Posts Tagged ‘History’

As the holidays approach, it’s time to confront the grim reality that is your own personal gene pool.  Forget about your SNP genotypes … as Dr. Francis Collins reminds us to, instead, record a personal family medical history.

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Playing with Google’s Ngram site … exploring the usage of words & phrases in the zillions of books currently digitized by Google.  Here are a few charts showing the frequency of a few popular yoga words published between 1808 and 2008.

There seems to have been a spike of mentions in the early 1900’s followed by a wave in 1980 and a recent wave in 2000.  Vipassana meditation and the term “namaste” seemed only to catch the 2000 wave, but not the earlier yoga wave … seems it was yoga that caught on first and then finer aspects of the practices followed later?

yogaearliest blips in 1810 then a spike in 1980


ashtanga mentioned in the early 1800’s!?

bhagavad – its spikes seem to presage the spikes in yogic terms?


anusaramentioned in the very early 1900’s!?

vipassanano wave in 1980, but tracks the 2000 wave

meditationalways a commonly used term in many non-yogic contexts


namaste caught on only in the recent wave

what other words might be of interest???

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Just a bit of fun with Wordle (the bigger the word in the cloud, the more frequently it occurs in the source text).  Here are clouds for an English translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (English and Sanskrit).  I love that the word “mind” is one of the most prominent words for both of these fundamental yoga teachings … seems to reveal that the practice has always been about the mind.

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The Monkey Baba
Image by orange tuesday via Flickr

Is there such a thing as a “true” guru?   A gentle sage atop a mountain who lives only to practice and nurture the spiritual growth of students? Like many students, I’ve always carried this idealized and universal notion close to my heart.  Back in school, my favorite professors were the genuine, off-beat ones who really lived for their work.  Today, as a new yoga student, I feel the same way about the teachers who genuinely seem to live and breathe yoga.

Nevertheless, in the real world, this ideal can, understandably, be hard to live up to.  Ask Jews, Catholics and Protestants as to which group is more “true” or follows the “real”, “orthodox” or idealized tradition.  Better yet – don’t go there.  Nor Sikh, Hindu, Shia or Sunni, etc. etc.  Since their dawn, spiritual pursuits have had a natural tendency to splinter and sub-divide as zealous followers strive to maintain the “pure”, “true”, “uncorrupted” ideals of their faith – hence, thousand years of religious war.  Indeed, the desire for spiritual purity is a powerful force.

Recently, the blogospere was buzzing about John Friend, a well-liked and highly regarded teacher and founder of Anusara yoga (nicely summarized here).  Some of the buzz centered on the age-old question of whether the new tradition of Anusara yoga is really, truly valid and also whether Friend is a “true” guru or more of a (now rather wealthy) profit-seeking entrepreneur.

True or phoney.  Its an age-old, passion-inflaming topic to be sure – great for driving blogosphere traffic!  Even for yoga, its an issue that is thousands of years old (see David Gordon-White‘s “Sinister Yogis“).  From his book page:

Combing through millennia of South Asia’s vast and diverse literature, he discovers that yogis are usually portrayed as wonder-workers or sorcerers who use their dangerous supernatural abilities—which can include raising the dead, possession, and levitation—to acquire power, money, and sexual gratification. As White shows, even those yogis who aren’t downright villainous bear little resemblance to Western assumptions about them. At turns rollicking and sophisticated, Sinister Yogis tears down the image of yogis as detached, contemplative teachers, finally placing them in their proper context.

Of course, the recent blogosphere buzz about John Friend is nothing of this sort – its just a few impassioned blog posts here and there (watch Yoga Inc. for a more intense debate).

Perhaps this reflects one of the great things about yoga.  Even with its own age-old debate of “true guru vs. showman”, it remains so uniquely free of the epic strife and hard feelings associated with other spiritual traditions.  Its bare-bones, bare-foot simplicity offers little for debate and intellectual hang-ups and makes it easy to accommodate its many splintered traditions within any given yoga shala.

I came across these remarks by Carl Jung made in 1936 in his work, “Yoga and the West” – who seemed to parse the issues quite handily and foresee the over-hyping to come:

“Yoga was originally a natural process of introversion. … Such introversions lead to characteristic inner processes of personality changes.  In the course of several thousand years these introversions became gradually organized as methods, and along widely different ways.”

“I can, however say something about what it [yoga] means for the West.  Our lack of direction borders on psychic anarchy.  Therefore any religious or philosophical practice amounts to a psychological discipline, and therefore a method of psychic hygiene.”

“Yoga is mainly found in India now as a business proposition and woe to us when it reaches Europe.”

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The picture above is a seal unearthed in the 5,000-year-old Mohenjo-daro excavation, showing a human-like form sitting in a yogic pose.  In Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Mircea Eliade covers a similar archeological find from the site (p.355):

But the most important fact for our investigation is the discovery at Mohenjo-daro, of an iconographic type that may be considered the earliest plastic representation of a yogin.  Here, the Great God himself, in whom the prototype of Siva has been identified, is represented in the specifically yogic posture.  Sir John Marshall describes the figure as follows:  “The God, who is three-faced, is seated on a low Indian throne in a typical attitude of Yoga, with legs bent double beneath him, heel to heel, and toes turned downwards. … Over his breast is a triangular pectoral or perhaps a series of necklaces or torques. … The phallus [is] seemingly exposed, but it is possible that what appears to be the phallus is in reality the end of the waistband.  Crowning his head is a pair of horns meeting in a tall head-dress.  To either side of the god are four animals, an elephant and a tiger on his proper right, a rhinoceros and a buffalo on his left.  Beneath the throne are two deer standing with heads regardant and horns turned toward the center.”  One of the most recent writers to express an opinion on the question, Stuart Piggott, writes: “There can be little doubt that we have here the prototype of the great god Shiva as the Lord of Beasts and the Prince of Yogis;  he may have been conceived as four-faced, and with his four animals looks to quarters of the earth.

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3rd Dalai Lama,
Image via Wikipedia

Just a few excerpts from a lecture by the renown social psychologist Paul Ekman who is known for his work on the biology of human emotion.  Here he relates conceptual bridges between the writings of Charles Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama.  Ekman notes that both Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama intuit the existence of an organic natural source of compassion wherein humans are compelled to relieve the suffering of others so that the discomfort we feel when seeing others in pain can be relieved.  HH The Dalai Lama further suggests that these emotions are spontaneous, but compassion can be enhanced through PRACTICE!

Seems that science and ancient traditions can have a fascinating way of re-informing each other.


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Printing press from 1811, photographed in Muni...
Image via Wikipedia

“B-b-book”? you say – as in words printed – on paper?  Yes, its a book, “The Genetics of Cognitive Neuroscience” for which my colleagues and I contributed chapter 5. Despite the 15th century medium, the collection of ideas and expertise assembled by the editors makes the book a great intoduction to this evolving topic.

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