The historical roots of yoga

by on February 27, 2011 at 2:21 am in Education, History, Religion | Permalink

The reality is that postural yoga, as we know it in the 21st century, is neither eternal nor synonymous with the Vedas or Yoga Sutras. On the contrary, modern yoga was born in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It is a child of the Hindu Renaissance and Indian nationalism, in which Western ideas about science, evolution, eugenics, health and physical fitness played as crucial a role as the ‘mother tradition’. In the massive, multi-level hybridisation that took place during this period, the spiritual aspects of yoga and tantra were rationalised, largely along the theosophical ideas of ‘spiritual science,’ introduced to India by the US-origin, India-based Theosophical Society, and internalised by Swami Vivekananda, who led the yoga renaissance.

In turn, the physical aspects of yoga were hybridised with drills, gymnastics and body-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England, the United States and other Western countries. These innovations were creatively grafted on the Yoga Sutras–which has been correctly described by Agehananda Bharati, the Austria-born Hindu monk-mystic, as ‘the yoga canon for people who have accepted Brahmin theology’–to create an impression of 5,000 years worth of continuity where none really exists. The HAF’s current insistence is thus part of a false advertising campaign about yoga’s ancient Brahminical lineage.

The full story is here, and hat tip goes to The Browser.

DesiAvenger February 26, 2011 at 10:54 pm

The assumed baseline here is ridiculous–of course cultural practices change over time. But that doesn't mean that baseball isn't a 19th C. American innovation, just b/c they didn't have a designated hitter or infield fly rule.

This silly argument is coming out of American "South Asian Studies" programs, which are crap anti-Hindu ideologues who lie about the history of Arab, Turk and Persian aggression against India and tell fairy-tales about "syncretic" Indian culture.

Yankees, Yindoos, and Yehudis–FTW!

karma-yogi February 27, 2011 at 12:03 am

The article and the author share many of the biases which are typical in western academic circles. However with time and new findings most of these biases (such as indus valley civilization not being vedic, aryan invasion theory etc. etc. are being debunked). Hatha Yoga along with other kinds of yoga have a distinct Indian origin and to deny that is simply ridiculous. I agree that a lot of the modifications have gone through and the current versions being practiced cannot be considered as strictly yoga.

What is even more puzzling is as to why HAF is making a big deal out of all this. The essence of bhagvad gita is that we are only entitled to our actions not their outcomes. If people dont want to acknowledge the origins of Yoga let them not, why does Indian culture or civilization need a western stamp of approval?

Six Ounces February 27, 2011 at 1:48 am

I enjoyed the documentary, Yoga.inc, on the Documentary Channel.

Very enlightening.

joe February 27, 2011 at 2:33 am

"… to create an impression of 5,000 years worth of continuity where none really exists."
This sounds like a certain 20th century nation established in a very tumultuous part of the world.

RR February 27, 2011 at 6:47 am

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meera_Nanda

I would have been more impressed about the historical veracity of of the article,if the author did not appear to have her own asanas to grind.

Bribes February 27, 2011 at 8:09 am

This is quite plausible.

Having studied a lot of martial arts, I can say similar things about claims to how old certain martial arts are. Take taiji (tai chi). It's not really 2000 years old. A form recognizable as distinct from other Chinese gung fu probably developed around 300 years ago. It has also undergone a serious re-making as a form of pure health exercise, rather than as a way to hurt people. The spiritual aspects may similarly have been grafted onto it, re-imagined, or whatever. Finally, there are a LOT of taiji charlatans, in and out of China. I recommend caution in believing the mythos.

For the record, I am a strong proponent of taiji chuan. It's fantastic on all sorts of levels, and my knowledge, reading and research generally comes from the position of a practitioner and fan. Believing the mythology is not necessary–nor should it be–to sound and rewarding practice. I only pick on it because I love it. =)

Whyowhy February 27, 2011 at 8:50 am

Mention of specific asanas in the Vyasa commentary (early 1st millenia AD ) on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (dated around 2 century BC):
http://bharatendu.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/yoga-a

No one denies that the modern form of Yoga is quite different from the Yoga practiced in ancient times (as is the case with most arts – they evolve). However it is unbearable to hear the rants of individuals like Meera Nanda. On the one hand she claims that modern Yoga is more about posture and has nothing Hindu about it, and on the other she complains about "Hinduising" the Yoga practices and "compulsory" study of Hindu philosophy by Yoga instructors!

