Origins of modern yoga

A summary of notes from a study day at Heythrop college with guest speakers: James Mallinson and Suzanne Newcombe.

I recently attended a study day at Heythrop college in London entitled ‘What is modern yoga?’ The day was hosted by the ‘Hindu & Christian Forum’ and featured presentations from leading experts in the field, including Dr Suzanne Newcombe and yogi scholar James Mallinson (translator of Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samita.) The following essay is based on notes I made that day. A lot of information to get down and condense into one article: 2000 years of yoga history in fact, but here goes:

Over the past 30 years there has been a massive growth in the popularity of yoga. In the U.S.A, yoga is practised regularly by an estimated 20.4 million people (yoga journal), is worth approximately $10.3 billion and is said to be ‘bigger than Microsoft!’. Modern yoga is often characterised by an emphasis on physical postures called ‘asanas’, breathing techniques called ‘pranayama’ and meditation.

The foundations of yoga originate in teachings found in the ‘Yoga sutra’ of Patanjali, composed around 3rd or 4th century. Patanjali defines yoga as the ‘stilling of the waves of the mind’ and after identifying the nature of mind, outlines a systematic ashtanga ‘eightfold’ method by which the practitioner is able to realise his or her true nature. Patanjali briefly mentions ‘asana’ which means ‘to sit’ and advocates a steady and comfortable seat.

The idea of an ‘asana’ as a posture beyond that of a simple seated position originated in an entirely different yoga tradition that developed independently of Patanjali. That tradition is called ‘Hatha yoga’ and is the yoga style of predominantly physical practices that forms the basis of much of modern yoga.

Hatha means ‘forceful’ or the ‘harnessing of force.’ Hatha yoga first developed in the 9th -10th century and came from the merging on two great traditions: ‘asceticismand ‘tantra.

Asceticism can be traced back to at least 400 BCE and ascetic practices are mentioned in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and also in the story of the Buddha. Third party reports from the entourage of Alexander the Great described ascetic yogis retaining their breath for extended periods of time and standing in strange positions for days or even years at a time, i.e. holding one arm in the air. Such practices are performed by ascetic yogis even today: the teachings are still transmitted orally and no written texts exist. Ascetics use the techniques of physical endurance, austerity and celibacy to build up a store of spiritual energy within their bodies called ‘Tapas.’

Tantra in modern times has the association of sexual practices used to raise consciousness. This is, in fact, a very small part of a broad spectrum of practices aimed at realising the manifestation of divinity both within and without the physical universe. During the 9th - 10th centuries tantric traditions developed various visualisation techniques aimed at harnessing the spiritual energy called ‘Kundalini.’

These visualisation techniques of tantra were combined with the physical practices of the older ascetic tradition to form Hatha Yoga. The original practitioners of Hatha yoga were celibate ascetics living on the fringes of society. Their teachings were passed on orally until the11th - 15th century, when the teachings were written down for the first time. Hatha Yoga at this time existed outside of the Brahmanical (priestly) conventions of religious dogma. The teachings were open to everyone regardless of caste or religious denomination. The main purpose in writing the teachings down was to make the teachings available to an even wider range of people.

‘Whether a Brahmin, an ascetic, a Buddhist, a Jain, a skull bearer or a materialist, the wise one who is endowed with faith and constantly devoted to the practice of Hatha Yoga will attain complete success.’
The ‘Dattatreyyogasastra’ (earliest known text to teach hatha yoga,)

Hatha yoga at this time enjoyed widespread popularity and its inclusivity found followers in Buddhist, Jain, Muslim and Sufi communities. One of the earliest texts describing physical asanas comes from the Vaishnava tradition and the earliest text containing illustrations of physical postures was written in Persian and is called the ‘Bahr al-Hayat’ which means ‘water of life’ (1602.)

The Hathapradipika (approx. 1350) is probably the best known work on Hatha yoga and is a compilation of various techniques and lesser known texts of the time. It includes descriptions of shatkarma (cleansing techniques,) asanas,mudras and pranayama. The author, Svatmarama, states that there are as many as 8400,000 asanas but the text only describes around 15 postures and a handful of mudras that today are often construed as asanas. Other lesser known texts of the time, as well as 3rd party accounts indicate that early yogis were indeed practising a much broader repertoire of asanas, but perhaps the author limited himself to those which he deemed to be most important.

The text ‘Shiva samhita’ (approx 1500) frames Hatha yoga in more of a tantric context, and includes a variety of secret mantras and descriptions of chakra visualisation techniques.

