Previously Untold Yoga History Sheds New Light


By Anne Cushman  |  

A couple of years ago, when I had just returned to Yoga Journal after six months of traveling to ashrams and holy sites in India, I got a call from a writer for Mirabella magazine who was researching a fashion spread on exercise wear.

“I was wondering” she said, “what is the traditional outfit for doing yoga?”

I thought of the naked yogis I had seen on the banks of the Ganges, their skin smeared with ashes from the cremation pyre to remind themselves of the body’s impermanence, their foreheads painted with the insignia of Shiva, the god of destruction. I couldn’t resist.

“Well, traditionally, you would carry a trident and cover your body with the ashes of the dead,” I told her.

There was a long pause, during which I could practically hear her thinking, “This will never fly with the Beauty Editor.” Finally I took pity on her. “But alternatively,” I said, “a leotard and tights will work just fine.”

“Tradition” is a word that gets tossed around a lot in yoga circles. We’re taught the “traditional” way to do poses: “The feet are hip-width apart in Downward-Facing Dog.” We’re taught the “traditional” way to string them together: “Headstand comes before Shoulderstand.” We take comfort in believing that we’re the heirs to an ancient treasury of knowledge, the latest bead in a mala that stretches back, unbroken, for generations. In rootless, amnesiac American culture—where “traditions,” like lipstick colors, change every season—the very antiquity of yoga gives it instant cachet, as evidenced by the jackets of yoga videos advertising a “5,000-year-old exercise system.”

Modern yoga masters present us with a whole galaxy of different poses, or asanas—Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (Schocken Books, 1995), the modern illustrated Bible of asana practice, depicts more than 200. And most new yoga students accept it as an article of faith that these poses have been practiced—in more or less this form—for centuries. As we fold into Downward-Facing Dog, arch into Upward Bow, or spiral into a spinal twist named for an ancient sage, we believe that we are molding our bodies into archetypal shapes whose precise effect on the body, mind, and nervous system has been charted over generations of practice.

In its most extreme form, homage to tradition can create a breed of “yoga fundamentalists”—yogis who believe the asanas were channeled directly from God and passed down through their particular lineage. Any deviation from their version of gospel will result in excommunication.

Tradition? Says Who?

But what really is “traditional” hatha yoga? You don’t have to look much further than Mirabella (or Yoga Journal) to realize that yoga in the West has already changed form. Some of these changes are superficial: We don’t practice in loincloths in solitary mountain caves, but on plastic mats in crowded, mirror-walled gyms wearing outfits that would get us lynched in Mother India. Other changes are more significant: For example, before the twentieth century, it was practically unheard of for women to do hatha yoga.

According to yoga scholars, even the yoga postures—the basic vocabulary of modern hatha yoga—have evolved and proliferated over time. In fact, only a handful of these now-familiar postures are described in the ancient texts. Patanjali‘s second-century Yoga Sutra mentions no poses at all, other than the seated meditation posture. (The Sanskrit word “asana” literally means “seat.”) The fourteenth-century Hatha Yoga Pradipika—the ultimate classical hatha yoga manual—lists only 15 asanas (most of them variations of the cross-legged sitting position), for which it gives very sketchy instructions. The seventeenth-century Gheranda Samhita, another such manual, lists only 32. Conspicuously missing are the standing poses—Triangle, Warrior, etc.—and Sun Salutations that form the backbone of most contemporary systems.

Other venerable texts on hatha yoga eschew mention of asanas altogether, focusing instead on the subtle energy systems and chakras that the poses both reflect and influence. The modern emphases on precision of alignment, physical fitness, and therapeutic effects are purely twentieth-century innovations.

