Myth is one of those wonderful words that most people don’t completely understand. For most, a myth is a lie. It is a story that did not actually take place, a legend or fable. When we hear the word myth today, it often has a negative connotation, as in “Those weapons of mass destruction were a myth”.
Used in this sense, and with our title in mind, I will venture to say that commonplace presumptions of the history of yoga are in fact a myth.
Another way to understand the word myth is that it is synonymous with the word religion. Myths are the stories that inspire and bind together civilizations. Myths ultimately spring from deep within us, and the rituals associated with myth are vehicles which enable us to experience a connection between ourselves and the Mystery of life.
“It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” -Joseph Campbell
Used in this sense, again I will say that yoga truly is a myth.
Myths are properly understood and experienced as metaphors which relate to your own psyche, and the surest way to destroy the spiritual import of religion is to insist that the “myth-stories” are to be interpreted as historical facts. When you imagine that the scriptures are to be understood literally, and then discover that many of the stories could not possibly have occurred as factual history, the result is often doubt, loss of faith and alienation. But if we read the stories in other ways they can open us to deep wisdom.
With these ideas in mind, let us explore the Myth of Yoga.
Part 1. Myth as Lie.
Yoga’s global appeal often rests on the assumption that the practice of āsana (postures) constituted a central and ancient component of Indian religious traditions. Supposedly intuited by wise enlightened sages during deep meditation and passed on to disciples down lineages spanning millenniums it is thought to embody a method for not only physical well being, but a path to enlightenment.
Myth #1: Hatha Yoga comes from the Vedas.
Coming from ancient India, many people would trace yoga to the earliest of Hindu scriptures, the Vedas. Now for those of you who are unfamiliar with yoga and Hinduism, The Vedas (Sanskrit véda वेद, “knowledge”) are a large body of religious texts originating in India circa 1500 BCE. Composed in Sanskrit, the texts are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. The Vedas are described as apauruṣeya (“not of human agency”). They are supposed to have been directly revealed by God, and thus are called śruti (“what is heard”), distinguishing them from other religious texts, which are called smṛti (“what is remembered”). In Hindu tradition, the creation of the Vedas is credited to Brahma, God as creator.
The idea of divine revelation is key to our discussion in Part 2: Myth as Truth where we discuss the concepts of authority and the power of lineage. Disregarding for now these thorny issues, a reading of the Vedas with the history of yoga in mind presents us with certain facts. The word “yoga” appears only a handful of times in the Rig Veda, in its general context of joining, or yoking, one thing to another, with no concrete evidence of a deeper, symbolic, meaning. In fact, most of the Vedas deal with the rules for sacrifice and ritual ceremony, as ways to propitiate and seek favor of the gods.
Yoga as the practice of postures is not mentioned in the Vedas.
In fact, there is very little old textual evidence from which we can see yoga as posture-based at all:
The Brahmanas (900BCE-600BCE) which are later commentaries on the Vedas describe austerity practicing ascetics (muni). No Hatha Yoga there.
The Katha Upanishad (300BCE) contains some mention of the word yoga in the context of Yama (God of Death) speaking of it as a means to leave behind joy and sorrow and overcome death itself.
The Svetasvaatara Upanishad (300BCE) outlines an upright seated body posture– the mind is brought under control by restraint of the breath.
The Maitri Upanishad (one of the last) describes a six-fold yoga method similar to the later Patañjali Yoga Sutras, however specific mention of āsana is missing.
In the Bhagavad Gita within the Mahabharata (200BCE-500CE) there are mentioned 3 Paths of yoga; Karma, Bhakti, Jnana. While mention in made to meditation and pranayama breath control, specific mention of postures is absent.
It is not until much later that āsana postures are explicitly documented.
The Saiva Tantras form the basis of the teachings of hatha yoga which we can date from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Here are the earliest of the well-known texts:
Goraksa Sataka 13th CE?
Siva Samhita 15th CE
HathaYogaPradipika (HYP)15th -16th CE
Gheranda Samhita (Ghs)17th -18th CE
In these texts, hatha yoga is concerned with the transmutation of the human body into a vessel immune from mortal decay. There are various bodily purifications prescribed, such as cleansing the stomach by swallowing strips of cloth, and neti, the cleaning of the nasal passages. Or for those with more exotic inclinations, there is Sahajoli or Amaroli mudras, where ejaculation takes place during intercourse and then the conjoined male and female sexual fluids are drawn back up through the penis. These mudras were actually purged from the Siva Samhita and banned. While the The HYP outlines 15 āsanas, and the Ghs describes 32, the mainstay of yoga practice in these times is pranayama. What is remarkable about the practices outlined here is how different they are from our modern day yoga in the West.
