Traditional vs Non-traditional Yoga

Having come out of its shroud of mystery and conquered the world, Yoga is returning to traditional values.

Some of us like to believe that the times in ancient India were ideal spiritual times and everyone was holy. Quite to the contrary, Yoga and deep spiritual insights were on the margin of society. While yogis and sages were respected and supported by society, most householders did not understand the true nature of Yoga.

The Yogi: From spiritual outcast to marketing expert

In fact yogis were feared by the common man for their alleged occult powers, their strange unsocial behaviour and more often than not for their explosive and unpredictable tempers! Sometimes yogis were considered to be vagabonds who did not contribute to society, indulged in sensual pleasures and used hallucinogens to attain different states of consciousness. Not all these accusations were misplaced.

Today we have all that and more. The Yoga "market" is full of wares, and all the teachers are in the marketplace.

Most teachers "sell" only the physical aspects and benefits of Yoga in the belief that there is no "market" for the entire system based on a moral and ethical code of conduct, physical postures, breathing exercises, relaxation, simple meditation as well as a healthy and balanced lifestyle. In fact, these schools of physical culture are often so far away from the traditional way of practicing Yoga that they might be called contortionists.

Spiritual values in a mature society

"Selling" the physical postures and thus creating an incomplete picture of Yoga may have been necessary in the early half of the 20th century when Yoga was coming out of the cave monasteries of India.

The "market" then consisted of people who were scared of strange looking miracle men and gurus with hypnotic eyes among the westernized Indians. In the West the "market" consisted mainly of persons with Christian background and orange clad swamis and yogis in loin cloths were viewed with extreme suspicion. At this time focussing on the physical and health benefits was a stepping stone and has contributed positively to the fact that today Yoga is mainstream. 

The "market" has matured since then, as the studies about the benefits of Yoga provided by scientific institutions, the medical community and research organizations have given Yoga the status of a science. The decline of the Christian values in the West combined with a higher level of education and dissatisfaction with material values are leading more and more people around the world to the scientific and systematic meditative aspects of Yoga.

It is time for Yoga as a spiritual practice to become mainstream.

It is not enough for the founder of a school of Yoga to be born Indian or to have an Indian name to be categorised as a traditional school of Yoga. What then characterizes a traditional school of Yoga? 

Characteristics of traditional schools of Yoga

These are the 4 most important characteristics of an authentic traditional school of Yoga.

1. Goal is self-realization or spiritual transformation

The goal of all traditional schools is self-realization, spiritual transformation, salvation or simply That. While health and healing is not the primary goal of this school, these benefits may accrue to the practitioner as "positive side-effects".

2. Follows one or more paths of Yoga

Every traditional school of Yoga follows one or more of the paths of Yoga: 

  • Karma, the path of Action 
  • Jnana, the path of Knowledge 
  • Bhakti, the path of Devotion or
  • Raja, the Royal Path 

Raja is also called Astanga, the Eightfold Path. 

Adepts of Yoga also practice and follow the more esoteric forms of Tantra: 

  • Mantra 
  • Hatha 
  • Laya 
  • Kundalini 

These paths serve different personalities and phases of practice and are rooted in an ancient tradition. These paths should not be confused with the innumerable styles developed in recent times by non-traditional schools of Yoga. 

Schools that do not practice one or more of these paths are non-traditional schools of Yoga.

3. Basic concepts of Yoga based on moral conduct and ethical values

All traditional schools without exception are based on a code of moral conduct and ethical values called Yamas and Niyamas.

Yamas are the restrictions, such as Non-violence and Truth, the highest principles on which Yoga rests. The Niyamas are observances such as Practice and Study without which no notable progress can be made on the spiritual path. 

"Yoga practice would be ineffectual without the concepts on which it is based", said the great Yogi Paramhansa Yogananda in his "Autobiography of a Yogi" referring to these restrictions and observances. 

The non-traditional schools do not teach the entire system of Yoga, often intentionally dropping this code of conduct. This truncated form of Yoga is a misrepresentation of Yoga.

4. Holistic tradition based on body, mind and the spiritual dimensions

While the traditional schools do not focus on the body, they do not ignore it either. The body-mind organism should not be an obstacle to spiritual transformation. Practice and philosophy are combined to help the practitioner direct and raise his energies from the body level gradually to higher spiritual dimensions. 

How does one distinguish between Brahmin Ritualism and the Bhakti tradition of Yoga?

The Gnostic tradition of Yoga and its practices developed over millennia outside the bounds of society by recluses and hermits in forest universities and cave monasteries as a response to the spiritual crisis caused by Brahmin ritualism .

