The Myth of Yoga


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.
Postures? No…

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.

Medieval History:
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.

ImageThis idea of innovation is very important and also a focus of our discussion in Part 2.

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.”

He continues,
“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!

ImageAnother 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.

ImageAnother 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 [1930],” 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.

ImageIt 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.”







33 thoughts on “The Myth of Yoga

  1. This is such an interesting essay. *However* the the author glosses over some things which are immediately relevant (and to be fair, perhaps historical research materials are not immediately available), like what were the roots of those early 1900s practices; these clearly weren’t spontaneously generated out of the ether, but had their own lineage of thought and practice. Similarly he neglects to address the concept of the potential for the existence of asana lineage in parallel to the ancient texts he comments on, which aren’t necessarily all-inclusive of all history of practice. What of the likelihood that independent or parallel practices where eventually incorporate into the broader “yoga” which became today (or the Iyengar/Jois-based platform of practice we recognize today). To that point, my original yoga teacher (who literally learned yoga from monks in a cave sixty+ years ago in India where he grew up) taught me that the heritage of yoga was from a common lineage of the physical, spiritual, self awareness/study practices which were born of //Nepalese/Tibetan geography// which form the same original ancestry as martial arts.

    • Nice point… Yes, we have to consider that this othe gymnastics were probably influenced by techniques of the east also, there’s an incredible text of Joseph Alter about circularity of knowledge in asia and talks about it… but do you think is there materials that can prove a parallel lineage of asanas in the context of Krishnamacharya? I think in this case there is really a descontinuity, in my researches I only can see an early denial of asanas, and after just because of fisiculturism (wich for sure were influenced for practices of the east, but probably we have no register of that for political and colonial reasons) an approach with asanas again… but it’s for sure reducionist desconsider the continuity of research after that, the practioners now a days are trying to understand what they’re a doing… but it’s important to realize that’s not a simple continuity of the old texts, but a creative relation….

      • Hi Barbara, For myself, I concur with your last statement, that the primary realization here is that there is no ‘pure lineage’ from which a person can trace an unbroken continuity of current modern yoga practice. Moreover, if i have learned anything, it is that human cultures have interacted and exchanged ideas and customs for as long as we have been human. The tapestry is rich and complex, with the result that everything is inter-connected. You ask if there are material sources that could reveal a parallel lineage of asana. I think probably not, but again, it is a richer to view these things as the interactions of diverse cultures with contributions from different sources. I have not read Joseph Alter, but are you referring to his Modern Yoga book? Thanks for posting!

  2. Hi Jake. First of all thanks for engaging in dialogue here. As to your comments I want to respond that my intention was primarily to take a broad look at some of the misconceptions we have around yoga, and that naturally the history of its development has many facets that were not discussed. The essay was pretty long to begin with, so for those who have an interest in pursuing more specifics, I recommend first reading Mark Singleton’s work, and “Yoga Body” is a great starting point. There are also other scholars who have written on the historical aspect of yoga, and these include James Mallinson, Gudrun Buhnemann and Elizabeth De Michelis to mention a few.

    Specifically to your question regarding the roots of the early 1900’s practices, your point is well taken that ‘these clearly weren’t spontaneously generated out of the ether’. My general contention is that during this period of time there was a tremendous cultural exchange going on throughout the world, and this resulted in the development of new ‘modern yoga’ forms. Most scholars who have studied the subject agree that there really is not one long unbroken lineage of postural yoga, at least in the sense that we recognize today.

    That being said, the historical record is fairly clear as to how the forms of Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar developed. Singleton has some very detailed information about this.

    While I suppose there could be that secret teaching lineage that is hidden from the masses, only known to select few, a more reasonable explanation is what I term ‘trans-cultural diffusion’.

    In part 2 however, I hope to speak directly to this topic of ancient lineage and tradition. Why is it that this is even highly valued? Does older make it better? How do I feel when my lineage is more ancient than yours. Well, my mantra is certainly better than yours!

    So for now I’ll leave you with this question. What motivates you to practice yoga in the first place? Is this something that comes from within you, or is it something from outside of yourself?

    • Very interestnig read thx! However im missing the inlfuence of greec and roman culture. In the hellinistic culture, 400 bc, gymnastics played an important role in greec culture – very influencial culture at that time. When a roman emperor later ended the olympic games, gymnastics moved to the background. However in the renaissance old greec and roman culture was revived and became populair again. It seems logical, this renewed interest on old greec culture played a role in the revival of gymnastics… (?)

