To tell the truth if I had discovered yoga asana as it is widely practised today in both the West and in modern India, with its emphasis on super-skinny gymnastics, hot-rooms, and body-beautiful, I would probably never have taken to the practice. Even today I cringe when I see some of the instructors on Yoga ‘’channels’’ on TV or, for example, that dreadful movie where Madonna was a yoga instructor (‘’The Next Best Thing’’ – never watch it, I beg you…..it will make your eyes bleed, and your rational mind implode.)
I have been to yoga classes where people swing themselves from straps and bars on the walls, checking themselves out in mirrors as they do so. I know of courses where passersby are herded off the street for asana intensives that are designed to raise their kundalinis.
Bikram Choudury, he of the aerodynamic underpants, when not sexing up his students, was sometimes pictured standing on their contorted backs, something that used to make me cover my eyes in horror.
But anyway, I am not responsible for the mad antics of charlatans – though it has admittedly sometimes been disheartening to witness Yoga being bastardised over the years.
There is a well-founded school of opinion that the varieties of asana we consider part of modern hatha yoga had very little to do with ancient Indian yoga. There is a very good book on this topic by Mark Singleton called ‘’Yoga Body – The Origins of Modern Posture Practice’’ where he argues cogently that modern transnational yoga was really an interplay of western body culture (especially influenced by the Scandinavian school based on Pehr Henrik Ling and E. Sandow’s gymnastic techniques) and Indian nationalism which at the beginning of the 20th century synthesised a form of indigenous athletic ‘’yoga’’. Forms such as those devised by Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois are said to have been based on gymnastic pamphlets produced by a movement of physical culture that sprang up around Bangalore and Mysore in the 1930s. It is interesting also to note that there has been, according to Singleton, a very active back and forth ‘’seeding’’ of this quasi-religious, physical culture between East and West over 150 years at least.
But from what did yoga asana spring, in its earliest context? I have always understood it to have arisen from the observation by the ancient rishis of animals in their natural environment – and the adoption of those animals natural movements to increase the health of the aspirants body. And why should the spiritual aspirant want such a material thing as more health? Well, in the case of the rishi the aim would be to prolong and optimise life so as to have sufficient time in this precious human existence to practice such observances as meditation and introspection in order to awaken. One of the greatest obstacles to spiritual practice is illness in mind and body. This has been my understanding of the purpose of asana.
I also believe that asana may have developed from a need for rishis and sanyassins to become physically adept so as to protect themselves in territories where perhaps there was banditry and political unrest, so that the ancient teachings could be protected.
The earliest representations of asana could be said to be on the Pashupati Seal recovered from Mohenjo-Dara, and traced back to 2500 BC. It shows a prototype of Shiva (as horned Lord of the Animals) in a seated yoga pose. The first occurrence of the word ‘’yoga’’ itself occurs in the Katha Upanishad (3rd century BC), where Yama, the god of death, reveals it as a ‘’method to leave behind joy and sorrow and overcome death itself’ (Yoga Body. pg 26)… ‘’ This, the firm Control of the senses, is what is called yoga. One must then be vigilant; for yoga can be both beneficial and injurious.’’ (Katha Upanishad)
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (dated variously from 400 BC to 250 AD) does mention asana – it is the 3rd limb on the 8-fold path of raja Yoga, but these asana must not be taken out of the wider context of the sutras, the whole import of which is the attainment of yoga – that is, detachment from the modifications of the mind, and thereby liberation. The Postures alluded to in the Sutras are seated asana for the purpose of mediation. Patanjali gives a beautiful and important definition of what exactly asana is, a definition that would be well to bear in mind by any modern-day practitioners of asana.
‘’Shtirasukhamasanam’’ – Steady, Comfortable, posture – ‘’Steady and comfortable should be the posture’’.
