History of ancient scriptures on Yoga and Āsana
Yoga योग is the physical, mental, and spiritual practice which originated in ancient India with a view to attain a state of permanent peace of mind in order to experience one’s true self. The term yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” meaning “to control,” “to yoke” or “to unite”. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali defines yoga as: Yogah citta vritti nirodhah योग: चित्त वृत्ति निरोध: “the stilling of the changing states of the mind”.
Outside India, the term yoga is typically associated with Hatha Yoga and its asanas (postures) or as a form of exercise.
Āsana आसन is a body position, typically associated with the practice of Yoga, originally identified as a mastery of sitting still. In the context of Yoga practice, asana refers to two things: the place where a practitioner yogi (male), or yogini (female) sits and the manner (posture) in which he/she sits. In the Yoga sutras, Patanjali suggests that asana is “to be seated in a position that is firm, but relaxed” for extended, or timeless periods.
Despite more than a century of research, we still don’t know much about the earliest beginnings of Yoga. We do know, though, that it originated in India 5,000 or more years ago. In the early 1920s, archeologists surprised the world with the discovery of the so-called Indus civilization. This was in fact the largest civilization in early antiquity. Several seals discovered at Indus Valley Civilization sites depict figures in positions resembling a common yoga or meditation pose, showing “a form of ritual discipline, suggesting a precursor of yoga”.
The history of Yoga can be divided into the following broad categories:
The yogic teachings found in the Ṛg-Veda ऋग्वेद (Bronze Age) and the other three ancient hymnodies are known as Vedic Yoga. The Sanskrit word Veda means “knowledge,” while the Sanskrit term Ṛg means “praise.” Thus the sacred Ṛg -Veda is the collection of hymns that are in praise of a higher power.
The other three Vedic hymnodies are the Yajur-Veda यजुर्वेद (2nd millennium BC) “Knowledge of Sacrifice”, Sama-Veda सामवेद (1700 – 1000 BC) “Knowledge of Chants”, and Atharva-Veda अथर्ववेद (1200 – 1000 BC) “Knowledge of Atharvan”. The first collection contains the sacrificial formulas used by the Vedic priests. The second text contains the chants accompanying the sacrifices. The third hymnody is filled with magical incantations for all occasions but also includes a number of very powerful philosophical hymns.
It is clear from what has been said thus far that Vedic Yoga—which could also be called Archaic Yoga—was intimately connected with the ritual life of the ancient population of Indus valley. It revolved around the idea of sacrifice as a means of joining the material world with the invisible world of the spirit. In order to perform the exacting rituals successfully, the sacrificers had to be able to focus their mind for a prolonged period of time. Such inner focusing for the sake of transcending the limitations of the ordinary mind is the root of Yoga.
The creation of the Upanishad उपनिषत् (apx. 400 BC), marks the Pre-Classical Yoga. The 200 scriptures of the Upanishads (the conclusion of the revealed literature) are a collection of Vedic texts which contain the earliest emergence of some of the central religious concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. They are also known as Vedanta (“the end of the Veda”). They describe the inner vision of reality resulting from devotion to Brahman. These explain three subjects: the ultimate reality (Brahman), the transcendental self (atman), and the relationship between the two. The Upanishads further explain the teachings of the Vedas.
Later the Bhagavad Gitā भगवद्गीता (Ved Vyasa, apx. 500 -200 BC) or Lord’s Song was created and this is currently the oldest known Yoga scripture. The content of the Gita is the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna taking place on the battlefield before the start of the Kurukshetra war.
In Bhagavad Gita are mentioned different approaches to union, but no asanas: Jnana Yoga takes the path of knowledge or wisdom; Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion; Karma Yoga is the path of action or service and Raja Yoga is the path of meditation.
The Classical Period is marked by another creation – the Yoga Sutra योगसूत्र (Patanjali, 150 BC) which was an attempt to define and standardize Classical Yoga. It is composed of 195 aphorisms or sutras (from the Sanskrit word which means thread) that expound upon the Raja Yoga and its underlying principle, Patanjali’s Eightfold path of Yoga (also called Eight Limbs of Classical Yoga) are:
- Yama, which means social restraints or ethical values;
- Niyama, which is personal observance of purity, tolerance, and study;
- Asanas or physical exercises;
- Pranayama, which means breath control or regulation;
- Pratyahara or sense withdrawal in preparation for Meditation;
- Dharana, which is about concentration;
- Dhyana, which means Meditation; and
- Samadhi, which means bliss or self realization.
Yoga Sutra does not mention a single asana by name, merely specifying the characteristics of a good asana.
Patanjali, who is by the way often wrongly called the “father of Yoga,” believed that each individual is a composite of matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). He understood the process of Yoga to bring about their separation, thereby restoring the spirit in its absolute purity.
Patanjali’s concept was dominant for some centuries so that some Yogis focused exclusively on Meditation and neglected their Asanas. It was only later that the belief of the body as a temple was rekindled and attention to the importance of the Asana was revived.
