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“Life is like a box of choclates.” ~ F.Gump

Classical Yoga or Traditional Yoga

Paul Dallaghan

What does it mean when we use the term “classical yoga”? And as opposed to what? “Popular yoga”? Is it the same meaning as “traditional yoga” or “yoga from the tradition”? Is it that big of an issue if “our” yoga is more modern, no traditional roots, or is it a problem?

Many, including myself, try to use the term “classical yoga” to emphasize its deep roots and that it was not made up in the past few years. I, and others, tend to emphasize a tradition or a lineage. In light of this I would like to offer an explanation.

Classical yoga withstands the cross-generational shift. To do so there needs a clear lineage of teachers who have learned, practiced, and then taught to their students, this unbroken tradition of teachings. To survive from one generation of teacher to the next generation requires a real dedication on the teacher and students’ part, one that cannot be covered in personal ambition and greed. It can only continue based on integrity and humility, a respect to the teacher before and the teachings learned.

Many family dynasties or dictatorships barely survive three generations, with many teetering out after one generation. This is because they are based on greed, selfishness, personal ambition and tend to lack a certain equality for all members. Or if they do survive the message is so diluted that it barely resembles the original intent of its creation. The spread of various religions over time and how they continue today but with a message that has been severely edited over the years, to suit those who were in power.

This then begs the question: is the tradition untouchable, can nothing be done with it or would that be considered heresy? Any true tradition is able to move with the changing times and landscape. How the public in the US or Europe today approach and see yoga is quite different to 100 years ago when it was more in its infancy overseas. There is room for refinement, development and evolution, just as the sciences have evolved over time. Physics, for example, does not recognize one master but has taken the previous generation’s work and built on it. It is similar with elements of yoga practice. The point is to keep the integrity of the tradition. To do so one must become very well practiced in its elements first. Out of that arises a greater understanding. One is then in a more qualified position to refine elements of the practice. In brief, tradition is subject to evolution.

In the 1920s the great yogi mind of Swami Kuvalayananda help to revolutionize the teaching and understanding of yoga. Some may even call that modern. Similar to the message of Swami Vivekananda, yoga and its practice should not be governed by hierarchy, dogma, superstition and one’s whims. If so it becomes a limiting force as opposed to its intended nature of release. Swami Kuvalayananda studied all the yoga practices with a scientific eye, helping to clear up much mistruths, misunderstandings and personalized hype. He also knew the limit of science as it approaches the personal experience. While keeping the tradition and integrity, he took an advanced asana, purna matsyendrasana, and modified it down to ardha matsyendrasana and an even simpler version with the leg straight.

There is a big difference between a “modification” and a “compromise”. The modification keeps the original integrity of the practice whereas a compromise will sacrifice much of the central tenets just to get what one wants, an example being to push one in to an asana.

Without any judgment on the current yoga scene, we, the student looking in, need to assess it from these angles herein described. A lack of tradition usually reveals some key figurehead today expressing their name and approach, usually as better than others, cut off from the continuing lineage of true teaching. There will often be a compromise to just make things easier, “better”, simpler, in a sense, diluted, just to get more people involved. If an accompanying bio is loaded with many teachers’ names it usually tells you this person has not really studied with anyone but has had short visits to many. This hype may be very successful from a business model and marketing exercise but that does not make up for its lack of depth. In our short human life it is not so easy for us to observe the generational shift in passing on the practice and instead get carried away with the color of the message.

Classical yoga survives many generations of teaching, passed down through a lineage in a very personal way. It allows for evolution through refinement and modification, not compromise or dilution. Tradition, in another word, is scientific. This tells us that the continuation of the teaching is not tainted with personal ambition, desire or confusion. Sometimes that exists under a large institution with a figurehead but very often it is a group of personal teachers in their own right who can stand tall purely on the shoulders of all those who have come before them.

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