Nama-Rupa – The Art of Giving Names to Forms in Modern Yoga

Shri Ramakrishna – one of the greatest yogis of the 19th century – often remarked that all, what we can perceive by the senses and for what we can find a name (the nama-rupa concept) is far from the Essence that cannot be named or seen. Further, that this is what keeps us anchored on the basic level of human existence. He also mentioned the kamini kanchan theorem (that is gold and fame; plus “luscious ladies” that is fixation on the sexual area) as the main hindrances in yoga life.

What we see in the present day yoga landscape contains all these factors. Originally yoga as defined by Patanjali was a way to samadhi through mental discipline. He mentions asanas only once and implies asana for sitting. This was needed for pranayama and meditation. It is the tantric branch of yoga that started working with asanas, started to define the human energy system (chakras, nadis) and functional units (koshas), even though some of the minor Upanishads like the Sarva Upanishad give a brief description of some of these constitutional units of humans.

Whilst we can perceive Patanjali’s system as a mental/spiritual and “technical” one, the hatha and tantra yogas have described the vast riches of yoga experience. In fact, where Patanjali would probably just stay detached from the experience, the hatha and tantra yogi – when the experience comes, he translates it also to a body-related one.

Swami Satyananda in his Kundalini Tantra (p. 10) recalls the following experience: “Sometime later I had another experience while sitting on the banks of the Ganga. I was thinking of some mundane things when my mind spontaneously started going in and in. Suddenly I felt as if the earth was slipping from under me and the sky was expanding and receding. A moment later I experienced a terrible force springing from the base of my body like an atomic explosion. I felt that I was vibrating very fast, the light currents were terrific. I experienced the supreme bliss, like the climax of a man’s desire, and it continued for a long time. My whole body was contracting until the feeling of pleasure became quite unbearable and I lost complete awareness of my body. This was the third time it had happened.”

Such experiences happen to people, who are well prepared like Swami Satyananda, but also to people less prepared. In the second case it takes a lot of courage and perseverance to integrate the experience. In any case such intensive experiences are the gateway to experiential understanding the higher aspects of human life.

Returning to the presently prevalent yoga experience, one has to state that asanas became the dominant aspects of practiced yoga. When we see, e.g., the way how the International Yoga Day was couched, asanas were the most frequent exposition of yoga life.

Yoga in the 20th century was very much influenced by teachers like B. K. S. Iyengar and then Pattabhi Jois and the other pupils of Sri Krishnamacharya. Interestingly, Swami Devamurti, though he started to present his experience of yoga at about the same time as B. K. S. Iyengar, did not get to that strong emphasis on asanas as B. K. S. Iyengar.

B. K. S. Iyengar was an unusual teacher and in one of his last interviews he told that it took him about ten years to get heard in Europe and was also driven by his perception that in Britain he was a person coming from a colony of the United Kingdom. Thus it seems that his concentration on asanas happened also because that was about the visually best presentable part of hatha yoga and the European culture was at that time focused on concrete categories that can be measured and evaluated objectively. He expanded the original set of asanas used in hatha yoga (an ancient book called Hatharatnavali gives the names of 84 asanas, from which 10 are the most important; Rishi Gheranda gives 32 asanas), to about 200 in his first Light on Yoga book. It is true though, that yoga tells us that there are so many asanas as there are living beings in the Universe, but it means that there is more to an asana than the physical posture. The asana affects the state of muscles, tendons, and joints etc., just as that state of internal organs including the brain.

The new asanas carved by B. K. S. Iyengar seemed to be variants of classic asanas and many of them assumed hypermobility. Then he introduced the new names. These names tried to describe the visual properties of the asanas – like Adho mukho svanasana (usually translated as “downward looking dog posture”). The final position looks like parvatasana (“mountain pose”), but he pressed on to a stage when the head touches the ground. Nevertheless, a new era of nama-rupa trend started. Newer and newer variants of the classic yoga postures developed, but their development was not supported by the tradition and for many, the advantage over the original sets of asanas was not convincingly demonstrated. Still, in the Iyengar school, the asana practices came close to physiotherapeutic sessions, due to a very strict positioning system. Thus apart from the trend that nearly every new school of yoga has a tendency to rename the asanas, to develop new versions of them, to create synonyms and homonyms as well as new terms, there is a perceptible urge to come forward with more demanding “new” asanas. They in turn appear in yoga books and in the recently introduced “yoga” competitions.

In the late 1960s a piano designer, merchant and piano tuner Mr. Hanka from my city went to the Bössendorfer factory to see the new developments in his favourite pianos. He saw some changes in design that made them more complicated. He tried the acoustic impact of them and then asked why they changed the classic design, which gave excellent sound quality whilst these new additions did not bring any improvement. The response was – well, there should be some design changes visible to the buyers. Similarly, when we see this new development in yoga asanas, it is difficult to see any other reason than to have a new asana, to have a photo of them, give them a name and then one is on the path towards name and fame as well as affluence and influence.

One of the recent books, written by D. Lacerda, 2100 asanas gives an excellent example of this. Handsome demonstrators, nice photographs of 2100 asanas. I miss there, e.g., the explanation of the effect of these asanas on the body energy system and mind. The new names given to the asanas are often surprising – like Eka hasta pada baddha eka pada raja kapotasana or Grantadara urdhva baddha hastasana. A number of the positions are variants of the classic, simple position and I am sure that they do not represent a benefit from the yogic point of view. I have read the Czech translation of the book, but that is like to read the “Onion”. A lot of humorous “sentences” caused by the complicated and long sanskrit names. Evidently the translator was not experienced and not really a yoga practitioner.

Earlier, authors like H. Motoyama were at a great pain to demonstrate the complex effects of various yoga practices, modern authors can rely on their physical attractiveness, high physical mobility (true, this often does not come for free), the ability to invent new varieties of asanas, a lot of workshops around the world and to open a yoga business (in case of D. Lacerda it is the Mr. Yoga Inc.) and people will swarm for consultations. In the above mentioned interview, B. K. S. Iyengar told the reporter that he is worried about the fact that yoga has became a big business, in spite of the fact that is it a system for spiritual development. One has to agree that he was right even though he also contributed (knowingly or unknowingly) to this situation.