If you're looking for the one true yoga, you're out of luck

The World

On a Friday night, I'm at the historic Sixth and I Synagogue in downtown Washington, DC, for a little Shabbasana. That's a combo platter of yoga and Shabbat observation.

It might seem like an unholy mash-up, but to the folks "om"ing and "namaste"ing their way through class, Shabbasana is just what they need to round out the week.

I am neither Jewish nor a yogi. But I have come to this class at the urging of its Italian Catholic instructor, Greg Marzullo. The class, he says, perfectly encapsulates the malleability of modern yoga.

“So many of the same truths are coming through,” he says. “The lens is different, but the image behind the lens is the same.”

In a way, this is what yoga has always been — pliant, hybridized, something for everyone. Even though it comes from India and is an integral part of the Hindu tradition, it's never been one size fits all, says Debra Diamond, the curator of a new exhibit about yoga at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington.

The exhibit may be the first ever to focus on the visual history of yoga, and the objects on display tell a surprising story. Before $90 yoga pants and luxury retreats, there were mercenary ascetics and supernatural yogis... along with deep rifts between devotees of different yoga sects.

“Yoga has been very fluid and it has permeated all corners of Indian culture over time,” says Diamond as she walks me through the exhibit.

We stop at a series of folios from the first-known illustrated manuscript of yoga poses. The paintings were made in 1600 for a Mughal emperor. The description for each pose was written in Persian by a Sufi shayk based on an Arabic translation of Sanskrit texts.

Got that?

“Yoga is like a rope made up of many different threads,” Diamond says. “Some of those threads are present at any given moment. The strength of the rope comes from the overlap of these traditions.”

While the exhibit shows how yoga has been able to transcend religious and spiritual divisions, it also makes clear that sometimes yogis could be flat out violent. Diamond shows me a painting called the Battle of Thaneshwar from the late 1500s, which depicts yogis fighting over who gets the prime bathing spot at a sacred river during a solar eclipse.

“Once we realize that yoga in history can accommodate a phenomenon like militant ascetics, then people will understand what I mean by multiple traditions,” she says.

Which brings us back to Shabbasana. I haven't done yoga in years and my bones object to every downward dog and sun salutation. And I'm a little skeptical about this hybrid yoga situation. At what point does the true essence of yoga get lost?

“How many now are practicing in America, 18 million? So to say here's yoga, wouldn't really be authentic,” says Debra Mishalove, who owns a popular yoga studio in Washington, DC. “This one style, this one type of yoga probably wouldn't be able to reach so many people.”

Plus, this is America. We're spoiled for choice, and we like it that way. Cereal alone has its own aisle in the supermarket. So why wouldn't it be the same with yoga?

But just like cereal is still cereal, whether it has marshmallows, raisins, corn or whole wheat, yoga is still yoga.

“It's a living, moving thing. Somehow it's had a pretty strong resonance that we're still talking about it, practicing it, embodying it 5,000 years later,” Mishalove says.

And just as we evolve, so, too, does yoga.

Namaste, divine souls.

Will you support The World?

There is no paywall on the story you just read because a community of dedicated listeners and readers have contributed to keep the global news you rely on free and accessible for all. Will you join the 314 donors who’ve stepped up to support The World? From now until Dec. 31, your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 match. Donate today to double your impact and keep The World free and accessible.