Natural Selection and the Evolution of Yoga

 Why Not to Stress Whether or Not You are Practicing “Right”

Who I am and why I’m writing this:

My name is Anika. I am a relatively new yoga student and teacher, working on my 500 hour certification with Grateful Yoga. I’ve kept careful track, so I can tell you that as of today, I have been to 341 classes at the Grateful Yoga studio, 93 of which I have taught. I am also an aspiring naturalist (someone who studies natural history); I received my Bachelors in Conservation Ecology and have worked for several years as an outdoor educator. I love yoga, and I love nature, and I am in awe of the complexity of both subjects.

One day after leading a community vinyasa class, a student complemented my teaching approach of providing lots of variations for each pose. “You can try this pose with your hands together, or apart, or behind you…” that sort of thing. She said it made her feel more comfortable, as she has some anxiety around “doing it wrong.” I try to convey the message that unless you are causing pain in your body, you are doing it right…once a student attends a couple classes at this studio they realize we are all about deep breathing, our bandhas, and making each asana feel as good as we possibly can by listening to our bodies.

I haven’t yet answered my heading of “why I’m writing this.” First, I am trying to wrap my own thoughts into a more cohesive, beneficial theory.  And I’m sharing this essay just in case it’s helpful, or at least interesting, to other yoga students; people who may be concerned that their practice is wrong somehow…Have they drifted too far from the origins of the practice? Is their alignment all messed up? Is their breathing all wrong? Oming all wrong?  With all due respect to traditional yoga lineages, I am humbly trying to say no, it’s not. It’s a natural process, and therefore it is not wrong.

What is Natural Selection? (Hang in there. I swear this has something to do with yoga.)

    Natural selection is one of several key concepts contained within the theory of evolution. There are a couple other terms that need to be introduced in order to define natural selection: descent with modification, common descent, and selective breeding.  

  • Descent with modification is the directly observable fact that when parents have offspring, those offspring behave and look slightly different from their parents and each other. This is due to random genetic mutations…it’s chaos in that it’s random.

  • Common descent is the concept that all living things on earth are related-we all share a common ancestor; some simple, single-celled organism. This is not a directly observable fact, but the conclusion came from studying fossils, genetics, comparative anatomy, species distribution, etc. This concept has been around since ancient times, but for a while there was a big, lingering hole in the theory: You cannot get the order and complexity of nature through chaos alone (Chaos being descent with modification). In other words, How did complex life arrive from simple life through random variation? This question wasn’t answered until Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species in 1859, explaining natural selection.

  • Selective breeding is when farmers take wild plants and animals and through breeding/seeding only those with favorable traits end up with domestic species. For instance, broccoli, kale, chard, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower are all in the same genus of Brassica…they all originated from the same weed that grows wild along the British Channel; we would not have those veggies without farmers practicing selective breeding.

  • Nature is also capable of this selection. When parents produce a variety of offspring, nature, by being difficult to survive in (drought, predators, food scarcity, etc) decides which of those variations get to live and reproduce. After multiple generations, species become more and more fit for survival and reproduction within their specific environments.

So! Natural Selection is when random evolutionary changes are selected for by nature in a consistent, orderly, non-random way. Through the process of descent with modification, new traits are randomly produced. Nature, even though it is not capable of consciously doing so, carefully decides which of those new traits to keep, ie survival of the fittest. Positive traits add up through multiple generations, and negative traits are discarded.

It is through this process that evolution became conscious of itself…the only mechanism to ever do so… Pretty cool stuff, but I digress.

So what are the parallels between yoga and natural selection?

  • Common descent can be looked at as the hypothetical yogi in the cave, that primal human need to seek enlightenment. The origin of yoga. Our common ancestor. Or if you prefer a more metaphysical theory, common descent can be equated to the universal self that connect us all…take this theory as deep as you wish.

  • Descent with modification is the yogi experimenting within their daily practice; this is how new traits are produced. What we decide to try can be random or even accidental.  

  • Selective breeding is when we are consciously or subconsciously deciding what to keep in our practice and what to throw out. Here we start to see the many complex and specialized variations forming; Hatha, Anusara, Kundalini, you name it. It’s as if they were each their own species of the genus Yoga.

  • In other words; in the last few thousand years we have collectively taken the original yogis’ first practice, randomly modified it in various ways, kept what we like, disregarded what doesn’t work for us, and in doing so have created everything from Ashtanga to paddle-board vinyasa. Yoga has evolved through its own type of natural selection.

So in conclusion…

Experiment within your yoga practice! You may, in your experimenting, do something you probably shouldn’t repeat in the future, but you are not practicing “wrong” by doing so.  Keep what feels good for you, and throw out what doesn’t. This is why we have so many awesome types of yoga to choose from. It is within our best interest for the practice to continue to evolve. We are an integral part in its natural selection, so be proud of your own practice and its own amazing form. Namaste.