      • Hi Anne, Thanks for your comment. I agree with your thought that perhaps there is an influence from the Greek gymnastics. This would be an interesting topic to explore. A few years ago I visited Delphi and saw the temples and surrounding areas. There is no question that during the times of the Oracle, the practice of gymnastics was integrated into the cultural forms not unlike the practice of hatha yoga being a part of the religious practices in the East.

  3. My contribution about James Mallinson and other western experts. Best regards.

    Yoga : Main contemporary western experts

    Professor James Mallinson (England)

    James Mallinson’s interest in yoga grew out of a fascination for India and Indian asceticism – he spent several years living with Indian ascetics and yogis, in particular Rāmānandī Tyāgīs. His MA thesis, part of a major in ethnography, was on Indian asceticism. He became dissatisfied, however, with (to quote Sheldon Pollock) the “hypertrophy of method” that afflicts much of the humanities, and anthropology in particular, so sought to ground his future research in philology. The one aspect of ascetic practice that is well represented in Sanskrit texts is yoga, so for his doctoral thesis he chose to edit an early text on haṭhayoga, the Khecarīvidyā, which teaches in detailkhecarīmudrā, one of traditional haṭhayoga’s most important practices, and he used fieldwork among traditional yogis in India to shed light on the text’s teachings (but not so much light that he had to justify his methods!).
    As he worked on his thesis he became more and more unsure that the received wisdom on the origins of haṭhayoga (whose practices form the basis of much of modern yoga) was correct, in particular its blanket attribution to the Nāth sect, based as that wisdom was on a very small selection of the available texts and modern oral history (which is rarely a reliable source in India). But it was clear that to put his work in the broader context was going to be impossible while working on his thesis. When he was revising it for publication a few years after completing it, he was asked to contribute to a volume on the Nāths and their literature. He agreed and decided to concentrate on the corpus of texts of haṭhayoga. It soon became apparent that this was going to be too big a task for a single chapter of a book and he apologised to the volume’s editor but continued with his research. Four years on he has identified a corpus of eight works that teach early haṭhayoga and about a dozen more that contribute to its classical formulation in the Haṭhapradīpikā. With this philological basis established it has been possible at last to put all ofhaṭhayoga’s aspects into context, which is what he is doing in the monograph on which he is currently working, Yoga and Yogis: The Texts, Techniques and Practitioners of Early Haṭhayoga, which he hopes will be published in 2012. Many of the conclusions that can be drawn from the corpus and the other sources he uses (from Mughal miniatures to his fieldwork amongst traditional yogis) overturn what was previously thought about yoga’s formative period. Although he has decided to present the bulk of the findings in a single monograph (because its parts are all so interdependent), in the course of working on it he has written various spin-off articles and reviews on specific aspects of haṭhayoga. Website:

    1988-1991 BA Sanskrit (Oxford).
    1992-1993 MA Area Studies (South Asia) SOAS
    1995-2002 DPhil (Oxford), supervised by Professor Alexis Sanderson, The Khecarīvidyā of Adinatha: A Critical Edition and Annotated Translation.2002-2008 translator for the Clay Sanskrit Library
    2009-2010 Temporary position as Lecturer in Sanskrit at SOAS
    2010 – Fellow of the Institute of Classical Studies Lavasa


    2009 The Ocean of the Rivers of Story by Somadeva. 2 ~ Vol. New York University Press.
    2007 The Ocean of the Rivers of Story by Somadeva. Vol ~ 1. New York University Press.
    The Shiva Samhita 2007. New York:
    2007 The Khecarīvidyā of Adinatha. A critical edition and annotated translation of an early text of haṭhayoga. London: Routledge. (In 2010 the book was reprinted in paperback by Routledge and an Indian hardback edition was published by Indica Books.)
    Messenger by Kalidasa Poems 2006, Rupa & Dhoyi Gosvamin. New York University Press.
    2005 The Emperor of the Sorcerers by Budhasvamin. 2 ~ Vol. New York University Press.
    2005 The Emperor of the Sorcerers by Budhasvamin. Vol ~ 1. New York University Press.
    2004 The Gheranda Samhita. New York:
    Forthcoming (2011) Entry on “Hatha Yoga” in the Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism Vol ~ 3.
    Forthcoming (2011) Entry on “The Nath Sampradaya” in the Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism Vol ~ 3.
    Forthcoming (2011) “The yogis’ Latest Trick”. Review article in Tantric Studies (University of Hamburg).
    Forthcoming (2011) Entry on “The Kumbh Mela” in Keywords in Modern Indian Studies to be published by Oxford University Press (Delhi) in the series “SOAS Studies on South Asia”.
    Forthcoming (2011) “Siddhi and Mahāsiddhi in Early Haṭhayoga” in Yoga Powers, ed. Knut Jacobsen. Brill.
    Forthcoming (2011) “The Original Gorakṣaśataka,” in Yoga in Practice, ed. David Gordon White. Princeton University Press.
    2005 “Ramanandi tyagis and Haṭhayoga,” pp. 107-121 in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies Vol ~ 14 ~ 1/Fall No. 2005. Reprinted inNamarupa magazine (2006). Reproduced with permission of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies

