"We are not makers of history. We are made by history."
In a very well-written and well-researched recent post, Claudia posed the question: What is Lineage?
I'm going to approach this issue from a different angle, and pose a different question: Just how important is lineage? Or, to put the question another way: If you were to find out tomorrow (or even today) that the yoga you practice did not actually have the lineage that the official "party line" says it does, would you still continue to practice? Would your "faith" in the practice change or be shaken in any way?
As many of you out there probably already know, this is not a purely hypothetical question. In a recent book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, yoga scholar Mark Singleton has argued, based on meticulous research and careful analysis, that the physical posture practice that is found in many contemporary yoga styles (including Ashtanga) did not originate from a millenia-old tradition, as the official histories of many yoga lineages (including Ashtanga) would have us believe. Rather, Singleton argues, the postures that are found in present day hatha yoga styles (including, again, Ashtanga) owe their origin to a mixture of Indian nationalism and western gymnastics. To cut a very long story short, in the early part of the twentieth century, yoga masters like Krishnamacharya, influenced by the wave of Indian nationalism and the popularity of western gymnastics, syncretized the movements and exercises of western gymnastics into the existing yoga traditions, giving rise to the postural practice that we are all so familiar with today (including, again, the six series of Ashtanga). In his book, Singleton showed that the movements and exercises (and in some cases, the sequence) of certain schools of Scandinavian gymnastics bear an uncanny resemblance to the postures of the primary series. For more details about all this, take a look at Christina's very well-written synopsis and review of Singleton's book. (Darn! I could have just referred you to her review from the outset, and saved myself all this writing. But oh well...)
I'm no yoga scholar, but I have read a significant portion of Singleton's book (unfortunately, I seem to suffer from a certain form of academic ADD, in which I often start a book in earnest, but rarely finish it. But this is a story for another post...), and I must say that his arguments are very compelling. So it is quite probable that his overall hypothesis--that the postural practice we Ashtangis love so dear is not actually the result of centuries of tradition, but a product of early twentieth century geo-political contingencies--is correct. So our practice may not actually have the lineage that the official founding story of Ashtanga holds that it does (you know, the story involving the Yoga Korunta and all that; most of you already know this story, so I won't repeat it here). Well, here's the million-dollar question: If this is correct (i.e. if our practice does not actually have the lineage it is purported to have), would you continue to practice it?
In case you are shy about giving your answer to this question, I'll help you along by giving my answer first: I don't care! Really. This practice has worked well for me so far, and I really don't care who (or what) came up with it, so long as it works for me. If I were to find out tomorrow (or today) that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was in fact put together by a bunch of hippies on some California commune in the 60s, I would continue to do it anyway, just because it works for me. I suppose if that were the case, we might have to change the opening and closing invocations, but whatever; I can live with that. Heck, even if the actual origins of Ashtanga practice were extra-terrestrial in nature (maybe some aliens came along sometime in the nineteenth century and taught those Danes these gymnastic movements, which were then incorporated by Krishnamacharya into what we know today as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga), I would still continue to do it. Far-fetched, I know, but hey, anything's possible... actually, this might not be all that far-fetched, if you take a moment to think about it: I mean, have you ever seen a serpent with a thousand radiant white heads anywhere on this planet?
Gosh, now I'm getting nervous: Am I being blasphemous? Well, all of you Ashtanga purists out there, feel free to hurl your curses at me. Bring it on. Actually, maybe I should just say a little prayer of apology here, just to be on the safe side: May Krishna/Shiva/whatever-extra-terrestrial-being-that-is-actually-running-this-whole-Ashtanga-show forgive my transgression, and not punish my blasphemy by breaking my back in practice tomorrow. Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.