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History of Yoga Postures (Asanas), Part 11

About eight years ago I read a controversial groundbreaking book in the Yoga world, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body (written in 2010), that upon first reading turned my notion of Yoga postures upside down (well, headstand is one of my favorite Yoga postures !). In summary the book “seemed” to be saying that until the 1930’s, except for a few exceptions, there weren’t any standing Yoga postures, not even the beloved Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar). What ??!! Sun Salutes had not even reached its centennial celebration ?? I felt like I had my Santa Claus taken away ! My image of Yoga was stolen !

A prime motivator in persuading me to begin the practice of Yoga was thinking I had finally found a spiritual tradition that involved movements and positioning of the body. In my two Yoga teacher training programs (Sivananda Yoga and Kundalini Yoga), workshops and classes, readings, and discussions with fellow Yoga practitioners, I was led to believe that Yoga postures (asanas) were several thousands of years old. Every now and then I would hear a caveat such as, “the original Yogis would say that the only reason to perform asanas is to make it easier to sit to meditate” (I say this in the Yoga classes I teach). Indeed, I learned Transcendental Meditation at an early age and practiced it off and on for many years while sitting in a chair as it was too uncomfortable for me to sit cross legged for more than a 1.1 minutes ! (After my first year of practicing Yoga I have been able to meditate while sitting cross legged ! However, it’s fine to sit in a chair while meditating). Two important things about meditating are to feel physically comfortable while doing it (Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras back me up here !) and that the crown of the head, the sahasrara chakra, is aligned over the base of the spine, the muladhara chakra. Additionally, I was mildly aware that in the evolution of Yoga, the timeline started with Yoga philosophy, followed by meditation (the goal being Samadhi, roughly the Buddhist equivalent of Enlightenment), and then physical postures (asanas).

A logical starting point for this journey of investigating the history of Yoga postures might be to trace the origins of the word Yoga and its earliest known definition. The word Yoga first appears in the Vedas which are a collection of four texts (not to be confused with text messages !) of Indian spiritual scripture. The first and earliest volume is called the Rigveda (however, it’s not “rigged” and has nothing to do with a fashion statement, “rig out” !). It is one of the earliest written “books” on earth. Most academics agree it was written roughly 3,600 years ago (1500 BCE). It is possible prior to that time it was transmitted orally. Yoga in the Rigveda means to “yoke”, to join, to connect, to unite as in joining (yoking, i’m not joking !) a horse to a chariot, a simile for connecting an individual’s soul or consciousness to universal or divine consciousness. The Vedas could be the subject of several blog articles, the point being in this blog, there is no mention of any type of Yoga asanas (which are the main focus of most modern yoga classes) in the Rigveda. It is interesting to note as well that while the Rigveda is a collection of 1,028 hymns and 10,600 verses, only 6 verses mention Yoga.

The Upanishads are 108 texts focusing on meditation and philosophy that are contained in all four of the Vedas. The 13 oldest texts are referred to as the Principal Upanishads and were written between the 8th century BCE to the 1st century CE. The later 95 texts, also known as the minor Upanishads were written from the late 1st-millennium BCE to mid 2nd-millennium CE. Twenty of these 95 texts are categorized as the Yoga Upanishads. The Yoga Upanishads examine various facets and classifications of Yoga, including postures (asanas), breath exercises (pranayama), meditation (dhyana), sound (nada), tantra, and kundalini.

The following texts are part of the Yoga Upanishads :

The Dhyanabindu Upanishad written around 100 BCE to 300 CE includes 4 sitting postures (asanas) for meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) – Siddhasana (Accomplished Pose), Bhadrasana (Bound Angle Pose or Butterfly Pose), Simhasana (Lion Pose) and Padmasana (Lotus Pose).

The Yogatattva Upanishad written around 100 BCE to 300 CE or about 150 CE or 1000 to 1300 CE, includes the 4 sitting postures from the Dhyanabindu (listed above) and adds a non-sitting asana, an inverted pose, headstand ! (Sirsasana). The instructions recommend holding the posture for 24 minutes, however, I would recommend that 22 or 33 minutes is better !

The Trishikhibrahmana Upanishad written around early 1st-millennium CE, cites roughly 15 asanas including again the 4 sitting postures of the Dhyanabindu (listed above). Of the other 11 (I like that number !), 8 are sitting postures – Swastikasana (The Auspicious Pose), Gomukha (Cow-face Pose), Virasana (Hero Posture), Baddha Padmasana (Bound Lotus Pose), Matsya-Pithaka Asana, Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Sukhasana (Easy Pose – not easy for everyone though !), Uttana Kurmasana (Inverted Tortoise), 2 are (close to the ground) balancing poses – Kukkutasana (Cock Pose), Mayurasana (Peacock Pose), and 1 heart center opening pose lying face down with tummy on the ground – Dhanurasana (Bow Pose).

