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New Light on Yoga

From loincloths to leotards, yoga has come a long way in 5,000 years. But is yoga as we know it really that old?

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.

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Reader Comments


I loved the way in which Cushman has addressed the topic. It is light hearted while at the same time effectively bringing out the dynamic nature of the practice of yoga

sue woolley

A most refreshing and honest article. Having practiced yoga for 35 years, I have seen how it is constantly re-inventing itself, moving with the times one might say, without losing its essence. This is one of the miracles of yoga, that it can sway with the wind, yet be grounded in the unchanging.

sue woolley

A most refreshing and honest article. Having practiced yoga for 35 years, I have seen how it is constantly re-inventing itself, moving with the times one might say, without losing its essence. This is one of the miracles of yoga, that it can sway with the wind, yet be grounded in the unchanging.

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