Rumors abound about lost, ancient texts that describe asanas in detail—the Ashtanga vinyasa system taught by Pattabhi Jois, for example, is allegedly based on a palm-leaf manuscript called the Yoga Korunta that Jois’s teacher, renowned yoga master T. Krishnamacharya, unearthed in a Calcutta library. But this manuscript has reportedly been eaten by ants; not even a copy of it exists. In fact, there’s no objective evidence that such a document ever existed. In all his voluminous writings on yoga—which contain extensive bibliographies of all the texts that have influenced his work—Krishnamacharya himself never mentions or quotes from it. Many of Krishnamacharya’s other teachings are based on an ancient text called the Yoga Rahasya—but this text too had been lost for centuries, until it was dictated to Krishnamacharya in a trance by the ghost of an ancestor who had been dead nearly a thousand years (a method of textual reclamation that will satisfy devotees, but not scholars).

In general, the textual documentation of hatha yoga is scanty and obscure, and delving into its murky history can be as frustrating as trying to snorkel in the mud-brown Ganges. Given the paucity of historical evidence, yoga students are left to take the antiquity of the asanas on faith, like fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Earth was created in seven days.

Not only is there no clear textual history, but there’s not even a clear teacher-student lineage that indicates systematized oral teachings handed down over generations. In Zen Buddhism, for example, students can chant a lineage of teachers stretching back for centuries, with each Zen master certified by the one preceding. No such unbroken chain of transmission exists in hatha yoga. For generations, hatha yoga was a rather obscure and occult corner of the yoga realm, viewed with disdain by mainstream practitioners, kept alive by a smattering of isolated ascetics in caves and Hindu maths (monasteries). It appears to have existed for centuries in seed form, lying dormant and surfacing again and again. In the twentieth century, it had almost died out in India. According to his biography, Krishnamacharya had to go all the way to Tibet to find a living master.

Given this lack of a clear historical lineage, how do we know what is “traditional” in hatha yoga? Where did our modern proliferation of poses and practices come from? Are they a twentieth-century invention? Or have they been handed down intact, from generation to generation, as part of an oral tradition that never made it into print?

The Mysore Palace

I found myself pondering these questions afresh recently after I came across a dense little book called The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace by a Sanskrit scholar and hatha yoga student named Norman Sjoman. The book presents the first English translation of a yoga manual from the 1800s, which includes instructions for and illustrations of 122 postures—making it by far the most elaborate text on asanas in existence before the twentieth century. Entitled the Sritattvanidhi (pronounced “shree-tot-van-EE-dee”), the exquisitely illustrated manual was written by a prince in the Mysore Palace—a member of the same royal family that, a century later, would become the patron of yoga master Krishnamacharya and his world-famous students, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois.

Sjoman first unearthed the Sritattvanidhi in the mid-1980s, as he was doing research in the private library of the Maharaja of Mysore. Dating from the early 1800s—the height of Mysore’s fame as a center of Indian arts, spirituality, and culture—the Sritattvanidhi was a compendium of classical information about a wide variety of subjects: deities, music, meditation, games, yoga, and natural history. It was compiled by Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, a renowned patron of education and the arts. Installed as a puppet Maharaja at age 5 by the British colonialists—and deposed by them for incompetence at the age of 36—Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar devoted the rest of his life to studying and recording the classical wisdom of India.

At the time Sjoman discovered the manuscript, he had spent almost 20 years studying Sanskrit and Indian philosophy with pundits in Pune and Mysore. But his academic interests were balanced by years of study with hatha yoga masters Iyengar and Jois. As a yoga student, Sjoman was most intrigued by the section of the manuscript dealing with hatha yoga.

Sjoman knew that the Mysore Palace had long been a hub of yoga: Two of the most popular styles of yoga today—Iyengar and Ashtanga, whose precision and athleticism have profoundly influenced all contemporary yoga—have their roots there. From around 1930 until the late 1940s, the Maharaja of Mysore sponsored a yoga school in the palace, run by Krishnamacharya—and the young Iyengar and Jois were both among his students. The Maharaja funded Krishnamacharya and his yoga protégés to travel all over India giving yoga demonstrations, thereby encouraging an enormous popular revival of yoga. It was the Maharaja who paid for the now well-known 1930s film of Iyengar and Jois as teenagers demonstrating asanas—the earliest footage of yogis in action.

