Physical Practices In Classical and Modern Yoga
Classical Indian yoga unquestionably had physical practices, though they were by no means the most important thing about it. Even the medieval Hatha Yoga Pradipika (one of the most important pre-modern books on hatha yoga) only lists a handful of asana and has a lot more to say about breathing and other subjects no longer considered “hatha yoga”.
The yoga which was exported to the West by Vivekananda and others at the end of the C19 was almost totally lacking any physical component, probably in part as a reaction to Western stereotypes about “performing yogins” (yoga contortionists who performed in the streets or shows),
Yet yoga in the west went from being almost 100% philosophical at the end of the C19 to mostly physical in its late C20 and early C21 incarnation. How did this change happen in Western Yoga?
The answer is, surprisingly, found in the influence of western physical culture in India, where the exercises taught by Pehr Henrik Ling, Eugen Sandow and the methods used by the Indian YMCA under H.C. Buck all had an impact on modern yoga.
These European systems were absorbed by Indians and combined with the native yoga traditions, to create a nationalistic fitness programme from a fusion of European physical culture and traditional hatha yoga. It is this which forms the base of much modern posture practice as found in the west.
This is not the case with all yoga, but certainly the various styles of yoga which grew out of the teaching of Krishnamacharya (such as Iyengar and Astanga) and Bikram yoga reflect this influence (Bikram Choudhury´s guru, Bishnu Ghosh co-authored a book called “Muscle Control and Barbell Exercises”).
Pilates and Modern Yoga: A Family Resemblance
The similarities between Pilates and yoga are due primarily to the independent influence of physical culture on Pilates and modern hatha yoga and only incidentally, if at all, due to the influence of modern hatha yoga on Joseph Pilates. Pilates developed his system before the physical practices were part of Western yoga: he simply had no access to them. Pilates and yoga are half brothers.
The similarities between the two disciplines are real, not accidental, but superficially similar looking exercises are used in the two systems in different ways and have different goals. The more deeply Pilates and modern hatha yoga are understood in their own terms, the more aware we become of how different they are in the way they work the human body.
The research behind this is found in Yoga Body. The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton. Oxford University Press, USA, 2010. I was a member of the Cambridge University Modern Yoga Reading Group run by Mark and his then supervisor Elizabeth de Michelis in 2004