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.


Sandeep said...

1. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna calls on Arjuna to "become a yogi", but he gives no instructions in postures or breathing exercises.

Come on, that is just false. In chapter 6 verse 13 Krishna asks Arjuna to keep the torso, neck and head in a straightline. In verse 11 of the same chapter He recommends sitting on kusha grass covered with deer skin (quite possibly to aid posture).

2. Again, haTha-yOga does not seem as completely disjointed from the usual yOga as you imply, for there is a peculiarly Indian emphasis on breathing during the postures in haTha-yOga (unless this doesn't find mention in gherANDa-samhita etc.).

3. Tantra seems to have had maximum popularity in Bihar (Nalanda etc.) and Bengal and possibly originated from here. Were these places in greater contact with China? That would seem strange, considering silk route and also that Bihar and Bengal are the places where Vajrayana Buddhism, as opposed to the Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, thrived.


Sandeep said...

Forgot to add - Chapter 4, verse 29 of the gItA talks about controlling the rates of inhalation and exhalation, and uses the word prANAyAma.

Koenraad Elst said...

the Gita instruction to keep the spine straight proves my point: not specific hatha-yogic posutures with specific physical/energetic effects, but a posture optimally calculated to allow you to forget the body. My position is precisely that meditation and a number of pranayama techniques do belong to India's ancientmost heritages. By contrast, the visualization of cakra cycles and kundalini movement and the effecting of energetic effects through postures are innovations from the early c.q. late middle ages.

Koenraad Elst said...

As for the Chinese influence, this came oversea and reached both Tamil Nadu and Bengal. Not only the Bengal/Bihar/Nepal Tantrics but also the Tamil Siddhas show influence from Daoism.

Niraj Mohanka said...

On Page 29 of BB Lal's book, 'How Deep are the Roots of Indian Civilization? Archaeology Answers' he shows drawings of 6 clay figures of yogic asanas from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. I would assume these date to 3000-2000 BCE. That physical evidence ties in with literary evidence: Vamadeva Shastra (DAVID FRAWLEY) notes that Patanjali himself gives credit to earlier proponents of yoga. Yoga is mentioned by sages such as Vasishta, Yajnavalkya, Jaigishavya back to Hiranyagarbha.

I think we can place Patanjali in the category of Panini (as with Sanskrit) - Patanjali formalized and organized Yoga, but certainly not created it.

Bej said...

The Bhagavat Gita is obviously not a manual on Yoga. The very fact that Krishna had briefly touched upon it during the course of his discourse with Arjuna proves that Yoga was known prior. Had it been simple body postures, I don’t think Krishna would have ever cared to mention it at all in his spiritual discourse. Yoga has got dimensions beyond our ordinary intellect and comprehension – this fact is emphasised in this context, I believe.

As for Yoga coming from China to India, well obviously Yoga cannot travel on its own. Stray Chinese travellers like Hsuan Tsang are hardly the kind of stuff who could transmit practices as elaborate and comprehensive like Yoga. For a China to India transmission we are thereby lacking in a carrier.

But for an India to China transmission of Yoga – well till as recent as AD 1925 most if not all of Chinese were Buddhists and Buddhism spread from India to China from about BC 300 or so and so you have a good 2300 years to reckon with. In this process several Indian practices would have also got spread to China with Yoga being one among them.

It’s quite a worn out trick so popular among Evangelistic European reductionists to either reduce Hindu contributions or to the extent that it cannot be reduced – hijack it. Scriptures could be reduced to the status of mere fables or poetic imagination having no serious content or merit but Yoga cannot be reduced especially as it has proven health benefits and is eagerly embraced by the modern west– so the next best option is to hijack it – denying credit where it is due.



Dai said...

Came across your blog through my friend and editor Philip Smith, Koenraad. I have found R. M. Davidson's work regarding the transition from Buddhism to Tantric Yogism in Bengal to shed clear light on this subject.

sachin1969 said...

WHAT ABOUT MANY YOGIC FIGURES DOING ASANA'S IN HARAPPAN / SARASVATI-SINDHU CIVILISATION..??!/photo.php?pid=495974&id=100000055768593&ref=fbx_album!/photo.php?pid=495981&id=100000055768593&ref=fbx_album!/photo.php?pid=495982&id=100000055768593&ref=fbx_album&fbid=155872261091298

sachin1969 said...

Harappan Yoga

There is evidence to show that the Harappans practiced Yoga. Given above are several clay figurines from sites like Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and others showing various Yogic postures. Yoga is essentially Vedic.

sachin1969 said...

BB Lal's book on deep roots of Indian civilization.Archaeology Answers....
If these seem like small drops in a civilisation as vast as the ocean, the finding of terracotta figurines in various Yogic asanas, which take the Astanga yoga of Panini (2nd century BCE) back to Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, must make us pause. It is staggering material evidence of spiritual quest accompanying great wealth, unmatched in any ancient civilisation. It is convincing proof, if proof be needed, that the material wealth desired in Vedic mantras refers simultaneously to a deeper metaphysical quest.

This is augmented by the famous limestone statuette of the Mohenjo-daro priest-king, with his eyes introvert and eyelids half-closed, a meditative form later associated with Buddhist tradition, especially in Tibet and China. Yet this form of dhyana is mentioned in the Bhagvadgita (Ch 6, verse 13) which states that the gaze should be fixed on the tip of the nose!