But as the Sritattvanidhi proves, the Mysore royal family’s enthusiasm for yoga went back at least a century earlier. The Sritattvanidhi includes instructions for 122 yoga poses, illustrated by stylized drawings of an Indian man in a topknot and loincloth. Most of these poses—which include handstands, backbends, foot-behind-the-head poses, Lotus variations, and rope exercises—are familiar to modern practitioners (although most of the Sanskrit names are different from the ones they are known by today). But they are far more elaborate than anything depicted in other pre-twentieth-century texts. The Sritattvanidhi, as Norman Sjoman instantly realized, was a missing link in the fragmented history of hatha yoga.

“This is the first textual evidence we have of a flourishing, well-developed asana system existing before the twentieth century—and in academic systems, textual evidence is what counts,” says Sjoman. “The manuscript points to tremendous yogic activity going on in that time period—and having that much textual documentation indicates a practice tradition at least 50 to 100 years older.”

Potpourri Lineage

Unlike earlier texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Sritattvanidhi doesn’t focus on the meditative or philosophical aspects of yoga; it doesn’t chart the nadis and chakras (the channels and hubs of subtle energy); it doesn’t teach Pranayama (breathing exercises) or bandhas (energy locks). It’s the first known yogic text devoted entirely to asana practice—a prototypical “yoga workout.”

Hatha yoga students may find this text of interest simply as a novelty—a relic of a “yoga boom” of two centuries ago. (Future generations may pore with equal fascination over “Buns of Steel” yoga videos.) But buried in Sjoman’s somewhat abstruse commentary are some claims that shed new light on the history of hatha yoga—and, in the process, may call into question some cherished myths.

According to Sjoman, the Sritattvanidhi—or the broader yoga tradition it reflects—appears to be one of the sources for the yoga techniques taught by Krishnamacharya and passed on by Iyengar and Jois. In fact, the manuscript is listed as a resource in the bibliography of Krishnamacharya’s very first book on yoga, which was published—under the patronage of the Maharaja of Mysore—in the early 1930s. The Sritattvanidhi depicts dozens of poses that are depicted in Light on Yoga and practiced as part of the Ashtanga vinyasa series, but that don’t show up in any older texts.

But while the Sritattvanidhi extends the written history of the asanas a hundred years further back than has previously been documented, it does not support the popular myth of a monolithic, unchanging tradition of yoga poses. Rather, Sjoman says that the yoga section of the Sritattvanidhi is itself clearly a compilation, drawing on techniques from a wide range of disparate traditions. In addition to variations on poses from earlier yogic texts, it includes such things as the rope exercises used by Indian wrestlers and the danda push-ups developed at the vyayamasalas, the indigenous Indian gymnasiums. (In the twentieth century, these push-ups begin to show up as Chaturanga Dandasana, part of the Sun Salutation). In the Sritattvanidhi, these physical techniques are for the first time given yogic names and symbolism and incorporated into the body of yogic knowledge. The text reflects a practice tradition that is dynamic, creative, and syncretistic, rather than fixed and static. It does not limit itself to the asana systems described in more ancient texts: Instead, it builds on them.

In turn, says Sjoman, Krishnamacharya drew on the Sritattvanidhi tradition and blended it with a number of other sources, as Sjoman discovered by reading the various books by Krishnamacharya in the Maharaja’s library. Krishnamacharya’s first writings, which cited the Sritattvanidhi as a source, also featured vinyasa (sequences of poses synchronized with the breath) that Krishnamacharya said he had learned from a yoga teacher in Tibet. Over time, these vinyasa were gradually systematized further—Krishnamacharya’s later writings more closely resemble the vinyasa forms taught by Pattabhi Jois. “Therefore it seems logical to assume that the form we find in the series of asanas with Pattabhi Jois was developed during Krishnamacharya’s period of teaching,” writes Sjoman. “It was not an inherited format.” To dedicated Ashtanga practitioners, this claim borders on the heretical.

