There is no easy answer to this question. Realising that the practice of yoga has evolved over a considerable period of time, comprising several strands of thought and different philosophies, as well as reworkings of older views, yoga cannot easily be said to be this or that. Whereas the classical teachings on yoga overwhelmingly focused on the mind, tantric influence emphasised the importance of the body as an inclusive part of the divine totality of all existence and Hatha Yoga advocated the awakening of dormant energies in order to gain not only health and wellbeing, but also supernatural powers (Sutton, 2016: 123;181).
However, despite their differences, yoga paths repeatedly also shared commonalities. Looking at the history of yoga from today`s distant standpoint, the transformational impact of yoga practice seems to thread its way through history. The capacity of personal transformation, in order to dispel ignorance or avidya, and overcome the grip of suffering, appears to have remained a basic aim of Yoga throughout the centuries and on the different paths; even if the means, the definite aims and outside circumstances have – sometimes dramatically – changed (cf. Sutton, 2016:1;189-190).
Becoming aware of Yoga's colourful history
Considering the complexity of philosophical knowledge within the history of yoga, what a contemporary yoga teacher would answer to the criticism of inauthenticity - regarding her or his practice in comparison to Patanjali`s teachings - depends to a large extent on his or her knowledge of the different philosophical strands of yoga. In many contemporary manuals of yoga practice, used in teacher trainings, the philosophical backgrounds of yoga approaches are not clearly distinguished and identified. And thus, many yoga teachers are not really aware of the colourful history of yoga and the diverse historical contexts and ideological differences between yoga approaches, resulting in a relatively “monochromatic vision of what yoga is and does” (Mallinson, Singleton, 2017: ix).
Referring to my own experiences of 10 to 15 years ago, I would certainly have answered to an allegation of inauthenticity of modern yoga practice, that for me there is no point in dismissing contemporary yoga practice as inauthentic. I was convinced that traditional knowledge in general and Classical Yoga in particular was thoroughly integrated into contemporary yoga practice - be it in theory or in the practice of meditation, pranayama or asana - because in most teacher trainings the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad-gita, and at least one of the best known Hatha Yoga sources would form a definite part of the teaching schedule.
At that point, I was not aware of the complex history of yoga. Neither of the underlying philosophical and social differences between diverse approaches of yoga, nor of any kind of later reinterpretations and transformations of historical ideas. Even if I have to admit, that right from the beginning, I had a very subtle feeling of uneasiness regarding the difference between my own postural practice and the meditational practice described in the Yoga Sutras.
In my opinion, this kind of disorientation of yoga teachers is produced by amalgamating different philosophical strands of yoga into one encompassing system; perfectly aligned with the needs and aspirations of modern yoga practitioners, but concealing the real historical diversity of yoga philosophies. In a brief summary on its back cover, the “Yogamrita” - a manual displaying the “Kriya Yoga”- style of Swami Dhirananda - for instance, describes Yoga as the “unity of body, mind and soul”, providing a practical guideline to the practice of different techniques as Asana, Mudra, Pranayama und Visualisations, and, as a supplement, also an introduction to ayurvedic nutritional knowledge (Dhirananda, Wicht, 2020).
This short introduction reflects the striving for health, embodiment and healthy nutrition which characterises many approaches of modern yoga. To elaborate his system, Swami Dhirananda uses the tattvas of Samkhya philosophy to explain the human body-mind and cosmic forces, staged on a background of Advaita Vedanta teachings. The chapters on asana, mudra and pranayama derive from hatha yogic sources, additionally drawing on tantric knowledge of the subtle body, like nadis and chakras. Instructions on meditation refer to the Classical Yoga of Patanjali, whereas the chapter on diet is based on ayurvedic knowledge. A final summarising chapter integrates this information into a framework of modern complementary medicine (cf. Dhirananda, Wicht, 2020).
In a quite reasonable way, the different approaches of yoga thus appear to be almost seamlessly merged into one comprehensive teaching. Imagining myself as a student of contemporary yoga 15 years ago, this kind of summarising view would have made perfect sense to me. I would have been unable to recognise the different philosophical strands of yoga and I would clearly have abandoned the idea that my own yoga practice could somehow be inauthentic.