The Shandilya Upanishad written around 100 BCE to 300 CE names 8 asanas all of which are previously mentioned.

The Yoga-kundalini Upanishad was written sometime after the 4th century CE. The text lists two asanas, one already mentioned and the new one a “sitting on heels” posture – Vajrasana (diamond or thunderbolt pose).

The Darshana Upanishad written 100 BCE to 300 CE details 9 asanas already mentioned.

The Varaha Upanishad was written in the middle of the 2nd millennium CE and makes mention of eleven (there is my favorite number again !) asanas. Nine of the eleven are previously accounted for. Of the other two, one is Sukhasana which is a sitting pose but in this text it is instead described as squatting with folded legs. The last (11th !!) one is called Chakrasana but is described as a sitting pose, substantially different from the modern day Chakrasana, aka wheel pose.

To recap there are 21 asanas mentioned in the Yoga Upanishads. Of these 21, 16 are sitting postures, 2 are “close to the ground” balancing poses, 1 is an inversion, 1 squatting, 1 lying on tummy. I hope all of that adds up to 21 ! None of the 21 are standing poses or involve sequencing.

Next up are the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, which is one of the most cited Yoga sources in modern day yoga classes, workshops, and teacher trainings, compiled around the 4th century CE. There must be numerous asanas mentioned in the Sutras right ? I’m afraid not. The Sutras (Verses 2.46 & 2.47) only say that an asana is steady (motionless) and pleasant (comfortable) and perfected by relaxing while meditating on the infinite (times 11 !). The implication is that an asana is a sitting position for the purpose of meditation and pranayama.

It is of interest to note (at least it is for me !) that the entire Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali is comprised of 95 sutras (short verses, aphorisms), which can be thought of like proverbs (or Reader’s Digest quotable quotes !!) and can fit onto a few pages (A4 paper !). However, there are at least a hundred published wordy books of interpretive commentaries on the Sutras.

Okay, next in line (or queue as is said here in Ireland !) is the Goraksha Śataka written around the 10th century CE. As other texts, it alludes to 84 asanas, but charmingly adds a few zeros at the end – 84,000,000 !! However, only 2 sitting postures (already accounted for) are described (83,999,998 left to go !!).

Now, for the next summary, the Vivekamārtaṇḍa was written around 1100 CE to 1300 CE. Again, the book notes there are 84 asanas, yet only three are described. Of the three, two are sitting postures already listed above, and we have a new non-sitting posture (yay !), Viparītakaraṇī (aka Sarvangasana, Salamba Sarvangasana, shoulder stand, legs up the wall pose), another inverted pose.

The last text to be covered here is the popular Hatha Yoga Pradipika written around the 15th century CE. If one has been so diligent to read as far as here, it ought to come as no surprise that 84 asanas are mentioned, however only 15 are described, including 6 non-seated asanas or which 2 haven’t been listed above – Matsyaasana (fish pose) and the beloved Savaasana (corpse or relaxation pose).

For a final recap, out of all the 11 (this number is a “coincidence”, not intended – honest) text covered above, 24 asanas are mentioned, 16 sitting, 2 balancing close to ground, 1 lying face down, 2 lying down on back, 2 inverted, and 1 squatting.

The Haṭha Yoga Project (recently completed) was a five-year (2015-2020) research project funded by the European Research Council, based at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, which investigated and analyzed the history of physical yoga practice primarily by studying texts (philology) on yoga and conducting fieldwork (ethnography). The main researchers included (in alphabetical order) Dr Daniela Bevilacqua, Dr Jason Birch, Dr Viswanath Gupta, Dr James Mallinson, and Dr Mark Singleton (author of Yoga Body).

Ten previously unpublished Sanskrit manuscripts of Hatha Yoga were translated and commented on in a book by Mallinson and Singleton, called the Roots of Yoga, published in 2017. It is an incredibly detailed labour of love, painstakingly documented, sourced, and cross referenced. It is not a light read ! It is fascinating though. I’ve been reading it off and on (using my desktop Kindle) since its publication and my page tracker tells me I’m only 77% (7 x 11) complete !! At times a team of 20 of the world’s best Sanskrit scholars were involved in the translations. James Mallison said that when he was working on the translation alone it sometimes would take him 15 minutes to translate one Sanskrit word ! (reminds me of the amount of time it has taken me to write this blog article, which has given me writer’s blog, I mean block !!). I wanted to include more information from The Roots of Yoga in this blog article, but it’s time to finish up. It can be the subject of a future blog article(s).

