The Evolution of Yoga Asana Practice: A Brief History

Hi AHEMSKIS,

Given my ill-advised rushed summary and ensuing contentious discussion last time around, I thought it might be useful to go into some more detail, provide some references and additional resources for anyone interested in this juicy topic!

I have been deeply interested in and a student of mind-body disciplines, altered states, psychology, and philosophy for close to 30 years, and for the last 10 years focusing on how all of that relates to neuroscience —so it is hard to know sometimes where to begin or how deep to go into the overlapping topics!

Let me first say that I see yoga as an evolving, cross-cultural exploration, and that one of the reasons I fell in love with both yoga and Buddhist practices is that, rather then dry and rigid religious belief systems, they are primarily experiential and embodied modes of self-discovery —and as such they have been able to be adopted by different cultures and be further modified and developed to meet the needs of different people in different times.

Even within the India, there is radical and diverse variation in philosophical stances and underlying ideas of the purpose of spiritual practice.

It is useful to remember too that the word “yoga” is used in different ways in different contexts to refer to different things.

Astika and Nastika

Perhaps a good starting point in this regard is to consider the 6 astika schools of Hindu philosophy: Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkyha, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta.

In this context, as listed above, the word “Yoga” refers to one of these metaphysical schools of thought, and to further complicate matters, this set of philosophical/religious ideas called “Yoga” is heavily influenced by another one of those 6 schools, Samkyha.

Now you may wonder what the term “astika” means: essentially it is a grouping of all those varieties of ideas that have in common the acceptance of the belief in an “atman” or essential and immortal soul as described in the Vedas.

There are other schools of thought, referred to as “nastika” who do not accept this belief, and do not follow the Vedas. These include: Buddhism, Jainism, Carvaka, and Ajivika.

This central difference regarding religious orientation has direct implications on ideas and beliefs about why one would engage in spiritual practice and study.

In simplified terms, for the astrika schools, the goal of spiritual practice and study, indeed of life itself, is to come to the direct understanding /experience of one’s true identity not as a mere mortal human but as an eternal soul (atman) who in essence is one with Brahman.

These schools, like some other religions, see our lives in this world as a kind of preparation for another world beyond —and they see meditation, ritual purification, animal sacrifices, chanting, puja, prayer etc all as a way to interact with, and come to realization both of this other world and of one’s true identity as atman separate from the body and the material world.

This formulation derives from the Vedas, the ancient texts of Vedic culture —these are hymns, which were handed down first in an oral tradition and later written, dating possibly as far back as 1700 BCE.

The Vedas are described as being created by Brahman and therefore of superhuman or divine origin. There is research and anthropological theory to suggest that the Vedas (especially the Rigveda) originated in groups of seekers who practiced sacramental consumption of the amanita muscaria mushroom, and are expressions of the psychedelic insights, revelations and hallucinations attributed to the plant god Soma.

Following the Vedas, and believing their core metaphysical claims is the centerpiece of what makes for the later orthodox schools of Hinduism.

On the other hand, and again simply put, the nastrika schools by contrast do not accept the Vedas, especially the central claim regarding atman, and the existence of another world beyond this one.

For this reason the orthodox Hindu culture of the Brahmins branded the unorthodox as “nastrika,” and in certain times and places this was an insult and a smear on one’s reputation and spiritual virtue or the legitimacy of certain teaching, texts or teachers.

As in most ancient religious traditions, orthodoxy was part of how power, wealth and authority were maintained, and the unorthodox were often looked down upon or oppressed.

 

Varna (or Caste) System

Here it is useful to mention the caste system, which is an ancient form of organizing Indian society based on religious authority dictating that people born into specific ethnic groups and their families were destined by karma to belong to one of four different hierarchical social classes:

Brahmins were the wealthiest and priestly class, Kshatriya were the military rulers, Vaishya were the farmers and later the merchants, and the Shudra were the laborers and servants.

The fifth caste, Dalit or Untouchable, were considered the lowest and was often not even mentioned. Dalit’s were considered polluted and their corrupt energy was seen as contagious, such that someone from a higher caste should not consume food or drink with a Dalit in sight.