Patanjali's Sutras were not related to postural practice
Today, having been offered the possibility to develop a more critical view upon the development of yoga philosophies, yoga history and practice, I would be more cautious with any kind of statement regarding the authenticity or inauthenticity of contemporary yoga practice. Meanwhile, I`m perfectly aware that there really may be a point in criticising modern yoga practice as inauthentic, because it significantly differs from Patanjali`s approach. Patanjali`s Yoga Sutras were not meant to be a manual related to postural practice and the development of a harmonious relationship between body, mind and soul. The so-called classical yoga was concerned with controlling the mind in order to overcome matter and reveal the practitioner`s true nature as eternal soul or purusha (Sutton, 2016: 80).
Simply comparing the ideal way of life led by a follower of Patanjali`s yoga path in the past and the life of a student of modern postural yoga, already reveals a significant difference between the two approaches. A principle doctrine of Patanjali`s yoga is the detachment from the world, living an ascetic life and striving for realised knowledge. The practice of classical yoga should generate indifference towards the world, overcoming the illusion that our true identity lies within the elements of the body or the mind and achieving release from suffering. This aim is achieved through regular, intensive practice, without interruption, performed for a long time. Proceeding from the ethical instructions of yama and niyama, the practice goes on, gradually leading towards meditational absorption, samadhi. The yogi practices seclusively, spending considerable time sitting in deep meditation (cf. Sutton, 2016: 77 ff.).
Within this process, the yoga practitioner is meant to develop the power of discrimination, viveka, realising that one`s innermost being, purusha, always remains untouched by matter (Sutton, 2016: 12-13). Reaching this insight, the Yogi achieves a state of kaivalya, of freedom from the influence of karma and the cycle of rebirth, leaving the body behind. In this process, the emphasis is on a distinction between the true self and the fluctuations of the mind, not on unity or on a harmonious relationship between body, mind and soul (Sutton, 2016: 13).
A student of contemporary yoga, in contrast, normally lives a life deeply involved in the material world and applies a yoga practice which is to a large extent based on bodily exercises; meant to promote health and to overcome the negative effects of exhaustion and stress. As Sarah Strauss reveals, a contemporary practitioner of modern yoga – be it in the West or in India – often searches for “a kind of physical grounding that allowed her to feel connected to the material world through breathing, stretching of muscles, the feeling of herself in space.” (Strauss, 2005: 126-127). By engaging in contemporary yoga practice, one can regularly “take some time out of the busy day without having to renounce everything.” (Strauss, 2005: 127). The lifestyle of practitioners is thus certainly a sign of significant differences between an old and a new approach of yoga.
Differences should be acknowledged, not concealed
Philipp Maas translates them as: “a steady and comfortable posture comes about through the relaxation of effort and by merging meditatively in infinity” (Maas, 2018: 56). A translation that seems to be generally in line with other contemporary scholarly readings. Within the realm of modern yoga, however, these sutras are very often taken as a statement on the quality of bodily posture in non-seated asana practice rather than the result of a meditative state. Although it is normally acknowledged on popular yoga websites, that the term “asana” in the Yoga Sutras mainly refers to a seated position as a basis for meditation, it is nevertheless assumed that these sutras may be directly linked to contemporary postural practice.
And this kind of self-conscious reinterpretation of a classic text leads to interesting bloopers. There are modern translations like “practicing with force (sthira) and equanimity (sukham), harmony arises within the physical body (asana)” (2.46); “in this practice, an even and soft (shaitilya) breath (prayatna) is essential, as well as the concentration (samapatti) on the snakelike whistling of the breath (ananta) (2.47). Such a translation is perfectly in line with the ideas of contemporary yoga and even reflects some of the aims of Hatha Yoga practice, but does not consider the actual meaning of most Sanskrit terms and is not based on an engagement with the philosophical setting of the original text (de.ashtangayoga.info/…s.b.).
Considering examples like this translation, criticising a lack of diligence seems to be justified. At the same time, however, these kinds of interpretations of ancient texts are a treasure box of valuable insights into the changes of meaning occurring in the lively interaction with historical material. Thus, overtly “wrong” translations should not just be regarded as inauthentic appropriations. Actually, they reflect a very human tendency to interpret historical sources in the light of present knowledge, experiences and needs.
