Contesting Yoga’s Past: A Brief History of Āsana in Pre-modern India

October 14, 2015
Contesting Yoga’s Past: A Brief History of Āsana in Pre-modern India

On Wednesday, October 14, Seth Powell, a PhD candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion, delivered a presentation on the history of yoga postures (āsana) in pre-modern India. To put this history in context, Seth began his talk by situating the ubiquity of yoga in the modern world and highlighting some of the recent controversies surrounding the authenticity and antiquity of yoga traditions.

According to a recent market study, there are over 20 million practitioners of yoga in the United States alone, representing almost 9% of the U.S. population, and generating a surging $10 billion dollar commercial industry. However, despite (or perhaps, because of) the widespread popularity of yoga worldwide, yoga has recently found itself in the crosshairs of a number of contentious political, religious, and even legal debates with various camps questioning who "owns" yoga? Is yoga religious? Should yoga be allowed to be taught in public schools? Can a particular sequence of yoga postures be copyrighted under patent laws? Some, including the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), have criticized what they view as the Americanization and commercialization of an ancient Indian and Hindu yoga tradition, launching accusations of cultural and religious appropriation, and even a campaign to "take back yoga." Most recently, the Indian government, spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has demonstrated a keen interest in such yoga discourses, and has been taking a very active role in the promotion and propagation of yoga as an ancient Indian tradition, including the organization of the first-ever International Yoga Day this past summer on June 21, 2015.

This event too, was not met without controversy, this time from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, who accused the government of implementing a Hindu nationalist agenda by publicly endorsing the practices of Hindu yoga, and demanded the removal of the practice of sūryanamaskāra ("Sun Salutations") – perceived as the practice of worshipping the Hindu solar deity (sūrya) – from the International Yoga Day public demonstrations in New Delhi. Such complaints are similar to the legal suit launched by evangelical Christian parents in Encinitas, California. Some Hindu sadhus, threatened to protest in response, claiming that sūryanamskāra is integral to yoga, the Hindu tradition, and that its opposition is part of a premeditated "conspiracy against the Hindu scriptures."

In his presentation, Seth pointed out that despite the ancient practice of sun worship in India, there is little if any evidence that the 12-posture-sequence of sūryanamaskāra, practiced by millions in yoga studios today, was integral to pre-modern yoga traditions. In fact, the earliest textual reference to sūryanamaskāra, is not until the 19th century, in the Jyotsnā of Brahmānanda, a Sanskrit commentary on the 15th century yoga treatise, the Haṭhapradīpikā. Here, the author warns that excessive "Sun Salutations" are actually harmful to the body, and that for the novice, should be avoided along with bad company, fire, members of the opposite sex, long journeys, and other physical hardships (Jyotsna on HP 1.61)! According to Seth, this is just one example of a disjunction between contemporary narratives regarding the authenticity of yoga praxis, and the historical evidence of the Indic traditions.

When it comes to the history of yoga, we find at apposing ends, two historical positions commonly held today. The first, is that yoga is a 5,000 year-old, timeless, monolithic tradition, revealed by ancient Vedic sages, espoused by many contemporary yoga gurus and practitioners, both in the west and India. The second, held by some scholars and authors, is that yoga (i.e. postural yoga) was invented about a hundred years ago during the colonial period and then exported wholesale transnationally. According to Seth, neither of these "yoga positions" hold against the current historical evidence we now have, and that the truth likely falls somewhere in between.

In the remainder of his presentation, Seth proceeded to map out a preliminary history of yoga in pre-modern India, through the unique lens of yoga postures (āsana). He began with a cautionary point, that although today the word “yoga” is practically synonymous with the notion of āsana or bodily stretching, this is a relatively new phenomena that has arisen in the last century. In pre-modern India, āsana has always been one auxiliary among many, of a complete psycho-physiological system of disciplined yoga practice, enjoined alongside other yoga technologies including: ethical restraints and observances (yama and niyama), breath control (prāṇāyāma) and retention (kumbhaka), bodily seals (mudrā) and binds (bandha), and meditation techniques (dhyāna), among others.

The Sanskrit word āsana can mean both "seat" and "posture," and depending on its context, might refer to the physical act of sitting or to the material seat one sits upon. In classical yoga texts such as Patañjali's Yogasūtra (ca. 4th/5th century CE), āsana refers to a posture for the practice of seated meditation. Patañjali tells us that such a posture should be firm (sthiram) and comfortable (sukkham) (YS 2.46). Similarly, in the slightly earlier Bhagavadgītā, the god Kṛṣṇa instructs Arjuna:

In a clean, pure place, having established a firm seat (sthiram-āsanam) for oneself; neither too high nor too low, covered [with] a cloth, antelope skin, and kuśa grass.

