We will begin by examining evidence, of which little survives apart from texts. Since yoga was transmitted orally, how much can they tell us? A surprising amount: yogic practice dates back at least 2,500 years (though not 5,000, as commonly claimed), and there is no such thing as One True Yoga: its techniques and theories vary, and ideas have been shared among different traditions. We will examine definitions of yoga, which can either mean a practice or its goal, beginning with meditative teachings in the Upaniṣads. We will also read descriptions of yogis from the Mahābhārata and a range of other sources, including the Buddha and Alexander the Great’s invading army. Early practitioners renounced worldly life, undertaking austerities to seek liberation from rebirth. They were transformed in the process, experiencing oneness with an all-embracing consciousness, which is the basis of Vedānta philosophy.
Module #2: Classical Yoga
Yoga does not always mean union. In its best-known text, the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali, the aim is to isolate consciousness from matter. This is based on the dualistic system of Sāṃkhya, which also influenced teachings on yoga in the Bhagavad Gītā. Few techniques are explained in depth by either text: their primary focus is results. Their general method is an inward-focused meditation, although they also teach devotion to the divine, and even a personal form of God. Despite this common ground, there are crucial differences. Patañjali talks about renouncing material existence, while the Gītā teaches how to be a yogi and live in the world. However, both share ways of reducing suffering by developing detachment and stilling the mind, approaching freedom by degrees. These ideas were in part a response to the popularity of Buddhism.
Module #3: HAṬHA YOGA
Modern yoga seems synonymous with postures, yet hardly any are described in texts before 1,000 years ago. It is not until the 15th century that the Haṭhapradīpikā teaches a majority of non-seated āsana. This text sheds light on an older tradition of physical yoga, compiling verses from earlier sources. The defining practice of the pre-modern era was prāṇāyāma, using breathing to steady the mind and prevent a downward flow of energy, which for celibate ascetics meant conserving semen. The Haṭhapradīpikā combines these techniques with Tantric maps of the subtle body. The meditative goal of yoga could also be reached by raising kuṇḍalinī up the spine to dissolve the mind. Tantric rituals regarded the body as something to transform as opposed to transcend, which led to yogic postures being taught for purifying purposes.
Week 4: Modern Yoga
Yoga has always been changing, despite having goals beyond time and space. Both the practices and their objectives mean different things in different contexts. Modern globalized yoga has little in common with an Iron Age ascetic from the Ganges basin, but there are threads of connection throughout the tradition. We will examine what these are and what distinguishes āsana practice from stretching, looking at the roots of modern postural teaching in early 20th century India, and how its innovators built on a trend of producing yoga compilations. Finally, we will also briefly consider the politics of yoga, from resistance to British colonialism to contemporary debates about Hindu nationalism and cultural appropriation by Western capitalists.