7 Things You Didn’t Know about Traditional Yoga

Here, at Shut Up & Yoga magazine, you’ll often read the word ‘modern’ next to ‘yoga’. Recently, we interviewed Prasad Rangnekar, a long-time Yoga practitioner and teacher from India, who shared with us some insightful and thought-provoking ideas on the differences between modern and traditional yoga.

Prasad has been one of our most dedicated supporters and has brought much richness to our community and conversations, so we wanted in on his deeper opinions and thoughts about the path of Yoga. He reflects on the limitations of yoga as we practice it in the modern world and how we can work to integrate the precious aspects of the traditional practice that make yoga Yoga.

If Modernism and Tradition were people, then his thoughts are close to what might be a perfect encounter—one that is respectful, fruitful, faithful, and fills us with hope for the future of Yoga. Read on!

“Now, what the study of Yoga entails for a Yoga student needs to be reflected upon.
History is the study of past events that provides perspective on the present.
Geography is the study of Earth to understand its natural components.
Astronomy is the study of celestial objects and associated phenomena.
Physics is the study of matter, energy, and force through space and time.
Similarly, Yoga is a study of self to understand our true nature.”

– Prasad Rangnekar

1)  Back to Basics: Yoga as the science of self-transformation

Modern understanding: yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self is quoted on repeat, disembodied, stops at the mat

Bringing the traditional perspective: yoga as a path of self-transformation that allows us to experience our true self not only on the mat but in all areas of our lives.

In Yoga, the object of inquiry is the subject itself | Photo: Prasad Rangnekar

I look at Yoga as a path of self-transformation at all levels. For me, it means to continuously refine myself through sadhana and life to find inner harmony, peace, and stability.

In Yoga, the object of inquiry is the subject itself. The theoretical part guides us towards Self-understanding, and the practical part refines the mind to bring us closer to experiencing the true Self. Just like historians look back in time to figure out solutions to the present, geographers at mountains and oceans to understand their workings, astronomers far into the galaxy to solve mysteries of space, the yogis, too, look within to understand who they truly are. This is the purpose of traditional Yoga–knowing the Self (atma jnana). In Yoga, the laboratory is our body-mind complex, the tools are life experiences, the guidebooks are the scriptures, the professor is the Guru, and we, the practitioners, are the students.

2)  Sound, language, and silence as intricate parts of the practice of Yoga

Modern understanding: chanting is all about energy and sacred vibration

Bringing the traditional perspective: chanting and language are objects of practice and study in their own right, and the place of silence in all

Sound has a big role to play in my life, both as a teacher and as a student. I truly believe in the power of sound in its entire spectrum, from its inherent vibratory power to the reaction that it can invoke or evoke as language. In this sense, it is truly ‘shabda brahma,’ as the Yogic scriptures call it—the sound that creates the universe.

I feel words have two dimensions: words hold inherent meaning, and we give meaning to the words via our perception of them. This dual nature makes the scope of language truly vibrant as a vehicle of both communication and perception. I feel this is what makes a language alive and malleable. I see language as a medium of evolution and not merely one of communication. Language, words, sounds, alphabets, and all dimensions of communication are considered the domain of the Goddess in Yogic tradition. The Goddess of speech is known as Vaakdevi (vide Bṛhadaraṇyaka Upanishad 7.4). As Matrika Devi, the divine creative power establishes her as the Goddess of the Letters (vide Lalita Sahasranama). Vedas, too, are known as Veda Mata, Goddess Mother Veda. The verbal expression of language has always been given importance in the Yogic tradition, and this is why the study of phonetics, grammar, metrics, etymology has always been considered important to the study of Vedas.

In my personal Yogic practice, silence has an important role to play. Every year, for the last 7 years, I take a step back from my travelling and teaching schedule to go into silence for 3 to 4 months. | Photo: Prasad Rangnekar

I also realize that there is a grand domain of interaction/communication that lies beyond the domain of language; I call it the domain of silence. In my personal Yogic practice, silence has an important role to play. Every year, for the last 7 years, I take a step back from my travelling and teaching schedule to go into silence for 3 to 4 months. Silence has revealed to me more about myself then any scripture study or classroom teaching has.

As a Yoga practitioner (student), I also believe in the power of sound and language to transform our minds. Yogic philosophy too gives a great deal of importance to the process of listening, known as Shravana. Language has the power to program the mind; this is why it is important to choose what we read, listen and think about, especially in today’s day and age where synthetic narratives in the form of ‘data’ have the power to bring down governments.

