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How many Yoga Asanas are there? A Precise Historical Count of Asanas

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There’s an interesting section in Mark Singleton’s book where he tries to understand the origins of Ashtanga Vinyasa:

(pp. 184-186) In the official history of Ashtanga Vinyasa (as sanctioned by Pattahbi Jois), Krishnamacharya learned the system from his Himalayan guru Rammohan Brahmacari on the basis of a five-thousand-year-old text by Vamana Rishi, called Yoga Kurunta. On his return to India from Tibet, Krishnamacharya “discovered” the text in a Calcutta library, transcribed it, and then taught it verbatim to his student Pattahbi Jois. … According to some older students of Ashtanga Vinyasa, Pattahbi Jois has also related that he was in Calcutta with Krishnamacharya when he discovered the text. … He insists that the text describes in full all the asanas and vinyasas (or steps) of the sequences and treats nothing other than the Ashtanga system. … Unfortunately, the text of the Yoga Kurunta is said to have been eaten by ants, and no extant copy appears to exist, so it is difficult to verify the truth of such assertions.

Yoga Kurunta is one of a number of “lost” texts that became central to Krishnamacharya’s teaching.

… Krishnamacharya’s grandson, Kausthub Desikachar, refers to writings by his grandfather that “contradict the popularly held notion that the Yoga Kurunta was the basis for Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga”.

Given that the precise contents of Yoga Kurunta appear to have been “lost”, what then are the oldest and most reliable sources of asanas? In his short book on the Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, N.E. Sjoman makes a compelling case for the manuscripts he found in Mysore.

(pp. 50-51) Krishnamacariar was appointed at the Mysore Palace in the early 1930’s to teach yoga to the Arasu boys, the maternal realtives of the royal family. … During that time Krishnamacariar wrote his first book on yoga called YOGAMAKARANDA … The series of over two hundred asanas found with Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois are not shown in this book nor in his subsequent books. Thirty-eight asanas are illustrated. … It is stated in this book that this is the primary book on asanas suggesting he knew many more asanas.

(p. 49) B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga lists two hundred asanas. Many of these asanas however are variations within a posture and by grouping such variants under a single asana the list could be reduced quite easily to about fifty principal asanas. … Pattabhi Jois in Mysore teaches the same asanas as B.K.S. Iyengar. The systems are different. B.K.S. Iyengar thoroughly reformed the system that he learned though the asana content is common.

(p. 50) Pattabhi Jois published a book called YOGAMALA. The asanas have virtually the same names as those given by Iyengar in his Light on Yoga.

(p. 39) Swami Yogesvarananda brought out a book in 1970 entitled First Steps to Higher Yoga containing 264 asanas.

… Legend speaks of 84,000 asanas. Patanjali, the traditionally accepted and oldest source of yoga tradition, has none. The HATAHPRADIPIKA, the basic text of hatha yoga has only 15 asanas and the other texts have only a few more.

(p. 40) … Until now, no textual source for seriously documenting an asana tradition has been uncovered. The textual source presented here is a part of the SRITATTVANIDHI manuscript in the Mysore Oriental Institute. The illustrations are from Maharani’s copy of the SRITATTVANIDHI and from the HATHAYOGA PRADIPIKA both manuscripts from the Sarasvati Bhandar Library, the private library of his Late HighnessSri Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar … The illustrations are of 122 asanas found in the yoga section of the SRITATTVANIDHI. The SRITATTVANIDHI is attributed to Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar who lived from 1794 to 1868. The illustrations of asanas are from the HATHAYOGA PRADIPIKA1, a compilation of different yoga texts. … The illustrations of the yoga asanas in the SRITATTVANIDHI at the Oriental Institute are unfinished. … This text provides a unique documentation of a diversity of asanas from an earlier date than the modern texts — approximately 150 years earlier. It is unique in its concentration on asanas.

The Mysore Palace is not merely the repository of this important text on yoga, the Mysore Palace also patronized Krishnamacariar from whom the most popular yoga tradition and practices of modern times have arisen. This did not come directly through him but primarily through the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar, his student.

(1) This is not the text that we know by this title today but a compilation of different texts on yoga. This text has never been published and exists only in the Sarasvati Bhandar Library. It is not possible to determine whether it is earlier or later than the SRITATTVANIDHI.


Written by virtualsatsang

January 28, 2011 at 8:09 am

Posted in History, Yoga

One Response

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  1. Interesting! Glad I found this blog.

    June Beck

    July 18, 2012 at 9:59 pm

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