by Chétana Jessica Torrens with insight from Yogrishi Vishvketu
Recently, there have been discussions and writings suggesting that Yoga postures, other than seated meditation poses, are really no older than the modern era or the late middle ages. It is said that earlier spiritual practices did not include a wide variety of yogasana. This is an unfortunate error; it further removes modern Yoga practitioners from their sense of connection to the past and to the amazingly broad and pluralistic Yoga tradition. It also separates the contemplative and the techniques-based traditions of the Sanatana Dharma (Vedic Indian wisdom tradition), creating a lack of embodiment in the contemplative arena of practice and an area of seemingly purely physical postures that are then interpreted to aim at physical fitness rather than spiritual growth. And this is where we find ourselves today – with an entrenched misconception that posture is for fitness to support the body for meditation, thought to be an entirely separate practice.
Yogrishi Vishvketu, founder of the Akhanda Yoga approach, speaks often about this conundrum. He is in a unique position to bridge both the contemplative and the techniques-based traditions, because he grew up at a Vedic Gurukul and was later initiated into the lineage of Nath Yogis by Baba Prem Nath. The Vedic wisdom taught at the school included reading and reciting the Vedic, Upanishadic and Darshan texts, Agni Hotra and five element rituals, Ayurvedic herbology and Vedic principles for daily living and understanding of the universe and God. From the Nath yogis, Yogrishi learned a vast array of yogic techniques that had been passed down from the archetypal first teacher, Shiva. Both Vedic wisdom and Nath wisdom pre-date what is often believed and are likely to date from the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. How do we know this? Read on and we will explore the evidence of postures throughout the millennia.
Nath Oral Tradition
Yogrishi Vishvketu explains that the Nath tradition is primarily an oral one passed down through a network of mendicant sages from Shiva to Matsyendra Nath and then on to his disciple Goraksha Nath, who then passed the wisdom on to yogis all over the South Asian subcontinent and was followed by a lineage of 84 disciples. In many texts, even today, there are suggestions that the full wisdom not be imparted except to qualified practitioners.
In this tradition, it is said that Shiva explained the alchemy of working with the right and the left energetic sides called Ha (solar or pingala) and Tha (lunar or ida). Together these make the word Hatha with which we are so familiar today. Ha-tha is actually a code word for the unification or the integration and harmonization of the right and left energy flows that is at the base of this ancient wisdom. Such harmonization leads beyond duality to liberation from attachment to the material reality and a syncing with a vaster reality. Yogrishi adds:
Our lunar and solar energies change according to age and season. If you balance them, you activate the kundalini force, which leads us beyond limitation in understanding and beyond limitation in our perceived capacities – Hatha Yogis never believed the body was an obstacle. It is an opportunity to fulfill our karma consciously without hurting yourself or others. The body is a vehicle for growth.
Yogrishi goes on to share that Hatha Yoga is about reorganizing the five elements in the body. The body is made up of all five elements, but when we organize those, like when we organize a computer drive, this opens up space that can be filled with wisdom and bliss energy. When we stretch in postures, we break down toxins and create this space. Reorganizing these elements puts us in tune with nature. It also helps to shift the traumas and ancestral memories that are stored in our tissues and cells. So, we are able to actively reprogram our destinies starting with this embodied process. In a similar way, the vital energy or prana that comes into the body from breathing, food and environment diverts into five forces that maintain all the functions of the body; they revitalize all the various organs holistically. Baba Prem Nath taught Yogrishi that the five pranas were like paints. When you understood them and their function in the body, you could direct them through asana and pranayama to create more colours and to make beautiful paintings –– your karma becomes fruitful and beneficent. When these five pranas are harmonized, all of the chakras are tuned with the cosmos and it unleashes boundless energy.
In my 40 years of experience, when you do postures, you communicate directly with nature, because nature is the original owner of this five-element body. You become so tuned to universal energy that you open yourself to a different dimension and receive deep blessings or downloads of knowledge and force.
It is the postures, breathing techniques and awakening of the chakras through the intricate physical movements of asana that help to reorganize the five elements and re-awaken the five pranas in various areas of the body to heal deeply and reprogram our systems at the cellular level.
Akhanda means whole and indivisible. In Akhanda Yoga, there are five essential aspects to practice: movement, breathing, sound-work, meditation and contemplations on yogic wisdom. These aspects all communicate with each other and together create a powerful holistic practice that cannot meaningfully be divided up into discrete parts.
These postures and practices help clear up karma and release us from the endless stories we get caught up in. They were never for physical fitness. They are part of a deep spiritual process that leads to enlightenment.
Artefacts and Images Depicting Postures
The Indus Valley Pashupati Seal (around 2500 BC)
The oldest depiction of a Yoga posture is likely the Pashupati seal found in the Indus Valley archaeological dig in the 1920’s. The Indus-Saraswati civilization is dated to 2500 BC and earlier, but the earliest layers of the site cannot be excavated due to water at the lowest layers. The seal is a reasonable depiction of Pashupati or Shiva with what looks like three faces and buffalo antlers that form a similar shape to Shiva’s three-pronged trident. There are five beasts surrounding him and he is seated in siddhasana (also known as the accomplished pose, supposed to be one of the four most powerful sitting poses suited for meditation).