3)  Yoga is not a one-size-fits-all kind of practice

Modern understanding: we understand that everyone should meditate, practice, learn in a similar manner—sitting on your butt, quieting your mind, doing the same asana practices

Bringing the traditional perspective: the core of yoga can be applied in many ways, and the student is encouraged to experiment with different modalities to experience the teachings

The traditional pedagogy of Yoga is based on knowledge transfer through experiential understanding. The Acharya (teacher) or Guru’s (spiritual guide) work was not only to teach theoretically but also to direct the student experientially until the teachings were embodied and not merely understood. Education was more than imparting information; it was about invoking spiritual experience and wisdom. One major component of such an education system was the aspect of Vichara, contemplative enquiry, that happened under the direction of the Guru. The students were encouraged to think for themselves and use their minds. If we take a look at the vast body of Yogic literature, including the Upanishads and the Gita, we see that the student was led on the path of exploration, experimentation, and reflection instead of compulsion. For some reason, I feel, this aspect of traditional Yogic pedagogy has not migrated much to the West as strongly as the aspects of asana and pranayama have over the last hundred years.

The teachings of the Upanishads, Gita, and many other Yogic scriptures are very actionable–they talk about transformation of human personality and, in turn, human society | photo: Prasad Rangnekar

As far as the practicality of Yogic teaching goes, Yogic philosophy has always had practical application; it is not isolationistic but inclusive. The teachings of the Upanishads, Gita, and many other Yogic scriptures are very actionable–they talk about transformation of human personality and, in turn, human society. Yogic pedagogy aims at making the practitioner experience and realize what the philosophies elaborate upon through the scriptures. It is not merely a classroom teaching based in theory but a life teaching based in practical utility.

4)  Mats and accessories belong at the bottom of the list of priorities

Modern understanding: the practice of yoga is influenced by the modern world idea that we need material goods to match our bodies’ and minds’ need (fancy yoga mats, pairs of yoga pants, and a collection of mala beads)

Bringing back the traditional perspective: a bare floor is absolutely fine to practice asana on—it’s not really the point.

I started my Asana training at the age of 9. We didn’t use Yoga mats as we have them now. We used bare floors or a handwoven straw mat called Chatai for our asana practice. It was comfortable, basic, and 100% natural. Even today, for my meditation practice, I use a folded cloth mat or a blanket. Traditionally, those are the things the Yogis have used for Asana and other physical practices, and many Yogis still do. In contemporary Yoga culture in India, though, Yoga mats are as popular as in other countries.

When a friend of mine and I went to an Ashram in the South of India to do our Yoga Teacher Training way back in 2003, we had an interesting experience. We arrived at the ashram a day in advance to ‘settle in.’ Nervously, we stood in line for registration—we had never seen so many foreigners accumulated under one roof.

Strangely enough, everyone was carrying strange types of mats with them. We both had no clue what that was; it didn’t look like the usual sports mats that we both knew of. We enquired at the reception and the look we got from the receptionist was something that I will never forget. ‘What, you didn’t bring your Yoga mat?’ he asked. We both looked at each other and enquired, ‘what’s a Yoga mat?’ The receptionist told us, in a strict tone, that the ashram would not provide one and that we should bring our own. We asked one of the students to show us his Yoga mat, touched it, gauged it, and rushed to the city center with the next possible transport to buy ‘Yoga mats.’

Do we really need yoga mats to practice Yoga? | photo by Juan Miguel Agudo, Unsplash

We asked around all possible sports shops in the city, but all we were presented with were cushioned, soft, sports, stretching mats. We ended up buying something that seemed closest to the ‘Yoga Mat’ and came back to the ashram hurriedly. Now, my friend and I both have practiced Asana since our childhood, but never ever did the question of a ‘Yoga mat’ being so crucial for the practice come up. As time went by, I realized that the need for specialized Yoga Mats that were sticky, thick, or extra-long was because of the essential difference between Asana practice as we had learned in India as opposed to the way it was practiced in some schools abroad.

I love Yoga mats and recognize the benefits of a good one for a better Asana practice. But my effort is to draw attention to one particular issue. Perhaps as they say, ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ but then I wonder if this so-called ‘necessity’ is truly real… Or is it a commercial narrative that has convinced us that it is essential?