Essentially the belief was that your past life karma dictated which of these castes or varnas you were born into, and if you were a good person in a lower caste, maybe next lifetime you could move up in status, human rights, wealth etc..

The Brahmins or priestly class, who defined religious orthodoxy and were the wealthiest, were also called ‘twice born” meaning they had a special karmic status and were by evidence of their birth, further along in their spiritual realization than the other castes.

Within this orthodox and theocratic social structure, there were (and still are) individuals who chose to live on the edges of the society, renounce social status, possessions, work, family, sex etc… These are the Sadhus, and theirs is an ascetic path of renunciation, poverty, and intense spiritual practice.

 

Sadhus

There are many sects and sub-sects for sadhus, who might follow either astrika or nastrika teachings, but either way, they have stepped out of the conventions of Hindu society.

They typically grow their matted hair and beards long. Most partake very regularly of cannabis, which is seen as a way to commune with the god Shiva.

Some sadhus live in cemeteries, many cover their bodies in the ashes of the dead burned in funeral pyres to show their lack of attachment to their physical bodies, and their conviction in their identity as pure atman.

Some sadhus live their lives completely naked (the “sky-clad”), and as part of the austerities and renunciation of the material world and human body, they perform various practices to damage their genitals to prevent sexual function and desire. Many sadhus eat and drink only from cleaned out human skulls.

Some sadhus (the Aghori) even consume the rotting flesh of dead bodies as well as human urine and feces, so as to show their conviction that everything is divine.

Within the orthodox Hindu tradition, it was considered virtuous to become a sadhu in the last stage of life, after having raised kids and had social responsibilities, but most sadhus enter this way of life much earlier.

Sadhus generally beg for food and rely on donations to survive, and they are held in mystical regard by common people who will often pay them to caste spells, ward of evil spirits and the like. Some sadhus perform extreme practices like standing on one leg without moving for an entire year, or vowing to never speak, some will perform various ascetic acts like reclining on beds of nails, dragging objects with hooks sunk into their flesh, or piercing their faces, tongues, eyelids and other areas with skewers or knives.

As a side note: the Buddha was also a kind of sadhu, who was never satisfied with the teaching he encountered and the practices he mastered and ended up creating a “middle way” between asceticism and sense pleasures, which had a much more psychological interest in how to become free of human suffering, which ended up becoming Buddhism —one of the nastika, or unorthodox schools that denies the existence of atman, and is non-theistic (ie: no god) in its metaphysics.

The Buddha was also opposed to the caste system.

To high caste members in Hindu society, the sadhu and his extreme practices was often seen as repugnant and an embarrassment, especially in the light of British colonization and cultural supremacy/bigotry.

 

Yoga, “Asana,” and First Texts

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are dated around the 4th century, (around 1700 years old) and uses the term “asana” to designate the seated posture for meditation. It is primarily a manual on concentration meditation as a way to realize/experience the metaphysical claims of atman, and to attain union with Brahman.

These sutras are heavily influenced, as mentioned before, by the Samkyha school and its dualist formulation of reality as divided into Purusha (pure consciousness) and Prakriti (nature. Meditation in this form is seen as a way to disentangle oneself from nature and realize one’s identity as pure consciousness.

In keeping with a more ascetic sensibility, part of this process involves becoming dis-identified with the body, which is seen as impure.

This use of the word “yoga” refers to the meditative process of coming to union with god as pure consciousness. Included in the sutras are a set of spiritual commandments about what to do and not do, (the yamas and niyamas) as well as several claims about levitation, controlling the minds of others and coming to perfect knowledge of the nature of the universe, movements of the planets etc., via meditation.

In addition, the sutras are a combination of various traditions and the stages of Samadhi, or meditative absorption, he describes appear to have been influenced by the Buddha as well.

Yoga asana as we think of it most likely originates with the tantric sadhus in around the 5th century. 

Interestingly, and again, as a simplified orienting generalization, tantric philosophy is distinct from that of Patanjali and Samkyha, in that these metaphysics emphasize a radically different non-dual perspective in which the divine consciousness is seen as interpenetrating every aspect of existence, and so the spiritual path is one of embracing all things as divine, and often on breaking the more orthodox taboos, including those around purity, sexuality etc.

