Modern realms of yoga

Modern Indian proponents of yoga have skillfully combined ancient ascetic and tantric principles with contemporary biology, medicine, and physical culture. Influential figures such as Swami Kuvalayananda and Shri Yogendra played pivotal roles in this endeavor by seeking to scientifically quantify the impact of traditional yogic practices, including pranayama, on the body’s physiological processes. Their efforts aimed to bridge the gap between the metaphysical aspects of yogasana and a more scientifically grounded understanding. 

B. K. S. Iyengar (1918–2014)

The work of renowned yoga guru B. K. S. Iyengar exemplifies this transition as his teachings and methodology emphasized a primarily biomedical approach to comprehending the yogic body. This integration of modern scientific knowledge with traditional yogic wisdom has shaped the evolution of yogasana systems in the contemporary era.

BKS Iyengar - yoga guru
BKS Iyengar an Indian yoga teacher and author. Founder "Iyengar yoga"

Yoga in pre-modern times

In pre-modern times, asana was not typically regarded as the primary focus of yogasana practice. In medieval hahayoga systems, which some believe have influenced contemporary forms, postures were considered secondary to other practices such as pranayama(breathing techniques-breath assesment), kriya (purification practices), dharana(concentration), and nada(sound work). However, during the 1920s and 1930s, postural yog started to be integrated into the broader modern yoga movement initiated by Swami Vivekananda. This assimilation marked a shift in emphasis, bringing increased attention and importance to the practice of asana within the modern landscape.

Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda played crucial roles in the development of postural systems that incorporated principles from Western science, medicine, and the international physical culture movement. The endeavors of Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda, alongside the contributions of notable figures such as Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, Swami Vivekananda and other great gurus. All the great seekers played pivotal in driving the modernization of yoga. Their collective efforts played a significant role in transforming yog into a contemporary discipline that resonated with a broader rational minds. Through their teachings, research, and dissemination of knowledge, they paved the way for yoga’s integration into the modern world, making it accessible, relevant, and impactful for people from diverse backgrounds. Their dedication and influence continue to shape the practice and understanding of yog today.

Swami Kuvlayananda’s rational approach to yoga

Swami Kuvalayananda, a prominent figure in the early 20th century, conducted research that challenged the prevailing hypothesis regarding the mechanism of water absorption during the yogic enema practice known as basti. Through meticulous measurements and investigations, he demonstrated that nauli, a yogic practice involving abdominal movement, generates a negative pressure (sub-atmospheric pressure) that has the potential to draw water into the colon. This groundbreaking finding brought new insights into the physiological aspects of basti and shed light on the mechanisms involved in water absorption during this practice.

Over time, asana interacted with and integrated elements from Western traditions of therapeutic gymnastics, spiritual movement, and dance. This evolution resulted in the shedding of many esoteric aspects and unconventional practices associated with the original hahayoga, making it more accessible and relatable to a wider audience. As a result, asana transformed into a modern, scientific discipline that gained recognition and acceptance worldwide.

B.K.S. Iyengar, in his influential book “Light on Yoga” (1966), makes occasional references to the medieval literature of hathayoga, albeit on minor points within the introductory section. Notable scholars and experts in modern yogasanaa have highlighted the significant contributions of individuals like Swami Kuvalayananda, Shri Yogendra, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, and Bishnu Charan Ghosh as influential innovators within the Anglophone context. However, if we were to consider a broader perspective, the list of influential figures would expand considerably. These individuals have played a significant role in the rise and evolution of modern postural yogasana, shaping its development and impact on a global scale.

Yog held a unique position by intertwining physical techniques, including not only asana but also ascetic tapas, with notions of masculinity and Hindu identity. However, it is important to acknowledge that modern yoga does not have a single founder or originator, primarily because there is no singular form of modern yog. The reality is far more complex and nuanced. Examining major figures in North American yoga throughout the 20th century reveals the significant influence of dance. Prominent figures, such as the first American woman to dedicate her career to teaching yoga, began their journey through Oriental dance.( You may like to read about- first female yoga guru Sita devi )Indra Devi, another influential figure, initially received training in theater and modern dance. Shiva Rea, known for her “trance dance” style, holds a master’s degree in dance anthropology. This connection between yog and dance may be seen as a historical accident, but on a deeper level, it could be viewed differently. Dance was not always considered a domain exclusively for women; it became feminized as graceful movement and embodied aesthetics became associated with femininity, although this is a more recent phenomenon.