Tell us about yourself...
Becca discovered yoga as a remedy for anxiety, finding solace in the mind-body connection. She pursued 400 hours' teacher training and completed a Masters Degree in the History of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS to delve into the origins and evolution of yoga. Becca teaches various styles of yoga, prioritising grounding techniques to counteract the hectic nature of city life. With an emphasis on posture alignment, she facilitates personal exploration and an atmosphere of humour and freedom in her classes.
We reached out to Becca to gather more insights, and here's what she had to say:
1. What are some of the earliest known references to yoga and how were they practiced?
The term “yoga” has been used for millennia in the region now known as India and its surrounding countries by a number of religions and groups of individuals, the meaning differing by various degrees across them. Āsana, or “postural” yoga as we know it in modern times was initially not part of these yoga practices, particularly of the Brahmins, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Ājīvikas of the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, which mainly centred around meditation and prāṇāyāma in order to reach liberation. When used in texts from this period, the term “āsana” referred to a seat on which to sit for the purposes of such meditation and breath-work, which is the case even in the widely known and studied 400 CE Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. It’s not until approximately the end of the 1st millennium CE that we see posture increase in importance in yoga with the Amṛtasiddhi, a tantric Buddhist text, that teaches a Haṭha yoga system in all but name. The Amṛtasiddhi had a great influence on many Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist texts that followed, such as the 13th century Dattātreyayogaśāstra – the first text to note a systematic Haṭha practice, plus Hemacandra’s 11th century Yogaśāstra and the 15th century Haṭhapradīpikā – the first Jain text to describe non-seated ascetic postures as āsana and the earliest known Haṭha work to teach non-seated postures respectively. From these (and other) texts and developments, early Haṭha yoga paved the way for modern postural yoga.
2. How has yoga been adapted in modern times and what impact has this had on the practice?
Yoga has been adapted in many ways in the recent past. Hemacandra’s Yogaśāstra and the Haṭhapradīpikā not only allowed the ordinary person to introduce postural yoga into their everyday lives, but the Haṭhapradīpikā introduced the idea that particular āsana bring particular health benefits, create a stable body, and keep away disease. This saw a boost in popularity of postural yoga, which was taken out of India during the British rule by colonials as well as Indian intellectuals and “gurus” to the USA and UK. With this exportation, postural yoga became combined with Western exercise methods and grew to include āsanas that had no Indian roots such as Trikoṇāsana. In addition to the exportation of postural yoga, in the 1970s the Buddhist ideologies surrounding mindfulness and meditation were brought to the USA, perhaps most famously by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The modern mindfulness movement and postural yoga began to combine, and the practice of yoga began to move away from a means to mental liberation towards a means of bodily health and mindfulness.
3. How has the global popularity of yoga impacted its cultural significance and authenticity?
I believe the popularity of yoga has both had a detrimental effect on its cultural significance yet boosted it at the same time. Many forms of yoga have become distant from the roots from which they grew in an effort to “demystify” the practice and make it more secular and appealing to the West, however the effect of this has seen groups within Asia and abroad attempting to retether postural yoga to the cultures that it emerged from, and better educate themselves and those around them in order to honour its cultural roots, boosting its cultural significance greatly. The question of authenticity in my opinion is a complicated one. Postural yoga developed much later to accompany meditation and prāṇāyāma, and is a melting pot of ideas, practices, and influence from many different religions, cultures, and ethnic groups. These groups were mixing, sharing, and “appropriating” one another for millennia, each one playing a crucial role in the development of the many branches of modern yoga we practice today.
4. Can you speak to any controversies or misconceptions surrounding the history or practice of yoga?
A common misconception of yogic history is that it started with texts such as Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, or even the Bhagavad Gītā. In truth its history stretches much further back than these texts and is not linked solely to Hinduism as is also commonly thought. Many groups such as Buddhists, Jains, Ājīvikas, and Muslims (not an exhaustive list) played an important role in its development over the thousands of years it took to get to what we know today, and yoga meant both different and similar things to all of them in various ways. A common misconception about the practice of yoga is that people think if they are not flexible enough, they “can’t do it”. Postural yoga has nothing to do with flexibility and everything to do with the mind-body connection, there are no prerequisites other than the ability to show up for yourself, listen to, and accept your body and mind as they are in that moment. Additionally, yoga is still much more than purely physical, and can be practiced via meditation, prāṇāyāma, or even in day-to-day life via ethical principles such as Ahiṃsā (non-harm of yourself and others).
5. How do you see the future of yoga shaping up, both in terms of its practice and its place in the world?
I believe yoga will continue to grow in significance globally, not only in its physical embodiment but its spiritual side too. We have reached a point in many modern societies where we are becoming exhausted from simply existing, and more and more people are looking for spiritual guidance and a way to look inwards, reflect on what existence really means, find their “true essence”, or to ensure they are living in the “right” way. They may wish to better their relationships with not only themselves and those around them, but the earth and universe too, and are turning to yoga for this. I believe the practice will continue to evolve just as it has done over thousands of years so far, with groups sharing and feeding new ideas into the many branches we see today causing them to continuously evolve.
6. What advice would you give to those interested in studying yoga history or delving deeper into the practice itself?
Go for it! To delve deeper into a specific branch of the practice itself I would recommend finding a reputable teacher training (you don’t have to become a teacher!) to deepen your understanding of your chosen practice, or find a retreat that specialises in what you are interested in to completely immerse yourself. These don’t have to revolve only around āsana, they could include or even solely revolve around meditation or prāṇāyāma. I think it’s important that we all familiarise ourselves at least briefly with the roots and history of something so culturally and spiritually significant, but if you wish to delve deeper it might seem quite daunting due to the masses of history behind the practices. I would advise those interested in starting on their own to look at the texts most teacher trainings choose to study and go back further to see what texts influenced them. Some can be hard to understand (even with commentary) so try to find reputable, non-biased sources who assist with this. If you’d prefer to do this with the help of academia, many centres or universities such as London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) run courses from full Master’s degrees to short summer courses.