Think ‘yoga’ now, and immediately a series of contorted postures and asanas come to the mind, along with images of Baba Ramdev randomly challenging people to do fantastical things with their bodies. But interestingly, this association of yoga with ‘posture practices’ is actually as recent as a 20th century interpretation of a culture that dates back over 3,000 years. In fact, meditation – dhyana – which was once the foremost aspect of yogic practices has evolved almost as a parallel global industry on its own. So, now, you have broad categories of fitness for the mind, which is meditation, and fitness of the body, which is yoga in its various forms.
Repackaged as ‘the New Age wellness form’ and reintroduced into India, the branch of yoga that people are most – or rather popularly – familiar with is the Hatha Yoga, which is based on asanas and pranayama. Hatha meaning means it works ‘by force’. It was only at the end of the 1st millennium CE that references to a method of yoga called Hatha began to appear in textual sources, and formalised system of yoga called Hatha is taught for the first time in the 13th-century Dattatreyayogasastra, a Vaishnava text, say renowned yoga scholars Mark Singleton and James Mallinson in their highly acclaimed academic work ‘Roots of Yoga’, which was published in 2017.
Early documentation of Yoga: Mind over body
Though Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (4th century CE) is the basis of the philosophical system of yoga, it is, however, not the earliest text on yoga. The first descriptions in Indian sources that refer to recognisable yogic practices are in the Upanisads and the Mahabharata. “Meditative practices, in which the aim is in some way to control and/or quieten the functioning of the mind, are both the real hallmark of the yoga traditions and the link between the diverse sets of practices which, over the centuries, have been given the name ‘yoga’. Probably the earliest usage of ‘yoga’ to designate a form of practice comes from the Katha Upanisad, a text most likely compiled in around the 4th century BCE. There, yoga is defined as the ‘firm reining in’ of the senses and the mind, in order to free the practitioner from distractions,” writes Graham Burns, a Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS and veteran yoga teacher, in an article on ‘Meditation’, which is part of an ongoing Hatha Yoga Project.
Here’s how Mallinson and Singleton have translated the reference from the Katha Upanisad: “When the five senses, along with the mind, remain still and the intellect is not active, that is known as the highest state. They consider yoga to be firm restraint of the senses. Then one becomes undistracted, for yoga is the arising and the passing away.”
As is evident, the focus of yoga during Vedic times was on the mind and was highly spiritual, instead of on the body and as a means of fitness. At best, it was to ‘purify’ the body for higher meditation.
In fact, Swami Vivekananda, who is said to have initially introduced the concept of yoga to the Western world through his rousing speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in September 1893, has rejected the idea of asanas as representative of yogic practices in its entirety, but only as a means to an end. “We have nothing to do with it here, because its practices are very difficult, and cannot be learned in a day, and, after all, do not lead to much spiritual growth,” he writes in his book ‘Raja Yoga’. In the same chapter he calls these postures, “a series of exercises, physical and mental, is to be gone through every day, until certain higher states are reached.”
The focus on the physicality of Yoga practices
Asana, according to Mallinson, first finds mention in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras and that too as No. 3 of the eight auxiliaries necessary for mastering yoga. But even then, there isn’t a lot of focus on the types of postures (although monasteries and temples have long depicted ascetics in yogic positions in temples). They were a part of tantric practices, but those were all seated positions with mudras till six centuries ago. “The best-known and most influential text on hathayoga, the 15th-century Hathapradipika (‘Light on Hatha’), describes 15 asanas, of which eight are not seated postures,” he writes.
However, even though non-seated asanas were not part of yoga texts, there are mentions of them being used as far back as 2,500 years. Apparently, Alexander’s entourage in 4th century BCE found 15 men standing in different postures for the whole day under the sun, and even the Mahabharata mentions ascetics who would invert themselves (bat penance), stand on one leg or hold up their arms for extended periods of time.
But it was only after the 11th century onwards that a whole series of asanas were documented across texts. From the ever-favourite Shavasana (corpse pose) to Tapkara asana (ascetic’s posture), Narakasana, Kapalasana or Viparitakaranasana. Some texts suggest that there are as many as 8.4 million types of asanas, and those don’t include additions from the 20th century — “postures which became part of modern yoga but which had no Indian precedents were classified as asanas; for example, trikonasana, the triangle pose,” writes Mallinson, adding, “As the corpus of texts on hathayoga developed, asana went from being a simple way of sitting for meditation, mantra-repetition and breath-control – taught in passing – to one of its most important, complex, diverse and well documented practices.”
