Truths about yoga

by Christina on March 30, 2011

For the past 7+ years of my life, I’ve been going through my daily Ashtanga yoga practice without ever really questioning where it came from. I happily believed that this tradition was thousands of years old, passed down through generations in India, and was not something to be tampered with.

This book radically changed all of that:

The Yoga Body, by Mark Singleton

Modern yogis learn that K. Patthabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, the leaders of two of the main yoga lineages in the West (Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga, respectively), were taught the ancient yoga tradition by T. Krishnamacharya in India in the 1930’s.

We do not learn much about what exactly Krishnamacharya taught them, and why he taught them what he did. Turns out, the real history of yoga is complex (and surprising).

Here are some of the truths about yoga that I learned from this book (emphases mine):

Truth #1: The yoga postures we practice today are a relatively new human creation – they do not originate from ancient Indian texts dating back thousands of years. Rather, they have been heavily influenced by 19th and 20th century European gymnastics, bodybuilding, and Indian nationalist military and guerilla training.

  • The “yogic postures” are in fact entirely cognate with common regimes of European weights-free gymnastics.”

Side by side Iyengar vs. 19th century European contortionists

  • Militant yogins of all lineages engaged in exercise regimes designed to inure their bodies to the harsh physical conditions of the itinerant life and to prepare them for combat.”
  • The practice of yoga, in certain milieux, became an alibi for training in violent, militant resistance.”
  • [Yoga] would have entered the sociocultural vocabulary of India partly as a specific signifier of violent, physical resistance to British rule. To “do yoga” or to be a yogi in this sense meant to train oneself as a guerilla, using whichever martial and body-strengthening techniques were to hand.”

Truth #2: The history of modern yoga is a history of experimentation and innovation. There is no traditionally “correct” way to practice yoga postures.

  • “The practices of the many modern schools of yoga are not directly based on any known textual tradition of yoga.”
  • “The systems of gymnastic posture work that today pass for timeless modalities of “yoga”… developed in an atmosphere of radical experimentalism that encouraged new combinations of Eastern and Western physical culture methods, albeit naturalized as ancient Hindu knowledge.”
  • Krishnamacharya’s teaching was intended to be, and in practice was, experimental.”
  • “The forms of physical practice that predominate in popular international yoga today were developed in a climate of intense experimentation and research around a suitable regimen for Indian bodies and minds.”

Truth #3: The Ashtanga yoga system is designed for a novice teacher teaching masses of young boys.

  • “In the official history of Ashtanga Vinyasa (as sanctioned by Pattabhi Jois), Krishnamacharya learned the system from his Himalayan guru… on the basis of a five-thousand-year-old text by Vamana Rishi, called Yoga Kurunta… the text of Yoga Kurunta is said to have been eaten by ants, and no extant copy appears to exist… It is, however, surprising that the text does not seem to have been transcribed by Pattabhi Jois… nor passed on to a disciple… Krishnamacharya may have invoked the text to legitimize the sequences that became Ashtanga yoga, but in later life he used it to authorize a wider set of practices.”
  • Pattabhi Jois was never a regular student of Krishnamacharya — rather, he was sent by Krishnamacharya to teach yoga to groups of young boys: “This in itself would account for why Jois’s system differs from what Krishnamacharya appears to have taught to others at this time… these sequences were designed for Pattabhi Jois himself and other young men like him.”
  • “A prescribed sequence where each asana is part of an unchanging order, performed to a counted drill, would have offered a convenient and uncomplicated method for a novice teacher like Jois (who was then eighteen years old). Such a schema would have avoided the considerable complexities inherent in designing tailored sequences according to an individuals’… and would have provided a serviceable teaching format for large groups of boys.”
  • “Could it be that what has come to be known since the 1970s as “Ashtanga Vinyasa” represents the institutionalization… of a specific and localized vinyasa bricolage designed by Krishnamacharya in the 1930’s for South Indian youths, but transmitted subsequently by Pattabhi Jois to (mainly Western) students as the ancient, orthopractice form for asana practice, delineated in the Vedas and the lost Yoga Kurunta?”

Those are just a few of my highlights… I highly recommend you check out this book if interested in more.

