asanas old and new

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Ujjain Manuscript – Yogacintamani (photo: Jason Birch)

Why are so few asanas mentioned in the traditional Yoga texts, such as the Yogasutras and the Hathapradipika, and yet so many are practiced today in asana based systems like K. Pattahbhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga and B. K. S. Iyengar Yoga?

It has been difficult to ignore the absence of historical evidence on the development of later Haṭhayoga.  Modern practitioners have clung to the hope of finding the long lost and mysterious Yoga Kuruṇṭa (a purported Sanskrit text allegedly used by Krishnamacharya) in the hope that it will validate the practice of vinyasa and Surya Namaskar as well as provide precedents to the ropes and props used by B. K. S. Iyengar.

A recent academic conference Yoga in Transformation held in September 2013 at the Vienna University was an extraordinary event that highlights the importance of this conversation and the efforts of scholars to provide a historically accurate picture while attempting to predict the future trajectory of this global phenomenon.

Jason Birch’s presentation on the Unpublished Manuscript Evidence for the practice of Numerous Asanas in the 17th and 18th Century is a helpful piece in attempting to solve this complex puzzle.  Jason presents evidence to suggest that there were well over 100 āsana being practised in India before the British arrived.  He states:

“Generally speaking, there are very few seated, forward, backward, twisting and arm-balancing poses in modern yoga that have not been anticipated by these seventeenth and eighteenth-century sources.”

Jason’s research involved the detailed study of several 17th and 18th century manuscripts found in various library around India.  These particular findings are significant as they offer a window into the types of āsanas practiced in India at that time.  Some of the Haṭhayogic techniques were prominent enough to catch the inquisitive eye of the Mogul Court and are recorded in a Persian manuscript.

It contradicts the assumption made by Scholars and Yoga Teachers alike that the physical āsana of modern Yoga have no precedent.  Jason states that in the manuscript evidence:

“The majority of these āsana were not seated poses, but complex and physically-demanding postures some of which involved repetitive movement, breath control and the use of rope.  When these manuscript sources are combined, the assemblage of āsana provides antecedents to most of the floor and inverted postures in modern systems of Indian yoga.”

Jason confirms that moving āsana, rope āsana and standing āsana were all part of the picture long before the revival of physical yoga in the 20th century.  He also points out that Haṭhayoga had been appropriated by orthodox Brahmins before the 18th century, moving it away from the renunciant traditions, and they wrote yoga texts that blended Haṭhayoga with Patañjali’s yoga, the Upaniṣads and Bhagavadgītā, much like we see today.

Excerpt from Article ASANAS Old and New: Unpublished manuscripts and hints of the missing Yoga Kurunta By JACQUELINE HARGREAVES

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