The Yoga retail industry has become an institution in itself; it is a multibillion-dollar industry, so I hear. Malas supposedly open the heart chakra and cushions promise to stabilize the base chakra; Yoga Mats are believed to come with a calm mind, and incense will send out pure vibrations. Everything is up for sale. Prefixing ‘Yogi’ or post-fixing ‘Yoga’ to brand names is intended to make the sales pitch more convincing. We live in times when everything ‘Ayurvedic’ or ‘herbal’ is supposed to connote safety, everything ‘Vedic’ is to be understood as authentic, and everything ‘quantum’ is supposed to connote scientific. We get sold on beautifully crafted commercials, svelte models raise our aspiration quotient, and over-night Insta-Youtube celebrities convince us that products are essential for progress. But are they? Do we really need so many products to move forward on the spiritual path? If yes, how much is too much? Have we become so needy of external support that we have lost sight of the essence of practice? Here is something for each of us on the spiritual path to reflect upon.

5)  Asana is just one part of the whole. Let us repeat this: just one part of the whole

Modern understanding: if it doesn’t involve a posture (even if it’s just seated meditation) then it’s not yoga

Adding the traditional perspective: if one part should prevail, it should probably be self-reflection

I believe Yoga is primarily thought off as a physical practice in modern Yoga culture. We could say Asana has hijacked Yoga, a part is being represented as the whole. Understanding Yoga as Asana has generated its own personality to the extent that we have had to create a new term in contemporary Yoga culture called ‘Modern Postural Yoga’ to differentiate Yoga from, say, a spiritually-oriented Yoga.

As I understand, the term Yoga ‘styles’ came into existence as various Yoga schools and teachers, especially the teachers using physical modalities of Yoga, started becoming popular. They wanted to create their own identities (brand) through their own ways of practice and teaching. The term ‘style’ of Yoga in modern terminology is intended to convey the way in which asana is practiced and not an orientation of Yoga or the philosophy behind per se.

I use the term ‘orientation’ because it conveys direction that leads a seeker from point A to B. Yoga is a path, in Sanskrit, it is called ‘Yoga marga’, literally, the path of Yoga. This path leads to the realization of Atman (True-Self). The term ‘orientation’ also connotes the inclination of the seeker depending on their attitudes, beliefs, and where they are on the spiritual path. The term ‘style’, for me, connotes the design aspect. So, I find the term ‘orientation’ a little more comprehensive.

People tend to get a sense of how you practice asana when you tell them what ‘style’ of Yoga you ‘do.’ The plethora of ‘Yoga styles’ birthed by the day has, I feel, consumeristic compulsions. It is an outcome of the necessity to legitimize the teacher’s own style of teaching and portraying themselves as someone ‘different’ or unique as opposed to their competition.

I am completely on board with innovation but not with dilution. It is one thing to make something easy for the student to understand; to adapt; to simplify. But it is another thing to do so at the expense of its core principles. No matter how much we innovate, the focus should not move away from the core premise of Yoga. Yoga is, after all, a ‘moksha shastra,’ a science or methodology to experience freedom. This traditional understanding of Yoga is not based solely in the physical practice of asana but in a broader experience of the Self beyond mental fluctuations. This experience brings lasting peace, total freedom from limited notions of self, and all-encompassing love and compassion towards other beings.

6)  Asana as a door to a house rather than a house itself

Modern understanding: Asana is the central point of yoga, the point of entry and the goal

Bringing back the traditional perspective: asana can act as an important first encounter with the practice of yoga as a path of transformation but never be an end in itself.

There’s a lot of pressure in the contemporary Yoga scene to reach ‘perfection’ in the body, pose, and alignment. There’s tremendous thrust on wanting to call ourselves an ‘advanced’ Yogi as soon as possible. Also, let us not forget the compulsion to exhibit/perform on social media to gain more followers. Such a narrative keeps the mind of the practitioner on a superficial level. The awareness is directed externally through exhibitive tendencies instead of inward introspective focus. Yoga, as a spiritual path, is about bringing the mind inward and realizing the true-self within.