The famous seals of the Saraswati civilisation reflect later developments in Hindu religion and culture — the worship of Siva as a linga; Pasupati seated in yogic posture surrounded by animals; buffalo sacrifice; worship of the sacred pipal; the crucial role of agni in the havana or yajna; the fire altars for individual and communal worship; the kamandalus of the sadhu; the sacred swastika… I could go on.

Julian said...

"The khecharI mudra is a yogic practice of great antiquity emerging in late vedic stratum first represented in the maitrayaNIyopaniShad the only surviving portion of the maitrAyaNIya brAhmaNa in both manuscript and a precarious oral tradition. In this text the khecharI mudra is expounded by shAkAyanya to the magadhan king bR^ihadratha along with proto-“kuNDalini” yoga (MaiU 6.20-21). The khecharI mudra here is described as the great practice by which one has the experience of brahmaivAhamasmi, a key teaching of vedAnta. The practice was incorporated into the early classical yoga of epic period. Subsequently, it was acknowledged by the tathAgata as a means of achieving the state of a muni. It is clear that in one his sutta-s known as the nAlaka sutta (verse 38), in the mahAvagga of the suttanipAta, the tathAgata expounds the khecharI mudra just as in the upaniShad as the means of achieve the state of knowledge i.e. that of the muni."

I am skeptical of the claim about the Chinese origin because it seems part of the pattern of claiming that everything good in India came from outside which overenthusiastic Hindus like PN Oakists try to counter by making equally outlandish claims.

Of course Hindus borrowed from others including modern astrology as indicated by the names yavana-jAtaka and the paulIsha siddhAnta. But considering that Buddhism went from India to China, I am skeptical of this the claim about Kundalini. I will check out the book you mentioned.

The blog writer whom I linked above is someone named somasushma from the now defunct Indian Civilization list, you may remember him.

Anonymous said...

Why lose your credibility writing on topics you are unaware of.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

A great goddess tradition is a sine quo non for tantric tradition. China has never had any great goddess traditions. Daoism has multiple goddesses but they are fundamentally subordinate to the male which corresponds to the cohesive chinese family structure.

Also, if you recall Hieun Tsiang and most Chinese travelers came to India to make copy of Buddhist scriptures, and it was not the other way round. The burden of proof therefore lies on the other side. Tantra is different, and probably even more ancient from the vedic tradition. The concept of chakras is also not so novel, as some of its aspects are intertwined with ancient yogic practices. Moreover, tantra cannot be reduced to concept of chakras.

Also, Why is it that, Tibetan Buddhism imported Buddhist tantra when it could have anticipated daoist proto tantra

displayname said...

An obvious point worth reiterating: even if the asanas and other practices date to the 13th or even the 19th century, they are still public-domain and not patentable. Someone reading only your first and last paragraph could easily be misled. :-)

Vipul Kocher said...

Kundalini can't be a borrowed concept. Shri RamKrishn Paramhans mentions awakening of Kundalini in himself and describes opening of 1000 petal lotus or inverted lotus becoming straight. On his authority it can be said that it is integral part of spiritual awakening. If so, then it has to be known to Indian Rishis and hence it would not be borrowed. Of course, if you do not believe in that part then any other word is as good.

Anonymous said...

You have rightly paused at the Pashupathi seal in harappa, but missed linking it to the picture to the left, the script or idiogram to be read from right to left, as to how nicely it seams with 'later' hinduism, even at that remote antiquity.
That picture is that of a bullslayer, and the pashupati gazes at that-
does it not at once explain the 'Static- nirguna Brahman conscioussness, with the all inclusive and all containing Unitary vision obtained by Raja yoga, which feels the Dynamic Cosmos -with bull slaying representing the struggle between higher nature and the lower, the Forces of light versus Darkness, and its victory, as Pashupathi looks on from his Self-Realised condition that Bhudha later globalised as meditative pinnacle?
Go through that Pashupathi seal again and muse about this- and let us see if it dawns on you.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Please write your take on Ayodhya verdict. The secularists despite having been exposed during cross examination in the court are abusing the ASI report
Same old animal bone theory. I thought that was repudiated in 2003

amAtya said...
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Daniel Mohanpersad said...

Hatha yoga is of Himalayan origin. Since the Himalayas are between China and India, of course both Hindus and and Toaist must have come in contact with the ancient rishis of the himalaya.

omK said...

Dera Sir,
You are courageous because honesty doesn't pay these days. And you are right about taoism influence here.
Yoga posture is chairophoby.

Yoga postures contortion is as useful to enlightenment as pissing on a violin to get music out of it (except that of a short rain). It can be indian or chinese, who cares. You can wave your chi gong hand or your yogic foot, you'll remain the same donkey. Let the vulgar crowd play, congratulate and self satisfy.

@vipul Kocher: quoting RAmakrishna to Prove Yoga and chakra system. Joking? The guy was just worshiping Kali and Shiva (Shiva called Brahman by Vivekananda... - dear, what a world, another vedantaholic). Ramakrishna died from a holy throat cancer. What great yogic mastery and accomplishment...(clapping with one hand here)

@ Niraj quoting Frawley in caps: Why not quote from charly chaplin or gandhi the erectile joker.

Why blindly let zionist western corporate hegemony install global influence using diluted childish world spirituality and weakened beings as slaves.
Shit straight.

Julian said...

Sarvesh refutes these claims by giving citations from Mahabharata onwards:

omK you are an idiot, numerous studies have been done on the benefits of Yoga and published in peer reviewed science journals. Just because you happen to be a retard who can't bothered to read doesn't make Yoga a fraud.

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