Are Yoga Poses Ancient History?

Jill Miller by Jill Miller | November 15th, 2010 | 14 Comments
topic: Yoga

Woman doing a yoga pose

A couple of months ago I picked up yoga scholar Mark Singleton’s new book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. The book details the modern history of asana with Singleton painstakingly chronicling how yoga’s physical postures are not actually drawn from antiquity but rather beginning at the dawn of the 20th century.

Without going into too much detail, he outlines how these “poses” were derived during an environment of Indian neo-nationalism and infused with doses of European gymnastics, bodybuilding and the Christian agendas of the YMCA. Basically, what his research concludes is that the 5,000-year-old practice we all believed to be the origin of asana got its start less than 200 years ago, and that the foundation of asana was created by gymnasts and bodybuilders and as physical training for some militia.

Yikes! Have four years of research upended a global myth? Now yogis and yoginis around the world are facing the possible unraveling of the ultimate bait and switch — are the yoga postures so many of us have practiced for years not actually the ancient, sacred forms that many of us believed they were? Well, his research is rather compelling and I recommend you give it a read.

Change of any sort can be hard to absorb and accept, and this new perspective forces us to take a collective look at the beliefs and meaning behind our own practice. Yoga postures can inspire faith and well-being in the many who practice them, and losing the connection to the story of the tradition can be a difficult psychological loss.

Shaking the foundation

As a yoga student for 27 years, and a yoga teacher for the past 18, I had been operating under the assumption that I was indeed practicing an ancient meditative tradition. But all along, something did not feel quite right to me about that “assumption.” Sixteen years ago, I remember showing poses to my boyfriend, a gifted martial artist, and he would often comment that the poses were just a small gesture away from being some of the same moves he did in sparring, fighting, etc. I wondered back then if the yoga poses I practiced were not really about becoming calm, peaceful and “at one” with the universe. Might the Warrior Pose actually have been a pose to train real warriors and fighters?

“It should also be noted that militant yogins of all lineages engaged in exercise regimes designed to inure their bodies to the harsh physical conditions of the itinerant life and to prepare them for combat.” p. 40, Yoga Body

This may be heretical to say, but for a while now I’ve been feeling that most “classical” asana were profoundly out of touch with the needs of my all-ages contemporary students who sit facing computers all day, drive in cars and do not fully use their bodies for their livelihood. Did classic postures truly speak to their needs, their bodies, and to the stresses that faced them?

A break from tradition: The yoga police

My own inner conflict peaked about 10 years ago when I could no longer justify teaching a set sequence of postures. These postures were supposed to be healing my students, but I could see that they were in denial of certain injuries it was causing as they kept pushing themselves in order to keep “doing yoga.” The gymnastic-like flows were putting them in a perpetual state of dysfunction, so I completely broke from the “traditions” I was taught and began to work with my students in new therapeutic ways, using biomechanically sound variations that would help their bodies, rather than hurt.

Even though I knew I was doing right by my students and helping those who had been sidelined by the practice they loved, I was also constantly looking over my shoulder for the “yoga police.” Of course there is no “yoga police,” but I could hear murmurs every now and again that what I was teaching was not “authentic yoga.”

A new definition of “authentic yoga”

Singleton’s research has me contemplating, “What is authentic yoga?” He provokes the even more powerful question: “Why do we do yoga, and what is its purpose in our lives?” What I’ve come up with is that the practice, regardless of its origins, illuminates authentic parts of ourselves and our nature so that we can know ourselves better, both physically and mentally, and ultimately, feel better in our body, mind and spirit.

One of the precepts of yoga is aparigraha, or non-attachment. Yoga encourages us to not be so attached to physical or mental constructs of ourselves. What Singleton has now unearthed is the possibility of letting go of the historical construct of yoga postures. This construct was once a long mirror illuminating a tradition tracking back through the millennia. But now that mirror has hurtled forward towards modern times and we must look into its reflection and be open to letting go of an “idea” of the genesis of the practice. We must be willing to even let go of yoga in order to find the truth behind our own practice.

Singleton offers further food for thought in this excellent interview with Susan Maier-Moul in The Magazine of Yoga. He also pens an article in the November 2010 issue of Yoga Journal.

Comments

  1. Hi Jill

    I’m deeply impressed with your willingness to be open to and come to grips with the bewilderment of everything we’re learning these days. This essay is a really inspired piece of thought leadership. I know your courage is rewarded in the strength and health of everyone who comes to practice with you!

    Chogyam Trungpa wrote: The teachings are not “ancient wisdom.” The teachings are not passed along as information. They are not handed down as traditional folk tales a grandfather tells to his grandchildren. Spiritual teachings don’t work that way. Awakening does not work that way.”

