Deepak Chopra courted controversy recently by stating that yoga was not Hindu, as its roots could be seen in the pre Hindu culture of India. This sparked further debate whether its origins are Vedic or tantric. The reality is that although yoga has been infused by all these belief systems and more recently western gymnastics and ballet, its origins go deeper still. Yoga’s deepest roots can be traced back to the source of all belief systems and spiritual traditions, shamanism and its animist belief system.
Anthropologist Angeles Arrien studied many of the remaining shamanic societies and famously stated
“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited or depressed, they would ask you one of four questions:
When did you stop dancing?
When did you stop singing?
When did you stop being enchanted by stories?
When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?”
Yoga of course provides all of these activities with the shapes and flow of yoga very much like a dance, the singing and chanting of sacred sounds , the mythological connections and stories of the poses and meditation taking us to the sweet territory of silence.
If you look at most of the dances of the shamanic societies they have an animist theme, for example the eagle dance , the jaguar dance, or an elemental theme like a fire or water dance. Yoga, of course, also shares this animist description of the poses with Sanskrit names that when translated include Downward facing dog, cobra, dolphin, cat stretch and Eagle pose.
Some yogic traditions state that the animal names refer to weaknesses that need to be overcome that the particular animal represents, others are more archaic and shamanic in their belief that they represent a totemic empowerment, a means to connect our mind with our body and instincts.
I personally believe that the belief of animals and nature as inferior and needing to be dominated can be related to the patriarchal mindset that has distorted most of the spiritual traditions and religions of today.
Tantra means to weave, a union of opposites, the male and the female, the body and the spirit unfortunately many have forgotten the pursuit of wholeness and balance and now see attainment as an ability to dominate and subjugate.
Most yogic traditions believe that yoga was created by Lord Shiva and a figure of 7000 years ago is often mentioned, whether he is merely a mythological figure or an actual being is another question.
One thing is for sure he is quite the shamanic figure, with his long flowing dreadlocks like the Ganges river, his rhythmic drums and his expressive dance moves that literally bring creation and destruction into being.
Shiva is quite a complex and multifaceted character just like yoga, one of his many creations. He can be gentle and compassionate, but he can also be fiery and wrathful, but always with grace
Yoga is the same, it is so many different things to so many people and it can provide what you need for where you find yourself in life. It can gently bring to wellness those recovering from ill health and disease and it can rigorously challenge even the most advanced of athletes. It can help us be gentle and compassionate in our social interactions, but it can also give us the strength to stand up to those that wish to dominate others.
So many different traditions have fed into yoga but we should never forget its origins, the source. Archaic animist belief system enabled people to live in greater harmony with nature, rather than separate themselves from it or have domination over it.This world-view perceives a unity and interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness. To the mind of many westerners, this belief seems insane, but when looking at the state of many people’s health and bodies and the environmental damage done to our planet we can perhaps learn something from this mind-set.
Like Shiva we should aim to achieve the union of opposites fierceness with grace