Posts Tagged ‘history’
A recent issue of the Yoga Journal contains excerpts from a forthcoming book (Myths of the Asanas) which claims that behind every asana “… and its corresponding movements is an ancient story about a god, sage, or sacred animal, much like Aesop’s fables or European folktales.” I’ll be interested to see how the authors explains the many asanas that emerged from the Mysore tradition of Krishnamacharya. Specifically the asanas that were derived from the popular physical exercise classes at the time.
Worried that the Yoga Journal may have ignored two books (see Related posts below) that provide the best historical analysis of the origins of popular asanas, I was relieved to find at least a few archive articles that mention them:
- New Light on Yoga: An article based largely on Norman Sjoman’s research.
- Review of Yoga Body: A rather brief but very positive review of Mark Singleton’s book.
- Shine on Me: An article on sun salutations which contains the following quote
“Certainly, modern asana practice—and Surya Namaskar, after it was grafted on to it—is an innovation that has no precedent in the ancient Indian tradition, but it was rarely formulated as ‘mere gymnastics,’” says Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. “More often, it was conceived within a religious [Hindu] framework, and was seen as a spiritual expression as well as a physical one. But in modern India, for many people, it made complete sense for physical training to be conceived as a form of spiritual practice, with no contradiction implied.”
- Krishnamacharya’s Legacy: Mentions Sjoman’s book, but devotes more space to Patthabi Jois’ lost texts theory! Nevertheless, it’s a very moving account of the life of Krishnamacharya and his relationship with his son T.K.V. Desikachar.
Jois has often said that the concept of vinyasa came from an ancient text called the Yoga Kuruntha. Unfortunately, the text has disappeared; no one now living has seen it. So many stories exist of its discovery and content—I’ve heard at least five conflicting accounts—that some question its authenticity. When I asked Jois if he’d ever read the text, he answered, “No, only Krishnamacharya.” Jois then downplayed the importance of this scripture, indicating several other texts that also shaped the yoga he learned from Krishnamacharya, including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Yoga Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita.
Given that the Yoga Journal just devoted four pages to the Myth of Asanas, they should run a similar article on the work of Mark Singleton. Singleton’s carefully researched findings don’t discredit popular asanas, rather his research confirms that postural practice is alive and constantly changing. Krishnamacharya’s legacy is that of innovation, synthesis, and continuous adaptation to the needs of his students.
- Recommended Reading: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (my review of Mark Singleton’s landmark book)
- The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace (my review of N.E. Sjoman’s book)
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!
Yoga Body is part of the author’s (Mark Singleton) PhD disseration at Cambridge University. While it can be a bit dry in some places, it provides a wonderful overview of current (academic) research into how modern Yoga Asanas evolved.
I recommend Yoga practitioners read the final Chapter first (“T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Asana Revival”), as many will recognize many of the key figures discussed. Krishnamacharya is best known for having taught some seminal Yoga teachers (B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois among others) who went on to popularize asana practice in the West. In the final chapter, Singleton provides convincing documentary evidence (and supporting interviews) that explains how Krishnamacharya (and his students) likely put together the sequences many have come to enjoy. Krishnamacharya was heavily influenced by the gymnastics, body-building, and physical education trends of the time. Suryamanaskar, which later became central to Krishnamacharya’s Mysore style, wasn’t part of yogasana when he first started teaching. Singleton argues that Suryamanaskar arose from a multitude of influences — and not the Vedas or some ‘lost texts’ as Pattahbi Jois claimed (see page 180).
Yoga Body is a must-read for Yoga practitioners curious about how some of the more popular asanas (and modern postural Yoga itself) came to be.