The practices of Yoga and meditation have been passed down from generation to generation for many thousands of years, and like many of the things we use in our lives, such as telephones, cars, stoves and bicycles, their form has changed over the centuries. Yoga 1,000 years ago, in all likelihood, looked a little different than it does today. However, the essential, underlying purpose of Yoga has not changed—similar to how the essential purpose of a car has not changed, which is to move us from one place to another. The purpose of Yoga and meditation have been, from the earliest times, and continue to be, a way that we seek to know who we truly are.
Pattabhi Jois often stressed the importance of having a teacher, or a Guru, and how important lineage was. When I travel and teach, I often get asked what should you do if you don’t live near a teacher, or why lineage in Ashtanga Yoga is considered to be so important, since a lot of people do not have access to teachers on a regular basis, but learn Yoga from videos, YouTube, or apps. It’s a good question, and I’d like to preface this question with some of my thoughts on how the recent yoga academics discuss lineage in regards to yoga, in contrast to how the Guru tradition in India sees it. Hopefully by the end of this two-part post we’ll see that the importance of lineage today is the same as it was one thousand years ago, and that it’s not important just in regards to Ashtanga Yoga, but in regards to all Yogas, and all systems of knowledge.
First, a definition: the words lineage and parampara basically mean the same thing. Parampara, like most Sanskrit words, has many meanings. Among some of the dictionary meanings are, “proceeding from one to another”, “uninterrupted series”, “generation”, “tradition”, “continuation” and “one following the other”. All of them point to a continuous flow of something, whether it is a family line or a philosophical tradition, from one person, or generation, to the next. It also indicates a process of knowledge being passed down from a guru to a shishya, or a teacher to a student.
The knowledge in the guru-shishya tradition that is being passed on is knowledge that has been tested, similar to (but not exactly like) a science experiment that has been proven to be replicable, and then its results accepted in the larger, scientific field. Yoga and meditative practices that are passed down contain knowledge based on experience. It’s not that it’s because these practices are older that we say they are better —like the saying, “Old is gold,” for example—we don’t say that the telegraph, invented by Samuel Morse in the 1830’s, was better than a mobile phone because it came first. The telegraph was the most absolute modern invention of its time; there was nothing more cutting edge than the ability to communicate via radio waves, which are invisible to the human eye. Many people did not accept the new technology. Many people did not even accept the telephone when it was invented, bringing unwieldy and labor-intensive technology into the home.
My wife’s parents, for example, did not even own a phone until the late 1980’s. She bought them one so she could speak with them because she lived outside of France and travelled a lot. But they otherwise saw no need to have one, and they didn’t even want one—everyone they needed to speak to lived in their village, or was a short car or bike ride away. Her father, who is 85, only uses a mobile phone now. If Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone in 1876, could see the iPhone today, he would no doubt be thrilled by it, and probably already knew such a thing was possible. He wouldn’t remark (I am assuming), “Oh, the telegraph was so much better. It was great to be able to communicate in such a simpler time.” We have to remember that every new age or generation is the most modern age that has ever been. 5,000 years ago was the most modern time that ever existed then, and today, this very day, whatever day it is that you are reading this line, is the most modern time it is of the age you live in. So when we say ‘modern’, we have to remember that every single age, time and generation is modern at the time it exists. Therefore, to say things like “modern postural yoga” is not only ridiculous, but also imprecise: what will those same academics call yoga one hundred years from now, when the yoga that they called modern is no longer modern?
To give into these types of categorizations from an anthropological mind set is to give into the illusion of time and space, and that all the things that exist within time and space have appeared in a chronological order. For a Western mind, that might ring true because a sense of order makes us feel like we have figured something out—or worse yet, like we have figured it all out. But in India, time is not a chronology of events, time is a circle, which expands and contracts, and allows for everything to exist simultaneously, past, present and future. The experience of the simultaneous existence of everything is the best remedy for feeling separate from the world.
I want to stay with the telephone analogy for a moment longer just because it lines up well with the idea in parampara of being, originally, and still, largely an oral tradition. Communication is one of the most developed functions that we possess as a species. It is postulated by scientists such as Dan Siegel, Rick Hanson and others that the largest part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, has developed primarily as our social interaction processing network. A large part of our existence depends upon communication and interaction. The telephone was an extension of this. So, when we look at such an object, we have to remember that the important facet here is not that the first telephone invented was the best telephone ever, and only that phone was the real true telephone; we have to be clear on the fact that the telephone exists for us to talk to each other with greater facility, to communicate. Communication then becomes the thread from generation to generation of telephones. And communication is a circle; it is not a straight line, from point A to point B. When we speak to someone, they should be listening, in order for communication to occur, and also, we need to feel that we have been heard. If we haven’t been heard, then there is no communication. So it’s not just that someone speaks, it’s that there is also a listener, a comprehension, and perhaps a response. It’s a circle.
This is how knowledge was passed down within the Yoga traditions. The guru gives the instruction, the shishya listens, and puts it into practice, and the guru gives feedback that continually refines the shishya’s ability to practice, and thus draws out a direct experience in the shishya that they will then pass on to their students when they teach. The instruction leads towards experience. The instruction is not to make the student a fundamentalist about a particular practice or message, but to know themselves on a deep level, perhaps as pure consciousness, beyond time and space, beyond personal narrative.
The important message in parampara is not that there is one, ultimate practice that is the real, true practice that must be preserved and passed down from generation to generation; the purpose of Yoga is self-knowledge. This is the thread of Yoga that is passed down from generation to generation. It is only normal that there will be upgrades and variations as time passes.
In the Taittiriyra Upanishad, there are several beautiful mantras that give an analogy based on how words are joined together, and that there are five great conjunctions that link together to form the full expression of the universe. One of those conjunctions is the meeting of the Guru and shishya; it says:
The Guru is the first letter, the shishya is the second letter, learning is the meeting place, and the instruction is the link.
Parampara is indeed the link in this chain, and it ties the teacher and student together into wholeness, completeness, and the experience of knowledge.
In the next post, I’ll discuss more about the Ashtanga Yoga parampara and the Hindu Guru tradition. Thanks for reading!80