@Tyler: please check the background of the individuals who write the articles. Often their biases would be easily discovered.

Sandeep February 27, 2011 at 10:17 am

There are many factual errors in the article. I am sure Tyler Cowen will not be interested in them, but I will list some of them them for the benefit of his readers. But before I start, I should say that I am not trying to claim complete Indian origin for Yoga at all, and the claims about Swedish gymnastics etc. being incorporated are most likely true, given the observations about the manual available to yoga trainers of Mysore. Now here I go.

1. "Multilevel Hybridization" of physical Yoga with "spiritual science" kind of ideas is not from Theosophical society – the idea of mixing it with the meditative/spiritual tradition is already found in the fourteenth/fifteenth century text Hatha Yoga Pradeepika, a full translation of which can be found here. It unequivocally talks (see the fourth chapter in the link) of using Yoga to help breathing, meditation and to reach the state of enlightenment.

2. Contra Meera Nanda, at least the Hatha Yogic exercise of Padmasana finds mention in Shankaracharya's eighth century commentary on Brahma Sutras (which ALL historians accept to belong to eighth century AD) – you can see a translation of the relevant excerpt here. The Vrikshasana pose has been found in a circ 600 AD temple, a photo of which is given in the bhartendu.wordpress.com link above.

3. She claims that the Hatha Yoga was created by the Kanphata (split-eared) Nath Siddhas who have more in common with marijuana smokers of the north who are interested in magical powers than any spirituality. Wrong again – almost all available literature on and extant practitioners of the Nath tradition are into the God business.

4. She writes :

Far from being considered the crown jewel of Hinduism, yogic asanas were in fact looked down upon by Hindu intellectuals and reformers—including the great Swami Vivekananda—as fit only for sorcerers, fakirs and jogis.

Sure, Vivekananda and his guru Sri Ramakrishna looked down on Hatha Yoga, but other spiritual traditions in India like the Shankaracharya Math at Sringeri, have viewed it as a legitimate part of mainstream spirituality. Then again, the fourteenth century text linked above, purports to push physical Yoga for a spiritual aim. Paul Brunton's "Search in Secret India" too lists some of practitioners who do Hatha Yoga as a first step to spirituality. People like Vivekananda are influential but by no means represent the entire spectrum of Hinduism.

5. She writes :

BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga alone teaches 200 asanas, while the 14th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists only 15 asanas, as do the 17th century Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita

Wrong again – as a matter of fact the Gheranda Samhita has 32 Asanas. Both the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita claim that Shiva taught 84 original asanas, but that they were listing only so many. Again, at least partial text of the Gheranda Samhita is available for free online, and you can check.

6. The Taoist practices she suggests to as possibly influential do not involve stretching. Given that stretching is one of the biggest selling points of Yoga, who gets the credit for that?

7. She writes :

The HAF’s current insistence is thus part of a false advertising campaign about yoga’s ancient Brahminical lineage.

It is wrong and misleading to bring Brahminism into the picture. The issue of Brahminism did not even enter the debate, and Meera Nanda is unnecessarily, in a casteist fashion, dragging it into the debate. All this talk of "HAF’s shrill claims about Westerners stealing yoga" is just gross misrepresentation of HAF's views, which are way milder and, while not historically well-researched, by no means merit the caustic rhetoric that Meera has packed into her entire prose. To quote from New York Times :

The campaign, labeled “Take Back Yoga,” does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it, the Hindu American Foundation, suggests only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.

How deserving is that of the kind of rhetoric Meera Nanda has written? Just why can't she write in more of a spirit of civilized discourse?

Finally, have you noticed that Tyler Cowen usually links to those aspects of Islam that make Muslims feel good, while his links about Hinduism are ones that contain the kind of rhetoric that either has bad things to say about Hindus or strip Hinduism of some of its claimed achievements? I think the main reason is Tyler Cowen's fascination with Islamic culture – strong love for Egyptian music, intrigue with the Bektashi sufism, that his favorite Indian musicians are Muslims etc. Just like people favor better looking candidates in interviews Tyler Cowen favors people from "better looking cultures", namely ones that please his aesthetic sense.