There, having made the mind single-pointed, the activity of the mind and senses restrained; having seated in/on the āsana, he should practice yoga for the purification of the self.

Bhagavadgītā 6.11-12

The first commentary on the Yogasūtra, known as the Bhāṣya (ca. 5th century CE), lists eleven possible āsanas, followed by the Sanskrit word ādi or "etc.," implying that there were likely many more postures already known at this time. Again, those mentioned in the text are all seated postures for meditation, including the infamous padmāsana ("lotus pose"). Such meditative "seats" were well-known and utilized by ascetics and seekers across sectarian traditions, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, and are well-depicted throughout Indian literature and visual art.

Next, Seth introduced the emergence of a new yoga tradition, most closely related to his own doctoral research, the medieval tradition of Haṭhayoga, i.e. the "yoga of force." Beginning around the turn of the second millennium, Seth says, a new corpus of Sanskrit Haṭhayoga texts began to emerge, with a renewed understanding of, and emphasis placed on, the body and bodily techniques. The recent work of yoga scholar James Mallinson has demonstrated that this Haṭhayoga tradition is the synthesis of two distinct ascetico-yogic tracks: 1) an ancient ascetic renunciant tradition, dating back more than two-thousand years to the time of the Buddha, where ascetics performed physical and mental austerities to cultivate tapas (lit. "heat") and spiritual power; and 2) later first millennium tantric Śaiva traditions who developed an advanced bodily map of subtle psycho-energetic wheels (cakra), channels (nāḍi), life-force (prāṇa), winds (vāyu), and the notion of a serpent power (kuṇḍalinī-śakti), which rests dormant at the base of the spine. According to the Haṭhayoga texts, through various physical actions (karaṇa) and postures (āsana), bodily seals (mudrā) and binds (bandha), breath control (prāṇāyāma) and retention (kumbhaka), these powerful energies can be awakened and harnessed within the human body to lead the practitioner toward advanced states of consciousness, and eventually toward the attainment of meditative absorption (samādhi) or liberation.

It is in the Haṭhayoga texts and tradition that we can begin to see the gradual shift from seated-āsanas used primarily for meditation, to more complex non-seated āsanas including balancing postures and inversions utilized for bodily purification, to harness subtle energies in the body, and even for therapeutic aims. While the earliest Haṭhayoga texts from circa the 12th through 15th centuries still tended to teach and describe relatively few āsanas, we can see a shift in the 16th century and onwards as new āsanas were gradually introduced, including a tradition of 84 āsanas. This is confirmed not only by the textual, but visual record as well; as we find bas relief sculptures on the walls of some South Indian temples, paintings, and even an illustrated Persian yoga manuscript commissioned by a Mughal prince, all dating to the same contemporaneous period. Unpublished yoga manuscripts recently discovered by yoga scholar Jason Birch, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, further elicit the rapid expansion, innovation, and creativity of āsana in the early modern period. Birch has found in texts such as the Yogaciṇtāmaṇi and the Haṭhabhyāsapaddhati descriptions of over 100 āsanas, including seated, standing, balancing, and dynamic moving āsanas, and even āsanas involving the use of a rope and other props. All of this, before the colonial period.

Nāth yogī in mayūrāsana (“peacock pose”)

Finally, Seth stressed, that while many of these Sanskrit yoga texts were composed in a "Hindu" milieu, their authors often attempted to distance themselves from current sectarian trends, aiming for accessibility and inclusivity, by emphasizing the praxis of yoga technique over metaphysical theory or philosophical doctrine. We also see in such texts, the movement from a strict renunciant practice to the inclusion of householders, and even (occasionally) female practitioners. Such inclusivity and universalism espoused by Haṭhayoga texts, allowed its techniques to be adopted by a large number of religious groups in pre-modern India, including Śaivas, Vaiṣṇavas, Advaita Vedāntins, Buddhists, Jains, Muslim Sūfīs, Sikhs, and even Christians. According to Seth, this is perhaps not so different from the proliferation of yogas today, although the context may be different and perhaps heightened by the acceleration of consumer-capitalism and a multi-billion dollar yoga industry.

In the 20th century, through a complex inter-cultural process involving India's encounter with modernity and the west, Haṭhayoga came into contact with the physical culture movements of India and Europe, and was informed by disciplines such as bodybuilding, gymnastics, wrestling, and calisthenics. Through the innovation of Indian yoga gurus such as Sri Yogendra, Swami Kuvalayanda, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, and the latter's students, BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and TKV Desikachar, new forms of modern postural yoga were developed and transnationally transmitted to the masses.