DHANURĀSANA: Two Versions of Bow Pose

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Fig. 1: Appu Sahib Patumkar performing jogh [āsana]
India (19th century). Painting, gouache on paper.
Image size: 15 x 24 cm

Wellcome Library no. 574888i

This brightly rendered 19th-century Indian painting (fig. 1) is held in the Wellcome Library Collection and is currently on display in the exhibition entitled, Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine. It depicts a man performing a yogic posture (āsana) outdoors on a mat of antelope skin. The catalogue reports the rather cryptic comment, which it calls 'lettering' (possibly on the back of the painting):
Appu [?] Sahib Patumkar [?] performing jogh, awaiting inspiration preparatory to  turning [into a] devotee.
The form of the posture matches the description of an unnamed āsana (no. 51) in the prone (nyubja) section of an 18th-century yoga text called the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. The description of this āsana is as follows:

Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati 51
hastadvayena pādadvayāgre gṛhītvā ekaikaṃ pādāṅguṣṭhaṃ karṇayoḥ spṛśet || 51 || 
Grasping the toes of the feet with both hands, [the yogin] should touch the big toes, one at a time, on the ears. 
Although the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati doesn't provide a name for this āsana, the artists of the Mysore Palace, who skilfully illustrated the chapter on āsana in the Śrītattvanidhi (19th century), borrowed the description from the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati (fig. 2) and named it the bow pose (dhanurāsana).

Fig. 2: Dhanurāsana in the Śrītattvanidhi
Sjoman 1999: 84, pl. 18
Another example of dhanurāsana from the same period occurs in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (18th-century). The posture is described as follows:

Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā 2.18
prasārya pādau bhuvi daṇḍarūpau karau ca pṛṣṭhaṃ dhṛtapādayugmam |
kṛtvā dhanustulyavivartitāṅgaṃ nigadyate vai dhanurāsanaṃ tat || 
Extending the legs on the ground like sticks, as well as the arms, both feet are held from behind and the body is moved like a bow. This is called bow pose.
Seeing that both legs are initially straight on the ground, the above description could be referring to a posture similar in form to the illustration in the Śrītattvanidhi and the Wellcome's painting. A beautifully rendered illustration of dhanurāsana in a manuscript of the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (fig. 3) published in Fakire und Fakirtum im Alten und Modernen Indian (Schmidt 1908: 34, pl. 12) supports this interpretation.

Fig. 3: Dhanurāsana in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā
 1908: 34, pl. 12

However, one wonders whether the word pṛṣṭha ('from behind') in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā’s description is indicating that both feet are held behind the body. If this were the case, one would have to assume that the yogin initially extends both arms and legs while in a prone position, holds the feet from behind (pṛṣṭha) and moves the body like a bow by pulling both feet towards the ears. This interpretation was adopted by Yogi Ghamande in his book entitled Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka (published 1905). He quotes the verse on dhanurāsana in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā and gives the following illustration (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Dhanurāsana in the Yogasopāna-Purvacatuṣka
Ghamande 1905: 64 (
Āsana 34)

This form of dhanurāsana, which is a back-bending shape, is practised by most modern yoga lineages (fig. 5). It was popularised by the widely distributed book Yogāsanas authored by Swāmī Śivānanda, first published in 1934.

Fig. 5: Dhanurāsana in Śivānanda Yoga
Retrieved from the website of International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres.
It is worth noting that the earliest account of dhanurāsana is in the 15th-century Haṭhapradīpikā. 

Haṭhapradīpikā 1.27

pādāṅguṣṭhau tu pāṇibhyāṃ gṛhītvā śravaṇāvadhi |
dhanurākarṣaṇaṃ kuryād dhanurāsanam ucyate || 
Having held the big toes of both feet with both hands, one should pull [them] like a bow as far as the ears. This is called bow pose.

The Sanskrit is ambiguous enough to be understood as either of the above versions of this posture. In his commentary on the Haṭhapradīpikā called the Jyotsnā, Brahmānanda (circa mid-nineteenth century) interpreted it as follows:
gṛhītāṅguṣṭham ekaṃ pāṇiṃ prasāritaṃ kṛtvā gṛhītāṅguṣṭham itaraṃ pāṇiṃ karṇaparyantam ākuñcitaṃ kuryād ity arthaḥ ||
The meaning [of dhanurāsana is as follows:] Having extended one hand by which the big toe is held, one should draw, as far as the ear, the other hand by which the [other] big toe is held.
Brahmānanda's interpretation supports the version which is described in the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati and illustrated in both the Śrītattvanidhi and the Wellcome's painting. Yogi Ghamande (1905: 30) includes this as another version of dhanurāsana and quotes the above verse from the Haṭhapradīpikā (fig. 6). The illustration depicts a slight variation in which the big toe touches the opposite ear.

Both the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā and the Haṭhapradīpikā were important sources in the revival of postural yoga in twentieth-century India. Therefore, it is possible that the ambiguities in their Sanskrit descriptions of dhanurāsana are responsible for the popular (mis)interpretation of this āsana as a back-bending shape in modern yoga.

Fig. 6: Another version of Dhanurāsana in the Yogasopāna-Purvacatuṣka
Ghamande 1905: 30 (Āsana 8)

Thank you to Mark Singleton for providing the images from the Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka.


Ghamande, Yogi. 1905. Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka. Bombay: Janardan Mahadev Gurjar, Niranayasagar Press.

Śivānanda, Swāmī. 1993. Yoga Asanas. Sivanandanagar, India: Devine Life Society.

Schmidt, Richard. 1908. Fakire und Fakirtum im alten und modernen Indian: Yoga-Lehre und Yoga-Praxis nach den indischen Originalquellen dargestellt. Berlin: Hermann Barsdorf.

Sjoman, Norman E. and Kṛṣṇarāja Vaḍeyara. 1999. The Yoga tradition of the Mysore Palace. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

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