A group of 84 classic yoga asanas taught by Lord Śiva is mentioned in several classic texts on yoga. Some of these asanas are considered highly important in the yogic canon: texts that do mention the 84 frequently single out the first four as necessary or vital to attain yogic perfection. However, a complete list of Śiva’s asanas remains as yet unverified, with only one text attempting a complete corpus.
Yoga texts maintain that Lord Śiva has given out 84 lakh asanas. This is also the number of yonis through which soul needs to pass before taking birth in human form. This number (84 lakh) is not just some random number. This number has been derived as follows:
No. of kalas or rashis of Sun x Days of a week (primary planets) X 1000 rays of Sun each acting in 100 ways i.e. 12 x 7 x 1000 x 100 = 8,400,000
Commentary on this group of 84 asanas in the classic yoga texts is as follows:
The Gorakśa Samhitā गोरक्षा संहिता (10-11th century AD), or Goraksha Paddhathi, an early hatha yogic text, is the first one describing the origin of the 84 classic asanas, although it mentions and describes only two in detail: the Siddhāsana and the Padmāsana.
Later Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā हठयोगप्रदीपिका (15th century AD) which is a manual on Hatha Yoga, written by Svami Svatmarama, specifies that of these 84 asanas, the first four are important, namely the Siddhāsana, Padmāsana, Bhadrāsana and Simhāsana. One of these seated poses (bhadrasana) is identical to the pose depicted in the ancient yogic seal first discovered in the Indus valley. The Pradipika describes 4 asana, along with pranayamas, chakras, kundalini, bandhas, kriyas, shakti, nadis and mudras among other topics. The translation of Pradipika means “light on,” or we could say, “the low-down,” the “secret teachings,” the “real thing.” It is the low-down on how to join the sun and the moon. The aim of the practices of Hathayoga, according to the Hatha yoga pradipika, is to be able to hear the subtle sound- Nadam. In Pradipika are also described the six actions of purification known as Ṣaṭkarman षटकर्मन or Ṣaṭkriya
The Hatha Ratnavali हठ रत्नावली (17th century AD) is one of the few texts to attempt a listing of all the 84 asanas that Śiva thought, although 4 out of its list do not have meaningful translations from the Sanskrit, and 21 are merely mentioned without any description. In all, 52 asanas of the Hatha Ratnavali are confirmed and described by the text itself.
In Gheraṇḍa Saṁhitā घेरंडसंहिता (late 17th century AD) Gheraṇḍa said: ”There are 8,400,000 of asanas described by Śiva. The postures are as many in number as there are numbers of species of living creatures in this universe. Among them 84 are the best; and among these 32 have been found useful for mankind in this world.”
The 32 asanas that give perfection in this mortal world are the following: siddhasana, padmasana, bhadrasana, muktasana, vajrasana, svastikasana, simhasana, gomukhasana, virasana, dhanurasana, mritasana, guptasana,matsyasana, matsyendrasana, paschimottanasana, gorakshana, utkatasana, sankatasana, mayurasana, kukkutasana,kurmasana, uttanakurmakasana, vrikshasana, mandukasana, garudasana, vrishasana,shalabhasana, makarasana, ushtrasana, bhujangasana, and yogasana.
Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā is a manual of yoga taught by Gheraṇḍa to Chanda Kapali. Unlike other hatha yoga texts, the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā speaks of sevenfold yoga:
- Ṣaṭkarma for purification
- Āsana for strengthening
- Mudrā for steadying
- Pratyahāra for calming
- Prāṇāyāma for lightness
- Dhyāna for perception
- Samādhi for isolation
The Śiva Saṁhitā शिव संहिता (17-18th century AD) contains 84 asanas (the poses ugrasana and svastikasana replace the latter two of the Hatha YogaPradipika), prana, pranayamas, yogic philosophy, mudras, tantric practices, and meditation. It emphasizes that even a common householder can practice yoga and benefit from it. The term Samhita means a full collection of Śiva’s wisdom on this subject in a concise form.
The history of modern Yoga is widely thought to begin with the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It was at that congress that the young Swami Vivekananda—made a big and lasting impression. At the behest of his teacher, the saintly Ramakrishna, he had found his way to the States where he didn’t know a soul. Thanks to some well-wishers who recognized the inner greatness of this adept of Jnâna-Yoga (the Yoga of discernment), he was invited to the Parliament and ended up being its most popular diplomat. In the following years, he traveled widely attracting many students to Yoga and Vedânta.
After Swami Vivekananda, the most popular teacher in the early years of the Western Yoga movement was Paramahansa Yogananda, who arrived in Boston in 1920.
In 1934 the book A Search in Secret India introduced the great sage Ramana Maharshi to Western seekers.
