February 11, 2015

How Old is Yoga Asana?   


Recently, a former yoga student of mine returned from a three-month stint in India, very excited to share some archeological discoveries he had made about the antiquity of yoga asana.

Zac had studied hatha yoga with me at the Harvard Business School gym, and his physical practice was exceptional—he could press up into a handstand with no trouble at all—but his knowledge of the other branches of yoga (philosophy, pranyama, meditation, krya, etc.) was lacking.

He had gone to India partly to fill in some of those gaps, and partly to do some archeological investigations about asana. On the academic side of things, he did have a master’s degree in archeology. And so, when he told me that he had found some older representations of yoga asana from the Achyutaraya temple in the city of Hampi, my curiosity was piqued.

Some of Zac’s photographs were difficult to make out—bas relief figures of yogis with extra arms and legs forming elaborate, swastika-like patterns; but one definitely looked like kukutasana and another was undoubtedly dwi pada sirsana—both of which are found in modern yoga practice. There was also a third that looked like a forearm balance. Zac dated these images to the year 1350 CE, which is older than most yoga historians have formerly ascribed to these types of postures.

As it turned out, I had just been exchanging emails with James Mallison, an Oxford yoga scholar and Nath yogi who was a bit of an expert in this field; so I decided to put the two of them together. I’d come across Maillison myself when I read his wonderful critique of Mark Singleton’s notorious book, THE YOGA BODY—a  ‘must read,’ for his studies will probably change the way you view yoga practice.

Singleton’s general argument is that the “modern postural” yoga practices existing today (Iyengar, Astanga,Vinyasa, Power, etc.) were heavily influenced by the western fitness movement of the late 19th century, operating in and around India. Claims of modern yoga’s connection to a tradition dating back thousands of years (the Vedas, the Upanishads, or even The Yoga Sutras), are viewed with skepticism. From Singleton’s point of view, the postures that comprise hatha yoga, as it is commonly known, can only (at best) be traced back as far as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Siva Samhita, and the Geranda Samhita— three 15th century classics. Furthermore, most of modern styles of yoga do not even touch upon the more esoteric elements expounded in these books; instead, they focus heavily on asana.

Enter Mallison, a Sanskrit scholar, who has done some heavy lifting translating some of these ancient texts (particularly the Siva Samhita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika). The latter, he argues, was actually a compendium of several different texts from different traditions, some of which existed well before the HYP was written. While Mallinson does not completely debunk Singleton’s claims, he tempers them with some textual references to early asana that lend a little more clarity to the subject. Many of these early asana, Mallinson points out, were forms of tapas, or self-sacrifice, performed for the purpose of obtaining ascetic power.

One of his main points about asana is this: it was in fact being practiced by various spiritual ascetic groups (including Jains, Saivas, etc.) long before it was being written about, even though some of these groups did not even label what they were doing as “yoga.”

While it is true that popular books like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika made asana accessible to a broader audience, including “householders” who co-opted and developed it primarily for health and fitness benefits, many of these ancient postures were originally employed to cultivate a deeper spiritual power known as “tapas.” Beyond any theistic overtones, these asana were often held for extended periods of time, well beyond what most modern yogis would tolerate.

In the end, it seems, it is not so much the “authenticity” of yoga postures that is open for debate, but how they have been used by various groups of people over the centuries of their existence.


Author: Dan Boyne

Editor: Caroline Beaton

Photo: Wikipedia 

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Dan Boyne

Dan Boyne, RYI-500, M. Ed., has studied and practiced mind-body disciplines for over two decades, including various forms of yoga, martial arts, and dance. He is also a published author and free-lance writer. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harvard Magazine, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Cape Cod Life.