Where Did the Asanas Come From?

Lorin Roche

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.

The Mythic Story Cycle: Shiva and Matsyendra

When I first started doing asanas 40 years ago, the explanation given was, “They 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.

Matsyendra riding the fish- The first surfer

Matsyendranath emerging from the fish

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 asks the woman what happened. She confesses that she threw the ashes on the 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 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 and 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, and then Goraksha gives Matsyendra a “refresher course” in hatha yoga to bring him back to his full self.

These two great friends and students of each other go on to train others and found the lineage of Nath yogis, somewhere in the 8th, or was it the 9th, or the 10th, maybe the 11th, or perhaps the 12th century – but who’s counting? One of Goraksha’s disciples, Swatmarama, composes the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, still in print to this day, which sets forth teachings on pranayama, the chakras, asanas, kundalini, the bandhas, nadis and mudras. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika ( Hatha Yoga Pradipika) is a brilliant text, although it is meant only for sannyasins and wandering holy men whose path is to kill desire. Awakenings and openings are forced, rather than allowed to happen naturally.

That is the traditional story in a nutshell, or in a betel leaf. There are many fabulous details in the longer versions, which are as zany as an episode of Futurama. (Note to self: Pitch Yogirama to the comedy channel?)

It is the part of us that is thrown away that becomes the yogi. The rejected child, tossed into the ocean or onto a dung heap, becomes the genius, the inspiration for practice.

Here is a page from Tantric scholar David White’s wonderful The Alchemical Body, courtesy of Google Books:

And from Yoga Journal:

Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Palace

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 Mark Singleton, published by Oxford University Press, New York, February 10, 2010.

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, Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. He scoured the first writing about yoga in English, from the late 1800’s, and looked at the first photographs of asanas to appear in Western magazines. He collected photographs of poses developed by European gymnasts, apparently independently, that look quite a bit like yoga asanas.

What Singleton found is an amazing story of mutual influence, with East and West calling each other forth, awakening each other like Matsyendra and Gorakshashasha. 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, 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 completely stops my mind. I have to put the book down and go look out the window or take a walk and be in awe as my brain does a headstand. I had no idea that 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.” 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 unemployed yogis took to being street performers – yogic showmen – in the 19th century. This had the effect of making the asanas both visible and despised, because they were associated with dirty, naked yogis who sat around torturing themselves or lying on beds of nails.

I am now on my third reading of Yoga Body and still find it stunning. I had no concept of the extent to which Sufis and Yogis commingled. Writing in 1676, one European estimated there were 800,000 Muslim Fakirs wandering India. Kabir, the poet, emerged from such a nexus of Islam and Hinduism, and some legends connect his family to both Nath Yogis and Islam.

I had no idea of the complex cultural dynamics that swirled around those who sought to bring asana practice into the modern age: English-speaking Indians, educated in British-run schools, internalized views of Indian history that came from séances in London, and used that to strengthen their sense of Hindu national identity. The idea of yoga as a “perfect five-thousand-year-old tradition” comes from British Theosophists who channeled this notion as part of their own agenda. It was adopted by Indians, who propounded it to Americans who then adopted it as God’s Truth.

The turn of the century, from the 19th to the 20th, saw 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 amazing creativity arose that sparked the development of modern postural yoga practice. See what I mean about stopping the mind? Singleton’s book is not just about where do the asanas come from – it is about the whole world texture that gave rise to the innovative forms of yoga we have accessible to us.

Singleton takes us from the broad historical overview of asana – from Early Europeans traveling around India in the 1600’s, and writing about their encounters with “Jogis,” – to a quite detailed 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 Mark’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."

I know Mark 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: there is something timeless in yoga, a feeling of eternity, existing in parallel with the amazing freshness and creativity of yoga teaching around the world today. For a tale of origins, I still prefer 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 Mark Singleton, published by Oxford University Press, New York, February 10, 2010.

* (one of the words for ocean in Sanskrit is samudra).

** As one enycylopedia remarks: “Because of this mass of accumulated legends it is impossible to construct a historical account of the life and teachings of Gorakhnath. Different legends account for his birth. In Bengal he came from the matted hair of Mahadeva ( Shiva ). In another legend he was born of a cow by Mahadeva. His place of birth is the subject of different controversial legends. One account gives the Punjab, another Kathiawar, while Nepalese tradition says he lived in a cave at Gorakhnath, the cave and town being named from him.” - Cpedia