Here is another thing to mull over – Islam gets credit for any good thing in an Islamic culture, but anything good about Hindu culture is only "Indian" and not "Hindu". Why does Tyler hate non-Muslims so much?

David February 27, 2011 at 11:58 am

A lot of Hindus here with a chip on their shoulders.

JSIS February 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Some(not all) of the Hata-yoga postures are quite modern. e.g 12 step surya namaskaras. "hata yoga pradeepika" contains some asanas and is quite ancient. But it itself is much later invention(maybe 12th century), since even older texts like patanjali yoga sutras don't even mention any postures.

Yoga is much overloaded term, given the volumes written on it since ancient times. Saying yoga is modern, is just asking for backlash. Saying some of those postures are quite modern, is quite accurate and can be backed up with textual evidence.

"Hatha yoga is a minute aspect of Vedic teaching, in which there is a continuity because there is a continuity of masters of that tradition"
I really doubt that, hata-yoga has always been looked down upon by traditionalists as inferior and dangerous.

Sandeep February 27, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Tom Hickey : You need to distinguish between the religious/spiritual person's perspective, from which you are talking, and the historian's perspective, from which a few (though not all) of the Hindus above, including myself, are trying to talk.

The historian does not view Pranayama as necessarily related to Hatha Yoga. The historian does not have a reason to believe in a sadguru, or transmission of power. The historian has to be open to the possibility that Hatha Yoga developed later, and further got mixed with Pranayama and other spiritualist texts.

I am saying this to you because, unfortunately when some Hindus or people like you talk from a religious perspective, the non-anti-Hindu historian's perspective (like mine) gets viewed alongside yours, and thus not recognized as historian's or given a serious reading.

Thankfully a few academics who graduated with a Ph.D. in Indological topics from prestigious European institutes, like Giacomo Benedetti and Nicholas Kazanas have started undoing some of the damage done by the conventional folks.

JSIS : Actually not all traditionalists look down on Hatha Yoga. Vivekananda and (his guru) Ramakrishna did, but just like their nonvegetarianism doesn't negate the existence of a robust vegetarianist tradition within Hinduism, there are several Hindu schools that view Hatha Yoga as an aid to spiritual unfoldment, the Shankaracharya Math at Sringeri, for instance.

Anon February 27, 2011 at 7:46 pm

I guess they're sticking to their story.

A jerk February 28, 2011 at 6:42 am

Commenters,

Downward Dog is to 5th Century Yoga as Modern Wicca is to ancient Druidism.

Josh M February 28, 2011 at 7:59 am

Did you guys invent yoga pants? If so, high five.

Sandeep March 1, 2011 at 6:55 am

TGGP, you seem to be talking about world history and not south Asian history. I too haven't taken a South Asian studies course in a US university but I have read research papers written by South Asian Studies professors and those feature considerable Muslim boosting and suppression of facts about Muslim intolerance. For instance Sheldon Pollock in his influential Death of Sanskrit paper dishonestly exonerates Muslim rulers from their contribution to the destruction of the Kashmiri Sanskrit school in 12th century AD (by omitting to mention incriminating evidences in Jonaraja's work while highlighting the tolerance of his patron Zain-ul-Abideen). There are numerous other examples like considerable plugging of Akbar (suppressing his demolition of temples), attempt to suppress Jihadic motivations by Mahmud of Ghazni and show his motivations as purely economic (even though Al-Biruni (an Amartya Sen-favorite), the scholar he funded, explicitly states the Jihadist motivation and praises him for reducing Hindus to "atoms of dust"), attempts by Arizona Professor Richard Eaton to dilute Islamist invasions, attempts to Kim Plofker etc.

The overall South Asian Studies professors' approach can be summarized as follows :

1. Casteism etc., the bad points of Hindu society/rulers – Hinduism fully to blame.
2. Islamist militarism – find economic reasons and completely absolve Islam.
3. Hindu cultural achievements – these are not Hindu, they are Indian. Or, just aesthetic nightmares (like South Indian temples), ignore them.
4. Islamic cultural achievements – full credit to Islam.

The interesting aspect is that each of these points would appear legitimate when viewed independently of the rest, and the contradiction becomes most apparent when you put them together.