    Trungpa urged us not to hide in false authority, but to investigate our real day to day lives as the source of the experience of truth. I’m touched and honored to be mentioned in support of your work.

    Jai!
    Susan

    Susan | November 15th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. Great post. I think that you are absolutely right. Letting go of fixed concepts of “yoga in order to find the truth behind our own practice” – what could be more worthwhile, and in line with a deeper understanding of yoga than this?

    I hope that Mark’s book continues to spark precisely this type of in-depth reflection and discussion. My sense is that he is hoping that this will be the case as well – he has presented the yoga community with an incredible scholarly resource, now it is up to the rest of us to engage with it.

    The recent MOY interviews with yoga and tantra scholar David Gordon White are also quite relevant to this discussion – might want to check those out as well!

    Carol Horton | November 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. Arse-end backwards. Martial art, as it well known, is derived from Yoga. Are you perhaps discounting Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras which pre-date known martial art? In fact, the oldest form of martial art, from which Kung-Fu is derived os Kalaripayattu – which uses asana in fighting form.

    No, yoga is far bigger and grander than martial-art. Martial art is just one narrow aspetc of yoga. Martial art is derived from yoga. Not the other way around.

    Go back and do yoga for another 27 years! :/

    Kari | November 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. Asana, or the physical practice of poses, as stated in the Gherand Samhita, Patanjali’s Sutras, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, among other texts, is but one step in the great tradition that is yoga. Most well trained teachers, especially teachers who are connected to a lineage of teaching that goes back thousands of years, know that the aerobics-class style workouts that many westerners call yoga, are modern in their origins. The standing poses and the “vinyasa” were introduced in the last 150 years or so. Not all yoga poses are modern though. Many of the seated postures and inversions have been practiced for thousands of years, as part of a larger tradition that includes cleansing, energy-moving, and concentration techniques and meditation. Kudos to you for realizing that jumping around and acrobatics is not an ancient key to enlightenment. The thousands of years old tradition that is yoga never claimed that to be true. Instead of claiming that yoga isn’t ancient because your practice wasn’t ancient, you could take this opportunity to connect to what the ancient texts claim yoga to be. Since yogic techniques have evolved over time, there’s nothing wrong with including what works for the practitioner. If a strong physical class is what someone needs to be able to meditate and find their true nature, this person is not going against the ancient tradition, but to think that asana alone is yoga is a result of ignorance and misinformation.

    Mara | November 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. Carol, well said.

    And here is the mentioned link to the David Gordon White interview:
    http://themagazineofyoga.com/blog/2010/11/10/david-gordon-white-part-two/

    Prosper | November 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. That fact that Singleton felt the need to write this book and publish articles in yoga magazines is just a testament that he does not really practice “yoga”. The art of yoga is minding ones “own” business and not trying to discredit a practice that dates back to the Vedas, approximately 5,000 years ago. Variations of Sun Salutations date back to the Vedas when they were done as spiritual worship to the God Surya. Yoga which seems to be growing in numbers year after year is helping the average person to live a fuller life, with more contentment and is an excellent form of stress management. Jill’s comment on how asana actually hurts more than heals is very true when people practice asana but not yoga. Asana as most yogis know, is a minor aspect of this ancient practice which is really about living your own life through your own experience, not to follow blind faith, and to go inward into the core of your own true self. When practicing meditation which is yoga we can see clearer, feel deeply, discovering your place in a society where we not only feel the need to take care of oneself but a deeper connection to one another and the planet! Most modern day yogis know that Krishnamacharya took from Indian wrestling, gymnastics and asana such as the asana in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika written in the 15th century. He organized the first traditional Ashtanga series from the above modalities. He also taught and mentored BKS Iyengar who went on to establish HIS own form of yoga working with props therapeutically. Krishnamacharya innovated yoga therapy as we know it today which heals not only the physical body, but also works within the system of the Koshas including the physical body, pranic body, mental emotional body, wisdom body, and bliss body. When you incorporate all these bodies into your practice you are practicing yoga and when you focus on the physical body only then you are only practicing exercises. Then it really doesn’t matter where they came from. Yoga is constantly being innovated by many modern day yogis which is the beauty of the practice. It keeps growing and changing as people grow and change. The one constant is the meditative aspect of the practice and that is the key to all the various lineages and styles. It is a shame however, that Singleton felt the need to write articles and books on this subject because it will only prove to provoke more articles like the one that Jill has written. Such conceptions will only further water down this ancient practice creating separation amongst the practitioners of yoga instead of doing what the practice was meant to do, and that is to unite!