All paths of Yoga offer external practices and objects of concentration in order to train the practitioner for higher levels of spirituality. Bhakti, the path of devotion is recognised as an authentic and traditional path for those with a devotional bent of mind. Singing devotional songs and chanting are some of the practices of the devotional path. Idol worship or devotion to the Guru may be also practiced. These external rituals lead the practitioner gradually to purely internal rituals and eventually to the highest Gnostic traditions. 

However, in ritualistic schools rituals are not practiced to lead the practitioner to higher spiritual dimensions, instead to make the Brahmin more powerful, to foster dependency and is accompanied with monetary demands.

It is interesting to note here that many western seekers that reject the ritualism of the Church willingly practice ritualism of Brahmin traditions cloaked in an esoteric and exotic garb with the promise of mysticism and higher spiritual realms.

Different types of non-traditional schools of Yoga 

The schools of Yoga that do not adhere to all the characteristics of the traditional schools of Yoga are non-traditional even though they may have been developed in India by Indian teachers.

In the plains of India, there are many institutions and teachers that have adapted a truncated form of Yoga. These schools are not traditional schools of Yoga. Else where in the world, particularly in the USA and Europe new schools of physical culture going by the name of Yoga are cropping up. 

What's in a name? Non-traditional vs Modern Schools

While exploring non-traditional schools of Yoga be mindful of the fact that these schools present only a part and not the whole system of Yoga. Many observers of and commentators on the Yoga scene often refer to these schools as modern schools of Yoga. 

I have delibrately moved away from the term modern, since it implies that these schools have evolved out of traditional schools. In reality most of these schools of Yoga are so far from the traditional schools of Yoga that their approach may not be called Yoga at all. However, since this shift in the popular language is unlikely to happen, I have opted to call these schools non-traditional in the hope that it will clearly indicate that these schools break away from the traditional way of teaching and practicing Yoga. 

a. Therapeutic Schools of Yoga

Therapeutic schools have gained tremendous popularity in India and increasingly in other parts of the world. 

The therapeutic schools of Yoga acknowledge the role played by the mind in causing and healing disease. Many of the therapeutic schools therefore place great importance on diet and healthy lifestyle.  The goal of the therapeutic schools is not spiritual in nature; it is merely alleviation of disease. 

It must be noted that Yoga did not developed as a therapy. The system of Yoga developed as a spiritual practice. Therapy has been the domain of Yoga's sister science Ayurveda. Yoga on the other hand has been the privilege of the few who aspire to go beyond body and mind to explore spiritual realms. 

If we would understand that health is not to be defined merely in terms of the physical, mental and social aspects but also spiritual, then we would be closer to understanding the power of Yoga. 

b. Schools of Physical Culture

A hallmark of the schools of physical culture is that they delibrately drop the code of conduct and recommend no particular path of Yoga.

Schools of physical culture are mushrooming all over the globe, particularly in the West. There has been an increasing tendency, not just in the West, but in modern India as well, to equate Yoga with physical exercise or sport. The reason for this is simple. Most people don't know what Yoga is.

Imagine, you go to a car dealer and tell him you want to buy a car. The car dealer shows you four tyres and says this is the best car he has. Would you buy the four tyres and go home believing you bought a car? No, of course not!

Why not? Because you know that tyres are only a part of the car, and not the car!

Next you go to a yoga teacher in your town and ask for a yoga course. He teaches you some physical exercises and says this is the best yoga class in town. And do you believe him?

Yes, unfortunately. Because you do not know what the whole of Yoga is. You buy the part he sells you and believe this is all there is to it. 

The schools of physical culture focus only on the body poses (or asanas). Occasionally they also practise a few breathing exercises (pranayama) and a few relaxation exercises. The focus remains at the body level. Of course, you can practice only the physical aspects of Yoga. But using Yoga for purely physical therapy is, to draw a parallel, like using your laptop as a pocket calculator. A pity, isn't it?

Many of the schools of physical culture claim to teach Astanga, Hatha or Kundalini Yoga. 

Hatha and Kundalini Yoga of the traditional schools are most advance stages of spiritual practice. Many stages of practice, including moral and ethical purification precede the traditional practices of Hatha and Kundalini Yoga. The form of Hatha and Kundalini Yoga taught in these sport studios and fitness centres is not to be confused with that of traditional schools. This amateur version of Hatha and Kundalini Yoga is a truncated form of the authentic traditions of Yoga. Purists and traditionalists insist that this amateur version may not be called Yoga at all. At best such teachers may be called Asana teachers and their classes Asana classes.  

Many of the schools of physical culture claiming to teach Hatha Yoga teach body contorting postures and their "advanced" classes and students are the envy of circus artistes! This form of physical culture or sport has nothing to do with Yoga. In the traditional way of practicing Yoga the less you move, the more advanced you are. The more relaxed and natural you are, the more you are in tune with the cosmic force. 


Suhail from Delhi:
So true, makes so much sense. Simple and well put. :) Thanks.

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