Less than a year ago I was collecting data for a book on yoga. Yoga teachers and practitioners anonymously answered questions for me on their yoga experience, personal practice, perspective, and training. There was a group in the survey that indicated that they believed we know more about yoga today than yogis and the wise sages did thousands of years ago. Perhaps this perception stems from the fact that we are out of touch with our environment and lives, and technology is closing a gap of knowledge lost to us since the Industrial Revolution. Ancient peoples however, had an intricate working knowledge of yoga, food, and life because of their connection to nature.
Do you ever wonder how we know what we can eat (is safe) and what we cannot (is poison)? My husband and I have this conversation every now and then. How did we come to discover that beets are edible? Surely the leaves are, but who decided to see what was underneath and then eat it? How did we discover which mushrooms are poisonous, healthy, and mind-altering? As my husband points out, early humans (and hominins) had a lot of time on their hands.
We have this notion that our ancestors spent all their day hunting and gathering. However, archaeologists have dispelled this theory. We spent only a small fraction of our time to getting food and the rest was available for personal and communal functions. It was only with the invention of city-states that we spent the majority of our time laboring to support not just the whole, but a small elite class and state leaders. In exchange, we were given protection and the things that come with a stable society.
One could imagine that we began during this shift from hunter-gather to tribe to city-state that we slowly lost touch with nature. However, the Industrial Revolution played a very large role in a major shift in human societies. We convinced ourselves that modernization provided us with better answers and saved us time. Now we didn't have to grow our food, process it, and cook it. Even farmers over the past one hundred years believed that with modern day farming practices they could have higher yields by tilling, spraying, and more. Today though, our soil is nutrient deficient, we are being ravaged by a climate crisis, and our health is incredibly poor.
Archaeologists experimented with a technique of the Tiwanaku civilization in Bolivia where crops were being decimated by weather patterns and other environmental issues (Fagain, 2016, p. 29). They realized how much the people of Tiwanaku understood about their environment. Using modern day farming techniques in Lake Titicaca, Boliva showed dying crops. Using methods the Tiwanaku used provided for rich abundant produce (Fagan, 2016, p. 30)
If we can look at past civilizations as intricately wound into their environments, then we can see them as teachers. We, who have lost our connection with the environment, could reap the rewards of tens of thousands of years of understanding seasons and astronomical patterns. We could understand how connected everything is to one another from the rain to the worms, from the song birds to the moon cycles and more. There are few who in today's modern society who can wild forage. Few understand how to grow our own food without reading a book, consulting someone who does, or watching a video on YouTube. This is the same with yoga.
People over thousands of years could spend their days in deep meditation. They listened to nature. When we learn yoga, we begin to see how all of the earth, including the elements, interweave and build the foundation of our practice. They also contribute to our challenges, as well. We are in awe when modern science reveals another study showing the physiological benefits of meditation. We get excited when we find out that certain asanas turn on nervous systems. These are things though, that without scientific studies and MRI's that ancient Rishis and practitioners knew. They knew from being in touch with their environment. They knew from deep intensive, lifelong study. Our yoga practice is strengthened when we read their texts. "The Bhagavad Gita," "Upanishads," "Ramayana," and other texts. They are the gems of our ancestors. These gifts were given to us for free. Yet, we still separate ourselves from them and believe that we alone can learn more, learn better.
I do believe that science is valuable. It will continue to prove what ancient civilizations knew until we finally look at our brilliant ancestors and accept them as our teachers. For now, I continue to stick my hands in the dirt, watch how the song birds, squirrels, rabbits, microbes, air, rain, worms, and all of nature interact with each other. In sync. In step. At peace. I turn to the texts of our ancestors and I read in wonder.
Journal writing exercise. Explore the following inquiries.
1) What are your perceptions of our ancestors? How do you view nature (as a part of or separate from)?
2) How could your yoga practice and life be enhanced by learning from our ancestors?
Fagan, B., & Durrani, N. (2016). Introducing Archaeology and Prehistory. In Ancient Lives: an Introduction to Archaeology and Prehistory (7th ed., pp. 29–30). essay, Routledge.