Yoga Korunta - unearthing an Ashtanga legend
Wednesday, 11 November 2015
There is an intriguing legend in the world of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. If you’ve never heard the story before, it usually goes something like this:
In the mid 1920s the late, great, yoga master and teacher, Sri T. Krishnamacharya went to the Calcutta library accompanied by a young and earnest student named K. Pattabhi Jois. They went in search of an obscure, lost yoga text named ‘The Korunta.’ They found the text which was authored by a sage named ‘Vamana Rishi’ and was etched on banana/palm leaves (not uncommon in antiquarian yoga texts.) The glyphs on the leaves described in detail a method of dynamic and vigorous Hatha yoga.
The method was characterized by various set sequences (krama) of asana (postures) linked through movement, breath, physical locks and focused eye gaze. This linking of movement and breath is known as ‘vinyasa.’ Vinyasa means ‘to place in a special way’ and is a term also found in classical Indian arts such as music and dancing.
It is said by some that the Korunta leaves were bound with an ancient edition of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (a 2000 year old treatise on the psychological technology of Yoga.) This system is known as Ashtanga Yoga (meaning eight-limbed yoga.) According to Gregor Maehle (Ashtanga Yoga 2006) the two systems were therefore intended to be practiced and studied together. Hence the name ‘Ashtanga Vinyasa.’
Having deciphered the text, Krishnamachraya taught the method to Pattabhi jois. The final part of the story is that the Korunta soon-after disintegrated, and/or was consumed by ants (not implausible in the Indian climate): never to be seen again by anyone other than Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois. It is thought to have been a unique copy.
Jois devoted his life to propagating the Ashtanga Vinyasa method and in the 1970s he taught famous western yogis: David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff and David Swenson. The practice caught on in the west where it gained widespread popularity and was famously eulogised by celebrities such as Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sting. Today, Ashtanga Vinyasa is one of the most popular forms of yoga in the world.
It is on the basis of this text the Korunta that the Ashtanga Vinyasa system has been heralded by many of its proponents as an ancient practice from a lineage that stretches back millennia. Many practitioners have also cited Patanjali’s ancient system of Ashtanga as a source to legitimise and add credibility to the authority of their practice.
“At the heart of Ashtanga is Vinyasa. The essence of Vinyasa is the syncronicity of breath and movement.” (Ashtanga Yoga, John Scott, DVD, 2002 )
However, Patanjali’s text makes no mention of Vinyasa and only mentions one asana: ‘sthirra, sukhasanam..a steady, comfortable sitting posture.’ (YS 2:46) Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga is essentially meditative and is a method for progressively bringing the mind under control: for ‘stilling the waves in the mind.‘ (YS 1:2) Patanjali’s method is clearly very different from the vigorous, physically demanding system of modern Asthanga Vinayasa yoga.
Searching for the Korunta
From the beginning, I was fascinated by the legend of the Korunta: it gave the Ashtanga series an air of mystery and an ancient authority. I read various accounts of the story of the Korunta and wondered as to its authenticity. Once I started checking, I found that a number of Krishnamacharya’s students have mentioned him talking about the text but I could find no record of such a text being published. Neither could I find an author by the name of Vamana Risihi. In Hindu mythology, Vamana is the name of the fifth avatar of Vishnu and it is a fairly common Indian name. The title ‘Rishi’ usually denotes a sage or seer, from the root ‘Drsh‘ meaning ‘to see.’ (As in ‘Drishti’ the practice of focused eye gaze.)
The Vinyasa method and asanas described in Krishnamacharya’s book: 'Yoga Makaranda' (1934) closely resemble that of Ashtanga Vinyasa’s primary series and seem to form part of a much broader system of vinyasa yoga which some of his later students have termed 'Vinyasa Krama.' However, the Makaranda's extensive bibliography does not include the Korunta.
Pattabhi Jois’ book ‘Yoga Mala’ (1962), the seminal text on Ashtanga Vinyasa, also does not reference the Korunta. Nonetheless, Jois offers a tantalising quote from Vamana Rishi, (presumably from the Korunta)
“Vina vinyasa yogena asanadin na karayet -
Oh yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa”
Apart from this one quote, I could find no other published quotation from a text by the name of Korunta. Neither could I find any record, pre 1934, of yogis practising asanas in the vinyasa style taught by Krishnamacharya and then Jois. In fact, a large number of postures in the Ashtanga Vinyasa method cannot be found in any of the traditional texts of Hatha yoga. The Korunta and origins of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga remained very much a mystery.
