The teacher calls for the class to begin and students stand at the front of their mats in tadasana (mountain pose) and begin chanting “Ommm”… they then flow through several rounds of sun salutations, followed by a sequence of postures that work the whole body. The room gets warmer as the students stretch, sweat and breathe. After an hour or more the teacher announces it is time for shavasana (corpse pose) and as the students lay down, a look of peace comes over their faces. This is the yoga that most people in the West are familiar with, but is this the same yoga that originated in India? Although many Westerners are familiar with the asanas (postures) of yoga, very few know its origins or context.
The Roots of Yoga in Indian Culture
What we call “yoga” in the West today can be traced to at least five Indian traditions: yoga (as a meditative discipline), Mallakhamb (Indian gymnastics), Ayurveda (the medical/healing tradition), Kalaripayattu (martial arts) and Tantra (rituals and mantras).
The first mention of yoga comes from the Vedas (dated 10,000+ BC), composed in the ancient language of Sanskrit by rishis (seers). Although the Vedas do not say much about asana, relics dug up in the ancient cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa in Northwest India, depict figures in seated poses such as bhadrasana. Originally yoga meant “to yoke” or “to harness” as in to yoke cattle or horses. For Hindus, who are inherently theistic, yoga meant to yoke with God. Hindus believe in One Ultimate Reality called Brahman, but that One takes on many forms. As the Rig Veda states: “That which exists is One, sages call it by many names.” Hinduism is not really a polytheistic religion, but a pluralistic religion, meaning there are many paths to the Divine. The main practice of ancient Vedic Yoga was mantra and sacrifice. Mantras were a way of invoking the gods to bless crops, grant fertility and protection.
According to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev the first teachings of yoga were revealed to the “Seven Sages” by Shiva. These sages are believed to have spread yoga to the seven continents where it evolved into various forms. Shiva is also called Adi Yogi, the first yogi, and Pasupati, the Lord of Beasts, depicted in the figure above surrounded by animals. Many of India’s gurus such as Swami Rama and Ramakrishna, were known for attracting animals. Swami Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute, was once spotted meditating on the Narmada River surrounded by crocodiles who seemed entranced by him. Lions and deer often sat at the feet of Ramakrishna, one of India’s most beloved gurus. The symbolic meaning of Shiva in the form of Pasupati is that through yoga, we can learn to master our animalistic tendencies and strive to become Divine.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is about 2000 years old and represents classical yoga, outlines Ashtanga yoga and the Eight Limbs: yama and niyama (spiritual ethics), asana (posture), pranayama (control of the life force energy), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (mental concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (integration and absorption). These are not steps, but rather the limbs are meant to be practiced together as eight parts of a whole.
Coincidentally there are many parallels between Ashtanga yoga and the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. Pradeep Teotia, an international yoga teacher calls the Buddha the most famous yogi of all time. Like yoga, Bhuddism emphasizes meditation and morality. By cultivating virtue and disciplining the mind we become one with our ishwara (one’s personal concept of God), which leads to kaivalya or liberation of the soul (referred to as nirvana in Buddhism). Patanjali was a great sage, but he is not the source of the asana practice Westerners are familiar with, as he does not mention any asanas at all. For that we have to look to other Indian traditions.
Mallakhamb and Sports
Mallakhamb is a traditional Indian sport, which encompasses wrestling and gymnastics. Malla means gymnast and khamb means pole. This “gymnast’s pole” usually stands seven feet high, with a circumference of 22” at its base and 12” at the top. Great strength, flexibility and agility are required for the athlete to turn, twist, stretch and perform yoga asanas while balancing on the pole. One of the most impressive Mallakhamb postures is called the “flag pole,” where the yogi-athlete hangs horizontally from the side of the pole. The earliest reference to this sport is in the Manasollasa, a text dated to 1153AD, which describes military training written by King Somesvara III. That there are no earlier references may be due to the fact that by this time the Muslims had already been ruling India since the 8th century and many Indian cultural practices were banned. By watching Mallakhamb training any modern yogi will recognize many asanas from the mat but practiced in the air — the original aerial yoga. Next time you try dancer’s pose, imagine doing it on a pole.
