Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The answer is the question, and it goes around and around. The same question asked about modern forms of yoga, such as Aerial and Yin yoga, has an obvious answer. But for those who are new to the practice, the distinction between modern forms and what is considered more “authentic” yoga, can be obscure. Where should a yogi even begin? Certain types of poses predate our modern practices by 5,000 years, so should the Acro yogi stop going upside-down, and the Buddhi yogis stop shaking their, well, booties?
The West only began coming to their mats about a hundred years ago, but in that short time, we have experimented with, adapted, and often entirely transformed yoga into very different renditions of the original practice. Even in what we consider traditional yoga, the asana, or postures, are merely one unit of a multi-limbed system. With roots as far back as the fifth or sixth centuries B.C.E, yoga was a mental and spiritual practice at its core, with a physical component. Purists might now disagree with some modern teachings that interpret that postures are the entire goal of yoga. So what does authentic yoga look like? Is only the die-hard practitioner of an eight-limbed approach a true yogi?
Meet T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), five-foot, two-inch, Brahmin-born mentor to some of the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century. Often called the “Father of Modern Yoga”, his students included B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi and T.K.V. Desikachar. Although he spent his life immersed in the teachings of traditional Hinduism, he was also uniquely unafraid of the metamorphosis of yoga, developing and teaching new forms of asana practice in the 1930s. He is responsible for the modern emphasis on inversions such as sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulderstand), and perhaps most eminently, a trailblazer in refining postures.
Krishnamacharya was open-minded to what his students desired and needed in their yoga practice, and modified accordingly. Combining pranayama (breath) and asana, he was the first to make postures an essential piece of meditation instead of as just a preparatory step. His innovative approach eventually gave shape to many contemporary styles of asana, particularly Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, which has been highly influential to the popular modern practices of American Vinyasa, Flow, and Power Yoga. In fact, it is hard to find an asana practice that Krishnamacharya has not influenced. Without him, forget about your aerial ribbons, put down your sculpt yoga weights, Acro bases release your fliers—yoga today would not be what it is today.
In Sanskrit, the word yoga comes from the root yuj, which means “to add,” “to join,” or “to unite,” with the explicit goal of yoga being moksha, or liberation. That being said, the development of new postures combined with the old, in order to influence the circulation of energy within the body—thus leading to meditative states and overall health—is precisely yoga.
There are many paths that lead to inner peace, the expansion of consciousness, and release from suffering and limitations. Perhaps it’s happening when an entire Shakti class feels the camaraderie of “twerking” to the same beat; or in a room when sounds of “om” and oneness reverberate off the walls; or during that sweet release of savasana at the end of Hot Power Yoga. Or maybe it’s happening silently, when alone in a room, while in deep meditation. It’s all authentic, and it’s all yoga.
So where should the yoga path begin?
“The most beneficial style to a new yogi is whatever keeps them coming back and interested,” says Koa Asam, a Kailua resident and eminent teacher of both Acro and more traditional styles of Vinyasa yoga. “As their practice grows, they will become more aware of what calls to them, and then it may change.”
Begin with a mat and an open space just big enough to fit it. Sit or stand, and breathe. Feel your body from the inside out, all your bones and muscles, your heart pumping blood to the farthest reaches of your fingers and toes. Feel a connection with yourself and the earth beneath you. Find harmony with the space around you.
Congratulations, yogi. You’re doing yoga!
For a physical practice, you can start anywhere, be it gentle yoga, Pilates, or defying gravity in an Aerial Yoga class. Maybe one day you’ll find end up in India, cross-legged and meditating, letting your thoughts float by like clouds in the sky; or maybe you won’t.
The practice of yoga is no longer static. It isn’t stuck in time, and that is okay. Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers of all time, but we don’t write like him today. We used to sustain on foraged nuts and berries, but do we still eat that way? The point being, time goes by and people change. Every culture, and the methods by which we can relate to each other, also change with the tides.
If the goal of yoga is yoga—to “yoke” and unite—and if the whole purpose is to inch closer towards awareness and consciousness, then there is no right or wrong way to yoga. There are only healing rituals, in whatever form they come, that bring you back to your mat over and over again. What makes you return to your practice, ultimately brings you closer to yourself. And that is practicing true yoga.
Rebecca lives in Kailua and spends most of her time smiling very broadly. She has practiced yoga for over a decade and has kept pen to paper considerably longer. When she is not on the mat or composing words, you might find her on the ridge of mountain or the peak of a wave.