Where Did The Asanas Come From?

Written by Dr. Lorin Roche
Practice Pages: Meditation

A Discussion Sparked By Dr. Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body

At any given moment in Los Angeles, from pre-dawn into the evening, from the beach to the Valley, and all across the basin, people are striking a pose. Surfers are standing on the shore doing Yoga-inspired moves to warm up for the waves. Runners, dancers and soccer players are flowing through asanas to prepare their bodies for action. Actors are taking private Yoga lessons to prepare for their roles. In shopping malls, gyms and Yoga studios, thousands of people in hundreds of Yoga classes are moving through asana sequences. Others are standing on the mountain tops doing Sun Salutations. There are innumerable variations, but all these postures and movement sequences are recognizable as “Yoga asana.” Where did these postures come from? There are two basic narratives: they come from God, and people invented them. These are not mutually exclusive. Both may be equally true.

The Mythic Story Cycle

When I first started practicing asana forty years ago, the explanation given was, “The asanas come from Lord Shiva,” who gave the postures to various yogis, such as Matsyendra and Goraksha to help them attain higher states of consciousness. Another statement was, “The asanas occurred to the sages spontaneously when they had yogic insights, to help them ground their enlightenment in the body.”

Matsyendra (Matsyendranath) and Goraksha (Gorakshanath) are often credited with being the founders of the Hatha Yoga lineage, and there is a vast body of legends about them. Here is a brief selection of my favorite episodes of their story. Once upon a time in India, a baby boy was born. The Vedic astrologer said he was born under unlucky stars, so the parents threw the baby into the ocean. A fish came along and swallowed the boy, who then lived in the belly of the fish. Meanwhile, in Heaven, the Goddess Parvati asks Shiva to explain to her the secrets of Yoga: “Tell me the practices you have never told anyone.” So that no one else will hear, Shiva transports them to their secret lair at the bottom of the ocean, and begins giving her the teachings. The Goddess immediately falls asleep (if you have ever tried to teach your spouse anything, you know what is going on here.) Undaunted, Shiva keeps on talking to his sleeping beauty. (Or else, the Goddess was just a quick study – as soon as her beloved began speaking, she entered Yoga Nidra, the better to luxuriate in his presence, and drink in the elixir of his teaching.)

So there they are: Shiva and the Goddess, at the bottom of the ocean, the Goddess asleep in Shiva’s lap. Shiva is going on and on about Yoga, and they are completely private except for a fish that comes swimming by with a boy in its belly. The boy overhears Shiva and receives a transmission of the teaching, and in this way becomes a student of Yoga. Shiva blesses him and names him “Matsyendranatha” – “He whose lord is the lord of the fishes.” For the next twelve years, Matsyendra lives in the belly of the fish, practicing Yoga, and finally emerges as an enlightened master.

One day Matsyendra comes to a village where a woman is bereft because she is childless. He gives her some ashes to eat, promising her a son. But the woman does not believe, so she throws the ashes on the village cow dung heap. Twelve years later, Matsyendra returns to the village and seeks out the woman. She confesses that she threw the ashes on a dung heap. They go and look. Matsyendra brushes away the accumulated cow dung and there is a twelve-year-old boy, who is a perfect yogi because he has been practicing sadhana there since birth. Matsyendra sprinkles him with ash and names him Goraksha (Go-rakh or “cow ash.”)

In another adventure, Matsyendra, whose body is “radiantly beautiful from doing Yoga,” is held as a sex slave by a tribe of yoginis who find him irresistible. They don’t want to let him go. He is completely under their spell – or else he likes it so much there that he does not want to leave. Goraksha hears of this and, determined to rescue his master, comes up with a subterfuge – he dresses up as a dancing girl and enters the Queendom of Yoginis in that guise. Performing before Matsyendra, Goraksha beats a drum that says, “Awaken, Matsyendra!” The two make their escape. Goraksha then gives Matsyendra a “refresher course” in Hatha Yoga to bring him back to his full self. There is a hint here that Hatha Yoga as we receive it emerged from this conversation.

These two great friends and students of each other go on to found the lineage of Nath yogis, somewhere in the eighth, or was it the ninth, or the tenth, maybe the eleventh, or perhaps the twelfth century – but who’s counting? One of Goraksha’s disciples, Swatmarama, composed the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, still in print to this day, which sets forth teachings on asana, pranayama, the chakras, kundalini, the bandhas, nadis and mudras. The whole internal tool kit is here –the techniques for practice, although of course it is slanted toward the needs of renunciates – the sannyasins and wandering holy men for whom it was composed. A new text needs to be composed, the Hatha Yoga ShaktiPedia because Yoga in the West today is mostly female, and mostly householders. Anyway, this is the traditional story in a nutshell, or in a betel leaf. There are more zany details in the longer versions, which beg to be cartoonized as Yogirama.

The Historical Perspective

Another, equally entertaining and wacky story of how we came by modern asana practice is found in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, by Dr. Mark Singleton, published by Oxford University Press.

In the future, people may say, “Lord Shiva gave the new teachings on asana to Krishnamacharya, so that the bodies of people born in the 20th and 21st centuries will have the strength and adaptability to handle such a rapidly-changing world.”