We have become obsessed with the journey and lost track of the destination. It’s like we are so caught up surfing the waves that we are oblivious to the profundity of the depth of the ocean. | photo: Silas Baisch, Unsplash

If I were invited for a 7-course meal and served only one course, I wouldn’t like it, right? I wouldn’t want to be served all seven courses simultaneously, either. The same way, Yoga as a whole is a gradual, graded process where the mind is regulated through different modalities (like asana, pranayama, etc.) over time. This process moves the mental awareness from an externalized orientation to a stabilized inward focus (the journey from Yama-Niyama to Dhyana). Looking at Yoga from a unidimensional perspective is not only unfair to the wholesomeness that Yoga represents but also deprives the seeker of all-round development.

One can practice Asana at a purely physical level and stay away from deeper transformations. So, it’s a personal choice as to what level one wants to drive their journey of transformation. I respect the individual’s choice. But, I feel the ‘doing’ of Asana has the power to lead us to the stillness of the ‘Being,’ so why not benefit from it? I feel somewhere we have got too caught up in the ‘Doing’ and have ignored the ‘Being.’ We have become obsessed with the journey and lost track of the destination. It’s like we are so caught up surfing the waves that we are oblivious to the profundity of the depth of the ocean.

If our practice is just keeping us engrossed in physical pursuits without any lasting experience of stillness and stability in our mind and life, then not only our Asana practice but our understanding of Yoga needs a review, too. It is an entry-level practice in traditional Hatha Yoga and not an end in itself. Traditionally, the main premise of asana practice was to stabilize the body, generate a sense of lightness, generating good health, cleanse Prana nadis and stabilize the mind to prepare it for subtler practices (vide Gheranda Samhita, Matsyendra Samhita and Hatha Pradipika).

I truly believe in the power of Asana; it is an important aspect of Yogic transformation. In modern times, we really need it, keeping in mind the physical and mental strain we are going through as a race. Asana classes also bring many people to the entirety of Yogic transformation–so, I believe Asana has a huge role to play in Yoga-based transformation. But, this ‘doing’ is a doorway to subtler transformations, and the Yoga educator should keep that in mind and refrain from presenting the door as the entire house. If we inspect, an asana begins when one thinks of doing it and ends when one thinks of doing another asana. This means asana starts in the mind and ends in the mind. The body is just the vehicle of executing a mental desire. Asana can help us open the doors to a deeper, subtler exploration.

I see Asana as a beautiful tool to generate an inward awareness. When the inward awareness becomes more stable, it can be used to explore the subtler realities of our personality. I believe there is a deeper, more profound self that awaits our presence in the spectacular inner universe. There is more to us than our physical reality and there is more to Yoga than the physical practice.

I deeply respect and admire the teachers who are presenting Yoga as a holistic path of self-transformation.

7)  Mindfulness as a basis of yoga, not a separate practice

Modern understanding: the mindfulness practice is separated from the yoga practice, where a walk in the forest is not the same as an asana practice on the mat

Bringing the traditional perspective: mindfulness entails a focused mind, and yoga relies on a focused mind. 

Mindfulness, for me, is the art of focusing our awareness. Focused awareness is the key to Yogic practices and the process at large. Yoga and mindfulness are NOT different; the entire practice is based on mindfulness. Yoga is a spectrum of practices, and mindfulness is the way those practices are done. The basis of Yoga is in mindfulness. Without being mindful, there can be no Yoga. A distracted, unfocused mind does not contribute to the Yogic process of self-refinement. It is important to appreciate the fact that the whole of Yoga is an attempt to realize (be mindful of) our True-Nature (Atman) that we have forgotten due to mis-identification (Avidya). Here are a few points on how Yoga is and has always been a practice of mindfulness:

1) When Patanjali says, ‘Yoga is cessation of mental fluctuations’ and gives us a model to resolve the mind, he is speaking to those practitioners who are mindful of their own mental fluctuations. Such mature and mindful practitioners are called ‘Adhikari’ in traditional parlance.

The basis of Yoga is in mindfulness. Without being mindful, there can be no Yoga | Photo: Prasad Rangnekar

2) When Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, asks us to do our actions without attachment (5:11), he means that as a mindfulness practice. He also asks us to be mindful of our sleep, activity, food habits, and recreation (6:16), this too is a practice of mindful living.

3) Pratyahara, as a process in Yoga, is all about turning the mind inward and being mindful of inner sensations.

4) When Uddalaka tells his son Shvetaketu in the Chandogya Upanishad (6.8.7), Tat tvam asai, ‘You are That’, he is asking his son to be mindful of his inner nature.