So the linking of asanas being practiced by these tantric sadhus to Patanjali’s sutras is tricky, given the quite different metaphysical beliefs and ideas about why one would be practicing in the first place.

Most of these earliest mentions of this yoga asana have to do with mudras (making shapes with the hands and fingers), ways of placing the legs and feet when sitting, and ways of placing the tongue during meditation. The original meaning of asana is “seat.”

A lot of emphasis in early evolving practice is focused on claims that it will supposedly enable the development of  siddhis or magical powers.

The earliest references to actual Hatha Yoga are from Buddhist texts in the 8th century.

The Dattatreyayogasashtra from around the 13th century teaches 10 yoga practices, but these are all mudras, bandhas and pranayama breathing techniques.

It is not until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in the 15th century that “asana” in the sense we now us the word is described, and there are 15, all of which are on the floor. No standing poses, no sun salutation, no downward dog, no inversions.

Some scholars speculate that the Brahmins were gradually co-opting practices and asanas from the sadhus, and placing them in a more orthodox religious context.

 

The Pashupati Seal and the “5000 year old Tradition”

In modern yoga circles it is common to say that the asana practice we are doing is 5000 years old —this is based on just one archeological discovery, the Pashupati Seal, found in 1928 in the Indus Valley region (Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India) which depicts a man seated in what could be interpreted as a yoga pose, surrounded by animals, and wearing either a horned head-dress or having three heads.

This type of mythic figure may be the earliest representation of Shiva, but is also very similar to another Mediterranean/Middle Eastern figure called the Master of Animals, as well as a figure seen on a Danish piece called the Gundestrip Cauldron.

There are no clear connections between this one carving and asana practice this far back in history, and representations of human figures engaged in various forms of ritual worship, or of mythical deities is common to many cultures of this and other times and regions.

So a clear path to a history of yoga asana has been complex and difficult to trace, with various teachers and schools each claiming that they held the one true lineage.

 

Krishnamacharya and the Hatha Yoga Revival

Asana practice as we know it in the West all traces back to Mysore and the teachings of Krishnamacharya, b. 1888. His students include BKS Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, who each popularized very widely practiced sequences and asanas. Krishnamacharya is widely associated with developing the concept of vinyasa, or combining breath with movement. 

In 2010, yoga scholar and practitioner, Mark Singleton completed groundbreaking work on a 3-year + research project in which he sought out ancient and heretofore lost texts in difficult to access libraries, and conducted interviews of the last remaining students of Krishnamacharya, in an attempt to trace the historical origins of what would become transnational posture practice —and what is now generally referred to in popular culture as “yoga.”

As published in his book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Postural Practice, Singleton found that there was a complex set of circumstances and influences that created the Hatha Yoga revival of the 1930’s, and the ensuing popularizing of asana practice across the world.

This included reactions to colonialism and British stereotypes of Indian men as effeminate, as well as of Indian culture as primitive.

A popular cultural movement at the time around fitness, bodybuilding and gymnastics, linked up with this drive to showcase an aspect of Indian physical culture as well-organized, physically fit, practiced (for the first time) on gymnasium-like floors with specifically defined standing postures performed not unlike ballet’s positions —and that claimed a lineage and connection with the respectable philosophical Hindu school called “Yoga” rather than those embarrassing sadhus and scandalous tantrikas.

Singelton shows how the newly invented camera, and the combination of these cultural, colonial and nationalist movements combined to find Krishnamacharya teaching the princes at the Mysore palace in a special room with gymnastics equipment, and led to the images and ideas of asana practice becoming more widespread, even as this latest evolution of the physical practice involved Hatha Yoga being influenced by Scandanavian gymnastics, British fitness routines, and a new emphasis on physical health and strength.

Krishnamacharya and his student Pattabhi Jois developed the surya namaskar or sun salutation sequence that has become ubiquitously associated with asana practice ever since, but for which there is no evidence existing as part of Hatha Yoga prior to the 20th century.

Singelton shows how Iyengar’s later hugely popular book, Light On Yoga can be compared page by page with an earlier book of Danish gymnastics.

I have corresponded with Mark Singleton and he has directed anyone interested in pursuing these topics further or more deeply to look at the most recent introduction to his book, published online here.