Then in 2011, whilst studying the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a 14th century text on Hatha yoga) a name jumped out from the page and caught my eye. In the first chapter of the Pradipika, the author Svatmarama lists the lineage of yogis in Hatha Yoga (HYP 1: 5-9.) The 13th name in the list is
"Kuarantaka: also know as Karandaka, puarantaka and Kurantaka"
Kurantaka - Kuranta - Kurunta
The name bears a very close similarity to Korunta. Interesting, but not hugely significant.
However, a few weeks later, I received from India a translation of a longer version of the Pradipika: previously unavailable. (Hathapradipika 10 Chapters, 2006.) This text gives more details of the Hatha lineage and again mentions Kuarantaka. I learnt to my astonishment that a yogi named ‘Kuarantaka’ authored a text entitled:
'Kapala Kuarantaka Yogabhysasa Paddahti'
Which approximately translates as ‘The yoga method of Kurantaka Kapala’
(Kapala means skull or skull cup and I suspect is a title given to the yogi Kuruntaka to indicate his affiliation to the Kapilika, skullbearing sect of Shaivism)
The text is described as containing 112 postures. Now I was interested, as this figure is very close to the combined number of postures in the Ashtanga primary and second series which is 106 (David Swenson 1999.) It is significant in that most ancient yoga texts only describe a handful of predominantly seated asanas. For a manuscript (pre 18th century) to describe so many asanas is unprecedented.
The full title of the text is a bit of a mouthful: especially for westerners, so it would be logical for Krishnamachraya and Jois to shorten it to Kuaranta: or Korunta.
After a bit more research, I found my theory confirmed in A.G. Mohan’s biography of Krishnamacharya in which he states that:
“He (Krishnamacharya) mentioned the “Yoga Kuranta’ on occasion during my studies. The Yoga Kuranta was apparently authored by the yogi named Korantaka, who is mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1.6).” (A.G. Mohan 2010)
I contacted the Lonavla Institute in India, who translated and published the longer edition of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and asked them about the text composed by Kurantaka,
What I learned intrigued me very much:
“We have copied the Kapala kurantaka manuscript from Bharat Itihas Samshodhan Mandal Library, Pune. This is a Hatha text but very much different from other Hatha texts because of its all vigorous / rigorous practices. It is possible to say that this tradition belongs to South part of India.”
So a text authored by the yogi named Kurantaka does exist and is also known to some sanskrit scholars in India. I subsequently learnt that it is usually referred to as the ‘Kapala Kurantaka.’
“Vigorous/rigorous practices” fits very well with the nature of Ashtanga Vinyasa. Krishnamacharya was from the South of India. Could it be that this is the same text described in the legend of the Korunta?
Having explained to Dr Gharote, the head of the Lonavla Institute, my theory concerning the Korunta, he replied:
“It is possible to say that the text "Korunta" is actually "Kapala Kuaranta Hathabhyasa-Paddhati" because until now we have never came across any other text related to ‘Kurantaka’ term rather than this text. So unless and until we have any other evidences, we have to accept that "Korunta" is actually "Kapala Kuaranta Hathabhyasa-Paddhati".
Although this is by no means conclusive it is certainly encouraging and opens up the possibility that the Korunta does indeed exist, albeit by a slightly different title and composed by another author.
I managed to obtain a list of sanskrit names of all the asanas listed in the Kapala Kuarantaka and using the ‘Encyclopedia of traditional asanas’ (also by the Lonavla Institute, 2006) and cross referencing with David Swenson’s Ashtanga Yoga manual, I have been able to identify 51 or more postures that bear either a close similarity to, or are identical with postures in the Asthanga Vinyasa first and second series. There may well be more as there are many postures that I have been unable to compare or identify because the nomenclature of South Indian yoga at this time was very different to that of today. In addition, I have found at least two postures that feature in the 3rd and 4th series of Ashtanga Vinyasa.
Significant also is the identification of the 86th asana on the list:
Encyclopedia of traditional asanas:
"Hold the hands together firmly on the ground and jump in and out through two arms.” (KKH - 86)
This practice of jumping the legs through the hands is an important component of Ashtanga Vinyasa and is a technique that links each posture together. It is similar to the practice of ‘Tolasana’ in which the legs are lifted, also known as ‘Pluthi’. The practice of jumping the legs between the hands is virtually unique to Ashtanga Vinyasa and is rarely found in other lineages.
Dr Gharote estimates the age of the Kapala Koruntaka to be, at least, pre 14th Century. This is significant in itself as very few texts of such antiquity mention so many asanas.
The Lonavla Institute plan to publish this text at some point in the future: however there are several limitations in that they currently only have one copy of the manuscript: to publish a critical edition they need at least 3 manuscripts in order to make comparisons. Also the manuscript they have is incomplete. Some of the asanas are not named but descriptions of their technique are given.
