Yogis: from Tramps to Trend


Yogis as homeless tramps is a shocking perspective for westerners that had been practicing Yoga as a way for achieving health, fitness and peaceful minds.  However, that is exactly how Yogis were seen in past centuries in India and if I dare say, still today in a lot of places around the ancient country.

That subject, along with the transformation on how we see Yoga (especially in the West), is interestingly addressed by William J Broad in the opening chapter of his book The Science of Yoga: The risks and The Rewards. This present article though also talking about that transformation and William’s remarks will try to clarify some other topics surrounding the subject such as the tantrics, their way of seeing the World and seeing Yoga’s history from a critical and practitioners perspective.

Yoga, especially as we know today, came from a great variety of traditions such as Buddhist Tantra, Shivaism, etc. In any way, the fact is that historically Hatha Yoga (or postural Yoga) is closely related to Tantra and Tantra is really not well seeing by society. “Tantrics indulged in sexual debauchery under pretext of spirituality” was the main charge as William points out.  But, knowing Tantra a little better makes it easier to understand such a perspective.

Scary Tantrics

Tantra is a body of beliefs and practices supported by a way of perceiving the Universe that is quite different than the majority of the Indian traditions. The World is seen as a positive presence, an emanation of God (aka the emanation of the Higher Consciousness’s that became denser, denser and denser…).  The frightening tantric rituals are greatly performed as ways of experiencing that Union, broadening our consciousness and a step towards that is surely letting go of social taboos such as drinkingalcoholhaving sex, eating meat and even cannibalism. Ok,  the last one is a taboo for the West as well but maybe drinking alcohol and eating meat is not really, however, when thinking in Indian terms those still can be.

In any case, as in any other matter in life, there were Yogis who were truly into Yoga for its higher spiritual purposes and there were those that well… Not so much. So, as William comically lists it, Yogis in India were seen as vagabonds, gypsies, miracles showmen, and circus performers… They would make a buck reading palms, interpreting dream, selling charms and, last but not least, extorting food and money from merchants. Another delicate topic that really brought their social status down was (and is!) the use of drugs. Yogis (or some yogis) do smoke a lot of weed and eat opium. It is a little bit difficult to imagine a society that would not consider these people actually a threat and a shame since even those that had higher spiritual goals would have rituals involving social recriminated actions and substances…  Especially in a society that has gone through Muslim invasion (one of the big reasons why tantrism declined)and later, a British invasion (aka British Morality invasion).

Yoga’s New Face

In the 20th century Yogis had already hit the bottom in societies eyes but Yoga though, as part of an ancient Indian culture was still a potential treasure for the rising Nationalist movement. India’s elite was trying hard to get rid of the British and let go of being a colony to their empire. However, for that to happen it was massively important – as we know by just studying World’s History itself – for the people to be together; for the feeling of proudly belonging to be cultivated… Only by people having a strong Indian Cultural Identity the foreigners could be kicked out of the country.

So from that moment onwards Yoga was needed to build up Indian pride but it also needed a little bit (or lot) of change in its packaging. Yoga ended up going through a huge transformation, a transformation that some purists can still insist on pointing out as negative or manipulative. In any case, it is as it is, we evolve sometimes, devolve others and adapt:Yoga went through the same. It started with the Indian elite financing Yoga’s revival inside society with a brand new perspective that would let go of the old Yogis portrait by teachers and students being polished, clean and, most importantly, by Yoga pursuingthe recognition of the era’s Grand Judge in the West: Science.   An institute close to Mumbai was founded in 1924 to welcome a great amount of students as experiments and investigations on Yoga through Science would also open a door to Yoga’s then vastly explored connection to Health Benefits, Physical Therapy and Fitness. Yoga would slowly broaden its importance and also look palatableto society in India and the West.

The interest on Yoga kept varying and being officially encouraged while another financed teacher, now in Mysore, was teaching a new style of Yoga that would soon decades later grow wildly in the west. Krishnamacharyaclaimed himself to have learned about combining physical postures with breath techniques in a flowing manner from his own guru (that we know little about) and by a book called Yoga Korunta, that was never found. Researchers, on the other hand, point out that his style, while obviously drinking from Hatha Yoga, has a great similarity to his patron’s family practice (the Mysore’s Royal family). The palace’s practiced an “eclectic style that drew on Indian Martial arts and wrestling as well as western gymnastics and physical fitness techniques including those of the British” as William states. In any of those cases, his pupil and long-term student Pattabhi Jois popularized Ashtanga Vinyasa Yogamostly from the early 70’s when Yoga, as we practice today, with its emphasis on body-postures as well as Health, Fitness and Therapy was already broadly known due to other two of his students Indra Devi and Iyengar. Yoga had boomed, and it happened even with the financial support being cut since India’s Independence in 1947.

Yoga Best Sellers

Indra Devi had studied in the Institute and with Krishnamacharya. She was not only “in” by teaching celebrities a non-dynamic Hatha style, but was the first to publishes a Hatha Yoga Best Seller in 1953, called Forever Young, Forever Healthy. The other Best Seller would come a little later, in 1965 throughIyengar’s Light on YogaIyengar is broadly known for his key knowledge on anatomy and the therapeutic side of yoga practice, with great emphasis on the body postures. He started as a sickly young man having his brother in law Krishnamacharya as his guru, but grew healthy and was soon established as a teacher in Pune with the help of a surgeon friend – that was also (and supposedly) a great advisor in human anatomy as well. Iyengar started travelling to the West in 1954 giving some classes and lectures-performances till his book boomed in 1965.

Insider’s Perspective

Yoga was not-suddenly synonym of Healthiness and Fitness. The body postures received great emphasis while linking the practice to a way of therapy and dealing with diseases became quite popular. Science helped repackaging and redirecting Yoga especially in the West – as well as uncovering some of itstales such as the live burials and the Yogis once told ability to stop their own hearts.

As Yoga practitioners, we should look into Yoga’s history from both – a critical and an inside-tradition perspective. As a mystic practice (great post about it here!)Yoga by definition uses what is nutritious for itself as a path towards theexperience of Union with Higher Consciousness. As social living beings, a cluster of active and apparently passive forces here and there will often and continuously modify the scenario around us. What we have to keep an open eye for is the core, as usual. In other words, Yoga is as water flowing and dancing around rocks and mountains, being muddy here, clear there… We, as conscious and critical practitioners do not need to swallow all the stories around Yoga; nor need to engage into time-taking unnecessary debatesthough we surely are urged to look at it critically. However, choose wisely. I mean, who knows where the Ashtanga Vinyasa sequences are really from? Or, is the modern and clean Hatha Yoga as effective as the not-so-clean-maybe-better one? I would say look at History but go for the real essential questions. As practitioner, we can ask:

Are the practiceshow they are presented today, helpful in my self-knowledge path? Am I happier?

My personal answer is and probably always will be Yes, and I do not think we, as practitioners, need to let go of looking into Yoga’s history without a critical perspective for it to still be our path. Yoga has all my heart, and if it has yours, though knowing it deeper is a must, letting the practices speak for themselves is the ultimate answerEven our so-trustworthy Science says it: so little practice has the ability to change our moods, how we feel andamazingly, how we feel about ourselves…. Isn’t that revolutionary?

 I do like Pattabhi Jois quote: “Practice and all is coming

Studying the scriptures and a little bit of History is crucial to keep us inspired. We do offer 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Course in Goa, India if you are interested in deepening your Yoga Scripture knowledge and your Yoga practicejoin us.

Suzana Altero
Turiya Yoga