Mark (or, if you prefer, Dr. Singleton) studied the existing historical documents on asana practice (in Sanskrit), dating back centuries, and interviewed direct students of Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar and Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. He scoured the first writing about Yoga in English, from the late 1800s, and looked at the first photographs of asanas to appear in Western magazines; He collected photographs of poses developed by European gymnasts, apparently independently, which look quite a bit like the Yoga asanas we all know and love.

What Dr. Singleton found is a story of mutual influence, with East and West inspiring each other, awakening each other like Matsyendra and Goraksha. As David Gordon White of the University of California at Santa Barbara, author of The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India puts it, “Mark Singleton has written a sweeping and nuanced account of the origins and development of modern postural yoga in early twentieth-century India and the West, arguing convincingly that yoga as we know it today does not flow directly from the Yoga Sutras or India’s medieval hatha yoga traditions, but rather emerged out of a confluence of practices, movements and ideologies, ranging from contortionist acts in carnival sideshows, British Army calisthenics and women’s stretching exercises to social Darwinism, eugenics, and the Indian nationalist movement...an ancient tradition was reinvented against the backdrop of India’s colonial experience.”

As Chris Chapple, Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University stated recently, “The Indians are always innovating, but they like to call it traditional.”

Warning: If you are a Yoga fundamentalist, read no further, but go wash your nostrils with a neti pot and come back in twelve years. For one thing, it looks like the YMCA had a lot to do with the evolution of modern asana practice as we have inherited it.

Almost every page of Yoga Body has something on it that stops my mind – I have to put the book down as my brain does a headstand. To cite just a few examples:

––Writing in 1676, one European estimated there were 800,000 Muslim Fakirs wandering India, with Sufis eagerly absorbing yoga techniques and adapting them to the context of Islam. Kabir, the poet, emerged from such a nexus of Islam and Hinduism, and some legends connect his family to both Nath Yogis and Islam.

––From the 15th century until the early 19th century, there were armed bands of militant yogis who controlled the trade routes across Northern India, and were into elephants, horses, banking, and making and breaking princes by playing the role of “supernatural power brokers.” Dr. Singleton writes that these marauding yogis “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” – and these paramilitary drills formed part of the background milieu, preparing the way for the systematizing of asana.

––When the British Army clamped down on these yogi soldiers and their trade business, the now-unemployed yogis took to being street performers – yogic showmen – in the nineteenth century. This had the effect of making the asanas both visible and despised, because they became associated with dirty, almost-naked yogis who sat around torturing themselves or lying on beds of nails.

––In the years before and after 1900, there was a worldwide “awakening to the body,” with what look like today’s asanas being discovered or invented independently by Western athletes, systematized by the YMCA, and taught worldwide including in India. There was “Muscular Christianity” in the West, touring “posture masters” throughout Europe, Capoeira in Brazil, and a fusion of gymnastics and asana in India.

In the encounters and dialogue between East and West, North and South, ancient and modern, an extraordinary creativity arose that sparked the development of modern postural Yoga practice. See what I mean about stopping the mind? Dr. Singleton’s book is not just about where the asanas come from – it is about the texture of world history that gave rise to the innovative forms of Yoga we have accessible to us now.

Yoga Body takes us from the broad historical overview of asana, from the first Europeans traveling around India in the 1600s, who saw “Jogis,” and wrote about their encounters, to a look at Krishnamacharya’s Yoga classes in the 1930’s, when “thirty-two boys attended the Yogasana Classes and a large number of boys attended the Suryanamaskar Classes.” Which leads us back to the beauty and wonder that modern Californian runners are standing on the local mountains doing Sun Salutations.

Yoga teachers of many kinds praise Dr. Singleton’s book, which is surprising in a way because this kind of clear-minded historical analysis is the opposite of the mythic hagiography we in the Yoga tradition like to indulge. John Friend, Founder of Anusara Yoga, call this “...an outstanding scholarly work which brings so much insight and clarity to the historic and cultural background of modern Hatha Yoga. I highly recommend this book, especially for all sincere students of Yoga.” Gary Krafstow, the founder of the American Viniyoga Institute, says Yoga Body “offers a much needed historical perspective that will help correct much of the mythology and group-think that is emerging in the modern asana-based ‘Yoga world.’ Any serious asana practitioner who wishes to understand the place of asana in the greater tradition of Yoga will do well to read it carefully.”

In the future, people may say, “Lord Shiva gave the new teachings on asana to Krishnamacharya, so that the bodies of people born in the 20th and 21st centuries will have the strength and adaptability to handle such a rapidly-changing world.” In my bones, I sense Dr. Singleton is right in his inferences – asana practice as we engage with it today is a result of experimenting, innovation, and noticing what works for the bodies of those present. But this only deepens the mystery, for there is something timeless in yoga, a feeling of eternity that exists in parallel with the innovation and creativity of Yoga teaching around the world today. For a tale of origins, I still enjoy the story of Matsyendra and Goraksha – those two thrown-away children who, with no other choice, broke through into the light that still illumines us all.

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, by Dr. Mark Singleton, published by Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dr. Lorin Roche was lucky enough to begin practicing asana, pranayama, and meditation in 1968, and he still feels like a beginner – every day. He began teaching in 1969, and was trained as a meditation teacher by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1969-1970. Lorin is the author of Meditation Made Easy, Meditation Secrets for Women, and The Radiance Sutras, and has a Ph.D. From the University of California for his work on the language of meditation. He lives in Marina del Rey with his yogini shaktini wife, Camille Maurine.