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indian arts – yoga teaching

22nd February 2004 permanent link

This article in my Indian traditional arts series focuses on yoga teaching as an example of how Indian culture reveres tradition and likes to suggest things are based on ancient teachings, even if aspects of them may not actually be as ancient as they seem.

The literature on meditation and yoga philosophy definitely goes back at least 2,500 to 3,000 years – the exact dates of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Upanishads are unknown, but they are generally believed to be roughly contemporary with or (the Upanishads) earlier than the Buddha, who is believed to have lived circa 600 to 500 BC. The buddhist scriptures also make it clear that advanced meditation techniques were already understood and practiced in India at that time. There may be traces of much older evidence – there is a carving that some people believe depicts the god Shiva sitting in lotus position from the city of Harappa circa 2500 BC. Texts that recognisably describe the outward physical practices of yoga as it is generally understood today – postures and breathing exercises – are much later. The best known of them, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, dates from the 15th century AD. What I am going to discuss here is just how old the particular style of yoga I study might actually be.

yoga school sign

The yoga teacher I studied with in India, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, is practically a living tradition in his own right. He has been studying yoga for 75 years and teaching for over 60, having opened his own yoga school in 1942. His teacher, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, was probably the most influential yoga teacher of modern times – at least three major yoga styles that are widely practiced throughout the world today are his direct lineage.

Pattabhi Jois
Pattabhi Jois

The “official” story goes that the form of yoga that Pattabhi Jois teaches was rediscovered by Krishnamacharya in an ancient manuscript written on palm leaves, the Yoga Korunta. The manuscript was subsequently destroyed (eaten by ants) and only Krishnamacharya’s notes remain. Now, it isn’t inherently implausible that such a document could have existed. Apparently lots of old Indian manuscripts are on dried palm leaves, and there are many uncatalogued private collections of them housed in very poor conditions, deteriorating and being lost all the time. (Hopefully India will become a rich country in time for some serious efforts to save this part of its heritage). See the following message board posting from a student of Pattabhi Jois who has clearly spent more time in libraries in India than I have:

So many yoga students on this board are quick to celebrate Sri T. Krisnamacaryas' accomplishments and references while dismissing and criticizing those of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois. Those of you who fall into the above category have probably never visited a library in India and seen the deplorable conditions where stacks of palm leaf texts crumble upon touch, already laced with holes from hungry insects. You probably don't know that 100s upon 100s of precious palm leaf texts lie in disrepair and will never be translated into English let alone transcribed for modern day preservation in their original languages. Actually many poor and desperate Brahmin families burn these texts for cooking fuel as they no longer understand their inherent worth. Knowledgable pandits of the caliber of Sri T. Krisnamacarya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois are ever rarer. The education system that taught these men to memorize for a lifetime thousands of slokas through repetition, no longer exists. The forefathers and community temples that taught them 100s of pujas with particulars of offerings, homas and mantras are also becoming extinct in an enthusiasm to leave off traditions in favor of "modern" pursuits.
Those of you that feel you are in a postion to reproach Guruji (LOL) and his reference to the Yoga Korunta probably don't know the following: Sri T. Krisnamacarya cites Yoga Korunta as a reference in two of his books, Yogasana and Yoga Makaranda. The Mysore Maharaja's library, that published these two books of Krisnamacaryas, lists Yoga Korunta among its vast collection.

Another yoga student whose opinions I respect very highly takes a different view:

Warning: the following remarks are likely to offend some Ashtanga devotees.

It's fairly clear to me that there never was a manuscript that laid out the Ashtanga system. If there was a Yoga Korunta (which I tend to doubt) then it didn't set forth the system of postures in any form close to the way they have been practiced. Essentially, Krishnamacharya (K) made up the sytem himself. Here's why:

  1. Early treatises on classical yoga deal very little with asana. The use of asana beyond a few seated postures appears to have been a development of the Tantric movement, which took hold in India from about 500 AD – well after any likely date of Patanjali. The earliest texts dealing with asanas beyond seated postures date from the 1100-1300's AD. The use of large numbers of postures seems to date from the 1700's and later, when folks became interested in the therapeutic aspects of asanas. Therefore an extensive asana system such as that of Ashtanga is not likely to date from Patanjali's time.
  2. The elements of the current Ashtanga system can be found, in disparate form, in manuscripts available to K when he was teaching at the Mysore palace earlier in the twentieth century. The author of "The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace" investigates some of these documents: one, dating from the 1800's, has an extensive list of asanas with a nomenclature similar to that of the K schools (Iyengar, Vinoyoga, Jois). Also, there is a gymnastics text, again dating from the 1800's, that illustrates several excercises performed by Indian wrestlers. These resemble the vinyasa of the Ashtanga system. It is plausible, therefore, that K could have derived the Ashtanga by hybridizing yoga and gymnastics practices from texts that were available to him.
  3. The Yoga Korunta is not the only no-longer-extant manuscript from which K claimed to have derived a system of yoga. In "Health, Healing and Beyond", K's biography written by his son TKV Desikachar, K tells how he was once visiting a temple near the birthplace of Nathamuni, a ninth century sage and reputed ancestor of K. During this visit, K says he went into a trance and had a portion of the the Yoga Rahasya (a now-lost text ascribed to Nathamuni) dictated to him. The "dictated" portion includes many of the element so the viniyoga school, including yoga for health, yoga for pregnant women (no early yoga text envisages women practitioners), etc. The Yoga Korunta alone is a bit much to take – TWO systems of yoga based on two separate "discoveries" of lost texts is simply not credible.