This led to a temporary shattering of my Ashtangi identity…

When the Ashtanga posture practice becomes such a big part of one’s life and identity, this knowledge can be threatening and scary. I found myself stepping back a bit from the practice.

After giving it some time to digest, in some ways I now feel even more connected to the practice. Here’s why:

  1. Tradition of diversity. The tradition of modern yoga posture practice is a tradition of diversity, sharing, and amalgamation across international boundaries. I like that kind of tradition.
  2. History of change. They posture practice of yoga comes from a history of experimentation and change through time. It is not a static practice and can thus adapt to needs of changing times.
  3. Permission for creativity and innovation. Yoga is an evolving practice and continually reinventing itself. This provides opportunity for people to be creative and make it fit current needs.
  4. Teachable to the masses: Ashtanga yoga was designed for a novice teacher teaching masses of young people new to yoga. What a great system to introduce to youth in schools!
  5. Personalized. Because the Ashtanga system is easy and straightforward to teach and learn, it provides a solid framework for the eventual creation of a personalized practice to fit unique needs.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Nobel March 30, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Hello Christina,
thanks for writing this post. I wanted to write this post some time ago, after reading the Yoga Body, but it’s just too much work to summarize the book 🙂 Great job summarizing the book.

Even before I read this book, I had long suspected that the official myth (i.e. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is passed on unchanged from Ramamohan Brahmachari to Krishnamacharya to Pattabhi Jois) is probably not historical fact. I mean, there are so many holes in the story (For one, would Jois allow a text as supposedly important as the Yoga Korunta to get eaten by ants, and not even think of making extra copies? Come on…) .

But I came to my own reconciliation with this whole matter. I mean, whatever the official myth is, the fact is that Ashtanga works for me (and for many others). And in a way, I can see why, given the geo-political circumstances of the time, it was necessary to invent such a myth. Besides, I suspect that if David Williams had been told that he was actually learning some bastardized form of western gymnastics back in the early 70s, when he first met Guruji, he probably would have just turned the other way and ran as fast as he could! And probably none of us would be practicing Ashtanga today. So in my opinion, the myth serves a useful function, even if it is not historical fact.

Personally, if I were to learn tomorrow that Ashtanga Yoga was in fact invented by a bunch of hippies on some California commune in the 60s, I would continue to do it anyway, just because it works for me 🙂

Thanks for indulging my rant.

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Christina March 30, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Hey Nobel,

So glad to hear you appreciated this book as much as I did!

I completely agree with you that in the end, it doesn’t matter who invented it. It’s been a wonderful addition to my life and I like it even more now that I know how diverse and cross-cultural it actually is.

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Claudia March 30, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Hi Christina, shocking ha? I read the book a while ago and especially chapter nine had me wondering…. I was practicing with Eddie at the time and even asked him about the Korunta, he seemed convinced it existed.

In any event, just like Nobel I suppose I also came to the conclusion that it does not matter.

The more I read about Krishnamacharya I am convinced I have stumbled upon a precious lineage, the man was serious, his latest students reveal the most about him, and I am grateful that he passed it all along…

In the end I guess it is by comprehending the depth of Krishnamacharya that we get to appreciate the ashtanga tradition more fully…

I am glad you are eploring this too 🙂

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Christina March 31, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Hey Claudia,
Interesting to hear Eddie was convinced it existed!

I’d love to learn more about Krishnamacharya too – are there any specific books you would recommend?

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Claudia May 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Christina I only see this now, sorry, yes of course, recently the Yoga Makaranda, by Krishnamacharya was brought to the light, it is a free download, and written at the time in which he was in the palace, height of the british influence I suppose… Here is the link to Krishnamacharya himself, speaking, and with pictures https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0B7JXC_g3qGlWM2IyOWNlNWEtZmU1NC00NmM0LTg2OTEtNWQxMzg0NDVjMmU4&hl=en&authkey=CJDkxU4&pli=1

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Claudia March 30, 2011 at 10:48 pm

I meant to say exploring, not esploring… hee hee

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Adhana April 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Christina,

I stumbled upon your page while doing research on evidenced based medical uses of yoga for my master’s thesis in Physician Assistant school and have enjoyed your blog ever since.

I am a Kripalu Yoga instructor and one of the fundamental principles that our teachers sought to impart to us was exactly the point that you explain in this post — that yoga is not a specific set of poses done “correctly” to access some deeper/higher/more ethereal type of existence. Yoga IS the inquiry.