Only a small of number of postures figured within medieval haṭha yoga traditions. Standing postures, for instance, which constitute a large part of today’s popular yoga repertoire, were absent. Moreover, the practice and uses of postures were conceived very differently from what we find in today’s modern yoga studios. Certain seated meditation postures such as padmāsana and siddhāsana are mentioned, but there is little evidence of postures ever having played a significant part in Indian yoga traditions.
Haṭha yoga started waning in the 18th century when the British arrived. Experiencing the yogin’s control over trade routes in North India as an economic and political threat, the British increasingly policed their activities and banned their practices. As a result, haṭha yogins had to seek an alternative livelihood in “yogic showmanship,” becoming objects of scorn for many sections of Hindu society.
But on the historical timeline we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to next major text on yoga as it appears, the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali.
Myth #2: Patañjali & The Yoga Sutras.
The story of Patañjali illustrates one of the central problems in the study of comparative religion, namely trying to separate ‘fact from fiction’ in order to arrive at an understanding of the material. In this case, the deeper one explores to discover the facts, the more fiction is revealed. From my mythic perspective, of course, that is a good thing!
As yogis in the West, we have all heard of the sage Patañjali, often known as the “Father of Yoga”. I remember visiting the massive Shiva Nataraj Temple complex at Chidambaram in South India years ago. Legend has it that here he lived and composed the Sutras. Most of the many Hatha schools of today claim Patañjali as a root source of their teachings and practices. It would therefore be expected that a reading of his work might reveal the posture-based yoga we are searching for.
The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali are 196 Indian stanzas that constitute the foundational text of Yoga. In it the author describes adherence to eight “limbs” or steps to quiet one’s mind and achieve kaivalya or liberation. Of the eight limbs, the 3rd is āsana, which in the Yoga Sutras are basic postures which are practiced to allow one to sit steady, comfortable and undisturbed in meditation. Absent are the flowing dynamic postures we typically see today in a western yoga studio.
We can get a good sense of the work from the second Sutra in chapter 1, where Patañjali has defined yoga as “Yogascitta vritti nirodhah” translated as “Yoga is the intentional stopping of the spontaneous activity of the mind stuff.”
And how do we intentionally stop the spontaneous activity? Is it through a dynamic flow of movement? No, the clear message of Patañjali is an emphasis on following the 8 steps that lead the student from moral actions to control of the life energies through pranayama, followed by concentration, meditation and samadhi. Asana is only used for the purpose of preparing the body to be able to sit comfortably in meditation.
While Patañjali is a rather important historical figure, his dates are unknown, estimated to be from 400BCE to 400CE, quite a wide period of time. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of his story is the circumstance of his birth, which I relate below as described by BKS Iyengar:
“Shortly before Patañjali was born, Vishnu was seated on his serpent, Adisesa. Vishnu was so captivated by the enchanting dance of Lord Siva that he started to vibrate to its rhythm. The vibration made him heavier and heavier, causing Adisesa to nearly collapse. When the dance was over, the weight was lifted. Adisesa, mesmerized by this dramatic change, expressed to Visnu that he wanted to learn to dance and Visnu predicted that Lord Siva would bless him for his understanding and devotion to the dance. Adisesa began thinking about who his mother would be. Simultaneously, Gonika, a devoted yogini, was praying for a worthy son to whom she would pass along her knowledge and understanding of yoga. Adisesa then fell from heaven in the form of a little snake into the upturned palms of Gonika, destined to perpetuate the teachings of yoga on earth. The story offers insight to the meaning of the name Patañjali. “pata” translates to falling, and “anjali” meaning offering or folded hands in prayer.”
So there you have it, the dude is a snake.
How are we to understand this story? Is Patañjali literally a divine snake? I am reminded of another wise serpent speaking with Eve in another garden in ages past. Are we to believe the story as a statement of historical fact? I would once again caution that to read this story as you would the daily newspaper of facts would be to miss the important message.
One clear conclusion regarding Patañjali is that the Yoga of his Sutras is far different from our posture-based practices of today.
Myth #3: Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga & Yoga Kurunta.
