduction to his book Conscience du monde, souci de soi, where he imagines a person who hibernated for 20 years from the 80s, who would wonder upon waking which New Age sect had taken control of society during his sleep, so much this language of authenticity has become omnipresent. Omnipresent, and cleverly marketed: today, every vegetable or biscuit (industrial) is now marked with the seal of authenticity: think of the marketing of Michel et Augustin, for example. Thus, by consuming an "authentic" Jerusalem artichoke or yoga class, one is able to buy a history, a glorified past, and a belonging. According to the author Jean-Laurent Cassely, who wrote the book No Fake hat I highly recommend, "authenticity is akin to what economists call a 'positional good,' that is, a good that derives its value from the fact that others are deprived of it." He continues by quoting Canadian author Andrew Potter, who wrote The Authenticity Hoax "You can only be a truly authentic person on the condition that most of those around you are not".
Yoga, a rich and living history
Thus in a world where yoga is democratized, trivialized, it is important to signal oneself as the heir of an uncorrupted tradition. Yet this is a historical aberration. Yoga, or rather yogas, have constantly evolved, adapting to different theoretical, religious, doctrinal, philosophical molds. Some practitioners are worshippers of Vishnu, others of Shiva, and others of Durga. Some see liberation as union with the divine, others see it as knowledge of one's true nature, and still others see it as being liberated in this very life. Far from being a practice in isolation, the various and multiple sects of practitioners were in dialogue, and some ascetics did not hesitate to follow the teachings of gurus with different beliefs and lineages. There are thus Tibetan yogas, Muslim yogis, Hindu yogas, and a contemporary globalized yoga.
In the 5th century BCE, meditation was practiced, and a few breath exercises, while non-seated postures are documented for the first time at the end of the medieval era, although they were obviously practiced earlier under the name of austerities (under the name of tapas and not,asana). The first known dynamic sequences appear in a text from the 18th century, and much remains to be discovered about hatha yoga. The Tantrics, for their part, practiced yoga through the recitation of mantras, complex rituals, and visualizations. Finally, many ascetics and yogins practiced and still practice extreme mortifications: arms raised for several - ten - years, prolonged fasts, baths in icy water in winter - and not a minute under the shower to activate the blood circulation and thus overcome cellulite -, meditation several hours between 5 fires under the zenith sun in the middle of summer, never sitting down, etc. Suddenly, "traditional" yoga seems less attractive.
Modern postural yoga, rupture or continuity?
The yoga that has come to us Westerners is the fruit of many transformations, between simplification of doctrinal aspects considered too complex to be taught to the Western public, influence of Christian occultisms and esotericisms of the early 20thcentury, revaluation of the body and postural practice through the scientific approach to yoga, influence of European physical culture and women's gymnastics, hippie ideals, cult of the body and performance, search for well-being, quest for meaning, etc.
While it is undeniable that there are key and major differences between what we practice today on our mat, opposing a "pure" and "traditional" yoga to a "contemporary debauched" yoga is a simplistic view of things. The concept of "the pizza effect", introduced by the Sanskrit scholar Agehananda Bharati, is now often used to describe these transformations related to the circulations of cultural objects between different geographical, civilizational and cultural areas. This idea is also taken up by journalist Marie Kock in her book Yoga, a World History. The idea is that Italians who would have emigrated to the United States, would have brought with them what they call pizza, a bread dough, with olive oil, and tomato. Upon arriving and settling in the United States, the pizza is carried in their luggage and is embellished over time and with the encounter with other cultures, with cheese, salami, and even pineapple (hihi). And there, you have Americans going to Italy, in search of the "pure and authentic" pizza and expect the modern pizza, with cheese, salami and pineapple. And so the Italians on the spot, will use their own ingredients to respond to this new demand (except the pineapple, let's not abuse). The following Italian generations will inherit these pizzas as being the "authentic pizzas as we have always made them here since time immemorial" and then sincerely present them as such.
Is this an implicit permission to put pineapple on your pizza, in other words, are all innovations desirable or acceptable? You won't be able to prevent anyone from putting pineapple on their pizza, but accepting innovation as an integral part of the evolution and vitality of a discipline does not prevent an ethical reflection, particularly with the people themselves from these traditions, on what is faithful adaptation to the spirit of yoga, to use the words of Ysé Tardan Masquelier, and what is a misunderstanding.
Same same, but different ?
Moreover, it should be noted that in India many groups of ascetics are / claim to be from ancient lineages like those of Nâths yogi, but these lineages too have undergone transformations, to respond to the evolutions and needs of their time, which is precisely what makes them vital. It should also be noted that in principle, most sects of yogins in India do not accept to teach non-Hindus, although in reality there are exceptions. Krishnamacharya himself, although not a sadhu, will initially be reluctant to teach yoga to his first foreign disciple, who is also a woman, and it is the insistence of his employer, the Raj of Mysore, who made him accept.
To conclude this article, which seeks more to open avenues for thought rather than provide a definitive answer, it seems interesting to shift our focus from the dead-end question of practicing an "authentic" or "traditional" yoga to that of transmission. How can we transmit this discipline, moving out from the paradox of strict fidelity to a fantasized tradition, to propose "an adaptation that is neither betrayal nor misunderstanding", according to the words of Marie-Christine Leccia, from the National Federation of Yoga Teachers, in her article in the Encyclopedia of Yoga. The texts and practices of yoga carry a liberating message with a universal resonance: that of liberating oneself "from the chains and ontological sufferings that existence implies", as formulated by Marie-Christine Leccia. In echo, Susanna Barkataki offers an interesting opening in her work Embrace Yoga Roots : to have as a guiding thread, a practice and teaching that liberates, an emancipatory transmission, both in its intention and its actual impact. These are fertile and exciting perspectives !
NB: This text was modified on Thursday, December 9th at 10am to correct some spelling errors, add an illustration of the Bahr Al Hayat, a Sufi adaptation of Hatha Yoga techniques, and provide a clarification on the recording of non-seated postures.