There absolutely are no asanas described in ancient hindu texts until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika at least 1000 years after the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Still, the the Hatha Yoga Pradipika only defines 15 asanas and somehow, we’ve gone from there to Dharma Mittra’s 908 postures, the Ashtanga series, Iyengar’s series, the Bikram series and many more. There is no doubt that people have been creative since then. The creativity of individuals over time IS the lineage.

The spread of yoga today is very much a result of many people from all over the world focusing on simple, yet powerful concepts to make changes in their lives. The power comes from yoga’s common foundation, the Sutras of Patanjali. Yoga as practiced in the West is different from practices in India and elsewhere. The diversity is it’s strength.

The first yoga sutra “atha yoga anushasanam” translated to “Now, the inquiry of yoga.” The second, is “yogash chitta vritti nirodhah” translated to “Yoga is the control of the modifications of the mind.” If one begins to practice by being ready for the inquiry of yoga (and life) and quieting the mind, then there’s no question in my mind that it should work eventually in helping people to develop powerful personal and societal change. Patanjali is basically saying, take a chance learning about something you know little about and stay focused on that. Behaviorists, leadership/performance professionals, and most extremely successful people who wrote books commonly come back to taking a chance and focusing are ultimate keys to success in life. So, I think that this yoga as a practice helps people begin with this mindset and many people choose to take those principles off the mat. That may be a part of why yoga works even when the myths surrounding it’s leaders are being proven as just that — myths.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you’d enjoy the yoga documentary “Enlighten Up!” It features amongst other things a 30 minute interview with B.K.S. Iyengar about how he developed his yoga practice.

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Christina April 4, 2011 at 11:21 pm

Dear Adhana,

It is so wonderful to “meet” you through this, and thank you for your excellent comment. I would love to see your thesis on the medical uses of yoga… have you completed it yet?!

I really like how you talk about yoga being 1) taking a chance to learn something new and 2)focus, and how those are basic and fundamental principles for success in anything in life. I also love that you say “creativity of individuals over time IS the lineage” – that is a beautiful thing!

So great to connect and please keep in touch!
Christina

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Adhana April 7, 2011 at 6:31 am

Good to meet you also. I was in a bit of a research funk when I found your site and it really helped me to buckle down and finish the darned thing!

I’d like to prep it for publication, but it seems that the exams for my clinical rotations are taking all of my time. Feel free to send me an email and I’ll let you take a look at what I have.

Adhana

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Patrick July 30, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Hello. Thanks for this summary. I’ve always been very active, as a runner, skater, soccer player, etc. I got into yoga about three years ago and have kind it to be a great upper body workout. I also admire my teacher and the strength conditioning. However, the quixotic silliness of all the “energy” work and the conversations of my classmates about living on yurts and connecting with dolphins and such is almost enough to ruin for me what is basically just a good, steady workout. I’d like to think that books like the one you’re referencing, and of course your article, would go a long way in dispelling the bs, but sadly, I think most people would just rather not know. I live in Venice, CA and do yoga in Santa Monica. It’s a source of great humor to me how many of the yogis here came from the Midwest or are fleeing strict religious backgrounds only to, now, practice a whole new unfounded set of beliefs. The similarities between the yogi and the Christian are myriad, and all the more hilarious because neither would ever admit to the similarities.
Thanks for the article.

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Cocco February 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Nice post. I came across it because I’m reading *First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance* by Kadetsky (there is no romance) and she states that Krishnamacharya was cruel, harsh, and violent, and I did a search to see what came up. He was asked to teach yoga by the Maharaja because the students couldn’t pass his sanskrit/philosohy exams. Like Jois, Iyengar wasn’t taught by Krishnamacharya, but was sent to teach after demoing poses. Have not read Yoga Body yet, because I’ve read about this topic in Joseph Alter’s work. Am interested to see if Krishnamacharya’s character is as much a myth as the rest of the story.

