On Yoga

Yoga has become an international business today. A study claims that in America alone, about 15 million people practise yoga today. As the world celebrated this ancient art, Indians made world record with 35,000 people doing Yoga around the India Gate in New Delhi, ably supported by the Prime Minister himself.

Of course, the run up to this day wasn’t without its problems. Starting with the central government’s circular that made yoga mandatory for all schools, including those run by minority institutions, this triggered another controversy of whether yoga was part of Hinduism or not, the debate went onto boast about how ancient yoga really is, some even preposterously claiming that it is 10,000 years old! The sanskritised and advantaged castes even started abusing those who voiced slightest criticism of yoga.

That’s when I thought I will write a bit about this ‘ancient’ nature of yoga. Here I go.

About its age, some even claim yoga was prevalent during the Indus Valley Civilisation itself (3500 BCE) and point to a few padmasana-like postures found in some of the stone reliefs as the evidence to this claim. One thing is this is a common sitting posture all over ancient south Asia. The other thing is, this claim makes a very fundamental error that assumes yoga means asanas i.e. yogic postures. That association didn’t come about until the 19th century.

The word yoga is found in Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu text (1500 BCE), but it is not used in the sense of asanas. The word yoga refers to the wooden bar where the animals such as horses or bulls are joined (to pull the cart). The English word ‘Yoke’ comes from the same root. Even the main word yoga comes from this root, meaning controlling one’s senses and tying them up with the Brahman. (the ultimate power, not the caste), or joining and becoming one.

Yoga is discussed in Bhagavat Gita (400-500 BCE). Krishna talks of three yogas, Karma Yoga, Nyana Yoga and Bakthi Yoga, yet none of which make use of any asanas in the modern sense.

Yoga is also referred to in the Upanishads (300 BCE to 100 CE). However, it is used in the meaning of mainly using pranamaya (breath control) to attain nirvana.

Finally, when talking about yoga, most people quote Patanjali’s Yoga Sootra (400 CE). Even in this text, there is not much reference to asanas as practised today. Patanjali only refers to asanas to mean relaxed postures in which the practitioner should sit in order to meditate and reach their ultimate goal (of nirvana.)

Therefore, in ancient India, the word Yoga is generally used in the meaning of breath control and meditation to attain enlightenment (nirvana).

In fact, to discuss further, Patanjali dislikes the very idea of nurturing one’s body. He terms body as an unnecessary impediment in one’s goal and actually promotes ‘aversion to’ one’s own body. He believes that a true yogi would not even consider his body as an existing, real thing. That’s why, Patanjali says, that true yogis would do things that would break the barrier of their body, such walking on the water, flying and becoming invisible, etc.

Therefore, the word yogi also referred to these types of yogis who would do these kinds of ‘magical’ things. Some so called yogis would consume consciousness-altering drugs and begin to hallucinate about gods. These kinds of yogis worship the Vedic god called Rudra, who later became metamorphosed into a form of Shiva. Another name for Rudra is Yogeswara (The lord of the yogis).

Later on, the same band of yogis took their ‘aversion to body’ to extreme limits, terming one’s body as ‘nothing but an amalgam of excreta, urine and puss’ and shunning any attempt to nurture it. These yogis roamed around naked in extreme weather conditions. They used human skull as the plate to eat their food and often even ate human waste to survive. The only noteworthy ‘asana’ that these people practised was standing on one leg with hands raised in a meditative pose. Because this posture came to be associated with yogis, this became a point of ridicule for general public, so much so that in Mamallapuram, there was a sculpture of cat standing in this ‘yogic’ posture, in order to symbolise its hypocrisy.

Due to all these, yogis were generally known as lunatics or dangerous wizards (500-1000 CE). People feared them. These yogis were considered outside the standard Hindu ecosystem. Because of the feared magic powers of these yogis, and especially because of their unspent sexual powers, people thought these yogis possessed power to cure infertility. Of course, many yogis took advantage of this and sexually abused women who approached them for this ‘blessing’.