    2007 Channel 4 documentary, The Beginner’s Guide to Yoga, que Also was broadcast on the Discovery Channel. I devised the Programme, co-presented it and was associate producer.



    Professor Christian Rodriguez (Argentina)

    Professor Christian Rodriguez or Yogacharya Yogi Om, is a teacher, writer and international Yoga speaker born in Buenos Aires in 1975, has written twelve books, all relating to Yoga and the knowledge contained in that discipline. These books have been published in audiobook format, according to the author, for ecological reasons.


    Professor Christian Rodriguez, Yogacharya Yogi Om appointed under the auspices of the Hindu Yogi Ramananda Surya Prarya Yogi is the only follower, outside India,
    the lineage of yoga created 5,000 years ago in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India.
    His Guru, RamanandaSuryaPraryaYogi, proceeded to bequeath the ancient knowledge, which have been transmitted from master to disciple, in the secret oral tradition, and under the gurukula system, since the creation of Yoga 5000 years ago.

    He has given numerous lectures in his country (Argentina) and South American countries such as Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador.
    Recently approved by his guru, he is revealing ancient knowledge pertaining to yoga, which had never been released outside of the lineage. Such knowledge disclosed, have caused a real sensation and impact in India and among the followers of yoga and experts from around the world, among which are also Indologists, archaeologists and ancient india historians, who have also been interested in their disclosures.

    His disclosures have also been of great interest to scholars and researchers of the ancient text Samudrika Shastra, they consider that the recently disclosed information could be the basis on which the text is drawn above. The Samudrika Shastra deals mainly cast by the morphological characteristics of the hands, face and external skull shape and the psychological implications. Other stakeholders in its disclosures have been the Vastu experts, which have found new information on that discipline.

    Absolute admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, Professor Christian Rodriguez is a strict vegetarian for spiritual, moral and ethical grounds by definition. Also practiced animal protectionism, making work with their students and followers rescuing abandoned public roads (karma yoga), which animals receive appropriate care in order to be granted for adoption. Is also an active environmentalist, however, is proclaimed in favor of ecology on a personal level, without resorting to clusters. Throughout the years he has collected thousands of discarded (karma yoga). He estimated result of having these batteries discarded with ordinary waste have contaminated the amount of one billion liters of water.


    Respecting his Guru tradition, has always adopted a low profile and an uncompromising stance on appearances on radio, television, print and other media.


    His books have been published, “for ecological reasons” according to its author, in audiobook format. The books have been published in Spanish (aimed at Spanish-speaking countries), in english language for English speakers, and in Hindi and Gujarati language aimed at readers in the Republic of India.
    Books can only be purchased directly through reviewers teacher, not being available in stores or Internet sites selling. Among the famous people who have purchased his works include the British singer and yoga practitioner Sting.

    Some of his books:

    * Dhyana
    * Jyoti
    * Nada
    * Pranakar Prabhava

    Audiobooks available










    Professor Ramiro Calle (Spain)

    Professor Ramiro Calle is a pioneer in teaching yoga in Spain, discipline taught for more than 30 years ago in the center of Yoga and Orientalism “Shadak”.

    It is the most important Orientalist writer of this country and one of the most important in Europe. Author of several works, has extensively studied the therapeutic effects of Eastern psychologies and meditation contributions to psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and neuroscience.

    He was the first to promote medical research on Yoga therapy in Spain, in collaboration with leading physicians and specialists.

    Vegetarian, for 40 years tirelessly explored, recovered and applied the methods of peace and balance, synthesizing knowledge of Eastern and Western psychologies.

    Director since 1971 Yoga Center “Shadak”, the largest yoga center in our country, directly taught yoga, relaxation and meditation techniques over three hundred thousand people, helping them to prevent and combat psychosomatic problems .