Since the early 1930s until his death in 1986, Jiddu Krishnamurti delighted or perplexed thousands of philosophically minded Westerners with his eloquent talks.
Yoga, in the form of Hatha-Yoga, entered mainstream America when the Russian-born yoginî Indra Devi, who has been called the “First Lady of Yoga,” opened her Yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947.
In the 1950s, one of the most prominent Yoga teacher was Selvarajan Yesudian whose book Sport and Yoga has been translated into fourteen or so languages.
In the mid-1960s, the Western Yoga movement received a big boost through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, largely because of his brief association with the Beatles. He popularized yogic contemplation in the form of Transcendental Meditation ™.
In 1965, the then sixty-nine-year-old Shrila Prabhupada arrived in New York with a suitcase full of books and $8.00 in his pockets. Six years later he founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and by the time of his death in 1977, he had created a worldwide spiritual movement based on Bhakti Yoga (the Yoga of devotion).
Also in the 1960s and 1970s, many swamis trained by the Himalayan master Swami Sivananda, a former physician who became a doctor of the soul, opened their schools in Europe and the two Americas, among them are Swami Vishnudevananda (author of the widely read Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga), Swami Satchitananda (well-known to Woodstock participants), Swami Sivananda Radha (a woman-swami who pioneered the link between Yoga spirituality and psychology), Swami Satyananda, and Swami Chidananda (a saintly figure who directed the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, India).
In 1969, Yogi Bhajan caused an uproar among the traditional Sikh community (an offshoot of Hinduism) when he broke with tradition and began to teach Kundalini Yoga to his Western students.
A more controversial but popular guru in the 1970 and 1980s was Bhagavan Rajneesh (now known as Osho). Rajneesh, a former philosophy professor, drew his teachings from authentic Yoga sources, mixed with his own personal experiences.
Other renowned modern Yoga adepts of Indian origin are Sri Aurobindo (the father of Integral Yoga), Ramana Maharshi (an unparalleled master of Jnana-Yoga), Papa Ramdas (who lived and breathed Mantra-Yoga, the Yoga of transformative sound), Swami Nityananda (a miracle-working master of Siddha-Yoga), and his disciple Swami Muktananda (a powerful yogi who put Siddha-Yoga, which is a Tantric Yoga, on the map for Western seekers).
The great exponent in modern times of Hatha-Yoga was Sri Krishnamacharya, who died in 1989 at the ripe old age of 101. He practiced and taught the Viniyoga system of Hatha-Yoga until his last days. His son T. K. V. Desikachar continues his saintly father’s teachings and taught Yoga, among others, to the famous Jiddu Krishnamurti. Another well-known student of Sri Krishnamacharya and a master in his own right is Desikachar’s uncle B. K. S. Iyengar, who has taught tens of thousands of students.
Mention must also be made of Pattabhi Jois and Indra Devi, both of whom studied with Krishnamacharya in their early years and have since then inspired thousands of Westerners.
Other Yoga masters from India, we can mention Sri Chinmoy and Swami Satyananda (who established the well-known Bihar School of Yoga, has authored numerous books, and has disciples around the world).
An exceptional woman teacher from India who fits none of the yogic stereotypes is Meera Ma (“Mother Meera”). She doesn’t teach in words but communicates in silence through her simple presence.
All of the masters in the era of modern yoga have reinvented or further developed yoga asanas with their personal experience and teachings from their masters.
For the purpose of this paper we are going to elaborate the 32 asanas as described in Gheraṇḍa Saṁhitā. The descriptions of asanas vary according to different traditions, in some cases the described asanas in Gheraṇḍa Saṁhitā are different from the modern variations.
|Bhadrāsana||भद्र असन||gentle Pose|
|Muktāsana||मुक्त असन||Free Pose|
|Svastikāsana||स्वस्तिक असन||Prosperous Pose|
|Gomukhāsana||गोमुखासन||Cow mouth Pose|
|Mritāsana||मृत असन||Corps Pose|
|Guptāsana||गुप्त असन||Hidden Pose|
|Matsyendrāsana||मत्स्येन्द्रासन||Lord of the Fishes Pose|
|Paścimottānāsana||पश्चिमोत्तानासन||Seated Forward Bend|
|Gorakśāsana||गोरक्ष असन||Cowherd Pose|
|Sankatāsana||सनकत असन||Dangerous pose|
|Uttana mandukasana||उत्तान मण्डूक असन||Raised Frog Pose|
|Uttana kurmasana||उत्तान कुर्म असन||Raised Turtle Pose|
|Mandukasana||मण्डूक असन||Frog Pose|
|Vriśāsana||व्रिश असन||Bull pose|
Author: Kaja Kastner
David Frawley, Sandra Summerfield: Yoga for your type
The Gheranda Samhita
Vasant Lad, Maria Garre: Ayuryoga, ayurvedic studies program
Swami Sivananda Radha: Hatha Yoga
Swami Svatmarama: Hatha Yoga Pradipika