Here is an example of a more contemporary yoga lineage, that of Ashtanga Yoga and Pattabhi Jois. According to this tradition, Ashtanga Yoga is a system of yoga recorded by the sage Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta, an ancient manuscript “said to contain lists of many different groupings of āsanas, as well as highly original teachings on vinyasa, drishti, bandhas, mudras, and philosophy” (Jois 2002). The text of the Yoga Korunta “was imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 1900’s by his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari, and was later passed down to Pattabhi Jois during the duration of his studies with Krishnamacharya, beginning in 1927.” Since 1948, Pattabhi Jois taught Ashtanga yoga from his yoga shala, the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. As stated on the Jois website,
The “Yoga Korunta” is attributed to the sage Vamana Rishi. It is said that he was born when Ashtanga yoga was almost forgotten, and a wise man was needed to bring it back to mankind. Vamana Rishi incarnated himself specifically for this task. Since he was already in the womb, he himself had no idea of Ashtanga Yoga. Thus he meditated on Vishnu, so that he could help him. So it happened that Vishnu taught the Ashtanga Yoga system to him in the womb. After nine months had passed, Vamana had not yet been through the entire curriculum. According to legend, he refused to be born until he had finished his studies of Ashtanga yoga”.
Pattabhi Jois claimed that the exact stages of the sequences, as taught by his guru, are enumerated in the Vedas. In an interview in 2005, he also insisted that the text completely describes all the āsanas of the sequences and speaks of nothing other than the Ashtanga system. Unfortunately, the manuscript written on palm leaves was eaten by ants, thereby destroyed, so the veracity of the claims can never be proven. Surprisingly the text was not transcribed by Pattabhi Jois or anyone else. Remarkably the text is not even partially recorded in either of Krishnamacharya’s books of this period— Yoga Makaranda (1935) and Yoga Sanagalu (c. 1941).
What are we to make of the claims of Jois regarding the Yoga Kurunta? While appreciative of the influence Jois’ Ashtanga has had in the West, the claim of lineage from ancient Rishis does not add to the story, at least in my view. Reference to an ancient authority thereby providing legitimacy is a very common practice of humans, and can be quite seductive.
There has been exhaustive research around the history of Krishnamacharya and the development of yoga during his tenure at the Jaganmohan Palace beginning in 1933. Instead of scrutinizing the minutia and practices from which not only Jois but also Iyengar developed their work as young men, I will simply state that this was an important formative time in the creation of modern hatha yoga, with many influences from many different quarters. The practices that resulted were not from reading the words on a palm leaf from a Rishi that intuited them from the gods, but rather from trans-cultural diffusion.
Gymnastics, military exercises, and all manner of Western sports and games were a major part of the daily life of the students at Jaganmohan Palace where Krishnamacharya taught amidst many other exercise teachers. From the administrative records of the Palace and yogasala in 1933, and on oral and written testimonies of the surviving students from those years the conclusion is that Krishnamacharya’s system, which was to become the basis of so many forms of contemporary athletic yoga, is a synthesis of several methods of physical training that fall well outside any definition of yoga.
A common refrain among the first and second generation students of Krishnamacharya whom have been interviewed, as well as others who knew him during his Mysore days, is the association of his teaching with the circus. For example, the bodybuilding and gymnastics teacher Anant Rao, who for several years shared a wing of the Jaganmohan Palace with Krishnamacharya, feels that the latter was “teaching circus tricks and calling it yoga”.
Indeed, the association of circus contortions with yoga is not a far fetched statement. The postures have a historical precedent, not only in the East but in the West. Here we see the famous “Posture Masters”, a British troupe of Issac Fawkes. The photo below is a detail from “Faux the Conjuror’s Booth, Bartholomew Fair”, which was popular theater in London’s James Street in the early 1700’s.
Another student, T.R.S. Sharma affirms that during the yoga classes, Krishnamacharya was innovating all the time in response to his students. He would make up variations of the postures when he saw that some of his students could do them easily. “Try this, try putting this here, and this here.” He was inventing and innovating. Krishnamacharya never emphasized a particular order of poses, there was nothing sacrosanct about observing order with him. He would tell me “practice as many as you can.” Below is a photo of the young Sharma in front of the Palace perfoming virancyāsana.
Here are some other pictures which reveal the similarities of postures and contortion. The photos on the left are from American Thomas Dwight’s “Anatomy of a Contortionist,” Scribner’s Magazine April 1889, and those on the right taken from B.K.S Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, 1966.
