In our interview Ammaji (Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani) is giving insights into the historical development of concepts and practices of Yoga. It was in 1967 when the journalist of US-American origin was literally drawn to India, where she is living ever since. She married Yogaguru Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri. Ever since the ICYER ashram in Pondicherry offers Yoga Teacher Trainings continually. The training is one of few in India being taught according to the Gurukula System and lasts six months. Its roots go back to Bengal Tantric Tradition.
When did the Yoga asanas appear in the ancient scriptures and when did Hatha Yoga develop in India?
We don’t know the exact dates but actually you could say that Hatha Yoga really started to be codified in about 500AD or a little later, with Matsyendranath and his disciple Gorakshanath, when they started to use asanas. They were the ones that used to explore all these originally tantric positions of the body and see what happened. After that we don’t have too much new scriptural development. We really have to jump to the 15th or 16th century and the HaṭhaYogaPradīpikā, which is the one scripture that almost everybody will agree with. This is more or less the first visible Hatha Yoga scripture where asanas were listed by name and a very big description of how to do them, with clearly divided mudras, pranayamas, asanas, and then the practices for higher realisation. There were only a small number of asanas listed, about 14. This must have been the practice at that time. Later scriptures were listing more asanas. By the 18th and 19th century, Yoga was more or less confined to India with only a little bit of ideas going out, mostly Vedantic and Vedic ideas in the name of Yoga. Then we started to have a few of the Hatha yogis develop to some extent. BKS Iyengar was a pioneer in the multiple use of the body; he started to experiment with different basic postures and he started to draw up a large number of asanas. In his Light on Yoga he gives more than a couple hundreds of asanas. This was basically never a part of traditional spirituality, that would be sitting poses, tapasya poses, maybe a few other poses, or poses taken from different lineages, the warrior, the acrobatic, the gymnastic, from all those different traditions. It was mainly Mr. Iyengar who codified definitely, for the first time, the multiple uses of the body with pictures.
Tell us something about how you would structure Indian Yoga traditions. Are there really different Yoga traditions, such as South Indian, North Indian or Northeast Indian?
You can use regional structuring because there is quite a difference between North Indian and South Indian culture. Broadly speaking, northern traditions are more tantric, while southern traditions are very much based on the worship of Lord Shiva, but Shiva as the ultimate concept. However, there is a central principle, a central core of the yogic concept of spirituality that goes throughout the whole country. The ancient lineages are spiritual; they may contain some Hatha Yoga which they got from various sources, but mainly they will be concerned with spirituality, especially morality; in a yogic concept of life, morality, pure life and virtues are very very important. In any lineage, in any scripture, whether it’s Vedanta, Tantra, Samkya or anything, the first step is moral and ethical character and purity. Without that, there’s nothing. When we try to divorce the asanas from that, which has happened in modern times, as though lifestyle is different from Yoga, then we go off-track and we have no connection to any tradition. The modern idea of Yoga is: Yoga is one thing and the way you live is another thing! But that was never there, in the old tradition which was passed by gurus; they would not accept a student unless he was pure, disciplined, highly involved, intelligent; so many qualities of character had to be there. The idea of just doing some asana is a modern business idea. I do this, I get that.
It was mainly Mr. Iyengar who codified definitely, for the first time, the multiple uses of the body with pictures.
How can you use your body with Hatha Yoga to develop spiritually?
Patanjali puts asanas as the third step, as for him asanas are simply body positions which are comfortable and held with ease in order to be able to sit for long periods of time for meditation. Patanjali was about 2000-2500 years ago and that was the basic idea in those times. Infact, in the HaṭhaYogaPradīpikā it is stated that asanas can be useful, in the sense that they keep the body strong and the back straight, so you are able to sit without harming yourself for long periods of pranayama or meditation. They also give willpower: the mind bringing the body under its control. If it’s done properly there will also be health benefits. Swamiji (Swami Gitananda Giri) explained the concept of fourfold awareness: first we have to be conscious of the body, then we have to be conscious of the emotions, then we have to be conscious of mind, then we have to be conscious of consciousness itself. Asanas are the best way to become conscious of the body.
Asanas are the best way to become conscious of the body.
This interview was originally published in German language in the book Zu den Quellen des Yoga.
Read more about the History of Yoga from Ancient to Modern Times by Ammaji.