K was a very creative yogi who was working from a cultural situation in which you don't take credit for your own discoveries but instead try to ascribe them to a teacher or a tradition, so I think humility was his motive for inventing these two texts (or at least inventing the content of these texts). I don't hold any grudge against K for doing this, but respect for K, Jois, and the Ashtanga system should not cause us to jettison our critical faculties.

On the subject of this second (alleged) source text, the Yoga Rahasya, here is a quote from another Indian yoga teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami, who studied with Krishnamacharya for many years:

During the early years, Sri Krisnamacarya used to quote often from the Yoga Rahasya of Nathamuni, many of which quotes I noted down. For instance, he quoted the following passage to emphasize the importance of finding means for contraception and family planning (mita santana). This sloka, Pasasanam yoganidra garbhapindanca bhadrakam | Matsyendrasanakhyete, sarva garbha nirodhakah, mentions the asanas (noose posture, yogic reclining posture, fetus posture, auspicious posture, kingfish posture) that prevent conception. But when I aked him where the text was available, he said with a chuckle that it used to be available at Sarabhoji Maharaja of Tanjore and that he had seen the text, which was written on palm leaves and kept in an ivory box. He even suggested that I write to the Sarasvati Mahal library in Tanjore and ask for a copy. I did write to them, and received a reply that no such text existed. I subsequently learned from a Vaisnavite friend that Nathamuni had intended to transmit the knowledge of Yoga, the Yoga Rahasya (Secret of Yoga), to his grandson, but he passed away before he could do so. I sort of figured out that Yoga Rahasya was the work of my own guru, inspired by the upasana (devotion) to Nathamuni. The work contained several of the instructions Sri Krisnamacarya used to give while teaching yoga. But there were variations in the same slokas, when he quoted them on different occasions, which is further evidence that Yoga Rahasya may have been the masterpiece of my own guru, inspired by tradition and devotion.

I personally don’t really believe in the Yoga Korunta, although I also wouldn’t fall over in amazement if somebody did conclusively prove its existence. There is a book, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, that describes a (different) text the author found in the Mysore Palace archives, describing a nineteenth century synthesis of native yoga and martial arts traditions with British gymnastic training. The author, Norman Sjoman, believes that something like this – possibly even this actual text – was an important influence on Krishnamacharya’s teaching.

Attitudes to this question vary widely among yoga teachers; even among senior Indian yoga teachers who are direct students of Krishnamacharya, of whom I have studied with two and read books by three more. Of these:

If what Krishnamacharya was actually doing was putting together his own synthesis, based on classical sources combined with his own vast knowledge and experience, then why not say so? Why feel the need to invent a fairy story about an ancient manuscript “eaten by ants”? I agree with the assessment I quoted above, that he was “working from a cultural situation in which you don't take credit for your own discoveries but instead try to ascribe them to a teacher or a tradition, so I think humility was his motive”. I wonder if there might also be some element of self-mythologisation going on; if he might have seen himself as to some extent divinely inspired and, in fact, being in some spiritual sense actually the recipient rather than the author of texts that came into his head and that he wrote down?

The whole thing is an interesting contrast with the Japanese attitude to their martial arts. I studied karate for a few years when I was younger. One thing I noticed was that nobody had any problem with acknowledging that most Japanese martial arts as they are currently practiced were invented by great teachers around the turn of the last century – probably the most famous being Mr Uyeshiba, the inventor of Aikido – and with respecting these teachers as people who were drawing on ancient bushido traditions, but also innovating to produce their own new synthesis within that framework. Which I think is probably what Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois were also up to in the 1930s, but the Indian way (*) is to pretend that nobody is doing anything new and it’s all ancient. This also plays well with suggestible New Age western students who want to fantasise about “ancient secrets of the pyramids” and suchlike nonsense. I prefer the Japanese way.

All this is of very marginal relevance to actually practicing yoga.

(*) in this context although, interestingly, not with classical music.

related entries: Yoga

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