Yoga in the West is basically about posture, otherwise known as asana. As such, yoga has had a huge success all over the world and the physical benefits are often remarkable. Some think it is so good, physically challenging and spectacular that it ought to be part of the Olympic games.
Yet this very yoga is also said to be part of Indian spirituality and the heritage of long lines of mysterious yogis who have passed it on from time immemorial. Taking a sober look at it though, one might ask if that is really the case?
Sri Mahant Rampuri is an American yogi living in India for forty some years and one of the very few foreigners who has obtained the status of elder in a major lineage. He has in several ways radically changed my understanding of yoga. During a conversation with him when I met him in Haridwar, he challenged me with the following :
You know, yoga is only about 40 years old…
It bothered me that he would seemingly use the word yoga exclusively when talking about yoga as a western phenomenon and avoided using it when talking about his own tradition.
…unless you talk about Goraknath’s stuff.
By Goraknath’s “stuff”, Sri Mahant Rampuri is referring to hatha yoga, in his own opinion a parenthesis in the tradition but one of the main references in the west for the asana movement.
The term hatha yoga as used in the West has become nearly synonymous with yoga postures and all contemporary physical yoga styles are generally considered to be its subdivisions. But strangely enough, when I look into the old hatha yoga scriptures I find nothing that resembles a class in a modern yoga studio.
Of course traditional yogis will rightfully argue that reading translations of old Sanskrit scriptures is not the way to obtain understanding of yoga. Yoga is at its roots an oral tradition suspicious of the written word. Texts are byproducts that cannot replace the living knowledge embodied in the lineage and passed on in its proper context. The same goes for hatha yoga : its written words being at best hints and inspirations.
Nevertheless, reading these texts written by the people who practiced hatha yoga in medieval times might put our own understanding of it into perspective. Unless they happen to be falsifications sold to British anthropologists for good money back in imperial times.
Falsifications or not, the hatha yoga described in such literature stands in sharp contrast with what it has become to today’s practitioners. What you find in these texts doesn’t resemble a class in a modern yoga studio at all, be it Bikram, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Sivananda or any other modern yoga style. In fact, in the Indian medieval hatha yoga literature you will hardly even find yoga postures.
Goraksha-Paddhati is probably the oldest of the hatha yoga texts and it is by some attributed to Goraknath himself. Goraknath was one of the early front figures of the Nath order and the one who is often given credit to for having founded hatha yoga or at least for making it known. When the yoga researcher Georg Feuerstein wrote about hatha yoga in his comprehensive book The Yoga Tradition, he included this text as the example of the genre.
The text contains 200 verses, each explaining different practices and aspects of hatha yoga. Surprisingly only a handful of these verses deal with postures. And those which do quickly establish that the only postures that really matter are the meditation postures. The other 97,5% of the book deals with breath-control, concentration, sound and mantra, visualization, meditation and the psychic anatomy of man. Feuerstein did note that asana is overemphasized in modern yoga. I would say that this is quite an understatement.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika is another hatha yoga scripture and one of the top references for modern yoga. According to general consensus it was probably written in the 15th century and if that holds true it would be a few hundred years younger than Goraksha-Paddhati. This text does give more attention to asana. But out of the asanas described nearly all are sitting postures, most of them well known meditation poses or variations of them. Actually asana is a word both in hindi and sanskrit for the seat where you sit, for example a tiger skin in front of the yogi’s sacred fire altar, the dhuni. Today, even a latex yoga mat is sometimes called an asana.
Looking into the Yoga Upanishads I have not found more to support the notion of asana inspired gymnastics as a significant part of yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita as well asana is noticeably absent. Even in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the so frequently quoted crown jewel of international yoga, there is not the smallest indication of asana being something else other than a pose for sitting.
How has asana in it’s modern form then managed to become the alpha and omega of western yoga? Where do these practices come from if not from the truth seeking yogis? Modern research might hold the answer. According to the work of Mark Singleton and other researchers asana as we know it seem to have evolved from Indian physical culture movements in the first half of the 20th century rather than from secret practices of ancients.
The more I look at the asana phenomenon in the west, the more I see an emperor without clothes. I say that because the mythology that we have created around it simply does not hold true. That which our collective imagination has projected on to this phenomenon does not stand for scrutiny. But actually, in a way this brings us back to yoga, because far more important for a yogi than to place the body in difficult positions is the capacity to see through illusion.
Christian Möllenhoff is a Swedish yoga and meditation teacher living in Paris, France. He is the senior teacher at Yoga & Méditation Paris. He has many years of experience in advanced hatha yoga and meditations from the yoga tradition. He lived an ashram life for several years and is a devoted karma yoga practitioner.
Editor: Malin Bergman
Like elephant yoga on Facebook.