    His books Orientalism and self-help have been read by millions of people, mostly Hispanic.

    His frequent trips to Eastern countries (more than 50 in India), have allowed him to interview the relevant specialists, teachers and Orientalists, including all those interviews and teachings in his books and papers.

    He has participated in numerous radio and television which has spread yoga techniques at national and international level.


    Write, among others, two of the strongest publishing groups: PLANET and ANAYA.
    For more than 200 published works and his continuous appearances on radio and television, is well known throughout Latin America.
    His latest video-relaxation book has sold more than 60,000 copies, and some of his most important works have even surpassed that figure. Many of his works are frequently reprinted.


    You can buy all the works of Ramiro Street in

    His works cover different topics:
    Yoga: “The wisdom of the great yogis” – Oniro, “Yoga for Healthy Life” – Today’s; “The Book of relaxation, breathing and stretching” – Alliance, etc …
    Self-help: “Given the Anxiety” – Uranus; “Affective Therapy” – Today’s “Emotional Therapy” – Today’s “Practical Guide to Yoga Therapy” – Index, “Restoring the mind” – Uranus, etc …
    Orientalism: “East to West Mystic” – Edaf, “Dictionary of Orientalism” – Edaf,.. etc …
    Travel Guides: “Journey to India” – Jaguar; “North India”, “South India”, “Nepal”, “Sri Lanka”, “Southeast Asia” – Laertes; etc …
    Novel: “The Fakir” – Martinez Roca, “The Dervish” – Martinez Roca; “Govinda” – Jaguar.
    Biography: “Buddha, the Prince of Light” – Booket, “Ramana Maharshi, the perfect master” – Cedel; etc …
    He has directed the following collections: “Techniques for the knowledge of self and others”, “Nirvana”, “Oriental Library Authors”; etc.

    He currently manages the collection “Light of the East” Publisher Edaf, “Learning to Live” and “lamp Wisdom” of the Jaguar publisher.


    30 years Director of the Center for Yoga “Shadak” does, teaches physical yoga (Hatha Yoga) and mental yoga techniques and meditation (Radja Yoga) numerous people.
    Yoga teacher at the Autonomous University of Madrid and Senior Classrooms (Ministry of Culture).
    Extensive experience in the application of methods of relaxation and meditation for people with stress, anxiety, depression and addictions.
    He has applied the techniques of calming even the seriously ill.
    It is recognized in many varied sectors of the population as a great expert on psychosomatic health and psychic balance.
    It has a strong reputation among countless doctors, psychoanalysts and psychologists.
    Among his students are people from all walks of life, from housewives to artists, business leaders and politicians.
    Lecturer prestige has also directed numerous courses throughout the country (eg, “Yoga and Psychoanalysis” at the Center for the Study and Application of Psychoanalysis).
    With great convening power, in their lectures and courses has come to bring together more than 1,300 people.


    He has made over 60 trips Asian countries, visiting India in more than 50 occasions. He has been invited 5 times by the Government of India, in gratitude for their continuing research and promotion of yoga and Indian culture.
    Author of many books, guides and articles on Orientalism, also has 24 cassettes, videos and CD-rom.
    He has worked in the Spanish edition of many books of the most important orientalists, teachers and scholars.



  4. I find Nestor’s overly long “contribution” above to be counterproductive, indulging in the very romantic ideas of the yoga myth. “Professor (Blah blah) appointed under the auspices of the Hindu Yogi (Blah blah blah) is the only follower, outside India, the lineage of yoga created 5,000 years ago in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India.” Yeah, right. I wish Mr. Deters deleted it.
    I have to add that there’s an amusing mistake in the gif about Per (or Pehr) Henrik Ling. He was not actually the “Father of Swedish massage”, that was Johann Georg Mezger. The rest about Ling’s system of physical education that resembles and probably inspired modern yoga is true, however. This common mis-attribution about Swedish massage is yet another example of myth-making in physical culture. I enjoyed Mr. Deters article quite a bit, which nicely summarizes much of what I’ve been reading in “Yoga Body”

    • Thanks for the comment, Chris. Yes, Nestor’s comment was pretty lengthy. I liked the reference to Mallinson, and I approved the whole thing in appreciation of his winning my ‘longest comment in history award’. Regarding ‘Father of Swedish Massage’, perhaps you are correct about Mezger(1838-1909), although there really is some differences of opinion as to who contributed what. Come to think of it, I actually dislike the whole term ‘Father of…’ as the language lacks clarity and is one of those colloquial phrases that perhaps would be better if it quietly faded away. However, my understanding of Ling(1776-1837) is that there is no question that his methods included active gymnastics and also passive movements of stroking, pressing and kneading that many believe were some of the precursors of what we know as massage today. In fact, my overall conclusion is that there is no singular ‘authority’ for massage, just as there is none for yoga. There is a wonderful creative spark in humans that is constantly developing new forms, throwing off the old and putting on the new. This is actually a phenomenon that will be explored in depth in Myth of Yoga Part 2! Thanks for joining the conversation.