Along the way, claims Sjoman, Krishnamacharya also seems to have incorporated into the yogic canon specific techniques drawn from British gymnastics. In addition to being a patron of yoga, the Mysore royal family was a great patron of gymnastics. In the early 1900s, they hired a British gymnast to teach the young princes. When Krishnamacharya was brought to the palace to start a yoga school in the 1920s, his schoolroom was the former palace gymnastics hall, complete with wall ropes and other gymnastic aids, which Krishnamacharya used as yoga props. He was also given access to the Western gymnastics manual written by the Mysore Palace gymnasts. This manual—excerpted in Sjoman’s book—gives detailed instructions and illustrations for physical maneuvers that Sjoman argues quickly found their way into Krishnamacharya’s teachings, and passed on to Iyengar and Jois: for example, lolasana, the cross-legged jumpback that helps link together the vinyasa in the Ashtanga series, and Iyengar’s technique of
walking the hands backward down a wall into a back arch.

Modern hatha yoga draws on British gymnastics? The yoga of Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Krishnamacharya influenced by a potpourri that included Indian wrestlers? These are claims guaranteed to send a frisson of horror up the limber spine of any yoga fundamentalist. But according to Sjoman, his book is meant not to debunk yoga—but to pay tribute to it as a dynamic, growing, and ever-changing art.

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.”

Yoga’s Banyan Tree

Of course, Sjoman’s scholarship is just one perspective on the Mysore Palace lineage. His research and conclusions may be flawed; the information he has uncovered is open to multiple interpretations.

But his theories point to a reality that you don’t have to probe very deeply into yoga history to confirm: There really is no one monolithic yoga tradition.

Rather, yoga is like a twisted old banyan tree, whose hundreds of branches each support a full load of texts, teachers, and traditions—often influencing one another, just as often contradicting one another. (“Be celibate,” admonishes one scripture. “Get enlightened through sex,” urges another.) Like snapshots of a dance, different texts freeze and capture different aspects of a living, breathing, changing tradition.

This realization can be unsettling at first. If there’s no one way to do things—well, then how do we know if we’re doing them right? Some of us may long for a definitive archaeological discovery: say, a terra-cotta figure of a yogi in Triangle Pose, circa 600 B.C., that will tell us once and for all how far apart the feet should be.

But on another level it’s liberating to realize that yoga, like life itself, is infinitely creative, expressing itself in a multitude of forms, recreating itself to meet the needs of different times and cultures. It’s liberating to realize that the yoga poses are not fossils—they’re alive and bursting with possibility.

That’s not to say that honoring tradition is unimportant. It’s vital to honor the common goal that has united yogis for centuries: the quest for awakening. For thousands of years, yogis have sought to contact directly the luminous source of all being; and for hatha yogis in particular, the vehicle for touching the infinite spirit has been the finite human body. Every time we step on the mat, we can honor tradition by “yoking”—the original meaning of the word “yoga”—our purpose with that of the ancient sages.

We can also honor the forms of yoga—the specific asanas—as probes for exploring our own particular forms, for testing the limits and stretching the possibilities of the bodies we have been given. In doing so, we can draw on the experience of yogis that have come before us—the wisdom that’s gradually accrued over time about working with the body’s subtle energies by means of physical practices. Without this heritage—whatever its sources—we’re left to reinvent afresh 5,000 years of innovation.

Yoga asks us to walk a razor’s edge, to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to a particular pose, while fully understanding that on another level, the pose is arbitrary and irrelevant. We can surrender to the poses the way we surrender to incarnation in general—letting ourselves pretend, for a while, that the game we are playing is real, that our bodies are who we really are. But if we cling to the form of the poses as ultimate truth, we miss the point. The poses were born from the practice of yogis who looked inside themselves—who experimented, who innovated, and who shared their discoveries with others. If we’re afraid to do the same, we lose the spirit of yoga.

Ultimately, the ancient texts agree on one thing: True yoga is found not in texts, but in the heart of the practitioner. The texts are just the footprints of the elephant, the droppings of the deer. The poses are just the ever-changing manifestations of our life energy; what matters is our devotion to awakening that energy and expressing it in physical form. Yoga is both old and new—it’s inconceivably ancient, and yet fresh every time we come to it.

Anne Cushman is coauthor of From Here to Nirvana: The Yoga Journal Guide to Spiritual India.