So where am I now in having my Santa Claus taken away from me, that most asanas practiced in today’s yoga classes haven’t been around for more than 100 years (however, this number keeps changing, I’ve seen it increase to as much as 300 years – including for sequencing as well). As a world renowned yogi told me, “You’re just going to have to get over it Jeff.” I have been down other spiritual paths before that only led to disillusionment and disappointment. To parodize the Who song, “I got fooled again, meet the new spiritual tradition, lying again like the old spiritual tradition.” Nevertheless, I have come to terms with my shattered beliefs as best I can.

In ancient India (and even now) some yogi ascetics practiced extreme physical positions (times 11 !). One such practice is Urdhvabahu, which is holding one arm in the air, and here is the catch, the duration of the pose is – forever, until death does one part from this position ! The position is an easier modification of another pose which is to hold both arms in the air while standing on one leg (think Tree Pose – Vrikshasana) and graciously providing the option to switch to standing on the other leg when desired. This is probably the first standing position in Yoga. However, the yogi ascetics did not name this position an asana (only seated postures were called asanas, and it’s quite possible that asana literally meant a seat, cushion, or whatever was being sat on during meditation and pranayama). The position was called a tapas (not a collection of tasty Spanish food !). Tapas means to generate heat, in the yogic context, to burn up inner impurities. If today’s Yoga classes consisted only of these types of poses, it would have never become as popular as it is today. As Yoga has adapted, it has become more accessible to multitudes of humans, enjoying its benefits, and helping lift the level of compassion and love on the planet (Earth !).

Without Yoga’s transformations, I would not have wound up at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram on Paradise Island in the Bahamas in 2007, where I met Angela, my (Irish) wife to be. I might still possibly be an accountant (although I was already being drawn somewhere into the holistic field) and living in my apartment in Boston Usa, where Angela claims I would have eventually been carried out of in a box (she is right !). I would not have become a Yoga teacher, moved to Ireland, and be finished writing my first blog article.

Resources :

Recommended viewing and reading :

Books :

Yoga Body (2010), Mark Singleton

Roots of Yoga (2017), Mark Singleton & James Mallinson

Article :

2018 Article published in Religions of South Asia – Let the Sādhus Talk. Ascetic understanding of Haṭha Yoga and yogāsanas, Daniela Bevilacqua

Videos :
Daniela Bevilacqua :

2018 Article published in Religions of South Asia – Let the Sādhus Talk. Ascetic understanding of Haṭha Yoga and yogāsanas

uTube – 12th Jun 2020 – Yoga and tapasyā in the ascetic world

uTube – 4th Jul 2020 Hatha Yoga Project Interview w Daniela 

Jason Birch :

uTube – Hatha Yoga Project Interview w Jason

uTube – 3rd August 2017 Liberation and Immortality in early Haṭha and Rājayoga traditions – University of Vienna

James Mallinson :

uTube – 30th Jun 2017- Hatha Yoga Project

uTube – 4th Jul 2020 – Hatha Yoga Project Interview w James 

uTube – 27th Nov 2017 – South Asian Religions Colloquium – Harvard Divinity School, Usa

Mark Singleton :

uTube – 31st Dec 2019 –  Beyond Asana: Asceticism, Alchemy, & The Tangled Roots Of Yoga – Advaya event

uTube – 14th March 2019 – Continuity, Innovation and Power in Modern Yoga’s Transformations – Brown University, Usa

Daniela Bevilacqua, Jason Birch, James Mallinson, Suzanne Newcombe, and Mark Singleton :

uTube – 7th October 2020 – Panel session on wrapping up and celebrating the end of the The Haṭha Yoga Project   (SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies) 

Daniela Bevilacqua, James Mallinson, Mark Singleton :

uTube – 15th Dec  2018 – Roots of Hatha Yoga Cartoon !

Click here to view a listing of all SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies uTube videos

Seth Powell :

uTube – 1st Dec 2020 – The Roots of Postural Yoga, Lecture 1: Sthira Sukham Āsanam: Early Meditative Seats and Asceticism – Yoga Alliance

uTube – 9th Dec 2020 – The Roots of Postural Yoga, Lecture 2: Complex Non-Seated Postures: Medieval Hatha Yoga – Yoga Alliance

uTube – 18th Dec 2020 – The Roots of Postural Yoga, Lecture 3: Salutations to the Sun: The Rise of Modern Postural Yoga – Yoga Alliance

Facebook pages :

SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies

Haṭha Yoga Project – HYP

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