What is important for our purposes however, is that the development of yoga during these years was a time of creative exploration. Instead of blindly following the script of instructions etched in stone, or palm leaves as the case may be, a new expression responsive to the individual and environment is being realized. As current teacher Dharma Mittra has expressed, new postures are being created all the time.
The Origins of Modern Yoga: A Global Tale of Creativity.
I recall my amazement reading Mark Singleton’s book entitled “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice”, which presents us with perhaps the best piece of historical research that challenges many of the common assumptions about the evolution of modern yoga practice.
He writes that years ago while in the Cambridge University library he read a book containing pictures of men and women in familiar postures. Here was Warrior Pose; there was Downward Dog. On one page Headstand; the next Handstand—everything you might expect to find in a manual of yoga āsana. But this was not a yoga book. It was a text describing an early 20th-century Danish system of dynamic exercise called Primitive Gymnastics.
To quote Singleton,
“Standing in front of my yoga students that evening, I reflected on my discovery. What did it mean that many of the poses I was teaching were identical to those developed by a Scandinavian gymnastics teacher less than a century ago? This gymnast had not been to India and had never received any teaching in āsana. And yet his system, with its five-count format, its abdominal “locks,” and its dynamic jumps in and out of those oh-so-familiar postures, looked uncannily like the vinyasa yoga system I knew so well.”
“I learned that the Danish system was an offshoot of a 19th-century Scandinavian gymnastics tradition that had revolutionized the way Europeans exercised. Systems based on the Scandinavian model sprang up throughout Europe and became the basis for physical training in armies, navies, and many schools. These systems also found their way to India. In the 1920s, according to a survey taken by the Indian YMCA, Primitive Gymnastics was one of the most popular forms of exercise in the whole subcontinent, second only to the original Swedish gymnastics developed by P.H. Ling.”
Now this is not to say that the modern yoga of today has evolved exclusively from a system of European gymnastics, but the evidence does lead one away from the story of an Indian yoga heritage unbroken from time immemorial.
So for the curious, what are the historical facts that can be ascertained regarding yoga? We can see that yoga was transformed into a form of postural practice only over the past century or so. Singleton shows how, far from having developed as a purely indigenous Indian practice, contemporary yoga evolved under the influence of various Western physical exercise practices which had gained popularity in India under British colonial rule. These included a blend of numerous influences, including the Scandinavian gymnastics systems, European and American bodybuilding regimes inspired by Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), and the physical education programs of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Modern yoga was also shaped by Hindu nationalist aspirations during the early 1900’s for a uniquely Indian form of exercise in response to British influences.
In fact, hardly a century ago yogic postures were still widely repudiated as unseemly bodily contortions and strange practices often associated with ash-smeared, hashish-smoking ascetics who were shunned by Indian society at large. When Vivekananda (1863-1902) formulated his groundbreaking Raja Yoga for an international audience in the 1890s, it was a teaching in which postural yoga found no place. Vivekananda and other early exponents of modern yoga were careful to disassociate themselves from such physical practices – which they viewed as a form of spiritual degradation rather than a spiritual aid.
This view was shared by Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the spiritual classic “Autobiography of a Yogi”, as hatha yoga is noticeably absent from his teachings. His younger brother Bishnu Ghosh however, (pictured above in his 1930 book “Muscle Control”) was an acclaimed physical culturist of his day, and we can see how he was influenced by the bodybuilding and showmanship prevalent in India during the early 1900’s. This lineage was passed down from Bishnu to disciple Bikram Choudhury, who we all know for his charismatic “Bikram Hot Yoga”.
The early 1900’s was a time of great experimentation in physical exercise programs in India, and a system called Primitive Gymnastics, developed by the Dane Niels Bukh (1880–1950), was one such European system that came to occupy a central position in the Indian physical education scene.
Through the first decades of the twentieth century, Ling’s dominant system was increasingly deemed insufficient for creating able-bodied men and a more vigorous Danish gymnastics gained popularity. In 1906, Danish gymnastics even became part of the official British army training program. Bukh’s system, which “emphasized continuity of movement, rhythmic exercise, and intensive stretching to seek elasticity, flexibility, and freedom”, attained such popularity from the early 1920s onward that by 1930, the YMCA would rank it as second only to Ling in terms of “full national approval or . . . general recognition” among exercise regimes in India.
At least twenty-eight of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (Iyengar 1966). Not only do Bukh’s positions suggest modern yoga postures but the linking movements between them are reminiscent of the jumping sequences of Ashtanga Vinyasa.
Myth #4: Yoga Traditions are almost exclusively the province of men.