5) When Svatmarama asks Hatha Yogis to practice Pranayama with ‘sattvik buddhi’ (2.6), He is indicating an undisturbed mindful state of awareness.

6) When Krishna talks about the concept of Lokasangraha—social upliftment, in Bhagavad Gita 3:20—He is hinting at being mindful of things beyond our own limited mind and working towards the betterment of all.

7) The Yoga scriptures start with Mangalacharanam (praise verses) and Shanti Mantras (Peace reminders) before the actual discourse on the subject matter begins. This is to mindfully remind the student to be humble and grateful for the knowledge that has been given and received.

8) The scripture by the name Vijnyana Bhairava contains over 100 mindfulness exercises (Dharanas) which Yogis have used for over thousand years.

9) When Hatha Yogis are instructed to practice Sohum Dharana, it indicates being mindful of how the breath moves in as ‘Sa’ sound and how it moves out as ‘Ha’ sound.

10) The Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga paths are both firmly based in being mindful of our current nature and moving towards a refined experience of Self.

 What we understand as ‘Mindfulness’ practice in modern colloquial understanding can roughly be understood as Dharana ,and what we know as ‘Meditation’ can be understood as Dhyana.

Mindfulness can be deployed in any of the many Yogic practices, from Asana to Dhyana. As a practitioner, I try to be mindful throughout the day. Mindfulness then is not only the basis of a meditation practice and meditative living but also the foundation of the entire spectrum of Yogic transformation. At the level of Asana too, a mindful Asana practice is more beneficial than an un-mindful Asana practice, even at the neurological and physiological level. The whole transformative process of Yoga begins when we become more mindful of ourselves and others.

The future of modern yoga: Centering Yoga communities over yoga studios/classes to honor the process-oriented nature of the path of yoga

In our collaborative article on what to look for in a modern teacher training, you shared that “the process of yoga is a process of flowering.” How can students and teachers together create a space that feels favorable for that to happen? Can you think of something crucial that is missing in our communities?

Yes, I use the term flowering in my expression to connote the blossoming of our potential. I see Yoga as the process of blossoming fully to our own inner potential.

A time comes on the path of Yogic self-search when it feels impossible to run away, useless to blame others and futile to pretend anymore about our condition. The reality hits us. Such a situation calls for total self-responsibility, clarity, and courage to do what needs to be done, and this can be overwhelming and unnerving. This is where close-knit Yogic communities can help. I believe that the future of modern Yoga is not in Yoga classes but in Yoga communities. Each Yoga teacher, building a humble community of sincere students, guiding them as a facilitator through methods of Yoga, transforming themselves, inspiring others and in turn raising that community’s awareness, where Yoga is not seen as a practice but as a process, not as a class but attitude, not as a feel-good activity but as a life-long transformative modality. I see millions of such Yoga communities sprung around the world in the near future, creating hot spots of raised awareness, positivity, and peace.

I believe that the future of modern Yoga is not in Yoga classes but in Yoga communities| photo: Prasad Rangnekar

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m sure I’m not the only one… I deeply respect the students and teachers around the world who are together in this dream and are working in their own way to create such communities. This is the very ideal of Lokasangraha that Bhagavad Gita talks about. So, through mutual respect, compassion, consideration, and clarity it is possible to nurture communities—the Indian Yogic Saint tradition has done that over the last thousand years very skillfully. To truly help others in their growth process, we need to have the skill to be available to them and yet be able to move aside so that they can empower themselves and not become dependent on our help. True compassion empowers and doesn’t create dependencies.

I don’t know what is missing but I can say what we need to focus upon. We all need to focus more on 1) faith, deeply knowing that the process of Yoga works on all levels and has an immense value in creating a better world; 2) filtering through a myriad of information and reflecting on what is beneficial to us specifically; 3) patience, giving the process the time that it requires without prematurely aborting or a sense of urgency.

If we intend to hold space for others, the real work starts with holding space for ourselves first. We can’t give out of an empty cup—so we need to fill ourselves first. Holding space for ourselves starts with deeply accepting the fact that we, too, matter. To be the facilitator of another’s journey, we need to facilitate our own journey first.

Check out Prasad’s Youtube channel for free video and audio lectures and his website to learn more about his upcoming trainings; connect with Prasad on Instagram.

Edited by Ely Bakouche & Anastasia Buterina

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