Making sense of old perspectives in a new context
Following Dominik Wujastyk in his discussion of some problematic terms and concepts within the Patanjalayogashastra, changes of meaning due to cultural change have already been a companion of the Yoga Sutras centuries ago. These changes have less to do with inauthenticity than with making sense of old perspectives or forgotten meanings within altered social and cultural circumstances (Wujastyk, 2018: 32 ff.). Regarding the Sutras 2.46 – 2.47, a significant shift of meaning has obviously occurred in the 10th century C.E., when commentator Vachaspati Misra changed the original term of “anantya” to “ananta”. According to Wujastyk, this change was on the one hand motivated by Vachaspati Misra`s need to “make this sutra into a reference to some kind of meditation on the mythological snake Ananta”, an image that must have been familiar to him. On the other hand, it was a failure to recognise the Buddhist background pervading the Yoga Sutras, because Buddhism had, at Misra`s time, already lost its influence (Wujastyk, 2018: 33).
As long as a commentator remained aware of the fact that the meaning of “anantya” was closely connected to Buddhist traditions of meditation and had the meaning of “infinity” – as Shankaracharya still did – it would have been unlikely to read the mythological snake Ananta into it (Wujastyk, 2018: 32). This new interpretation came about, because the original meaning got lost within periods of social and cultural change. Reinterpretations of ancient texts due to a lack of awareness of the actual historical background are therefore normal companions of historical sources, without automatically being a sign of inauthenticity. Despite this unavoidable tendency to changes of meaning, however, historical sources should not be unscrupulously reinterpreted. Truthfulness should remain a guiding principle, attempting to reconstruct and acknowledge the historical context as precisely as possible.
Yoga has significantly changed its face throughout history and is still working well - just in another way
A contemporary yoga teacher - being thoroughly educated in the philosophy of yoga - could thus answer to the above-mentioned question that, compared to the yoga of Patanjali, contemporary yoga has gone a long way of reinterpretation and change, and has become a different, but not inauthentic practice. In this process of change, the needs and aims of practitioners were obviously time and again given priority over canonicity (cf. Sutton, 2016: 190). Over the course of the centuries, yoga practice has not remained the same, but has shifted its focus from a dualistic view of Classical Yoga to nondual Advaita Vedanta; has absorbed Tantric views and perceptions of the world and the body; has integrated bodily practices as well as the bhakti way of devotion and has finally even reached out into the areas of “health” and “fitness” with an emphasis on embodied balance and equilibrium, “recasting yoga in a modern light” (Strauss, 2005: 130). It would thus be sensible, as Mark Singleton states, not to take the modern term “Yoga” as a synonym of the yoga associated with the philosophical system of Patanjali, but as a homonym, acknowledging the changes and differences that emerged over time and considering modern postural yoga on its own terms (Singleton, 2010: 15).
At the same time, there is a real value in investigating aspects that may have been saved and worked well over the centuries. Stilling the uncontrolled movements of the mind has in modern times again become an option and is increasingly regarded as a huge relief, counteracting a modern overemphasis on thinking, reasoning and worrying. And thus, the Yoga Sutras are still regarded as a valuable asset for an effective approach to meditation; even if in most cases the main aim won`t be any more to be released from prakriti and to reach the aloneness of kaivalya. In my view, modern forms of yoga are not inauthentic. Even if they do not entirely reflect the teaching of the Yoga Sutras, they still provide valuable benefits and transformational potential, provided they seriously deal with their philosophical legacy.
Paramapadma Dhirananda (J.P. Wicht, Hrsg.) – Yogamrita. Die Essenz des Yoga. Kriya Verlag, Online Publikation, 2020
Philipp A. Maas – “Sthiram sukham asanam”: Posture and Performance in Classical Yoga and Beyond, in: Karl Beier et al. – Yoga in Transformation. Vienna University Press, V&R Academic, 2018; pp. 49-101
James Mallinson, Mark Singleton – Roots of Yoga. Penguin Random House UK, 2017
Mark Singleton – Yoga Body. The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press, 2010
Sarah Strauss – Positioning Yoga. Balancing Acts Across Cultures. Berg, 2005
Nicholas Sutton – The Philosophy of Yoga. Course book from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies Online Education initiative ced.ochs.org.uk, 2016
Dominik Wujastyk – Some Problematic Yoga Sutras and their Buddhist Background, in: Karl Beier et al. – Yoga in Transformation. Vienna University Press, V&RAcademic, 2018; pp. 21-47
https://de.ashtangayoga.info/philosophie/quelltexte-und-mantren/yoga-sutra/kapitel-2/ (translation into English: B. Duden)
Photo: Seated Buddha in Meditation - 3rd century (Kushan period, c. late 1st – early 4th century C.E.), Yale University Art Gallery) on: commons.wikimedia.org