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Vik Zutshi July 4, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Interesting discussion. After Mark’s book came out, I got in touch with him, being a writer and journalist, was curious to study western-colonial influences on the yoga tradition. Funnily enough, even Mark singleton agrees that the postures illustrated by Genevieve Stebbins, ‘harmonial gymnastics’, European contortionists were actually adapted from yogic exercises and asanas which had infiltrated the West by then. NOT the other way around as posited by Singleton. Stebbins states it quite openly in her writings. So the direction of influence is quite clear. It is also important to note that transmission of esoteric knowledge within indigenous traditions, especially in the East are predominantly oral – passed on from Guru to an inner circle of initiates and so on..The Western academy is obsessed with codified and documented information to establish ‘authenticity’ without realizing that it is a very colonial, industrial concept which only came into vogue after the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg (1396-1468). The fact that a detailed illustration of Asanas dating back 5000 years is not available should not surprise anyone who is familiar with Indian culture. Highly respected Sanskrit scholars like James Mallinson have come out and disputed Singleton’s claims (which are based on Norman Sjoman’s incomplete work). It is now an established fact that even Shaolin Kung Fu originated in Hatha Yoga taught to Buddhist monks by Bodhidharma, Indian Buddhist teacher, who was he founder of Shaolin. Besides much older works than Pradipika have been found recently. Among them are Yoga Ratnavali and Yoga Yajnvalkya. Prof. ML Gharote is an eminent authority on the above. A google search will do the needful. Apart from Krishnamacharya there is also the Sivananda lineage which is classical Hatha yoga from antiquity as well as vast volumes of esoteric knowledge contained within the many Naga and Natha lineages, which have never been accessible to outsiders. To sum it up: Western, post-colonial researchers are hamstrung by their reliance on ‘documentation’ to verify ‘authenticity’ of indigenous spiritual traditions. and finally have no awareness of the elaborate oral tradition that has existed in India since time immemorial – most of which will never be accessible to non-initiates.

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Christina July 6, 2012 at 2:07 am

Vik, wonderful to hear from you and fascinating to learn all of that — thank you! I agree with you — the need for “documentation” is a colonial/industrial concept that we wrongly demand!

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rahul July 15, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Vik,

I agree with you. I’m from India & In the foothills of Himalayas I have seen Naga Sadhus ( Masters of yoga). These tradition is 1000 years old. Also Hrishkesh( Called Yoga Capitol of world ) is hundreds of years old city and there you will find evidance of Yoga asanas. If someone claim that they & Naga Sadhus are influenced by Gymnastics He will be a laughing stock .

My great grandfather was a Yogi and transferred his knwoldged to his sons. He was born in 1872. Did he learn from Gymnasts ? So funny.
In India you will find people who are in their eightys who even do not know jois, Ayengar. But hese people are doing yoga for 60 – 70 years.
Instead of sitting in comforts of home these so callled researchers should go to Himalayas , meet the yogis and get the facts correct.

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rahul July 15, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Patanjali Yoga is Ashtanga Yoga ( Eight limbs.). Here everybody is talking about asanas . Which is one of the eight limbs. The remaining seven are equally important. Infact in india Pranayama is given more importance than asanas. Many teachers gives emphsis on the fact that to attain Samadhi, Dhyan, Dharana Pranayam itself is enough.
Now I hope nobody will come with book saying that other seven limbs are developed by westerners and not by Patanjali & sages before him.
So it is funny to write book of this kind using the language of ‘could have’ & ‘would have’ is funny.

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rahul July 15, 2012 at 7:43 pm

The earliest archeological evidence of the existence of Yoga was found in stone seals excavated at the site of the Indus Valley Civilization that depicted yoga like postures which place the existence of this form of exercise at around 3000 B.C. Since these steatite seals were discovered at the Indus Valley civilization, scholars place the origin of Yoga around c. 3300–1700 BC. According to Indus archeologist Gregory Possehl, an Indus valley archeologist, the yogic postures found on the seals “may have been used by deities and humans alike.” The most famous of these seals, known as the Pashupati seal depicted a figure, perceived to be that of the Lord of the animals, seated in a yoga posture.

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vaishsli July 16, 2012 at 12:54 am

http://oxford.academia.edu/JamesMallinson/Papers/1208344/A_Response_to_Mark_Singletons_Yoga_Body

Pl. refer the above link . It proves how Mark Singletons claims are not even 1/10 baked .

