Origins of yoga postures – a closer look at the purpose of yoga asana

Origins of yoga postures – a closer look at the purpose of yoga asana

When most people hear the word 'yoga', images of gymnastic-like positions come to mind like standing on one’s head, or the names of popular yoga postures such as downward dog and triangle pose, yet the history of yoga and breadth of yoga philosophy and practices give very little mention or emphasis to these physical exercises or ‘postures’ – yet neither does it embrace the wonder, beauty and science of our body when moved in union/yoga.

In India, there are many branches of yoga, such as Bhakti (Yoga of devotion), Jnana (Yoga of Wisdom), Karma (Yoga of Action), and within these branches are hundreds of yogic practices (Tantra, Mudra, Asana, Mantra etc.) When it comes to the practice of yoga postures or physical yoga exercises, these generally fall under the category of Hatha yoga and asana practices.

Originally, Hatha yoga was a practice primarily aimed at the purification of, and mastery over, the physical body so that one could be settled and at ease in the body for meditation practices. The practice was considered preparation for the attainment of oneness or union, and never was the practice intended for the glorification or perfection of physical form.

Outside of India, the practice of yoga asana or yoga postures is the most widely practised form of yoga in the world today. The proliferation of yoga in the west has seen yoga practices differentiate into styles of yoga such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, Yin, Kundalini, Oki, and Vinyasa to name just a few of many. New styles of yoga have also started to emerge that involve holding yoga positions while suspended in the air, while balancing on a paddle board, with a cat or in a pub while holding and drinking alcohol.

Despite these differentiations and aberrations most modern yoga teachers and yoga teacher training courses pay homage to Patañjali, author of the principal yoga text, ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali’. He has been referred to as the ‘Father of Yoga’ because many yoga systems in practice today are considered to have their roots in Patañjali’s yoga teaching.

The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali are a collection of 196 short aphorisms (another word for sutras) that can be further broken down into the Eight Limbs of Yoga; the third limb pertains to ‘asana’ or posture. There are only four sutras however that mention ‘asana’ and all of these refer to “asana” as an upright posture that is easy to maintain.

The first mention of asana is sutra 29 in book 2 of Patañjali’s sutras; it simply names asana or right posture as one of the eight limbs of yoga. The second reference is sutra 46 of book 2; the sutra is preparing the student for meditation and has only three words, ‘sthira sukham asanam’ – sthira meaning ‘steady’ and sukhman meaning ‘ease’. The third reference to asana advises that the steadiness and ease of posture ‘... is to be achieved through persistent slight effort ...’ – to maintain the comfort of the body during meditation so the body does not distract the concentration of the mind. The fourth sutra that refers to asana or right posture mentions it only as a precursor to the next stage of the eight limbs – pranayama.

For many modern-day yoga practitioners the second reference to asana ‘sthira sukham asanam’ literally means ‘The posture (asana) assumed must be steady and easy’. This is the main sutra that is usually quoted when assigning the place and significance of a gymnastic-like yoga practice. In 1927, well before the explosion of Yoga into our mainstream culture, Alice A. Bailey printed a commentary on Patanjali’s yoga sutras titled ‘The Light of the Soul’. She starts her commentary for this sutra with:

“This sutra is one that has led our occidental students into a great deal of trouble for they have interpreted it in an entirely physical sense. That it has a physical meaning is true but taken in reference to the lower threefold nature[1] it might be said that it refers to a steady immovable position of the physical body when in meditation...”.[2]

Was Alice A. Bailey, as far back as 1927, indicating the re-emergence of yoga in the last century had already deviated from its intended meaning and purpose and is this a revelation of the occidental yoga student’s tendency to mis-interpret and over-emphasise asana and yoga postures in yoga practice?

It could be said modern yoga styles are enjoying the credibility and authority of yoga being an ancient, tried and tested teaching without understanding the father of yoga, Patañjali, did not teach or advocate for the practice of yoga positions that most yoga adherents know and call ‘yoga’ by today. In fact, if we look to our more recent history, our ancient yoga exercises may not be so ancient after all.

References:

  • [1]

    The lower threefold nature being the physical, emotional and mental aspects of human existence.

  • [2]

    Alice A Bailey, The Light of The Soul, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, ed15, pg 213

Filed under

Body awarenessYogaLineage

  • Photography: Clayton Lloyd