    Gail Robertiello | November 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  7. As someone who straddles both eastern and western world, I am amused by the things lost in translation. Eg. Warrior pose is a wrong translation of the pose named after Virabhadrasana. Since the name Virabhadra doesn’t roll easily on the western tongue, it was conveniently translated as warrior pose leading to misunderstanding of the intention of the pose. A preparatory pose for real warriors in India would have involved some movement for archery or other weapons.
    Well, this is just one case and India is not new to such distortions. It has survived foreign occupations and distortions stemming from that era. Nonetheless, it has managed to keep its character alive and vibrant.
    It should be noted that India has been a vibrant place for thinkers, creators and artists for centuries and the traditions of different regions have been blended over time. Kerala, for example, has certain types of dances and martial arts, which might have influenced physical aspect of yoga in that region.
    Similarly, yoga has taken on a new face as it has become popular in the western world. In response to western sensibility, it has become physically focused – appearance and healing included. In that context, today’s yoga does not represent the original intent of yoga. The real goal of yoga is to still the mind and I’d say that calm, clear mind is something everyone can benefit from in the twenty-first century.
    In its essence, yoga a journey towards self-realization and because our consciousness is so firmly rooted in our body, the journey begins with concrete steps to condition the body as well as our interaction with the world. The western approach to yoga has been physically focused and commercial incentives have led to different brands of yoga, each extolling its own virtue. The physical exploration can and will branch out in different directions. It’s important that we don’t get trapped in it because that is what will divide us into us and them. Keeping our focus on the ancient wisdom, which is eternal and universal, will bring us together.

    Demi | November 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  8. I am glad people now understand the vigorous energy consuming power, vinyasa practices are not authentic yoga. One yoga teacher mentioned, “while in asana you receive cosmic energy, remains in the pose for a long time and come out rejuvenated”.

    If one practice asana and it brings one closer to Self, i.e. one is drawn to sitting / meditation, that is yoga. Otherwise, it is a form of yoga-look-a-like phyiscal exercises.

    It is our choice if we go for an old-gem, or a new-good-looking-fake.

    Namaste

    a yoga student | November 17th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  9. I’m really glad to see Singleton’s book. From what I’ve learned in my own reading and certainly from my teachers as well, the yoga we know as ancient is primarily the seated postures related to meditation. And yes, the rest is an amalgam and yes, includes the influences Singleton outlines.

    I don’t have a problem with that in the slightest and am glad yoga has continued to grow and evolve. Iyengar has been one of the many agents to help that evolution along.

    My own questioning mind finds itself at home with research like Singleton’s and I guess I don’t see a problem (in fact I welcome any new light that might be shed).

    And of course, just because yoga has evolved in the last 5000 years doesn’t mean that the yoga being practiced now isn’t authentic. I trust myself and my own experience enough to recognize what’s authentic for me. And I think that’s about the best you can do.

    Admittedly I stay away from definitions of yoga — those of others and even my own. I’m allergic to regimentation — seems authoritarian. Yeah well, I came of age with the 60s.

    Sharon Frost

    Sharon Frost | November 18th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  10. It is very interesting that much of what is said by the commentators on this subject speak the truth, although they say seems contraditory. However, examining the facts, one can clearly understand how this confusion has come about. Yoga as it is taught in most of the West many time caters to the western lifestyle which is basically materialistic in nature. We are a very physical society. We pride ourself on the way we look, on the outside without considering what things look like on the inside. Some Asian nations would call us even superficial in nature. We take yoga and coopt it and make it a purely physical exercise because this is what the populus craves. The culture of the body serves our concept of “life” very well. We like to look good, smell good, and by this make a good impression on others. However, yoga is about recognizing that we are spirit that inhabits a body and not the other way around. It is about helping the body to serve that spirit and not to be imprisoned by it. One day we will all be free of this physical form and will be reunited to that which is pure spirit. Some of us call this returning to the Father, to God or to our Higher Self. For the time that we are on this physical level which is created and sustained by the mind even though it is pure illusion, we must attend to our creation and keep it safe from sickness and suffering. The asanas help us with this important task. However, only if we are mindful of who we are, and what we are, and how we arrived here, and to what purpose and end we have come here we will not substitute the spiritual for the mere physical. The asanas done correctly and for the purpose for which they were developed will help move us further alone the path toward true enlightenment which implies absolute peace, harmony and bliss. We who are aware of our purpose do not have to practice the asanas as such. We know this because we have had a glimpse into our true nature and that of many other who travel alone the same path toward happiness which is realized by practicing first and foremost love, kindness and compassion. There are many who don’t even know they are practicing yoga, the uniting of body, mind and spirit. But as it is said,”a rose by any name smells just as sweet”
    Namaste!