As a lover of yoga, he continues his research and writing, and directs us as well to his forthcoming book (available in April) with James Mallinson, Roots of Yoga. 

In 2013, a colleague of Singleton’s and part of his Modern Yoga Research project, Jason Birch, published an article about his recent discovery of a manuscript from the 17th century that he believes shows a significantly greater number of asanas (84) than was previously known being taught in that period.

These asanas involved breath control, repetitive movement, and the use of a rope for inversions, similar to what we see in Iyengar yoga. They establish a larger number, specifically of seated and inverted postures, going back perhaps 400 years, than were previously listed. Some of which may have influenced the Krishnamacharya revival and popularization of the 1930’s.

When I asked Singleton for comment on whether or not this discovery revises his thesis laid out in Yoga Body, and he has said it does not, but that a clearer picture should emerge of how he sees this complex history in the forthcoming book listed above.

AHEM in the 21st Century

In an essay I wrote as the first chapter of a book called 21st Century Yoga, I explored the later historical trends, ideas and cross-pollination that happened with yoga as it intersected with Western culture.

I am also happy to share a PDF version of that chapter with anyone on request.

The central idea I explored is that yoga asana practice becomes powerfully appealing to the West during our time of counterculture upheaval in the 1960’s, in which the youth were rebelling against not only the Vietnam war, but also rigid gender roles, social conformity, and sexual repression, but also against the conventions of dualist/puritanical Judaeo-Christian religion.

These rebels were discovering Eastern spirituality and experiential practices as a way of liberating their relationships to their bodies, psyches, sexuality and sense of meaning. Not unlike their earlier Indian counterparts, they were also expanding consciousness with psychedelics and cannabis.

This period in the West is also rich with new developments in psychology that found interesting common cause with ideas of introspection, self-awareness, embodied aliveness, and an existential sense of authenticity that transcended conventional societal repressions. To this counterculture, a tantric sense of sacred sexuality, a world infused with divine energy, and he possibilities of an experience of enlightened revelation were all very appealing.

This combines then with meccas like the Esalen Institute and its emphasis on “human potential” using massage, psychological encounter groups, consensual nudity in the luxurious hot springs and a kind of back-to-nature sense of spiritual community.

Out of this uniquely western sensibility emerges somatic psychology and its overlap with various forms of bodywork, and the ideas that practices like asana and meditation can be integrated with certain psychological ideas and ways of working with deep feelings, trauma, healing and ultimately living more fully to your human potential.

I am utilizing the chakra system is as a way to explore this type of embodied inner work.

Buddhist meditation with its emphasis on psychological awareness, as well as its cultivation, via vipassana mediation, of enhanced bodily awareness and mind-body process also shares significant overlap with these developments —and fits really well with the Somatic Experiencing method in particular.

In addition, the non-theistic tone of Buddhist meditation and the ways in which it can be studied as a psychological tool, as well as a neurobiological process, makes “mindfulness” an approach that becomes widespread with multiple applications that can be taught without requiring reference to any specific religious beliefs or claims.

This leads to the writing of books like those we are studying together!

Likewise, ways of practicing asana can be (and have been) studied in terms of their effects on the nervous system, brain and psychological well-being, as well as other biomechanical benefits.

For me personally these further aspects of how mind-body practices have evolved, to now include overlaps with psychology and science, as well as liberal and progressive modern values with regard to the body, sexuality, emotions and equality, have all heavily influenced how I shape, share and talk about the practices I teach.

I see mind-body practice as a shared global process of discovering how to keep growing, healing, integrating, expressing and understanding what it is to be human.

As such I draw on poetry, music, philosophy and ways of engaging in these embodied awareness practices that have at their center the intention of creating an experience for people that invites deep self-acceptance, emotional honesty, embodied liberation, compassion for self and others, and an openness to sublime altered brain states, community connection, moments of healing and intuitive insight, and training in awareness skills that are practical and helpful for relationships, work, creativity, self-understanding, and being of service to our world.

That’s what I have come to over the last 30 years (over 15 of which have been in collaboration with Hala) to include in my definition of the term “yoga.” Breath, movement, stillness, awareness, psyche, touch, process, expression, aliveness, and I am both delighted and honored to share this vision, experience and approach with you!