The Value of One Percent: Teaching Yoga Theory

Caverzasi, AP. “The Value of One Percent: Teaching Yoga Theory” YogaChicago, 2009, pp. 38–39.

It is generally agreed that in order to “advance” in yoga, one must practice. “Yoga is 99% practice. 1% theory,” states K. Pattabhi Jois. Sri Swami Sivananda says, “An ounce of practice is better than tons of theory.” Jois and Sivananda seem to pit practice against theory, at least in these quotes. However, at universities in the Western world, scholars have taken a theoretical approach to broaden our understanding of modern yoga.

Through exploring a tradition that emphasizes practice over theory, the academic community’s studies have at times demystified yoga and posed a challenge to some practitioners’ convictions. Take, for instance, surya namaskar, the sun salutation. Many believe it to be part of an ancient Indian ritual. But according to Elliott Goldberg, the sun salutation emerged in modern form in the early 20th century when a Raja, who was disillusioned with the results of his bodybuilding exercises, returned to the surya namaskar sequence his father had taught him, altered it, and then tried to market the exercise by speaking of its ability to cure and prevent disease. Though yoga theory can seem at odds with the practice, one scholar, Stuart Sarbacker, religion professor and Astanga yoga practitioner, endeavors to bridge the gap by teaching a course that considers both approaches. For the last five years, Stuart has taught Theory and Practice of Modern Yoga, a course offered in the Religion Department at Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies. Explaining the general structure of the course, Stuart says, “Let’s look at what some of these prominent yoga modernists have to say about yoga, what they understand yoga to be. Let’s talk a bit about the context in which these modernists lived and see if it sheds light upon what’s going on, and thirdly let’s do some practice and see how that reflects on these other things.” Joining Stuart’s class, I walk into a fully occupied room in one of the older buildings on Northwestern’s south campus. There are students of religion, history, anthropology, and sociology softly talking. One asks, “Does this [course] fulfill a requirement?” Another offers, “I’ve been taking yoga on and off for eight years. Mostly off, actually.” Many of these students, 90 percent by Stuart’s estimation, have never practiced yoga before.

Coming from varied academic backgrounds and with limited experience in yoga, Stuart’s students seem to lack the preconceptions that those who’ve practiced before might have. But for many yogis, it is surprising to learn that modern postural yoga emerged from 19th and 20th century physical culture as much as from ancient Indian tradition. As Stuart says, modern yoga “brings together threads from the pre-modern traditions like Hatha yoga but also … the Yoga Sutras, and integrates them with some of these modern physical cultures such as calisthenics, gymnastics, perhaps even bodybuilding, Indian traditions like martial arts, and wrestling.” Recognizing that the yoga practiced today is not entirely based on ancient Indian tradition can raise a number of questions. Anyone who’s seen the Ross Sisters perform the “Salad Potato” song and dance on YouTube might have wondered if those girls are practicing yoga or just contortionists. The questions that Stuart asks his class include, “Is a tradition in which innovation plays a part authentic? How does yoga tie in to our historical moment? Are there theories that would make sense out of why yoga is so compelling to people in the twentieth century? Can theory explain why yoga is so compelling? Or is yoga going into places where this theory isn’t going to be sufficient?

Can we practice yoga and have it not be a spiritual and religious practice?” These are questions many practitioners don’t consider until years into their practice, if ever, but Stuart teaches his students to embrace these big, loaded questions. Stuart first conceived the idea for a course on the Theory and Practice of Modern Yoga when pursuing his PhD in religion at the University of Wisconsin. At the time, he was studying under David Knipe, a student himself of Mircea Eliade, the author of Yoga Immortality and Freedom. Stuart says, “As I started teaching and recognizing the relationship between teaching and really mastering a particular field of knowledge, I became significantly interested in doing formal training [in yoga].” After spending his twenties studying the way that yoga is practiced and thought about in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, Stuart decided he needed practical grounding and pursued a teacher’s training with Shiva Rea. Explaining why he chose Shiva, Stuart says, “She was someone at the forefront of a modern living tradition of yoga in the US….Her prominence in the yoga community drew my interests as a scholar to see what about her particular teachings was compelling to such a broad audience.” After studying with her, Stuart went on to discover Astanga yoga.

He credits Manju Jois with influencing his approach to teaching the course. “[Jois] lay groundwork for my own embodied practice of Astanga but also helped me develop the language of instruction, which is really at the foundation of how I begin to teach yoga in the modern context.” I observed how Stuart guides his students to understand the sun salutation sequence. Having read and discussed Goldberg’s work, among others, Stuart starts teaching the sequence by alluding to its connection to Vedic ritual. Dressed in his class uniform, a black tee and navy pants, Stuart reaches up and then dives into a forward bend, asking “What do you physically do in surya namaskar? What’s the movement?” Several students shout a couple of answers like “bending” and “bowing,” and Stuart asks, “What’s the technical term?” Eventually one student says, “Prostration.” Stuart says, “Yes. Prostration. Submission. Making yourself vulnerable or small.” With this in mind, Stuart leads the students through the sequence, calling out each pose by the Sanskrit number. Stuart’s approach seems to resonate with the students because, by the end of class, one asks the sort of question that inevitably comes up when defining modern yoga: “Are you doing yoga if you’re simply doing the physical practice?”

These are precisely the questions Stuart hopes his students will ask as they discover yoga. “As I say from early on in the class, I would hope that students come out of this class with sort of foundation knowledge about yoga that would allow them to go into virtually any yoga class and have an idea of what’s going on or feel comfortable and confident, maybe even exert a certain amount of critical perspective on what’s being taught to them. But ultimately what I say is that I hope what you learn in this class will lay the foundation for a personal practice.” Stuart facilitates the development of a personal practice by requiring that his students practice at home for at least 15 minutes a day and keep a journal on the experience. Though he encourages his students to ask the big questions, Stuart says that this can sometimes lead to disappointment when certain myths are debunked and one discovers that yoga is not purely an ancient tradition.

“Part of what the class is about is situating these practices in a historical context, and inevitably that can lead to some disillusionment or some questions about the ideas that are in some cases claimed as authoritative or ancient. However, I think I try to model a balance approached. Should we be shocked to encounter innovation? Personally, I don’t think that looking at yoga critically or historically is antithetical to practicing yoga; however, to some extent, that is something students have to work out over time.”


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