Shiva & Parvati crushing demon Ravana

Provenance — Where Does Yoga Asana Come From?

© Bruce M. Roger 2014

Iyengar yoga

BKS Iyengar in Paschimottanasana: Photo by Sylvia Prescott, Tree of Yoga, 1989.

Some Western scholars have contended that modern asana practice is not rooted in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (2nd c. B.C.E.), and that claiming so is a false, self-justifying, claim of provenance. I know the arguments well: only eleven asanas are described in Vyasa’s fifth century commentary on Patanjali (half of which are sitting asanas for meditation), and only twenty-six asanas, mudras, and bandhas are described by Svatmarama (“own-Self-takes delight”) in his 15th century text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.[1] On the other hand, the Gheranda Samhita, a 17th c. work, describes an additional seven asanas — out of 8.4 million (84 lakhs) asanas![2]

astanga yoga

T. Krishnamacharya in Paschimottanasana: Yoga Makaranda, 1934.

Another source text of the Iyengar method of yoga, the Yoga Korunta (14th c. C.E.; now unavailable), was memorized by B.K.S. Iyengar’s guru, T. Krishnamacharya when he studied in Tibet during the 1920’s with his guru, Rama Mohana Brahmacari.[3] It contains the vinyasa sequences that Guruji Iyengar taught from 1935 through the 1970’s and Pattabhi Jois taught until his death in 2009.[4] These are the asanas included in Iyengar’s seminal text, Light on Yoga, or Yoga Dipika in Sanskrit. Krishnamacharya based his approach primarily on the ashtanga yoga systems of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras and the Yoga Yajnavalkya (4th c. C.E.). The latter was a source for later texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which he also honored.[5]

As a dedicated pupil of B.K.S. Iyengar, I believe the provenance of asana is legitimized in three broad ways: First, whereas Western scholarship is a text-driven discipline, yoga practice has relied on the oral tradition to explicate on the few extant texts. Secondly, direct perception of the Self in yoga comes with experience and cannot be cast as “new” or “different.” Third, asana is a physical component of a spiritual practice.


Ashtanga Yoga & Hatha Yoga: Oral vs. Textual Tradition

Iyengar yoga

July, 1986 Iyengar Yoga Institute Intensive Course with BKS Iyengar: Photo by Chandur Melwani

Provenance — the source of what is being taught — primarily depends on who is teaching. Great masters have had generations of wisdom to back up their means and methods by developing within the guru-sishya (teacher-student) relationship, first as pupils and then as teachers.[6] This is how the oral tradition has survived, with very little ever recorded.[7] The lineage, although entwined in myth, extends back to the time of the sages. Even the texts that do exist have acceded to oral primacy: Hatha Yoga Pradipika cites that asana, pranayama, kriya (purification actions), and mudra (“seals” including Viparita Karani) should be “learned from the guru’s instructions” and “kept secret”:[8]

HYP I.14 One should practice yoga in the way instructed by his guru .
HYP II.1  The yogin, having perfected himself in the asanas, should practice pranayama, according to the instructions of his guru….
HYP III.7-9 These… [ten mudras] expounded by Adinatha… annihilate old age and death… [and] should be kept secret, like a box of precious gems.

According to the Shiva Samhita, “Only the knowledge imparted by a guru, through his lips, is powerful and useful; otherwise it becomes fruitless, weak and very painful.” It describes a guru as “father…, mother, and even God.”[9] But, as Prashant Iyengar has pointed out, “Guru is an institution, not a person. We worship the guru in Guruji Iyengar, not his personality.”[10] Tradition mandates that a sishya can have only one guru in his lifetime. Gurus, like Krishnamacharya, have “jealously guarded… spiritual knowledge… [unless] pupils were deserving enough.”[11]

I believe there are three reasons that the guru-sishya system has allowed yoga to thrive over the millennia :

  1. Prerequisite qualification and commitment of the pupil that ensures responsible and accurate transmission of the oral tradition — why the guru only shares with “deserving” pupils.
  2. A lengthy and intense mentoring process, similar to a professor fostering his doctoral candidates, that emphasizes proper technique, memorization, and correct interpretation. The guidance of a lifetime mentor lessens error or injury, and increases efficacy. For example, medical studies proving the efficacy of yoga have been conducted by highly-trained teachers who are often under the supervision of Guruji Iyengar himself, not an “Internet guru.”
  3. Ethical authority of the guru that is neither corrupted by the attainment of supernormal powers, nor the need to profit from teaching by acquiring more pupils (gurus often have been employed householders).[12]