However, Dr Gharote is confident that if they can find some other copies of this manuscript then they will eventually be able to publish. Hopefully soon this missing yoga text will be available in English for us all to study and learn from.
It is more than likely that modern Ashtanga Vinyasa does to some extent originate in the teachings found in the text commonly referred to as Korunta. I am convinced that this text does exist and is known to some Indian scholars and referred to as the ‘Kapala Kurantaka’. The text was authored by a yogi named ‘Kuruntaka’ and was composed some time before the 14th century. The full title of the text is: ‘Kapala Kuarantaka Yogabhysasa Paddahti.’
Krishnamacharya was an accomplished sanksrit scholar, and we know from K.V. Iyer’s 1934 introduction to the Makaranda that Krishnamacharya and his pupils visited Lonavla. So it is highly probable that he would have been familiar with the Kapala Kurantaka.
Having said this, I think it is unlikely that the Kapala Kurantaka describes Ashtanga Vinyasa in the way that we know it today: complete with vinyasas, bandhas, drishti and ujjayi pranayama. The postures don’t appear to be listed in any set order. Some of the postures may be the same or similar but there are also a number other unusual practices that have little in common with today’s practice. For example, hanging in postures from ropes is certainly a feature of the text. (Curiously, the word ‘Korunta‘ can be translated as ‘puppet,‘ as in - hanging from a string.) It may be that some of the techniques developed by B.K.S Iyenger using props and ropes, also originated in this text.
The vinyasa approach to asana practice that Krishnamacharya’s wrote about in 1934 and taught his students was very likely to have been influenced by the Kapala Kurantaka and also from a wealth of other practices, texts, traditions and from Krishamacharya’s Guru, Ramamohana . Whether or not Pattabhi Jois visited the Calcutta library with Krishnamacharya and read the text remains unknown but it is clear that the vinyasa method he learnt from Krishnamacharya became an integral part of the teachings he gave and which later became known as Ashtanga Vinyasa.
I have to admit that I am surprised by my own conclusion. I am by no means a devoted Ashtanga practitioner. I periodically enjoy practising Ashtanga Vinyasa but this form of yoga isn’t my main practice. I was initially a little skeptical about the Korunta and presumed it likely that it would turn out to be a myth popularised within the Ashtanga community. I realise now that I may have been completely wrong and have made a 180 degree u-turn on this.
I have also come to the realisation that, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if the system is ancient and comes from a lost manuscript. It is without doubt a great method of yoga that holds within its structure a silent wisdom and somatic intelligence that no amount of written words or texts can reveal. Ashtanga Vinyasa doesn't require a set of ancient credentials to enhance its credibility.
I recognise that this research is far from conclusive but I hope that it will be of interest to the yoga community. I am sure that I have established more than enough links in the chain for this discovery to warrant serious consideration and further academic research.
© James Russell 2015
For more information on the Lonavla Institute visit:
• Burley, Mikel. 2000 Hatha Yoga: its Context, Theory and Practice Motilal Banarsidass,Delhi
• Desikachar, K. (2005) The Yoga of the Yogi, The Legacy of T Krishnamacharya Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai
• Gharote, Dr. M.L. (2006) The Encyclopaedia of traditional Asanas The Lonavla Institute, India
• Gharote, Dr. M.L. (2006) Hathapradipika of Svatmarama (10 chapters) The Lonavla Institute, India
• Jois, K. Pattabhi (2010) (1962) Yoga Mala North Point Press, New York
• Krishnamacharya, T. 2011(1934) Yoga Makaranda, The Nectar of Yoga English Translation by TKV Desikachar, Media Garuda, Chennai
• Maehle Gregor. 2006 Ashtanga Yoga, Practice and Philospophy Kaivalya Publications, Australia
• Mallinson, James (2004) The Gheranda Samhita YogaVidya.com, Woodstock, NY
• Mohan, A.G. 2010 Krishnamacharya, His Life and Teachings Shambala, U.S.A.
• Muktibodhananda, Swami (1998) Hatha Yoga Pradipika Yoga (by Svatmarama) Publications Trust, Bihar
• Singleton, Mark. 2010 Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice Oxford Universtity Press, New York
• Satchidananda, Swami (2005) (1978) The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali Integral Yoga Publications, Virginia
• Scott, John (2002) Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series with John Scott, DVD
• Sjorman, N.E. (1999) The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace Shakti Malik Abhinav Publications, Delhi
• Swenson, David (1999) Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual Ashtanga Yoga Productions, U.S.