      • I confess my information about Mezgar the “misattribution” to Ling comes straight from Wikipedia. I suppose I should have confirmed this with other sources. I’m going to blame my ignorance on the fact that “modern international postural” yoga continues to ignore the contributions of Europeans and Americans pre-Krishnamacharya. I understand how and why patriotic Indian nationalists may have downplayed these influences, but for American teachers to continue to push the Sutras of Patanjali (Flying? Levitation? Really?) as their lineage…
        Well, it seems like “gym yoga” may be the most authentic tradition in yoga after all.

  5. I think its good you left Nestor’s comment, as the dude just totally proved your (Deter’s) point. Nestor is like, ‘he’s the only one outside of the Himalyas to have learned the secret stuff -in a cave- that goes back over 5000 years’ …how many ties did he feel the need to repeat the ‘5000 years’ bit? lmao! Btw, all due respect and appreciation to Singleton, but Thanks so much Mr Deters for a much more succinct and digestible recap of his work. I read it a couple of years ago and, though i felt much more clear on what i always suspected about asana practice, at the same time i felt very confused from all the overlapping details. Thanks again!

    • Hey Will,
      Thanks for the comments. I appreciate your kind words and I’m glad my writing clarified some things for you. I have been struggling
      to finish up Part 2 as I continue to evolve in my own yoga experience. I haven’t mentioned this before, but I have been on the ‘yoga path’
      for over 40 years, and have explored countless traditions, teacher trained in Anusara flow with Sensei Michael Fukumura, and have watched the
      ‘asana based’ yoga phenomenon rise over the last 15 years or so. What many of my friends are telling me is that the postures are leading them to a deeper experience where the focus becomes something much more than a physical exercise. Advanced practice does not mean more complex advanced contortions. It means advanced awareness.

  6. Pingback: The Reluctant Yogini – Durham Cool

  7. Hi John, thank you for sharing this text… I’m Brazilian and i’m doing my masters research about the lineage of asana practice… I would like to know where did you find this details about de Mysore Palace??? and if you have this pdf of singleton’s book… here in brazil is so expensive. thank you.

  8. Hi Barbara, and thanks for your comments. The history of the various activities of the practices at the Mysore Palace are well documented from actual Palace records as well as the statements of the students. There are a number of books about this, and Singleton’s book is a good starting point. Unfortunately I do not have a pdf, but I think a google search would help. Also if you are in a Master’s program, most Universities have some great research library tools that can easily help.

  9. Well this is real nice but to my understanding the majority of yogic lineage is through parampara, one which you have not mentioned you have… So while your research is insightful at times, its mostly pointless, because the majority of yogic knowledge has been transmitted through parampara. Krishnaacharya’s teacher taught him. So where did that man learn from, and his teacher? There were likely were other lineages that existed in time, now lost. Point being asana isnt new, nor possibly vinyasa; both potentially, very old.

    the primary series is really good, and intermediate combined seem to prepare people well for pranayamas, and given the parampara of the ashtanga lineage it seem to have worked, and is still making an impact. it might take many generations for it to mature…

    • Yes, the yogic knowledge probably came from parampara and not just from it, also from an lifestyle, from family, from contextual influences of the period, intelectual efervescences, as anything human, but I think this way of practice is didn’t come just from an unbroken lineage, but is an effect of a historical context.

    • Hi Adam. Thanks for your comments. I think that you have touched upon the main point of my article! The question is from where did our ‘modern yoga’ postures originate. The Ashtanga founders would say that they come from the vedas in an unbroken lineage. If I understand your statements, it seems you would probably agree with this, and that yoga has been handed down through the millennia through ‘parampara’. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, ‘parampara’ is a Hindi word that refers to teachings that are handed down through succession. I tried in my essay to point out some evidence that perhaps there are multi-cultural contributions to modern yoga asana. I would argue that the historical evidence is overwhelming that Pattahbi Jois’ claim that his ashtanga series came unbroken from the vedas is nonsense.