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subduedjoy January 19, 2013 at 11:15 pm

While it is true that Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya incorporated British military calisthenics as well as Indian martial arts traditions and classical yoga techniques into his Haṭha yoga program, many of his postures have been around for thousands of years. Thus, we cannot conclude from which countries the postures originated by looking at photos from the 1800s.

You need only consult the Natya Shastra, an ancient text on the performing arts that originated on the Indian subcontinent to realize that Indians have been performing physical postures for thousands of years. Wheel, Bow, and Leg-Behind-The-Shoulder are all in the Natya Shastra.

As for my personal experience, I used to live in the greater China region back in the 90’s. The yoga postures we performed are an older form of yoga. We did not perform the Warrior postures developed by Krishnamacharya. We also did not follow the alignment standards developed by Krishnamacharya and yet we somehow never got injured.

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Kristi June 17, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Thanks for this insight, I’ve been researching myself, trying to discover why we salute the sun. I was asked to lead a summer solstice workshop/celebration for the yoga studio I teach at and it lead my on a rabbit trail of yoga history. There is always this emphasis on doing 108 sun salutations and I didn’t feel right doing them without knowing why it was supposedly important.

I found out that the first “offering to the sun” was found in the Rig Veda as the Gayatri Mantra. I’m guessing it was a poem or song offering to the Sun God. There weren’t any postures associated with it, only mantras.

I’ve decided to take a little different route for my solstice practice this Friday. We are going talk about the Gayatri and focus on offerings as well as change. We will do Surya Namaskar and talk about the postures and breath but the emphasis will be more about personal devotion and positive thinking. I’m hoping the practice will feel more authentic to the soul and be more meaningful to those who come. I can’t find much meaning in doing 108 sun salutations, I seemed to focus more on numbers instead of something bigger.

Any other suggestions? Thanks for everything!

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Subramani January 21, 2014 at 1:55 am

First of all, Traditional Indian thoughts and beliefs never relied on “historicity”. If something works why bother if it is old or new? The reliance on dates is a relatively new phenomenon that took off among Indians educated in a western way. It is ironic that to defend or prove a point glorifying their systems, people were unknowingly employing an un-indian technique (historicity). Thus you had people who would get obsessed with dates. All of the traditional schools in India focused on the “WHAT” rather than the “Where”, it does not matter.
Having said that the way people connect the dots to conclude that Krishnamacharya incorporated western techniques is not right. Just because he taught Yoga in a room originally conceived for western Style Gymnastics does not mean that he was influenced by it. Just as by doing Hot Yoga in Rishikesh does not automatically mean that it has it’s roots in Rishikesh! Right now the Gymnasiam turned Shala in Mysore is a Missionary school; so maybe after some time few people may start saying that Missionaries taught Krishnamacharya! Krishnamacharya was well versed in Indian Martial Arts and Indian wrestling as well. Poses like Warrior are part of Indian Martial arts. Surya Namaskars are done differently by Martial Artists of Maharashtra and Kerala. Also the Traditional exercises for Indian wrestling (Chaturanga–>UpwardDog–>Chaturanga–>Downward Dog) differ from region to region. There were humans everywhere, certain things originate parallel y (like walking and pillow fights and the invention of the Wheel), let’s not over analyze them and be fixated with trying to pin it down to one source. Today there are many Westerners teaching Ashtanga, after a 100 years if the Yoga tradition fades in India or all Yogis move to the west; someone might conclude that Yoga is a western thing; once someone writes a book people will even start believing that. In the end getting to the source after a point becomes irrelevant. I’d rather practice than waste my time to figure out if Surya Namaskar was originally practiced by Ancient Indian Military or Yogis or influenced by Gymnastics.

Food for thought.. An Indian musician plays the blues using a guitar manufactured in London. Is he playing Indian, English or American music?

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Yogi June 5, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Oh so late on this, but my thoughts after reading the book last summer were somewhat
like @Vik Zutshi’s. As much as I enjoyed Mark’s book, I could not help but notice how the exact opposite of his claims could be true–i.e. the asanas could have travelled from India to the west and landed in the hands of the western contortionists. Only because the west was early on the camera and film and could document the contortionists on film does not mean that the asanas originated in the west. As pointed out by Vik this is due to the western fascination with documentation, whereas in India the tradition was mainly passed word-to-mouth.

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