Beyond Hinduism: Cross-cultural references
The first text to teach physical practices and call them Hatha yoga is the Dattatreyayogasastra (Yogic Teachings of Dattatreya), from the 13th century. It says anyone can practise yoga, whatever their religious orientation – including none whatsoever: “[If] diligent, through practice everyone, even the young or the old or the diseased, gradually obtains success in yoga. Whether Brahman, ascetic (sramana), Buddhist, Jain, Skull-bearing tantric (kapalika) or materialist (carvaka), the wise man endowed with faith (sraddha), who is constantly devoted to his practice obtains complete success. Success happens for he who performs the practices – how could it happen for one who does not?” (‘Roots of Yoga’)
Texts that describe both Buddhist and Jain practices describe various asanas, which have also been depicted in the art and sculpture practices of the time. In the introduction to the brochure on the prolific travelling exhibition ‘Yoga: The Art of Transformation’, which documents the visual corpus of yoga through the ages, editor Debra Diamond writes, “The pictorial tradition…reveals that yogas was not a unified construct or the domain of any single religion, but rather decentralised and plural. While most objects emerged out of Hindu contexts or depict Hindu practitioners, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, and Sufi images illuminate patterns of trans-sectarian sharing… Representations of divinized gurus, fierce yoginis, militant ascetics, and romantic heroes epitomize the fluidity of yogic identity across ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ boundaries.”
There have even been studies and references made to the various positions practised by Muslims during namaz, which are similar to yogic postures, such as the Balasana (child pose).
Yoga under the Mughals
In fact, historian and author William Dalrymple, in a piece for the ‘New York Review of Books’, writes about “a young Hindu khanazad (or ‘palace-born’) prodigy named Govardhan” in the 17th century, who painted pictures of holy men “performing yogic asanas or exercises that aimed to focus the mind and achieve spiritual liberation and transcendence”.
The Mughals, like their Islamic predecessors, were fascinated by yoga and its proclaimed possibilities, from its ultimate goal of obtaining enlightenment to even more powerful abilities, such as gaining dominion of the highest gods, writes Rachel Parikh, a Calderwood Curatorial Fellow in South Asian Art, in a paper on ‘Yoga under the Mughals’. The sultans seemed to be convinced that extraordinary powers could be accessed through the practices of yoga. Emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan (all spanning 1556 to 1658) not only called for Persian translations of Sanskrit works on yoga, but also verbal and visual documentation of their personal encounters with ascetics. Most importantly, they called for systematic studies of yoga exercises, so they, like Hindu holy men, can access its powers.
These supernatural powers have been referenced as late as the 13th century in texts such as the Dattatreyayogasastra, which talk about yogic powers that include the ability to fly, to hear and see across vast distances, to make oneself very small or very large, mind possession, etc. Conversations around these ‘heightened abilities’, especially by the Nath yogis – who adopted and propagated the Hatha Yoga tradition – in the 9-10th centuries onwards could have fuelled these ideas during the Mughal reign.
From the colonial era to Yoga as in now popular
As Singleton says in his essay ‘Transnational Exchange and the Genesis of Modern Postural Yoga’, the predominant connotations of the word “yoga” came about during a relatively short period in the early decades of the twentieth century. It was the result of a complex transnational exchange of ideas and practices within the larger context of what we might term “the yoga renaissance.”
However, beginnings of this can be seen in the late 19th century, with a cross-pollination of yoga asanas and Western gymnastics. It was then that the Europeans and Americans were simultaneously appropriating and blending new forms of yoga, and that was positioned as a “‘spiritual’ practice”. It was also around this time that these ‘body stretches’ began to be more associated with Hinduism, and ideology further spread by members of the Brahmo Samaj (of which Swami Vivekananda was also a member), as they thought this vision of Hinduism “sought to present a unified vision of Indian religion which would counter colonialist claims that Hindus were backward and superstitious in their beliefs and practices (Singleton).”
The timing of this interest in yogic practices coincided with the rise and spread of gymnastics and bodybuilding, which were being developed as a system of therapeutic movement, which is probably when the phrase ‘mind body and spirit’ germinated. Sanskrit scholar Srisa Chandra Vasu, in his 1895 translation of Gherandasamhita says that various postures found in the book were “gymnastic exercises, good for general health, and peace of mind”. In India, people such as German bodybuilder and father of modern bodybuilding Eugen Sandow (1867–1925), and yogi and nationalist Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) did their bit to combine elements of bodybuilding and yogic asanas.
Thereafter, over the decades, figures such as Swami Kuvalayananda, Shri Yogendra and T Krishnamacharya emerged as key players in the emergence of yoga as a physical culture on a global platform. This, of course, was catapulted to a cult-like status thanks to Krishnamacharya’s student and brother-in-law, BKS Iyengar, whose black-and-white images from 1930s onwards – exhibiting mind-blowing contorted asanas – have become synonymous with yoga across the world.
In its current popular form, yoga has traversed from being a spiritual pursuit to a $80-billion global industry. In the US alone, it is slated to cross $11 billion by 2020, while in India, the wellness industry is estimated to grow to Rs 1.5 trillion ($22 billion approx.) by FY20. Billions of people practise yoga asanas around the world, and it has even assumed a life of its own on social media, with people practising yoga more to be seen in scenic locales for Instagram and Facebook.
Part of the allure of yoga – for the general masses – could lie in the notion that it is ancient. As Jeremy David Engels, a communications professor with Pennsylvania State University, wrote in his piece for ‘The Conversation’, the fascination with yoga could find root in the “‘argumentum ad antiquitatem” fallacy – which says that something is good simply because it is old, and because it has always been done this way”, however at a time when is sedentary lifestyle is becoming an epidemic, maybe modern yoga – even with its stress on stretches of the body and less of the mind – is not a bad way to hang on to tradition as a means of holistic self-benefit.