Beautiful 19th-Century Indian Drawings Show Hatha Yoga Poses Before They Reached the West

Yoga as an ath­let­ic series of pos­tures for phys­i­cal health came into being only about 100 years ago, part of a wave of gym­nas­tics and cal­is­then­ics that spread around the West­ern world in the 1920s and made its way to India, com­bin­ing with clas­si­cal Indi­an spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and asanas, a word which trans­lates to “seat.”  Yoga, of course, had exist­ed as a clas­si­cal spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline in India for thou­sands of years. (The word is first found in the Rig Veda), but it had lit­tle to do with fit­ness, as yoga schol­ar Mark Sin­gle­ton found when he delved into the roots of yoga as we know it.

Asana prac­tice was often mar­gin­al, even scorned by some 19th cen­tu­ry Indi­an teach­ers of high caste as the domain of “fakirs” and men­di­cant beg­gars. “The first wave of ‘export yogis,’” writes Sin­gle­ton, “head­ed by Swa­mi Vivekanan­da, large­ly ignored asana and tend­ed to focus instead on pranaya­ma [breath prac­tice], med­i­ta­tion, and pos­i­tive think­ing…. Vivekanan­da pub­licly reject­ed hatha yoga in gen­er­al and asana in par­tic­u­lar.”

In the 20th cen­tu­ry, yoga became asso­ci­at­ed with Indi­an nation­al­ism and anti-colo­nial resis­tance, and import­ed West­ern pos­es were com­bined with asanas for a pro­gram of intense phys­i­cal train­ing.

West­ern­ized yoga has obscured oth­er tra­di­tions around the world that devel­oped over hun­dreds or thou­sands of years. For his book with James Mallinson, Roots of Yoga, Sin­gle­ton con­sult­ed “yog­ic texts from Tibetan, Ara­bic, Per­sian, Ben­gali, Tamil, Pali, Kash­miri, Old Marathi, Avad­hi, Braj Bhasha, and Eng­lish,” notes the Pub­lic Domain Review, who bring our atten­tion to this ear­ly 19th-cen­tu­ry series of images from a text called the Joga Pradīpikā, made before clas­si­cal yoga became known in the west by adven­tur­ous thinkers like Hen­ry David Thore­au.

A few mil­len­nia before it was the prove­nance of lycra-clad teach­ers in bou­tique stu­dios, asana prac­tice com­bined rig­or­ous, often quite painful-look­ing, med­i­ta­tive pos­tures with mudras (“seals”), hand ges­tures whose ori­gins “remain obscure,” though yoga his­to­ri­an Georg Feuer­stein argues “they are undoubt­ed­ly the prod­ucts of inten­sive med­i­ta­tion prac­tice dur­ing [which] the body spon­ta­neous­ly assumes cer­tain sta­t­ic as well as dynam­ic pos­es.” The col­lec­tion of draw­ings in the 118-page book depicts 84 asanas and 24 mudras, “with explana­to­ry notes in Bra­ja-Bhasha verse,” notes the British Library, and one image (top) relat­ed to Kun­dali­ni yoga.

What­ev­er the var­i­ous prac­tices of yog­ic schools in both the East­ern and West­ern world, “the meth­ods and lifestyles devel­oped by the Indi­an philo­soph­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al genius­es over a peri­od of at least five mil­len­nia all have one and the same pur­pose,” writes Feuer­stein in his sem­i­nal study, The Yoga Tra­di­tion: “to help us break through the habit pat­terns of our ordi­nary con­scious­ness and to real­ize our iden­ti­ty (or at least union) with the peren­ni­al Real­i­ty. Indi­a’s great tra­di­tions of psy­chos­pir­i­tu­al growth under­stand them­selves as paths of lib­er­a­tion. Their goal is to lib­er­ate us from our con­ven­tion­al con­di­tion­ing and hence also free us from suf­fer­ing.”

Under a broad umbrel­la, yoga has flour­ished as an incred­i­ble wealth of tra­di­tions, philoso­phies, reli­gious prac­tices, and schol­ar­ship whose strands weave loose­ly togeth­er in what most of us know as yoga in a syn­the­sis of East and West. Learn more at the Pub­lic Domain Review, and have a look at their new book of his­toric images, Affini­ties, here, a curat­ed jour­ney through visu­al cul­ture.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How to Get Start­ed with Yoga: Free Yoga Lessons on YouTube

How Yoga Changes the Brain and May Guard Against Alzheimer’s and Demen­tia

Son­ny Rollins Describes How 50 Years of Prac­tic­ing Yoga Made Him a Bet­ter Musi­cian

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  • Rohit Shinkre says:

    Arti­cle curi­ous­ly omits men­tion of the most sem­i­nal ancient text on yoga which is Patan­jal­i’s Yoga­Su­tra. Inci­den­tal­ly, Swa­mi Vivekanan­da pub­lished his com­ments on it.

    Is it igno­rance or delib­er­ate omis­sions… Both are con­demnable in the con­text of exper­tise claimed by author.

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