The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace
The first post on this blog was a short review of Mark Singleton’s excellent historical analysis of the true origins of modern asanas. On the subject of modern posture practice, Singleton’s is the most comprehensive historical study I’ve seen, and I continue to urge Yoga practitioners to read his book.
I recently purchased N.E. Sjoman’s short but beautiful book on the Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, a book that Singleton cites as a source. Sjoman presents evidence that supports Singleton’s key assertions about the multitude of physical traditions that influenced Krishnamacharya’s asana classes during his Mysore years. One of the highlights of Sjoman’s book is a reproduction (with accompanying translations) of the yoga section of SRITATTVANIDHI (pronounced “shree-tot-van-EE-dee”; assembled by Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1794-1868), Maharaja of Mysore), whose publication date has been estimated to be sometime between 1811 and 1868. An 1897 fire in the Palace destroyed records and archives, so SRITATTVANIDHI stands in isolation as earlier texts containing such a wide variety of asanas can no longer be found. The SRITATTVANIDHI contains a diversity of asanas, from a period about 150 years earlier than the modern texts which ushered the asana revival.
Here are some interesting passages and quotes from Sjoman’s book:
- On the bibliography to Krishnamacharya’s first book Yogamakaranda (p.66): “The bibliography is a padded academic bibliography with works referred to that have nothing to with the tradition that he is teaching in. He has included material on yogic practices from these academic sources in his text without knowing an actual tradition connected with the practice.”
- p. 37-38: “The textual tradition from Patanjali from an estimated 150 BC is a dead textual tradition. Vyasa, the first commentator on Patanjali, is generally considered to have lost touch with the tradition already – if there is one. … The hatha yoga tradition is equally enigmatic. The main texts appear between 1400 to 1800. … There is no tradition of actual practice from these texts … “
- p. 39: “The yoga textual tradition is not the basis of modern practices of yoga. In fact, scholars of the textual tradition distinctly denigrate or ignore modern yoga practices.”
- p. 47-48: “It is the body which is the instrument through which spiritual aims are achieved. This is hatha yoga … But the suggestions and viewpoints are very different from those of righteous and enthusiastic practitioners today who treat asanas as a symbolic-magic complex under pseudo-scientific garb. … In most popular books on yoga today there are persistent references to the therapeutic value of asanas. .. The therapeutic case-effect relation is a later superimposition on what was originally a spiritual discipline only.”
- p. 54-55: “The danda exercises are variations of push-ups. They can be broken down to include individual asanas such as tadasana, padahastasana, caturangadandasana, and bhujangansan. They appear to be the primary foundation of Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa-s. They are used by Indian wrestlers and are probably the core of indigenous Indian exercise. … It is quite clear that the yoga system of the Mysore Palace from Krishnamacharya is another syncretism drawing heavily on the gymnastic text, but presenting it under the name of yoga. … On the yoga exercise system, the whole metaphysics and mystery can be grafted on without question. This grafting had already occurred when Krishnamacharya wrote his first book.”
- On sirsana (the headstand), p. 67: “… is not referred to in older texts of yoga. Most interesting is the reference to it in the MALLAPURANA text … Headstands are found in erotic sculpture on temples from early dates …”
- p. 60: “In the case of the yoga asana tradition we can see that it is a dynamic tradition that has drawn on many sources – traditional yoga texts, indigenous exercises, western gymnastics, therapeutics, and even perhaps military training exercises of a foreign dominating power.”
The last quote would be considered heresy by many hardcore Ashtanga Yoga practitioners. I happen to mention it to a recently certified Ashtanga instructor, and at least in this instance, she wasn’t too receptive to the analysis set forth by Sjoman and Singleton. The truth is Krishnamacharya worked under the auspices of a Maharaja that encouraged innovation and synthesis. Moreover, as Mark Singleton points out, Krishnamacharya taught right next to other equally innovative gymnastics and wrestling instructors. Hatha yoga was and is a living practice:
Krishnamacharya’s genius, says Sjoman, is that he was able to meld these different practices in the fire of yoga philosophy. “All those things are Indianized, brought into the purview of the yoga system,” Sjoman says. After all, he points out, Patanjali’s only requirement for asana was that it be “steady and comfortable.” “This is a functional definition of asana,” he says. “What makes something yoga is not what is done, but how it is done.”
This realization, he says, can be liberating, paving the way for a greater appreciation of the role of individual intuition and creativity in the development of yoga. “Krishnamacharya was a great innovator and experimenter—that’s one of the things that gets missed in the tendency of Indians to make hagiographies of their teachers and to look for ancient lineages,” Sjoman says. “The experimental and creative abilities of both Krishnamacharya and Iyengar are very much overlooked.”
On a personal note: I love that one of my favorite independent bookstores just happened to get a copy of Sjoman’s increasingly hard-to-find book. I wasn’t necessarily looking for another book on the history of posture practice, but fate intervened!