The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga

One scholar’s quest to trace his practice back to its source ultimately gives him a glimpse of yoga’s greater truth.

The pale winter sunlight shone from the high windows of the Cambridge University library onto a dark leather book cover. In the hall full of silent scholars, I opened it and leafed through picture after picture of men and women in familiar postures. Here was Warrior Pose; there was Downward Dog. On this page the standing balance Utthita Padangusthasana; on the next pages Headstand, Handstand, Supta Virasana, and more—everything you might expect to find in a manual of yoga asana. But this was no yoga book. It was a text describing an early 20th-century Danish system of dynamic exercise called Primitive Gymnastics. Standing in front of my yoga students that evening, I reflected on my discovery. What did it mean that many of the poses I was teaching were identical to those developed by a Scandinavian gymnastics teacher less than a century ago? This gymnast had not been to India and had never received any teaching in asana. And yet his system, with its five-count format, its abdominal “locks,” and its dynamic jumps in and out of those oh-so-familiar postures, looked uncannily like the vinyasa yoga system I knew so well.

Time passed, and my curiosity nagged at me, leading me to do further research. I learned that the Danish system was an offshoot of a 19th-century Scandinavian gymnastics tradition that had revolutionized the way Europeans exercised. Systems based on the Scandinavian model sprang up throughout Europe and became the basis for physical training in armies, navies, and many schools. These systems also found their way to India. In the 1920s, according to a survey taken by the Indian YMCA, Primitive Gymnastics was one of the most popular forms of exercise in the whole subcontinent, second only to the original Swedish gymnastics developed by P.H. Ling. That’s when I became seriously confused.

Ancient or Modern?

This was not what my yoga teachers had taught me. On the contrary, yoga asana is commonly presented as a practice handed down for thousands of years, originating from the Vedas, the oldest religious texts of the Hindus, and not as some hybrid of Indian tradition and European gymnastics. Clearly there was more to the story than I had been told. My foundation was shaken, to say the least. If I was not participating in an ancient, venerable tradition, what exactly was I doing? Was I heir to an authentic yoga practice, or the unwitting perpetrator of a global fraud?

I spent the next four years researching feverishly in libraries in England, the United States, and India, searching for clues about how the yoga we practice today came into being. I looked through hundreds of manuals of modern yoga, and thousands of pages of magazines. I studied the “classical” traditions of yoga, particularly hatha yoga, from which my practice was said to derive. I read a swath of commentaries on Patanjali’sYoga Sutra; the Upanishads and the later “Yoga Upanishads”; medieval hatha yoga texts like the Goraksasataka, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and others; and texts from the Tantric traditions, from which the less complex, and less exclusive, hatha yoga practices had arisen.

Scouring these primary texts, it was obvious to me that asana was rarely, if ever, the primary feature of the significant yoga traditions in India. Postures such as those we know today often figured among the auxiliary practices of yoga systems (particularly in hatha yoga), but they were not the dominant component. They were subordinate to other practices like Pranayama (expansion of the vital energy by means of breath), dharana (focus, or placement of the mental faculty), and nada (sound), and did not have health and fitness as their chief aim. Not, that is, until the sudden explosion of interest in postural yoga in the 1920s and 1930s, first in India and later in the West.

When Asana Went West

Yoga began to gain popularity in the West at the end of the 19th century. But it was a yoga deeply influenced by Western spiritual and religious ideas, representing in many respects a radical break from the grass-roots yoga lineages of India. The first wave of “export yogis,” headed by Swami Vivekananda, largely ignored asana and tended to focus instead on pranayama, meditation, and positive thinking. The English-educated Vivekananda arrived on American shores in 1893 and was an instant success with the high society of the East Coast. While he may have taught some postures, Vivekananda publicly rejected hatha yoga in general and asana in particular. Those who came from India to the United States in his wake were inclined to echo Vivekananda’s judgments on asana. This was due partly to long-standing prejudices held by high-caste Indians like Vivekananda against yogins, “fakirs,” and low-caste mendicants who performed severe and rigorous postures for money, and partly to the centuries of hostility and ridicule directed toward these groups by Western colonialists, journalists, and scholars. It was not until the 1920s that a cleaned up version of asana began to gain prominence as a key feature of the modern English language-based yogas emerging from India.

This cleared up some long-standing questions of mine. In the mid-1990s, armed with a copy of B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, I had spent three years in India for yoga asana instruction and was struck by how hard it was to find. I took classes and workshops all over India from well-known and lesser-known teachers, but these catered mostly to Western yoga pilgrims. Wasn’t India the home of yoga? Why weren’t more Indians doing asana? And why, no matter how hard I looked, couldn’t I find a yoga mat?

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