The guru-sishya system has traditionally been the primary means of preserving the yogic tradition. The widespread accessibility of yogic texts due to the Internet, that were only available from a few publishers in India just a generation ago, has skewed the perception of just how difficult it has been to find these texts in the past.[13] Two hundred years ago they were only available in manuscript form. Moreover, few yogins were literate: in 1800, just after the inception of Indian newspapers, only 3% of Indians were literate in their vernacular language, much less the literary language of the Sanskrit texts. In 1947, at Independence, still only 12% of Indians were literate.[14]

The texts were meant to be memorized and chanted by the students and then explained by the guru. Although the descriptions in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are brief, they are not as terse as the Yoga Sutras. However, metaphors are often used, or only the results of practice cited. Details of how to practice — the essential actions and individualized instruction — exist only in the oral tradition, handed down from guru to sishya.[15]


Yoga: Creativity vs. Transformation of Consciousness

Iyengar yoga

BKS_Iyengar in Rope Viparita Dandasana at Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Pune.

Accomplished yogins, says B.K.S. Iyengar, view purusha (spirit) as the source of all creativity. Asanas aren’t “inventions” because creativity in yoga does not arise out of an individual’s originality or cleverness:

“Only God creates — not you or me. [Insight] comes like a light, but not from thinking.”[16]

A tenet of Samkhya-Yoga school is “Nothing is created, nothing is destroyed; it only changes state.”[17] That’s why B.K.S. Iyengar contends that he practices yoga — not an “Iyengar method” or an “Iyengar style” of yoga:

“Principles cannot change. There is no new ‘creation,’ or new ‘style,’ or ‘method.’ When jnana [knowledge] comes, the intelligence is not limited by selfishness; otherwise it is a sign of a fluctuating mind.”[18]

“There is no ‘Iyengar Yoga.’ I learned from Krishnamacharya.”[19]

The underlying principle of Samkhya philosophy that forms the basis of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga is that because of its innate purity, buddhi (intelligence), is able to perceive purusha as its source. But if that perception is tainted by ego-driven parigraha (possessiveness), it signifies a non-yogic, and unstable, mind. Thus, yoga is universal and cannot be “owned” or branded by “style.” To sum up, there is nothing “new” in yoga, even if it may be new to you or me. An example of this is when Guruji Iyengar criticized a young teacher for coming up with a “new” way of performing of Adho Mukha Svanasana incorrectly on the fingertips for wrist pain:

“It is a distortion of the Iyengar method. A [junior teacher] can never ‘create.’ Creativity only comes with maturity in rtambhara prajna [“truth-bearing wisdom” attained in samadhi].”[20]

The next example of “originality” — an adaptation by a teacher lacking sufficient training — can even lead to student injury. This himsa (harmfulness), however unintended, violates the teacher’s compact with the student that, like a mother, promotes safety of the pupil above and beyond the safety of the teacher. Students can be put in harm’s way when the guru-sishya system of mentoring is eliminated because junior teachers need to be mentored for many years. That way students taught by junior teachers benefit, if indirectly, from the experience of the guru.[21] Here Guruji Iyengar criticized a teacher for her modification of Supta Padangusthasana:

“Do not [teach] adaptations that have no bearing on the pose because it is [merely] physical yoga — which causes strains and pains.”[22]

Only when the aforementioned rtambhara prajna, “truth-bearing wisdom” or “mature wisdom accompanied by intense insight,” has been experienced — in other words, in samadhi — can the yoga cannon of the sages be modified. Not only is this type of knowledge “beyond the knowledge gleaned from books, testimony or inference” — it stops the very production of the chittavrttis (mental fluctuations) themselves, which is Patanjali’s definition of yoga:[23]

PYS I.2 Yoga is chitta [consciousness] vrtti nirodha [movement-cessation].


Raja Yoga vs. Hatha Yoga: Spiritual vs. Physical?

