Yoga history: Ascetics to Athletics to Aesthetics
What brought us here and how Aparigraha can empower what is still to come
All of human history is a sine curve of action and reaction. To see the points of interest with clarity and context, we need to look at the lulls that created and followed the high points. Yoga and Buddhism are peaking now, and to understand the power of their philosophy, we can look to the conditions that created them.
Arguably the most famous yogi of all time, the Buddha was a visionary and a rebel: having grown up in Vedic India, with the medical education and and yogic disciplines befitting a prince, he left his royal roots to wander the forests like an ascetic. With the enlightenment he reached through meditation, the foundational technique of ancient yoga, the Buddha codified and embodied his popular teachings: the 4 noble truths and the eightfold path. He could hardly have desired for his non ritualistic, non religious, reactionary teachings to have transformed into today’s ritualistic, religious order, complete with gods, prayers, and a hierarchal system of authority.
His eightfold path though, was not the first. Several hundred years before the Buddha’s enlightenment, the legendary Patanjali wrote treatises on medicine, Sanskrit grammar, and yoga, the last of which includes an eightfold path now called Ashtanga, not to be confused with the currently popular vinyasa flow sequences popularized in the late 1900s and named Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in honor of Patanjali’s eightfold path (Asht=eight, anga=limb).
The first steps outlined in Patanjali’s yoga are a moral code, concepts of living truthfully, in cleanliness, devoted to discipline and higher purpose all taught before asana, the postures, and pranayama, the breathing exercises. A total reversal of today’s fitness-first, inner work maybe-later, ancient yoga saw intentional living as the launch point of physical health and ultimate enlightenment.
What changed? Evolutionary anthropologists would say: not our biology. Technically, human beings have not evolved since the times of hunter-gatherers, which was still a way of life in the era of Patanjali, when yogis would traditionally leave their homes and live as wandering teachers and disciples of the spiritual life, as Buddha did, first as a student then as a teacher in his own right.
The revival of yoga in the 1900s emphasized the physique over the psych, and today, yoga is a “look” as much as it is a normalized element of health and fitness. From ascetics to athletics to aesthetics, what has changed in yogic history is not our genetics but what we do with them. Ancient yogis had the opportunity to flex their survival skills and lead lives that naturally sculpted light, lean bodies that had little access to food and a whole hearted, single minded devotion to a spiritual path of knowledge. They also lived in a world unpolluted by industrial waste, advertisements, and notifications. Our minds today are at the disadvantage of being flooded by data, our bodies are nourished by chemically-engineered, plastic-wrapped foods, we breathe air dirtied by the very processes that give us the electricity, technology, and convenience we want.
Which is why we are drawn to the practices of our ancestors, who lived in simpler times and still asked the same questions: how to live peacefully in the present.
The bigger question is: why haven’t we figured it out yet? What would it take, real change? It would have to sweep global, memes overwhelming genes. What if yoga morality trended alongside the fancy leggings and destination-retreats? We have what the ancient yogis never did: a global network of people asking for something that is still missing, and the ancient yogis had what we don’t: the time and space to change their lifestyle to match their goals.
Answers lay in the ancient yoga teachings themselves, taken in context of their early-civilization origins. One of the primary tenants of Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga foundations is aparigraha, a Sanksrit word that means to live lightly, live with a light touch, to not-grasp-at. A classic hunter-gatherer value, aparigraha reflects the natural perspective of living in natural abundance, fluctuations in availability of resources, and trust in that fluctuation. Nature provides more than what is needed, humans were free to travel to places of abundance, and did not place value in storing material goods or resources. To live with aparigraha is to devalue the accumulation of the material and live at ease with just what is needed, knowing that more will come in an uncertain time frame.
The increasing shift to agricultural society, the disappearance of forests, rise of consumer culture, and now the pandemic has changed our value system to emphasize the accumulation of material goods and de-emphasize the freedom to travel, based on a distrust of natural abundance. Our heavy handed pull at resources has planetary effects, weighing on a closed system burdened by humans living without aparigraha. And we humans are just as burdened: with increasing our ownership of substance, we simultaneously decrease our open space, both in home and in the mind. Overwhelmed by fear cycles, we respond with anxiety and depression.
Undoing a value system is a complex unraveling of psyche. To let go of distrust in a limited-resource, dangerous-just-to-breathe world, we need to develop an immense inner strength, and a sure trust of self. Small steps towards living lightly, in aparigraha, will increase our free space and feeling of freedom while beginning ripple effects needed for the relief of manmade strains on natural abundance. This is a more complete practice of yoga lifestyle: the physical flow will strengthen the body, tone the breathe, de-stress the mind, and off the mat, living with a light touch will empower the practice to change the increasingly connected world we have created.