When Tantric school added to this yoga system (1200-1500 CE), this fear and aversion towards yogis grew multi-fold. To make matters worse, around this time a new text called ‘Hata Yoga Pradhipika’ surfaced (1400-1500 CE). Hata means force. This was yoga with force. This is the text that, for the first time, proposed the Kundalini method, of controlling an imaginary serpent at the bottom of your spine and raising it slowly towards brain in order to attain nirvana. Sure enough, Hata Yoga preached some weird yoga methods, many of sexually extreme nature. An experienced Hata Yogi, the book claimed, would be able to ‘suck up’ all the energies of the women whilst having intercourse with her. This, called Vajroli, and other such methods generated so much allergy among the public, that Hata Yogis became a feared lot.

Adi Shankara’s followers had wholesomely rejected these bodily yogic practices. A majority of the educated Hindus during this period too rejected and even considered Hata Yogis an embarrassment to Hinduism. There is even a story of Swami Dayanandha Saraswathy, founder of Arya Samaj, throwing a copy of Hata Yoga Pradhipika into the river, as an open display of his scorn.

Later, in the next century, Swami Vivekanandha categorically rejected Hata Yoga and proposed a new approach, called Raja Yoga, an amalgam of things from various philosophical traditions that he claimed was the chief of all yogas (hence that name.)

Due to these problems, even the British shared the same aversion to yogis. If these were not enough, some of the extremist groups that worked against the British rule operated under the garb of Yoga Centres. As a consequence, the British targeted all yogis and their centres and clamped down on them.

During this phase, yoga was also generally considered erotic, due partly to its sexual past, partly to its penchant for nudism, etc. Sir Richard Burton’s 1883 book Kamasutra referred to ‘asanas’ or postures, openly confusing yoga with sex, thereby further reinforcing this perception. Thomas Edison’s 1902 documentary Hindu Fakir showcased naked men and women in yogic postures, all this added to both the aversion and attraction, especially in the West.

Around this time is when the ‘modern yoga’ began to take shape. The main contributors were British physical culture, Swedish gymnastics, American Transcendentalism and YMCA physical exercises. Whilst European physical trainers worked on improvising the exercise regime, Nationalist movements began to use yoga as the strengthening regimes, British historians and physical trainers all added some or other aspects from the above forms into the body of yoga.

Therefore, what we call as Yoga actually was a confluence of various international physical cultures. Especially T Krishnamacharya devised several movements by borrowing from Mysore Royal Gymnastics tradition. These movements later merged with yoga.

Then, BKS Iyengar’s seminal book The Light on Yoga, published in 1966, referred to various ‘postures’ that were already in practice among the western physical cultures in 1930s itself. They were considered as ‘soft exercises’ meant only for women, whilst men indulged in much more rigorous, and punishing, physical regimes. After these books and some modern yogis, these same exercises began to be known as yoga for women.

After Swami Vivekananda categorically rejected Hata Yoga, other yogis and scholars began to ‘sanitise’ Hata Yoga by removing its embarrassing portions and making it more palatable. Then, they added the ancient pranayama techniques, some relaxed postural exercises from various sources and made it into an exercise regime called yoga. This yoga, perhaps due to the confusion in nomenclature, began to be considered as an ancient Indian form.

In short, Yoga is a palimpsest.

Then, in the 1950 and 60s, gurus began to surface for this ‘yoga’ who travelled to the west to train and capitalise on this craze. When Henry Thoreau, a self-confessed yogi, published a series of lectures on Yoga, which consisted of a cocktail of some Patanjali, some Hata Yoga and some Tantric tradition, this effectively sealed the idea of Yoga being an ancient Indian form.

Finally, to conclude, what we all refer to or understand as Yoga is a far cry from Vedas and Upanishads and Hata Yoga. It is simply an amalgam of various physical cultures and traditions that was assembled and put together during the two centuries of colonial rule. The miracle is how this modern form took on an ancient garb. Of course, there was something called Yoga in ancient India, but that’s not what the 35,000 people practised in the India Gate yesterday. The Europeans didn’t invent that, but they simply refined on it, added glitter and made what was an embarrassing thing into a matter of pride. So Yoga is not European, yet it’s not Indian either. It’s perhaps one of the first art forms to be globalised into a perfect business model.




  • On Hinduism – Wendy Doniger
  • Rig Veda – Wendy Doniger
  • Raja Yoga – Swami Vivekananda
  • Eight Upanishads – Swami Gambhiranandha
  • Not as Old as You Think – Meera Nanda