    Lawrence A. Young | November 21st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  11. “Yoga encourages us to not be so attached to physical or mental constructs” –

    Sure – and this explains asceticism / transcendental modes – but how does it explain yoga as a therapeutic or wellness program?

    IT DOESN’T – so along comes MS’s book which simply allows fitness gurus and “therapists” to (mistakenly) authenticate themselves by DISCONNECTING from ancient tradition – which is secretly what they have wanted all along – yoga as a secular VOCATION – much better placed to assuage all that science envy with more mainstream allopathy.

    I am all for therapy and I am all for yoga but never the twain shall meet.

    But I BET all these “therapists” will still want to use the word “yoga” to authenticate their faddish weight loss programmes and other quasi-science – just watch.

    “In this fathom-long body a whole universe is revealed” (Buddha) – so the whole universe is now anatomy – is it?

    To “identify the factors that initially contributed to the shape transnational yoga has taken today” without anything but a few casual mentions of Buddhism, (and I could not find anything on Jainism) is a bit like writing about the history of the motor car without writing about Daimler-Benz or the Ford Motor Company.

    Yogi Mat | January 6th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  12. We are conscious beings.
    Objective of yoga is subjective evolution of our consciousness.
    History as dug out by historian David Gordon White (who was one of the first to research on the antecedents of yogic postures) is invaluable for its philological insights alone.
    Mark Singleton’s contribution should add to that debate.
    He is fair enough in one of his interviews wherein he dwells/delves into the “belief frameworks” that underlie historical interpretations with clarity and insight.
    Has the last word been nailed on the coffin of yoga’s deemed ancientness?
    I reckon the issue is far more complex.
    Are yoga’s postures imitation of what are present in martial arts?
    Another complex domain and the last word is not yet out.
    The complexity of interpretations arise at a multilayered level wherein the ideas of the beyond (that which is outside our quintosensorium) and symbolization of those ideas which are accessible to our senses co-relate with the later being only expressions which matter to archeologists in general.
    Yoga too has way of perspective – of the now and the beyond – has been evolving all along.
    We should accept history with its approximate empiricism, though history is not without significant gaps.

    But “seeming right is not necessarily an indicator of truth” concedes Singleton, which holds good for any historical research and particularly so when investigations have to be carried out in other languages.

    Historical researches help us understand the origins of our own cherished beliefs (a belief is always either about something that is unknown or about something that is non-existent) within a given period for a particular “context.”

    m s dinakar | March 19th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  13. Amen. Namaste. I love Singleton’s book. It speaks IN DEFENSE of yoga’s greatest gift. Yoga is a personal process in which the boundries of the body-mind are explored and expanded. And, as Patanjali points out, this enhancement comes as a bi-product of being completely earnest in practice humble to the results. To know that the practice of yoga has in some way inspired courage, (the kind of courage it takes for a subjugated people to rise up against their oppressor, as Singleton writes about), WOW! That is certainly worth knowing and speaking proudly about, if you consider yourself an advocate of yoga.

    Also, yoga is physical and physical is definitely not a dirty word and should never be used as such when comparing it to the “more spiritual side” of yoga. What does it mean for a belief structure or practice to be spiritual (or for the sake of this discussion, “authentic”)? To be considered such, it is my opinion that the practice must be deeply personal . Someone’s else’s practice (what the authenticity police deem “real yoga”) is exactly not personal or authentic. It is dogmatic.

    Religion’s darker history shows us that when any spiritual practice is stripped away from the individual and relegated to the leaders who then “interpret” and “define” it in order to set boundries for the practice, deciding what is holy and what is not (authentic and inauthentic), the spiritual practice regresses to a means through which those same leaders manipulate for their own personal advancement (which almost always has something to do with their own bottom line). An unwillingness to acknowledge and proudly embrace the diverse outcomes of a yoga practice (revolution, societal-restructuring, injury, healing, the dismantling of the status quo in the personal and public sphere), are a sign of that malaise.

    Authenticity is embodied respect. Authenticity is curiosity. Authenticity is awe of that which we do not and never will fully understand. The subject of our reverence should be infinitely profound. What better place to explore than the body? What better place to start (and finish) than asana? If you are fully invested in your body and you embody it with curiosity and humility, than you are necessarily practicing the other 7 limbs. Who cares when the postures were invented? If they take you on a journey into yourself, then that is yoga.

    laurelyoga | April 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  14. I’ve always thought that the Indian yogis who spent hours in sitting meditation invented yoga to get circulation back in their limbs.

    ScottC | January 6th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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