My strong feeling is that these faculty as well as Tyler Cowen find Hinduism aesthetically unappealing and Islam exotic and esoteric. I agree Hinduism is probably aesthetically unappealing, but these people should prevent their aesthetic preferences from manifesting as political biases.

Sandeep March 1, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Of course, you are right that there are people from other religions distinctively Indian. And sure enough, a lot of the architecture, literature, science including quite possibly mathematics etc. that was done by Hindus (or "pre-Hindus" if you would) was substantially borrowed from other Indians, especially Buddhists and Jains. My intention is not to make an ownership claim, and in fact, the four "points" above summarizing South Asian Studies approach to Hinduism vis a vis Islam, each are somewhat fine when viewed individually. But when put together, they make a bad combination, because together it means only discussing negative aspects of one religion and positive of the otherr.

Similarly, I don't mind if someone finds Islam more appealing than Hinduism – it is just my suspicion that the difference in Tyler's fascinations for the philosophy ([1], [2]) is what primarily determines what kind of articles about each of these religions he links to, and that is very unfair and unfortunate. For instance, I don't see any other explanation for his linking to a weird post like he did here. BTW thanks for responding.

Vishwas March 3, 2011 at 10:05 pm

[quote]A lot of Hindus here with a chip on their shoulders.[/quote]
True, but mostly provoked by Tyler.

Tyler's hostility to caste discrimination has slowly smeared to a more diffuse hostility against all of Hinduism.

Nathanael March 8, 2011 at 10:03 pm

This is indeed a ridiculous article. Certainly there are many modern things advertised as "yoga" which have only a loose relationship with the (many, and varied) yoga traditions of India. However, it's perfectly possible to find teachers of the ancient yoga traditions (are they 5000 years old or merely 1000 years old? Hard to say, but they have been going on a long time). There's also a lot of competition among those traditions. Every single one of them has evolved substantially over time — each yogi adding to and modifying the tradition handed down from his teachers, in the good old spirit of increased wisdom. All of the yogic traditions were always minority among Hindus in general of course.

Those who brought yoga to the US in the 1920s did so in a spirit of East-West cooperation, of different traditions communicating with each other and learning from each other. The yoga traditions evolving from that are no less valid than the ones evolving in India alone.

Most all of them do share a basic agreement that the physical exercises, poses, and stretching of hatha yoga, with the coordinated breathing are an important part of the process for learning to achieve meditative states and greater control over the body's function. *This* at any rate is borne out by scientific evidence.

That said, there are definitely some scam artists who have seized on "yoga" and turned it into a profitmaking business. Some have genuine wisdom and skills as teachers, others not. But that happens to everything, doesn't it?

Chandra March 20, 2011 at 5:10 am

Meera Nanda – have no clue as to who she is and what her background on this is. Tylwr Cowen is no hollywood hero .

But there is a standard pattern here. Caste , Brahminical lineage , exclusivism etc. That gives away their stance and most people immediately have raised brows. If these people were smart, they have to come out of their fortresses made out of fallacious arguments and indulge in discussions and not these silly oft-repeated cliches. To me, they look like clowns and the more they speak and the louder they wail , the shallower they seem.

It was Rabindranath Tagore who wrote

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
by narrow domestic walls;
Where the words come out from the depth of truth;

When I read this , compassion for all fellow human beings fills me. When I read the article by Meera Nanda, a sense of uncleanliness sweeps me.

Lord Shiva , also known as Maha-Dakshinamurthy is known by another name: Yoga-Dakshinamurhty. Not far from Chennai, a temple exists.
http://www.templenet.com/Tamilnadu/s041.html

Dakshinamurthy is referred to as Yoga Dakshinamurthy here and is portrayed with the ‘chin mudra’ positioned on his chest and is depicted with a ‘Yoga Pattam’.
And this temple is over a 600 years old.
Now this posture and the age of the temple is a direct contradiction to the claim made by Meera Nandu. Never mind the 5000 year history thing, all I am saying is that this temple is several centuries older than the 19th century postural yoga claims by the author.
Wont say more.

I am not sure if the author has visited this remote temple in rural India. Maybe this uncouth place / these people and their simple meagre ways aren#t to comfortable for someone sitting in the West Coast.

Oh and one more thing: Yoga itself means seeking moksha, seeking knowledge through a healthy body. Today it seems to hvae narrwed down.

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