Ayurveda and Kalaripayattu
Indian martial arts included weapons training, hand-to-hand combat, acrobatics, wrestling, racing, and archery. There are references to wrestling in the Rig Veda and in the classic Indian epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. There are tales of great warriors like Bhima who could crush rocks with his hands, archers with eagle-like vision like Arjuna who could shoot birds in the eye while they were in flight, and Hanuman the great monkey-king who could run and leap like the wind.
Kalaripayattu, arguably the oldest martial art in the world, began in the state of Kerala in southern India. According to many legends, Bodhidharma (the founder of martial arts in mainland Asia) was a Kalari master from Sri Lanka who spread the teachings of Buddhism and martial arts to China where it became integrated with Taoism and Kung Fu. The Warrior poses Virabhdarasana 1, 2 and 3 can be clearly seen in Kalari.
Kerala is also the birthplace of Ayurveda, the healing and medical tradition of India. The Charaka Samita, a 2,000-year-old Ayurvedic text, describes advanced medical procedures such as eye surgery, bone-setting and the removal of kidney stones. Ayurveda recognizes three fundamental energy principles called doshas. These doshas are responsible for governing psychophysiological functions and include kapha (water and earth), pitta (fire and water) and vata (ether and air). Balancing the three doshas results in health and well-being. Ayurvedic practitioners in India are physicians that undergo many years of training in yoga, medicine and nutrition. Based on one’s dosha imbalances, an Ayurvedic doctor would prescribe treatment that could include therapeutic asanas, herbal medicine, and dietary recommendations.
Tantra means “to expand and liberate,” and refers to the mystic practices that awaken one’s dormant energy (kundalini), which leads to moksha (liberation from cyclic existence). The presiding deity of tantra is Devi, the divine mother. Many tantric texts are conversations between Shiva as the divine masculine and Shakti, the divine feminine. These texts are also referred to as “tantras” such as the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra in which Shiva reveals 112 meditation techniques.
Though it has become increasingly popular, tantra is grossly misunderstood in the West with an exaggerated focus on sexual practices. The sexuality of tantra is all symbolic, not literal, and is about having spiritual intimacy where the Divine is approached as one’s beloved. Bhakti or devotion is the cornerstone of tantra. And the key practices in Bhakti are mantras and puja (worship) which involves making offerings to the Divine, the first of which is often asana. At the beginning of the ritual the deity is invited to “have a seat” in one’s home or in one’s heart. In this context asana means “seat.”
During the Tantric Period, asanas evolved as a way of worshipping the Divine with the body through asana and dance. Natarajasana, or “king of the dance” pose is attributed to Shiva, whose tandava (cosmic dance of creation and destruction) comprises 108 poses called karanas. In these karanas, we can see prototypes of the asanas we are practicing today. Texts such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the voluminous Tirumantiram list dozens of familiar asanas such as gomukhasana (cow face pose) and simhasana (lion pose). Prior to this period, however, asanas were not always performed for health reasons, but done as acts of austerity (tapas). Today one can still find yogis in India who perform tapas such as choosing to hold one’s arm up or taking a vow not to lay down for 12 years.
Yoga originated in India is as old as India itself. It is a vast subject that has many expressions and many forms, but underlying them all is the idea of yoking or unifying the individual microcosmic soul (atma), to the macrocosmic soul (purusha) — the Universal Soul. Ultimately this unification is the result of integrating spirit, body and mind. Even though it originated in India, yoga’s teachings are universal and belong to all of humanity, and it offers many paths of exploration on our journey towards wholeness.
Zeny has taught yoga for over 14 years. Her first teacher was her mom who taught her “Om.” She is the founder of Hawaii School of Yoga, and conducts 200- and 500-hour teacher trainings. Zeny is passionate about her Indian heritage and devotedly studies every aspect of Indian culture and spirituality, having been called a “human yoga encyclopedia.” Her daily practice includes Iyengar yoga, mantra, meditation and studying the sacred texts. In her free time Zeny loves hiking and beach time with family.