New Light on Yoga

According to yoga scholars, even the yoga postures—the basic vocabulary of modern hatha yoga—have evolved and proliferated over time. In fact, only a handful of these now-familiar postures are described in the ancient texts. Patanjali’s second-century Yoga Sutra mentions no poses at all, other than the seated meditation posture. (The Sanskrit word “asana” literally means “seat.”) The fourteenth-century Hatha Yoga Pradipika—the ultimate classical hatha yoga manual—lists only 15 asanas (most of them variations of the cross-legged sitting position), for which it gives very sketchy instructions. The seventeenth-century Gheranda Samhita, another such manual, lists only 32. Conspicuously missing are the standing poses—Triangle, Warrior, etc.—and Sun Salutations that form the backbone of most contemporary systems.

yogis images Other venerable texts on hatha yoga eschew mention of asanas altogether, focusing instead on the subtle energy systems and chakras that the poses both reflect and influence. The modern emphases on precision of alignment, physical fitness, and therapeutic effects are purely twentieth-century innovations.

Rumors abound about lost, ancient texts that describe asanas in detail—the Ashtanga vinyasa system taught by Pattabhi Jois, for example, is allegedly based on a palm-leaf manuscript called the Yoga Korunta that Jois’s teacher, renowned yoga master T. Krishnamacharya, unearthed in a Calcutta library. But this manuscript has reportedly been eaten by ants; not even a copy of it exists. In fact, there’s no objective evidence that such a document ever existed. In all his voluminous writings on yoga—which contain extensive bibliographies of all the texts that have influenced his work—Krishnamacharya himself never mentions or quotes from it. Many of Krishnamacharya’s other teachings are based on an ancient text called the Yoga Rahasya—but this text too had been lost for centuries, until it was dictated to Krishnamacharya in a trance by the ghost of an ancestor who had been dead nearly a thousand years (a method of textual reclamation that will satisfy devotees, but not scholars).

In general, the textual documentation of hatha yoga is scanty and obscure, and delving into its murky history can be as frustrating as trying to snorkel in the mud-brown Ganges. Given the paucity of historical evidence, yoga students are left to take the antiquity of the asanas on faith, like fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Earth was created in seven days.

Not only is there no clear textual history, but there’s not even a clear teacher-student lineage that indicates systematized oral teachings handed down over generations. In Zen Buddhism, for example, students can chant a lineage of teachers stretching back for centuries, with each Zen master certified by the one preceding. No such unbroken chain of transmission exists in hatha yoga. For generations, hatha yoga was a rather obscure and occult corner of the yoga realm, viewed with disdain by mainstream practitioners, kept alive by a smattering of isolated ascetics in caves and Hindu maths (monasteries). It appears to have existed for centuries in seed form, lying dormant and surfacing again and again. In the twentieth century, it had almost died out in India. According to his biography, Krishnamacharya had to go all the way to Tibet to find a living master.

Given this lack of a clear historical lineage, how do we know what is “traditional” in hatha yoga? Where did our modern proliferation of poses and practices come from? Are they a twentieth-century invention? Or have they been handed down intact, from generation to generation, as part of an oral tradition that never made it into print?

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