Yoga Asanas and Hinduism

Yoga Asanas and Hinduism
– Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

There is lot of discussion these days about the Hindu origins of yoga-asanas or the postures, how many of them are really Hindu and how many are “imported” from the west.

The Politics

Prima facie, this is just a continuing exercise – anything Hindu would first be attributed to some western source and then its roots would be traced to ancient texts and practices. And that has to be certified by some westerner for Indians to believe the Indian orgin. The list is just too long, but we look at two examples – the Pythagorean Theorem finds a much earlier mention in Baudhayana’s Sulba Sutra (Seiden berg’s Mathematics in Ancient India). Similarly Panini is to be rightly credited for the first usage and conception of Backus-Naur form (The Panini-Backus Form in Syntax of Formal Languages by Subhash Kak and TRN Rao).

So it is only fair that one would be skeptical about the motivation behind the questions on yoga-asanas. And the reasons are many –

1.Yoga is a Hindu system and asana is not isolated but an integral part of yoga. And the way it is taught in the east and west too, is not as isolated postures although skin-deep researchers seek to isolate them.

2.Yoga is of late famous and plagiarism is at its best – there are slogans like “Christian Yoga”, and there are attempts to detach yoga from Hinduism so that one may not credit Hinduism for its important contributions.

3.People are looking at Hindu practices and asking Hindus to prove that they are Hindu, without establishing any prior non-Hindu presence of those practices. This is the same arrogance we see in most of the recent time debates.

4.Most of those who raise these questions have average or below agerage knowledge of the practical and experiential side of Hindu traditions.

5.The critics have ignored the bulk of yoga, mudras, the philosophy, the associated subjects and have selectively talked of asana-s, which makes one suspect their motives.

There are questions about the antitquity of yoga postures and their origin. While it is obvious that things evolve over time, and that people cannot talk of yoga itself not being Hindu, the west-lovers and Hindu-haters have picked up a selective question – of the asanas alone, which “cannot be found in ancient texts”. The texts on Hatha Yoga are surveyed for instance, but as is known to any practitioner Hatha Yoga involves rigorous physical *discipline* in its six-limbed yoga but not rigorous physical flexibility training or health training. Soon after dealing with initial physical postures the hatha yoga moves inwards, deals with mudras and bandhas – whose knowledge and practice is not easy without the basic knowledge of asanas. And in turn, the bandhas etc have their own purpose in kumbhaka etc that are needed in the subsequent limbs of yoga. So there is no point in looking for a repertorie of yoga-asanas in hatha yoga texts.

The next thing to be kept in mind is that knowledge in Hindu traditions has always been taught and learned within the fold of guru-sishya parampara-s or the teacher-disciple lineages. While there are many texts published these days, bulk of practical knowledge still remains within these – because the knowledge is not deductive but experiential. So the same question about asana-s would be applicable to mudras too – there are several known and practiced by Hindus, hundreds of them, and how many could really be traced into texts in print? Even the celebrated Yoga Sastra of Patanjali deals exhaustively with the yogic worldview, its philosophy, its approach and methodology and not with specific techniques.

But the real question for a Hindu, and a grnuine one, would be why at all does one need to establish these? It was Krishnamacary who taught, it was Matsyendra who taught, and there is no known legacy of asana-s or mudra-s in the west proven by anyone who is doing this questioning, which could be (again just a speculation even if it were there) the source of the asana-s in yoga.

Living Traditions

Moving from the politics of the topic to the topic itself, the most important thing to understand is that Hindu traditions are living and experiential, and that information would be found in the practicing oral traditions. To survey libraries harldy helps one arrive at truth.

Then we should understand how inseparable asana is from the rest of yoga. Yama-niyama are prerequisites of asana, and asana is not just a physical posture – it is a combination of breath control, a physical posture, holding the mind in a particular place in the body, display of certain mudra-s, control of specific muscles and nerves and so on.

More importantly, asana-mudra-bandha are not part of “just some yoga school”, but forms an important part of several traditions – the most celebrated natya sastra or the traditional dance. The dance section in Vishnu Dharmottara Purana devotes a complete chapter (23) to asana. Besides, the importance of mudra-s and assisting necessity of asana-s in dance can never be exaggerated, and every traditional Hindu school of dance stands proof – if only the arm chair critics are ready to take the pain of surverying those. These traditions have centuries of legacy, and cannot be wished away by them.

Similarly all the traditional martial art schools involve asana-training.

Each school uses the asana-s that suit its approach and purpose. While hatha yoga involves more rigorous physical discipline, raja yoga emphasizes asana-s much less. But in all these traditions the asana-s are prescribed depending on the practitioner’s needs and are kept within the tradition.

Keeping aside the yogic part, asana-s for health as they are seen in the most terrestrial sense, are also not new to Hindus. Surya Namaskara-s, the well known Sun-salutations have centuries of legacy. While the mantra-s are found in many places including Aruna Ketuka(the first prapathaka of Taittireeya Aranyaka), the Surya namaskara-s, along with the compilation of mantras, asana-s, their sequencing, and the whole procedure as is known today, are arranged by the great Baudhayana, who is among the most well known seers for arranging several such prayoga-s or applications. He is the author of a set of Kalpa Sutras, a limb of the Veda. They contain Sulba sutras (geometry of altars), Srauta Sutras (this is the primary text for ritual procedures), Grihya and Dharma sutras. Besides, there are several ritual procedures he created, including the celebrated Mahanyasa and graha worship.

And the Surya namaskara-s of Baudhayana prayoga krama enjoyed an uninterrupted legacy, till date. While these are known in oral tradition, old manuscripts are also available. While the antiquity of Surya namaskara-s is indisuptable, Samartha Ramadasa (Sivaji’s Guru) is also known to have practiced those, which rule out the possibility of their import in the past two centuries.

Saura or the worship of Surya/the Sun God was one of the six major religions in India, but is now not visible more than as a small aspect of Vaishnava and as the celebrated Gayatri. Surya is worshiped as the giver of health, the father of the doctor-god twins Asvins, the sustainer of life.

Besides, most of the martial art traditions and traditional physical practice traditions are extinct – thanks to thousand years of invasions.

The other source of asana-s is the prescription of Ayurveda, as is known, prescribed and practiced traditionally. The inseparable knowledge of postures and physiology can hardly be questioned. Besides, the very approach of Ayurveda is to discipline man to heal with secondary emphasis on treating him with external medication.


So the critics actually have lot of homework to do, to survey –

(a) the various yoga traditions

(b) the martial art traditions

(c) the dance traditions

(d) the upasana traditions

(e) the ayurveda traditions

at the least, before throwing the ball into the court of Hindus and asking them to prove.

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