I remember the day I found out about the origins of yoga asana practice. So far I had only heard (and readily accepted) what other yoga teachers had to say about it. ‘4000 years old.’ ‘An age-old tradition.’ ‘Passed down from one yogic master to the next since the beginning of time.’ ’As mentioned in the scriptures.’ When my philosophy teacher Carlos Pomeda, a scholar who had lived as a monk in India for 18 years and then went on to teach at Berkeley University, first told us that yoga asana practice as we know it today is less than 100 years old, the jaws in class dropped collectively to the floor. Less than a hundred years?
But what about Patanjali?
The Yoga Sutras, which were compiled by Patanjali around 350 CE, only mention asana in the sense of achieving a steady, comfortable seated or supine posture – in fact, the word asana in sanskrit means sitting. Asana in Patanjali’s world is a means to prepare yourself for yoga, which he defines as “the stilling of the changing activities of the mind.” There is no mention of sun salutations or warrior poses in the Yoga Sutras, and not a single headstand in sight.
But what about the Haṭhapradīpikā?
This more recent text, written around the 15th century CE, mentions the conventional number of asanas as 84, which is a symbolic number widely used in Tantric sources and not to be taken literally. Only 16 are actually described – quite a small number compared to the recent proliferation.
Briefly, there is no traditional text that documents the practice of yoga asanas as we understand them today.
Rumours about lost ancient texts however are plentiful. E.g. the Yoga Korunta – the bases for the Ashtanga Vinyasa system as taught by Pattabhi Jois in Mysore – is a manuscript written on a palm leaf that allegedly got eaten by ants. No copy exists. Or the Yoga Rahasya – a long lost text that ‘was dictated to Krishnamacharya in a trance by the ghost of an ancestor who had been dead nearly a thousand years.’
Krishnamacharya, whose most popular students count Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar, based his teachings of asana practice on a variety of sources, including exercises practiced by Indian wrestlers and systems that were popular in Indian gymnasiums, as well as poses that were taken from British gymnastics.
The link between modern postural yoga and Western gymnastics has been very eloquently made by scholar Dr Mark Singleton (read his article in Yoga Journal if you’re short in time or go ahead and buy the book if you want to find out more, it’s fascinating!) – and although I am a truth loving, no nonsense kind of person, I’ll admit that at first, I had trouble accepting the facts. Maybe I wanted to believe, because clinging on to (what I thought to be) tradition in a world that seems to be ever faster changing gives comfort. Maybe it was just laziness. Maybe I felt robbed of the magic.
I have come to terms with my new knowledge and have learned to embrace it. I still love a good Vinyasa class, I still try to balance on my hands and I still diligently open my heart and hips. But I have also allowed myself to immerse myself in the subtler practices, to look for quietness and stillness. And it has given me the confidence as a teacher to question ‘traditional’ poses, especially if they don’t make sense anatomically and are potentially harmful.
In the end, all is well though: while modern postural yoga might be a medley of old traditions and contemporary gymnastics, it can also provide an entry point to a spiritual journey that expands awareness and can create a longing for a deeper truth, revealing the wisdom of original yoga along the way.
Picture credit: Theo Carter-Weber, who so kindly agreed for me to borrow his illustrations. Thanks, Theo!