This past month I’ve been taking a course on American literature in the early twentieth century. Recently, I was assigned an essay by T.S. Eliot titled “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In this essay, Eliot proposes a new way of looking at the relationship between the past and the present of poetry. He argues that the past and the present are not so separate, and that it is impossible to write in the present without engaging with the past. Of this “historical sense”, as he calls it, he writes the following:
…the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. (1877)
Basically, when an author sets out to write something new, he doesn’t do so by tossing Shakespeare and Homer into the river and announcing to the world that he’s starting from scratch. Instead, he creates something new by engaging with these past authors and texts, and either furthers their cause or perhaps branches out in a different direction. What is important is to acknowledge the continual presence of the past, because without the past there could never be the present.
So what does all this have to do with yoga?
Yoga is an ancient tradition—a practice that has traveled through time to exist at least as prevalent today as it did in the 2nd or 3rd century, when Patanjali codified the practice and wrote the yoga sutras that we know and love. Way before we were calculating our weekly cardio requirements and discovering the physiological benefits to twisting and bending and lengthening, our ancestors were doing sun salutations, inversions, and standing balances. Pretty cool.
In the centuries that span when yoga began, and when yoga filled the role that it does today, we’ve learned a lot about our bodies. We’ve discovered—and named—every muscle that contracts and lengthens in the transition from downward dog to plank. We are clued into our skeletons and the alignment of our bones, which has allowed us to better understand how to work safely within our bodies. We’ve even invented fantastic props like blocks, straps, and bolsters that allow us to reap the greatest benefits from our practice. Even as we continue to make these discoveries and the yoga practice continues to grow, though, we continue to be in conversation with yoga’s past. An ardha chandrasana with a block underneath the bottom hand isn't a new invention—it is a pose from the past that is executed with a tool from the present.
In his essay, Eliot wrote, “Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.” (1878) It feels as though we are in an age of incomparable innovation—and those of Eliot’s generation felt the same. We look back onto those who communicated via letters, and marvel at how they ever maintained relationships. We read textbooks that assure us that yes, once upon a time people did believe that the world was flat—and we understand with superiority that we know better now. But fifty, seventy, one hundred years from now—what will our children’s children say about us? They will know what we cannot know about ourselves now, just as we know what our predecessors could not know then. If we have more knowledge about the body than ever before it is because we are able to reflect upon the knowledge of those before us, in a way that they could not reflect upon themselves. We are none the wiser on our own—we are the wiser thanks to them. In a time when we are so intent on pushing forward, it is critical not to lose the knowledge of where we’ve been.
Living in the present moment is an essential part of the yoga practice. We use the breath as a tool to keep our mind focused on the here and now—which is why this “historical sense” that Eliot refers to lends itself beautifully to the understanding of yoga as a tradition. Just as the poet who “lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past” (1882) in regards to poetry, we as yoga practitioners ensure that yoga’s past exists in our present. Every time we fold forward into our uttanasana, or bend back into our ustrasana, we carry the yoga tradition’s past right into its present. We are like time travelers who choose not to journey back, but choose instead to allow the practice to journey forward.
Eliot has “the conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.” (1879) In the same way, as teachers and practitioners of yoga, we too are a part of all that yoga’s history encompasses. It is a humbling and electrifying notion—and what’s even greater is that the practice excludes itself from no one. Anyone who steps onto the mat is an upholder of this ancient practice, and so long as we stay connected with the nature of the poses, the impact of the breath work, and the timelessness of the lessons within the yoga sutras, we are exactly as Eliot desires: present-day thinkers who engage the past in our present.
- Brianna Goodman
The quotations from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” denote the page numbers in a larger anthology: The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume D, edited by Paul Lauter.