Monday, August 23, 2010

The origins of Hatha Yoga

To whom does the discipline and doctrine, or "science", of yoga belong? Now that American entrepreneurial yoga experimenters try to patent their own versions of some yoga techniques, Indian private and public agencies try to counter this trend and retain yoga as a common heritage that, in spite of ancient traditions of private and confidential teaching, is now in the public domain. The debate about these trends and counter-initiatives raises the fundamental question: who invented yoga? Or at least: when and where did it originate?

According to V.K. Gupta, head of the digital library for yoga data set up by the Indian ministries of Health and Science, "Yoga is collective knowledge and is available for use by everybody no matter what the interpretation. It would be very inappropriate if some companies try to prevent others from any yoga practice, even if they call it some other name. So we wanted to ensure that, in the future, nobody will be able to claim that he has created a yoga posture which was actually already created in 2500 B.C. in India."

In a scholarly forum where this was debated the last couple of days, pat came the counter-question: "What I'm wondering is, was yoga actually created in 2500 BCE? Patanjali is dated ca. last century BCE or within first two of CE. Did the texts he compiled go back that far?"

In fact, we know little about the yoga author Patanjali. We know of Patanjali the grammarian and have good reason to date him to the 2nd century BC. Apart from the name, we have no solid reason for assuming that he was the author of the famous Yoga Sûtra as well. Possibly an anonymous author tried to give his own book a wider readership by attributing it to an ancient authority, just as was done with e.g. the Manu Smrti, completed in the early Christian age but attributed to the pre-Vedic patriarch Manu. So, never mind the person Patanjali, let us discuss the chronology of "his" Yoga Sutra instead. Opinions vary, but the final editing of the book may be as late as 500 CE, all while containing much older materials.

A more technical discussion of the book's chronology could lead us pretty far from the original question, and for the present purposes we are fortunate to be justified in foregoing the effort. The reason is that it contains none of the techniques currently claimed by fashionable gurus and yogic entrepreneurs. After all, the yoga being marketed and "developed" in the West nowadays is 99% hatha yoga, which is practically absent from the Yoga Sutra.

What "Patanjali" teaches is a method for stilling the mind, along with the concomitant doctrine of why this practice is desirable and beneficial. His topic is meditation, and accessorily the lifestyle conducive to a fruitful meditation practice. It contains a very general outline of pranayama, breath control, a practice already mentioned prominently but only sketchily in Vedic literature, principally the Upanishads. Pranayama is definitely a very ancient practice and doctrine, though many of the specific breathing techniques now taught in yoga studios seem not have been described in the old scriptures, to the extent that we understand their sometimes cryptic language. The description of these specific techniques is found in the Hatha Yoga classics which do not predate the 13th century: the Gheranda Samhita, the Shiva Samhita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

There too, a number of asana-s or postures is described, though important ones now popular in the Western (and westernized-Indian) yoga circuit, particularly standing ones, are still not in evidence even in these more recent texts. In the Yoga Sutra, they are totally absent. Patanjali merely defines Asana, "seat", as "comfortable but stable". In ancient times, a "yogi" might be someone who, as per Patanjali, practised stillness of mind; or he might be someone developing paranormal powers through concentration exercises, hence a magician. But the term "yoga" did not connote physical contortions.

Yet, the claim that yoga dates back to "2500 BC" pertains precisely to the visual depiction of a well-known yogic posture. It very obviously refers to the Harappan "Pashupati seal" showing someone (claimed to be Shiva Pashupati, "Lord of Beasts", as he is surrounded by animals) sitting in siddhâsana, which simply means sitting on the floor with the legs crossed and knees touching the floor. This leg position takes some training for people in a colder climate, and Westerners only encounter it in yoga classes; but it comes naturally to people in a hot climate. In India you constantly come across tailors sitting in that posture for their work. So, though this posture is found to be conducive to keeping the spine straight and freeing the body from stresses hindering meditation, there is nothing exclusively yogic about it.

I don't think any other asana postures except those for simply sitting up straight have been recorded before the late-medieval Gheranda Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and such. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna calls on Arjuna to "become a yogi", but he gives no instructions in postures or breathing exercises. Libertines practising the whole range of Kama Sutra postures got more exercise in physical strength and agility than the yogis of their age, who merely sat up straight and forgot about their bodies.

Geoffrey Samuel (History of Yoga and Tantra, 2008) argues convincingly that kundalini yoga and the whole system of chakra lore, definitely not older than the 5th century CE, is a highly indianized adaptation of Chinese "inner alchemy" including the "small celestial orbit" and some of its sexual techniques. Its core practice is the controlled circulation of energy, and the hatha yoga postures seem to have evolved out of the effort to facilitate this energy circulation through contribed postures. Much of "Tantra" is a Chinese import that has been so thoroughly indianized, e.g. by personifying various energy centres as "gods", that Indians and Westerners haven't even noticed its newness vis-à-vis Vedic or otherwise anciently Indian tradition.

To Samuel's argument, some more data from a comparison of practices may be added, e.g. "negative breathing" (in which the belly is not extended but drawn in during in-breathing, with the breath being drawn up so as to create an upward energy dynamic), and the whole Daoist-originated idea that yoga invigorates and lengthens life. The actual hatha-yogic postures are very different from Daoist exercises in some technical respects, such as Indian muscle-stretching straightness vs. Chinese avoidance of all full stretching, again seemingly traceable to the difference in climate. According to Chinese tradition, daoyin exercises, attested BCE, were devised to make the joints supple in an arthritis-prone cold/wet environment. (These exercises also were an influence on modern Swedish gymnastics.) Maintaining a fixed posture for a length of time, typical of hatha yoga, may seem to contrast with the continuous movement in taijiquan (13th or arguably even 19th cent.), but is in fact also found in qigong postures called an. That Chinese postures are mostly standing, Indian postures mostly on the floor, is again explainable by the difference in climate.

For devotees of antiquity and tradition it may be disappointing that their tradition is so recent. But conversely, one may applaud hatha yoga (and taijiquan etc.) as fruits of a long history of discovery and gradual progress. There is enough evidence by now for the health-enhacing effects of hatha yoga regardless of how old the discipline is. If it is only recent, it means that we now dispose of a system of health unavailable to the ancients. That is called progress, the opposite of "tradition", meaning the preservation of an ancient treasure that can never be bettered.

Likewise, the Chinese "gentle" types of martial arts, also often lauded as very ancient, must logically be younger developments from the natural, primitive "hard" martial arts. This is necessarily so, for they are far more sophisticated, taking a cumulative effort in their development and requiring a greater mastery through training before they become effective in combat. So, the Oriental disciplines that speak to the contemporary Western imagination the most, are necessarily less ancient than cruder practices that don't have the fascinating Oriental aura. By Asian standards of chronology, they are pretty recent.

As late as the 19th century, novelties were added to the array of hatha yoga techniques, partly under the influences of British military drill. Particularly the standing techniques are mostly late additions. Consider hatha yoga a modern innovation.

Read more!