‘’Prayatna (effort) shaithilya (loosens) ananta (serpent) samapattibhyam (by meditation)’’ – By loosening of effort and by meditation on the serpent ananta, asana is mastered’’ (Ananta means endless, and the serpent power in mooladhara). ‘
’Tato (from that) dvanda (pairs of opposites) anabhighatah (no impact) ‘’ – ‘’Thereby the pairs of opposites cease to have impact’’.
From these three brief sutras one can see that the original objective of asana was to move into non-dualism. It was not about the material world.
‘’In ancient times hatha yoga was practised for many years as a preparation for higher states of consciousness. Now, however, the real purpose of this great science is being forgotten. The hatha yoga practices which were designed by the rishis and sages of old for the evolution of mankind are now being understood and utilised in a very limited sense.’’
(Sw. Sayananda – Commentary on ‘’Hatha Yoga Pradipika’’)
By about 500 AD, after Buddhism had been in some period of decline, certain sages like Matsyendranath, Gorakhnath and some others culled the practices of Hatha Yoga from the great body of tantric sciences that were to a large extent being abused and wrongly taught, and they systemised practices of hatha yoga, leaving out the tantric rituals. Gorakhnath wrote Goraksha Samhita. Gherand wrote the Gherand Samhita and Mahayogindra wrote Hatha Ratnavali – these are the classical hatha yoga texts written between 6th and 15th centuries. Matsyendrenath founded the Nath order – specialising in purification of the body and its elements as a precursor to meditation. And Yogi Swatmarama (disciple of Gorakhnath) wrote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika which is considered the most important of the hatha yoga reference texts. It was written in the 15th century AD.
‘’The main objective of hatha yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, mind and energy. When this balance is created, the impulses generated give a call of awakening to the central force (sushumna nadi) which is responsible for the evolution of human consciousness. If hatha yoga is not used for this purpose, its true objective is lost.’’
(Satyananda – ibid)
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, of the 84,000,000 asana said to traditionally exist, the ones mentioned tend to be meditative poses – such as (and brace for a wave of Sanskrit!) Bhadrasana (gracious pose), Simhasana (Lion’s pose), Padmasana (Lotus pose), Siddhasana ( Pose of perfection), Shavasana( Corpse pose), Mayurasana (Peacock pose), Paschimottanasana (Full forward bend – seated), Matsyendrasana ( Seated spinal twist), Dhanurasana (Bow pose), Gomukhasana (Cow face pose), and a very few others. The other texts mentioned above describe more asana. Essentially, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika says the purpose of hatha yoga is ‘’Having done asana one gets steadiness and firmness of mind and body, diseaselessness and lightness or flexibility of the limbs.’’
To be honest when i first got into yoga it was the Bhakti element that absorbed me, and i did not know about asana. I happened one day to meet a Zen nun called Gina, who fascinated me because of her face. It would change between looking like a wizened old Tibetan man to that of a radiant child, and I had to keep blinking as we talked. ‘’Whoa,’’ i thought at the time, ‘’This woman is magical’’. She was teaching a class and I joined in – her students were ten stout, middle aged ladies in jogging bottoms. Gina demonstrated Surya Namaskara, and I thought ‘’Well, if these old dames are up for it, I certainly am!’’. 15 minutes later after 12 rounds, I was sprawled on the floor absolutely convinced I was gasping my last breath, while the old ladies tittered at me. It was a weird introduction to the world of asana!
So….leaving aside the fact that practice of asana will encourage good circulation of blood, prevent stagnation of the tissues and vital fluids, keep the spine healthy, keep muscles and ligaments supple and strong, regulate the glandular system, enable the body to learn to switch fluidly between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems, assist in the removal of toxins from the body, maintain a smooth flow of prana through the nadis, awaken the higher centres of consciousness, and so on, and so forth…aside from all that (and more), I find that the practice of asana always awakens a feeling of wonder and deep gratitude to God for the ability to move, and the blessings of a healthy body. And not just gratitude for any old movement, but for the graceful, dignified poise that is asana – movement that is meditation in motion, dhyana in action.