Until very recently, when we consider the leading yoga teachers over the last century, the majority of names exclude women. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and Bikram come to mind. The truth is we have forgotten that from the 1800’s onwards, women not only participated in “yoga-style” exercise, but in many cases women were at the center of the new creative movements that developed what we would now recognize as hatha yoga, and remarkably they did this independently of Indian traditions.
Over 140 years ago in New York City there was a young American woman by the name of Genevieve Stebbins who was part of a new creative movement that synthesized elements of American Transcendentalism and Christian Science, Swedish gymnastics, and “muscle control” techniques in a range of teachings especially adapted for Western audiences. Stebbins began working with a student of the Frenchman Francois Delsarte (1811-1871), whose “System of Expression” was also the precursor to American modern dance and influenced such icons as Isador Duncan and Ruth St. Denis.
Stebbins’s “American Delsartean Training Regimen” included relaxation exercises, posture work and “harmonic poise”, breathing exercises, and “exercises for freedom of joints and spine” and thus closely resembles the elements of a standard yoga class in the West. Stebbins’s 1898 book “The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training” includes dance-like flows and transitions between poses that are prototypical of the kind of “flow yoga” classes popular today. Prominent contemporary American yoga teacher Shiva Rea’s teachings of āsana and dance might well be considered a descendent of Stebbins’s forms.
Stebbins was also a member of the group Church of Light, “an order of practical occultism” and she brought these esoteric influences and Ling gymnastics to bear on her interpretation of Delsartism. Her presentation to American audiences started a veritable Delsarte craze, and took the country by storm. Special clothes for practicing “Delsarte” were being sold. You could purchase Delsarte shoes and items for the home. Designers could come to help you decorate your home, and plan your wardrobe for the best and most harmonious “Delsartian” aesthetic. Nearly every town in the country had a Delsarte club.
It seems eerily similar to the current yoga fad in the West today where the accoutrements of sticky mats, Yogi toes and the latest “Lulu Fashion” seem to be essential to the practice!
Another American woman, the interesting Cajzoran Ali, as set out in her “Divine Posture Influence upon Endocrine Glands” of 1928, locates the key to the ultimate spiritual truth of yoga in the 7 ‘ductless glands’ of the body. Her course of posture training and “Breath Culture” is designed to align the 7 chakra seals and thereby to bring one into harmony with the God who is “individualized within you”. Above is an illustration of her work, which seems quite current with yoga-styles of today.
Another important innovator in the field of “harmonial gymnastics” was Dublin-born Mollie Bagot Stack, founder of perhaps the most influential of women’s gymnastic organizations in pre-WWII Britain, the Women’s League of Health and Beauty. Stack developed a keen interest in gymnastic and hygiene regimes for women from about 1907 onward, and she began teaching her methods in London from 1920. Even thought they were not called “yoga,” they often resemble today’s āsana forms quite closely.
What seems clear is that the breathing, stretching, and relaxation classes attended every week by thousands of present day practitioners as YOGA are almost the same spiritualized gymnastics undertaken by their grandmothers and great-grandmothers in the early1900s! There can be no doubt that Stack’s programs closely mirror the creative forms of many of today’s “hatha yoga” classes.
The co-holder of the title “Best Figure in the British Isles ,” Miss Adonia Wallace, to take another example, claimed to have acquired her prize-winning physique through extreme stretching exercises, such as are pictured. These “exercises” are instantly recognizable as advanced postures of modern yoga.
It appears then, that women during the 1930s commonly engaged in much the same forms of bodily activity that they do today under the name of yoga and that stretching itself has a popular history of its own in the West, entirely independent of yoga. These women, and others like them, promoted modes of “spiritual stretching” and deep breathing that endure today as “yoga.”
To bring the beginning of our exploration to a close, it seems reasonable to state that the evidence is convincing that many of the commonplace presumptions of the history of yoga are in fact a “myth”. It does appear that modern yoga āsana is the synthesis of exercise elements from many diverse traditions gathered from around the world.
As we mentioned in the beginning, myth has several meanings. While history suggests that yoga’s origins might actually be different from commonplace perceptions, our current ritual yoga practices can also be seen as a significant new mythic expression–something the world has never before seen. This we will explore in Part 2: Myth as Truth.
We began with a Joseph Campbell quote, and so shall we end…
“The function of ritual is to give form to human life, not in the way of a mere surface arrangement, but in depth. Myths are the mental supports of rites; rites, the physical enactments of myths.”