ASANAS Old and New

Unpublished manuscripts and hints of the missing Yoga Kurunta

Published: 9 October, 2013

The history and authenticity of Yoga is receiving a lot of attention these days.  Publications like Mark Singleton's Yoga Body have rightly pointed out the modern innovations and influences on the practice, but so much of the history of Yoga (particularly the practice of āsana in Haṭhayoga) is still unknown.  Most of it remains locked up in poorly resourced Indian libraries with minimal preservation care, often rotting away on palm leaf Sanskrit manuscripts.  The details contained in these past writings are of little interest to the modern Indian who desires the lifestyle, career and wealth advocated by the West.  Yet, Indian librarians guard this knowledge with national pride and make it difficult to access even by those keen, knowledgeable and skillful enough to read it.  The task of gaining access can be a long, complex and bureaucratic process, and then attempting to read something that is scribbled or scratched in a dead language means that the barriers to piecing together a coherent history is challenging and left only to those with a passion for puzzles and a doctorate in the language.

With modern Yoga becoming a mainstream lifestyle pursuit, its teachings are being diluted with all forms of exercise (from physiotherapy to pole dancing!).  At the same time, modern Yoga also appears to be forming an eclectic new age spirituality that is described by Elizabeth de Michelis as "an inward, privatized form of religion".  As such, many practitioners are looking to the past for inspiration and authenticity in the hope of making Yoga a more substantial offering.  Yet, when one tries to study the history of Yoga more questions than answers often arise.  

How old are the physical practices of Yoga?

Many claim that there is a historical thread that can be traced back 4000 years, while others clearly point to the influence of British physical education and gymnastics. Neither polarized view offers an accurate picture.

Why is there so much movement in Yoga today when it's about sitting still in meditation?

To date, scholars have been unable to provide evidence that clearly points to the use of posture and movement in the form of asanas in traditional Yoga. Many claim that the goal of traditional Yoga, to achieve the stone-like meditation state described by Patañjali's Yogasutras, is still the ultimate pursuit of modern Yoga.  Conversely, the recently published work of James Mallinson suggests that the heating techniques of Haṭhayoga have their origins in the renunciant traditions of India and are more closely related to the pursuit of tapas as a means to liberation.  And yet, a very big gap remains between the austere physical techniques of the renunciant traditions and the modern pursuit of Yoga that aspires to health, wellbeing and deep states of relaxation.

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 manuscript hunting in India
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.

Ujjain Manuscript - Yogacintamani (photo: Jason Birch)

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."

Folio Detail of Sunyasana
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.

"Pioneering yoga gurus such as Kṛṣṇamācārya, Swami Kuvalayānanda and Shree Yogendra were all Brahmins with some disdain for the extreme asceticism and so-called Tantric practices of renunciants, and so, it is more likely that they would have been influenced by the knowledge of Brahmins whose erudite forefathers had been appropriating Hathayoga since the seventeenth century, as evinced by texts such as the Yogacintāmaṇi and the Hathasaṅketacandrikā."

Jason has been able to identify the earliest, dated evidence of a complete list of 84 āsanas in a 17th century manuscript of the Yogacintāmaṇi. Another of the manuscripts studied, the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, appears to be a valuable source text that hints at the content of the mysterious Yoga Kuruṇṭa, mentioned in Gītā Iyengar's book on Yoga for Women as the source of her rope poses.

Jason concludes that:  "The Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati confirms that rope-poses were incorporated into Haṭhayoga, possibly as early as the eighteenth century.  None of the names of its rope poses correspond to those in Gītā Iyengar’s book, but this does raise the question of whether the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati is related in some way to the Yoga Kuruṇṭa known to Kṛṣṇamācārya and via him to the Iyengars, Pattabhi Jois, Desikachar and his son, Kaustubh."

"One must wonder whether the name ‘Yoga Kuruṇṭa’ was derived from Kapālakuraṇṭaka, the author of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati.  The only available manuscript of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati appears to be incomplete and probably contains only part of the original text.  It does not mention the Yoga Kuruṇṭa, but it does establish that there was a Haṭha text called the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati which may have contained āsanas similar to those reported in the Yoga Kuruṇṭa."

Front and Back Covers (photo: Jason Birch)
Although Jason has yet to find specific evidence for the practices of Surya Namaskara and vinyasa, he does highlight that most postures in K. Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga Yoga have a strong connection to the past.

 "Though moving āsana are described in the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, this text does not provide general guidelines on how the postures were practised.  In fact, Sanskrit yoga texts do not stipulate whether āsana were held for long or short periods of time, whether special sequences were followed or whether manipulating the breath was important in the practice of āsana."

To learn more, Jason has provided the full presentation he delivered in Vienna for download here:

Jason Birch - 'Yoga in Transformation' Presentation