In later texts such as the Hatharatnavalli (approx. 1650) the number of asanas listed expanded out to 84 and 34 are described in some detail. The Jogyapradipika describes and illustrates some 84 asanas. In the 16th century text ‘Yoga cintamani’: the teachings of Patanjali and Hatha yoga were drawn together for the first time. In the 16th and 17th centuries whole portions of Hatha texts were copied and included in the ‘Yoga Upanishads.’ This may have been an attempt by the orthodox Brahmin tradition to bring Hatha Yoga into the fold.

Another fascinating, slightly later text on Hatha yoga is the ‘Gheranda Samhita’ (approx. 1700) in which around 34 asanas are described, as well as detailed descriptions of Kriyas (cleansing techniques) and pranayama. An even wider range of asanas are found in the ‘Sritattvanidhi’ by Krsnaraja Vadeyara (approx 1830)

The popularity of Hatha Yoga in India steadily declined in the 19th century until the early 20th century when it enjoyed a massive renaissance. In the 1920s three great yoga masters emerged: Krishnamacharya, Sivananda and Kaivalyananda. All three teachers began to refine the Hatha practices and develop sequences of postures and pranayamas that could be taught to groups of students. It was from these three yogis that most of the modern schools of yoga developed.

Modern yoga is characterised by an emphasis on postures and the sequencing of postures often connected by movements known as ‘Vinyasa’ (meaning ‘to place in a special way.’) There is no textual or 3rd party evidence that yogis were practising vinyasa or sequences prior to the 20th century. The standing postures and ‘Surya Namaskar’ (salutations to the sun) were most likely modern innovations pioneered by great yogis such as T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Kaivalyananda . The traditional texts on Hatha yoga describe just three standing postures. Patanjali only mentions a couple of lines on asana and breath without offering any detailed techniques. There is certainly no mention of ‘vinyasa’ in either Patanaji or any of the traditional Hatha Yoga texts available at this time (look out for a future post on this subject.)

It seems fairly certain that, traditionally, asanas weren’t practised in a set sequence and would have been held for much longer periods of time: up to many hours at time. This is verified by the study ‘Hatha Yoga’ by Theos Bernard (1942.)

The holding of postures for prolonged periods may be attributed to the influence of asceticism in which extreme tapas, played an important role. Early Hatha yoga literature also reveals that there was a great emphasis on the awakening of dormant spiritual energy called ‘Kundalini.’ Although ‘asana’ postural yoga was an important component in the hatha yoga tradition, both the method and intention were a little different from that of today. The body was described as ‘an unbaked pot that must be baked in the fire of yoga’ (Gheranda Samhita 1.8,) in order to prepare the aspirant for the higher practices of meditation, the awakening of Kundalini Shakti and finally, complete liberation from suffering and the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

This doesn’t in any way diminish the validity of modern innovations in Hatha yoga. Traditional Hatha yoga was itself based on countless innovations and ancient yogis ability to adapt to the changes in Indian society and to exist beyond the tight dogmatic restrictions of the priestly caste.

‘There are as many ways to practice yoga as there are yoga practitioners.’ (Unknown)

Yoga is different for everybody and today we are blessed to be able to choose from a broad spectrum of practices.

The way that modern yoga is being marketed and commodified often seems to be at odds with the ascetic roots of the tradition. Hatha emerged from a culture immersed in spiritual development. Our culture is very materialistic and this can be seen reflected in the pages of any modern yoga magazine.

Although yoga comes from an essentially ‘hindu’ culture, the practices themselves are clearly universal. One of the reasons that Hatha yoga has continued to thrive, as it did a thousand years ago is because of its universal appeal and inclusive nature. As yoga continues to be embraced by new generations of yogis and teachers, it will no doubt again change and evolve to reflect the current trends of thought.

It is my own hope that we will remember the traditions of the practice and honour our yogi ancestors by staying true to the spiritual quality of the practice. If yoga was simply all about the flexibility of the body, then there would be a great many enlightened gymnasts. I recently read an interview with Baba Rampuri one of the first americans to be initiated as a Naga Sadhhu. He was talking to Bikram Chowderry, the millionaire owner of the worlds largest franchise of yoga studios. Bikram said: ‘Because of me there are now 10 million more people practising yoga in the world.” Baba Rampuri replied: ‘Yes, but without the yogis who sat in caves for centuries, you’d have had nothing to teach anybody.’

Without the yogis who completely rejected materialist society and family ties: who renounced their desires and worldly possessions to sit naked in caves for many years in meditation and yoga postures, we would have nothing. It is thanks to their relentless quest to understand the essential truth of human nature that we are able to enjoy the many fruits of the Hatha yoga tradition.

James Russell
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