Three is a very deeply symbolic number in Indian spiritual practice: there are three divine aspects of the universe (Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Mahesh the Transformer), three gunas (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, the dynamic energies of nature), three nadis that go up the spine (Ida, Pingala and Shushumna, that Kundalini rises up), three Ayurvedic constitutional types (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) and three aspects of consciousness (waking consciousness, subconscious and unconscious). This seal deeply evokes the spiritual tradition of early Yoga and one of the most common seated postures, and seems to indicate elemental practice also with the notion of five as represented by the five animals. Five is symbolic in yogic wisdom of the five elements, the five Karm-indryas (organs of action), five Jnan-indryas (organs of knowledge), the five Tanmatras (senses), the five Pranas and the five Koshas (layers of being). These symbols offer a strong indication that these Yoga practices were already being undertaken at this early age.
Achyutaraya temple at Hampi
Achyutaraya temple at Hampi is dated to 1534 and depicts a number of non-seated poses such as tree, depicted here.
Jalandhar Nath Ji Temple at Jodhpur
In 1812, Maharaja Man Singh of Jodhpur built a temple to celebrate the teachings of saint Jalandhar Nath of the 11th century. These teachings were shared with him by a local Nath priest, Devnath. The temple symbolically has 84 pillars to represent the postures. The murals on the temple walls depict many intricate postures. It is significant that the temple built by the Maharaja venerated a teacher of the 11th century – this again is a testament to the length of the oral tradition and the passing on of wisdom and technical knowledge through many centuries.
Early Texts Describing Yoga Postures
The Goraksha Sataka
The Goraksha Sataka (sometimes called the Goraksha Paddhathi) is perhaps the oldest Hatha Yoga text, dating from the 10th or 11th century. This text tells the legend of Shiva purporting that there were 8,400,000 postures after all the flora and fauna of the universe. These he fashioned into 84 postures for yogis to practice. That said, this text only describes two of the 84 in detail. But, this is not unusual given that the Nath has been and in many ways still is an oral tradition. Teachers elaborate on obscure practices still today that are not thoroughly outlined in textual form. So, just because the earliest medieval texts do not describe all 84 asanas, does not mean that they did not exist or were not an integral part of practice. We know this to be true because the Upanishads allude to meditation and breathing practices that are not fully outlined, but that clearly were undertaken and are sometimes even named, such as the Prana Agni Hotra of the Upanishad, which is a meditation on the breath involving the ritual offering of the inbreath into the outbreath and the offering of the outbreath into the inbreath.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika
One of the most thorough early texts on Hatha Yoga from the Middle Ages is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Compiled in the 15th century, this text again claims that there were 8,400,000 possible postures and describes 15 in detail, including forward and back bends and twisting postures as well as seated meditation poses.
Gheranta Samita, Hatha Ratnavali and Joga Pradipika
In the 17th century, the Gheranta Samita, a well-known text, claims that there are 84 commonly practiced postures and it describes 32 seated, backbend, twist, balancing and inverted asanas, and 25 mudras. The lesser-known Hatha Ratnavali by Srinivasa in the same century describes 52 of the 84 asana said to be practiced. The Joga Pradipika by Ramanandi Jayatarama, published in 1830 actually describes 84 asanas and 24 mudras.
This article is by no means a thorough compendium of evidence for Yoga postures through the ages, but I hope to have shown that there is quite a bit of evidence of the Nath oral and later textual tradition for a great amount of postures other than meditation postures that were practiced as a spiritual vehicle and not as physical training. As we see in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with the eightfold path, Yoga practices and contemplative wisdom have long operated together as a complement across various schools of the broader Yogic tradition and their aim has always been for spiritual insight, transformation of ordinary perception and liberation from the bonds of ordinary mind.
Chétana Jessica Torrens is the co-founder the Akhanda Yoga approach and the Akhanda Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) program. She has been teaching and writing about yogic wisdom and the history of the Yoga tradition for twenty years. She has also been blessed to have the opportunity to explore the Yoga of motherhood and the moment-to-moment presence being with children. As a busy parent and Yoga program coordinator, she is thrilled to share her experience and deep engagement with South Asian wisdom traditions through the launch of two convenient, self-paced Online Yoga Philosophy Courses. Get a sneak peak of the course with an Ancestral Healing Water Puja.
Himalayan Master and founder of the Akhanda Yoga, Yogrishi Vishvketu (Yogrishi) is known for his infectious laughter and stories. His holistic approach brings forward ancient wisdom for a modern age. A Yogi at heart, he has studied and practiced Yoga for over 40 years and holds a PhD in Yoga Philosophy. For the last 25 years, he has been sharing this unique blend of practical experience and knowledge of wisdom texts at workshops and conferences internationally and at Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh, India, where he lives half of the year. His deepest aim is to inspire people to connect to their true nature, which is joyful, fearless, expansive and playful. He is the author of Yogasana: The Encyclopedia of Yoga Poses and collaborated on the forthcoming Business Casual Yogi.