Yoga demonstration, then and now

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois had many quotable sayings. To paraphrase one which I am thinking about today, “There are many health benefits to primary and intermediate series postures, yet the advanced series is reserved for demonstration.” I’ll start by providing historical context, Pattabhi Jois grew up in colonial India during a time in which European fitness ideals were ubiquitous. In the earlier half of the twentieth century, yoga’s innovative revival owed largely to local area performances of talented youths. Decades later, demonstration continues to popularize Ashtanga Vinyasa, in so far as it has become a global fitness movement.

sharma
T. R. S. Sharma (1941)

 

The question I’m musing over goes something like this, “Are skill demonstrations still important in the twenty-first century?” One obvious desire among those who practice regularly is to become successful as a yoga instructor, maybe even famous. I think that for a great number of people, they see demonstration on social media as a great outlet for self-promotion. Yet the impetus here was much different for older generation, who feared that knowledge of yoga would be lost to time. Nowadays, yoga is ubiquitous, and so many of us have the most essential information at our fingertips. There had to be another explanation.

interview-david-williams-4
David Williams (1974)

Information alone is of little use without the work ethic. Yet, I have yet to find any evidence in classical yoga literature that advanced yoga prepares us for a life as a performer of traditional yoga. But this observation has seldom stopped anyone either. While witnessing a Smithsonian Museum exhibit titled, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, I recall one of the main attractions was a Rocket yogini gracefully performing advanced asanas. One did not need to be a historical scholar or an aspiring rock star to be amazed.  An appreciation for a moving tradition was starting to sound like a satisfactory answer to my initial question.

dorer_michelle_viranchasana
Michelle Dorer (2013)

I do not believe that there is one sole reason (e.g. health benefits, fame, tradition, etc.) why people continue to learn the advanced series of Ashtanga Vinyasa. That leaves me with the conviction that we need to continue to learn these demanding postures and practices for the abstract purpose of ‘inspiring’ people. Reflecting on my time at the Smithsonian, the act of watching the masterful yogini at play somehow felt like an interactive experience. It seems to me that real people long for something of substance to be drawn to, be it visual art, music, dance, or in some cases yoga. Naturally, I hope that I can continue to learn enough to inspire others whom I meet in person or on social media.

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