Don't Know Much About History?

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There's a moment near the start of Carlos Pomeda's first of six lectures on the history and teachings of yoga, titled The Wisdom of Yoga, where I fell heels-over-head in love with him ... in a yogic way, of course. He was discussing a rather minor point—just how old is yoga?—which is impossible to ascertain. But yoga traditionalists and scholars keep trying anyway, spurred by a powerful Indian urge called "ancientness" (sanatva), which wants spiritual things to be as old as possible as a way of enhancing their ultimate authority. The problem is that inconvenient facts sometimes get trampled underfoot.

As evidence of yoga's antiquity, pundits invariably trot out a baked-clay seal dated around 2000 BCE, which was found in the ruins of a once-flourishing town along the Indus River in modern Pakistan. On it is carved a horned male figure with three faces, perched in what we recognize as Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). The experts point to the horns and the sitting pose as proof positive that yoga is at least 4,000 years old. Pomeda, though, isn't convinced. For thousands of years, he remarks, lots of people in India have been sitting like this just to sit, but it doesn't make them yogis. And while the seal is suggestive, it settles nothing about yoga's age. I wanted to hug him. Here's a man, I thought, who can be trusted to cut through the usual yoga window-dressing and give me the real goods.

Pomeda is a heavyweight without being heavy. He has advanced degrees in religious studies and Sanskrit and spent 18 years as a monk, but doesn't look or sound like your typical dry-as-dust scholar. With his boyish smile and ready humor, he has an enthusiasm for yoga that's palpable and infectious, and his beaming visage is indeed worth more than a thousand printed words. (Thank goodness—because in this video, there are no other visuals.) This reminded me too that, despite the frequently arcane and abstract nature of the original teachings—you know what I mean if you've ever read a Sutra text—the practice of yoga is ultimately a source of enormous joy.

Pomeda opens his talk on the Bhagavad Gita by reviewing its revolutionary nature: Whereas the older teachings in the Upanishads were reserved for the upper castes, males, and renunciates, the Gita opened up spirituality to the lower classes, women, and householders. He shows how the teaching of the Gita integrates three significant yoga approaches: wisdom, devotion, and selfless action. And while in the Upanishads the deity was an impersonal absolute, in the Gita, the deity is personal: This god can be encountered face-to-face without the intercession of a professional priest.

Alas, I can't summarize everything Pomeda covers in 12 hours; suffice it to say he has a jaw-dropping range of knowledge. Besides outlining the origins of yoga, he goes into the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and Bhakti Sutra, the Yoga Sutra, the several schools of Vedanta, Tantra and Kasmir Shaivism, and hatha yoga. What he does especially well, and what's often lacking in other yoga histories, is situate the teachings in a larger historical and cultural context that adds an entirely new dimension to understanding the various yoga movements. His discussion of the evolution of Vedanta, for example, and its tug-of-war with Buddhism for India's mind and soul, is absolutely edge-of-the-seat engrossing. But he doesn't just tell us about the teachings, he teases them apart and explains how we might reasonably apply them in both our practice and our day-to-day lives. (For more information on The Wisdom of Yoga with Carlos Pomeda, contact YogaKula, 1700 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94710; www.yogakula.com.)

Contributing editor Richard Rosen teaches yoga in Northern California.