      Looking at asana in general terms, one can only exercise the body in limited ways. That is, the body parts only move in a few limited directions. For 2 million years humans all over the world have been moving their bodies and it is not surprising to me that similar exercise postures could develop independently and simultaneously in different parts of the world. It does not follow logically that a yoga posture has to originate from one place and be passed down through ‘parampara’.

      If you look at the history of cultural interaction, it is clear that humans have been exchanging goods and ideas and traditions for thousands of years. As an example you have Greek coinage appearing in India from 500BCE, and you can see quite a few elements of Greek influence upon Indian culture. The beautiful part is that these exchanges are not one direction only. There is an ebb and flow as we all create new culture forms. This is the story of human history and in fact, of life itself. I think that the cultural exchange of yoga postures is so complex that definitive answers are not possible.

  10. Pingback: The Surprising Origins of Yoga & the Nature of Ideology – the practice of freedom

  11. Pingback: Yoga Injuries - Inquiries and ideas for a better prevention • Three Wise Monkeys

  12. Pingback: Tópicos para uma breve história do Yoga – Stefan Rotenberg

  13. Pingback: MOHAMED OMAR: Svensk yoga – DET GODA SAMHÄLLET

  14. This is oddly fascinating and somewhat ironic. At first I was almost shocked and irritated when I learned about this, having indeed believed I was practicing some ancient traditional indian system of “spiritual exercise”, which was admittedly part of what has drawn me to it, being interested in spiritual traditions, particularly far eastern ones. Though at the same time western philsophy is just as interesting and inspiring, I’ve been drawn to eastern wisdom for their seemingly stronger emphasis on experience and phenomenology.

    But it has inspired me to look more into those exercise forms developed in the early 20th and late 19th century… Also, the gymnastics of the ancient greeks also resembles lots of yoga asanas.
    It’s really fascinating how it’s all inter-connected, even practices and systems we clearly attribute to a specific culture.
    It has also inspired me to not just blindly follow a given yoga-sequence or “way” of practice – or any routine for that matter, but to explore and innovate myself.
    Though I’ll have to admit I have problems now to take yoga that “seriously”, or maybe that’s a good thing actually. Anyhow, great post.

  15. Hi Ines, and thanks for the comments. I think you have grasped and articulated the larger importance of what I have been trying to say….namely that it is helpful to view human culture from a grander perspective where we all participate in the evolutionary journey. We all have contributions from whichever place and time we live, and there is no need to selfishly claim ownership or purity of teachings. All the best to you!

  16. Pingback: MOHAMED OMAR: Karatesparken uppfanns av vita män – DET GODA SAMHÄLLET

  17. “The Yoga Tradition of Mysore Palace”, by N.E. Sjoman is very clear on the so-called “authentic” tradition of modern day Yoga.

  18. Pingback: MOHAMED OMAR: Kulturell appropriering – DET GODA SAMHÄLLET

  19. Hi John,
    I just wanted to say thank you for this essay. I have utterly enjoyed reading as well as the comments that followed. I am currently part way through my 200hour yoga teacher training course and am at the point of deciding the topic for my essay and this has just sparked so many questions and curiosities for me.
    I admittedly have a lot more research still to do, however at the point where I am now, I feel a lot of issues we have with cultural appropriation of yoga with regards to practices in the west, may have been avoided if Krishnamacharya had not named the practices he created in the palace ‘yoga’, (although so far some of my readings seem to conflict with each other). I believe that it is generally understood that yoga is ‘Indian’ in origin and therefore westerners need to take care when teaching something outside of our culture, however I cannot see how Krishnamacharya could have possibly created his practices without a heavy influence of western culture while under British rule. I understand the difficultly we face now of tracing of the lineage when it comes to word of mouth, but at the time, when asked where his teachings came from, would it have been so difficult to say ‘this guy taught me’? Leading me to believe he felt the pressure of British rule and the competitive atmosphere of the palace to create something exciting and at the time i suppose fairly extreme, to please those in power.
    As you explain so clearly, I so feel some of the issues we face with lineage come from our desire to need it in the first place, along with our cultures fascination with the exotic, does this make some want to ignore western influences?
    Again thank you so much for the interesting read, I am now going to look for your part 2,
    Kind Regards,

    • Hi Shana, Welcome and thanks for reading. I appreciate your kind words, and wish you the best with your yoga training. I would love to read your essay if you would like to share. All the best!

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