Shiva & Parvati crushing demon Ravana

Shiva & Parvati crushing demon Ravana after he shook their heavenly abode at Mt. Kailasha, ca. 600 C.E. Ellora Cave No. 29 © Linda G. Swaty 2011

Why practice? Both East and West have acclaimed yoga as “good for health” and many have begun practice for that reason, as did Guruji Iyengar. Besides the more common belief in the West that asana is good for health, there is a less widely held Indian belief — that asana is part of a non-denominational yogic spiritual practice.[24] Both in Patanjali’s classical dualist yoga, and in the non-dualist philosophy that has come to dominate Indian thought, health and spirituality only differ by degree on the body-mind-intellect continuum.[25] Moreover, Indian thought considers every action to have long-term spiritual implications.

One of the facets of yoga that links both health and spirituality is the ethical precept of a-himsa (non-violence). What characterizes asana as “safe” — resulting in less “wear and tear” — is ahimsa; what defines yoga as “spiritual” also begins with ahimsa — acting with such integrity that it both prevents future suffering, and causes others to abandon hostility, according to Patanjali:

PYS II.34-35 …himsa [violence]… results in endless duhkha [pain] and ajnana [ignorance]. Pratipaksha bhavanam [cultivating the opposite behavior] ends duhkha and ajnana. When the yogin is firmly established in ahimsa [non-violence] there is abandonment of hostility in his presence.

Hatha Yoga, where asana, pranayama, mudra, and bandha are described, claims its theistic heritage from the outset. The very first verse of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika praises Lord Shiva, the first guru, who, in teaching his consort Parvati hatha yoga, passed on his spiritual knowledge:

HYP I.1 Salutation to Adinatha [Shiva] who taught [his consort Parvati] the vidya (knowledge) of hatha yoga, which, like a staircase, leads the aspirant to the high pinnacle of raja yoga.

Despite affirming this lineage in the next verse, Svatmarama rarely refers to Shiva again, except as a physiological metaphor, and as the guru who taught asana and mudra.[26] More significantly, he reiterates that practice of hatha yoga is “solely for the attainment of raja (royal) yoga,” a synonym for Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga, thus tying hatha yoga to a universal, non-denominational, spiritual practice:

HYP I.2 Yogin Swatmarama, after saluting his Guru Srinatha explains hatha yoga vidya [wisdom] solely for the attainment of raja yoga.

This bond with raja yoga is reaffirmed at subsequent points in the text:

HYP I.67 The asanas, various kumbhakas [retentions in pranayama], and other divine karanas [means] of hatha yoga, should all be practiced until the fruit of raja yoga is obtained.

In the last set of verses it is reiterated with an additional metaphoric reference to overcoming death:

HYP 1V.103 All the methods of hatha are meant for gaining success in raja yoga. The person, who is well-established in the raja yoga, overcomes death.[27]

There are similarities between the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Like raja yoga, the fundamental objective of hatha yoga is “to transcend the egoic consciousness, and to realize the Self….” wrote Georg Feuerstein.[28] Direct perception of the Self is the result of body, mind, and breath purification in yoga. Svatmarama’s sloka (two-line verse) on asana borrows the term sthira [firm, stable] directly from Patanjali’s definition of asana:

PYS II.46 Perfection in asana means sthira [firmness] in body, sthira [steadiness] in intelligence, and benevolence in consciousness.

HYP I.17 Asana [is]… the first stage of hatha yoga. Asana [gives] sthairyam [firmness, stability], health, and lightness of limb.

According to Brahmananda’s 1880 C.E. commentary on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Jyotsna, asana explicitly stabilizes the mind, whereas Patanjali’s terse two-word definition of asana does not explicitly differentiate among body, mind, and intellect in bringing about vrtti nirodha (movement-cessation).[29] Brahmananda even quotes Patanjali’s obstacles, which Guruji Iyengar characterizes as “physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual:”[30]

BJ I.17 Asana [gives] sthairyam [firmness, stability]… because it kills the rajo-guna that causes fickleness [unsteadiness] of manas [mind]. By removing diseases, it facilitates concentration; for Patanjali says: [quotes PYS I.30: disease, inertia, doubt, carelessness, laziness, incontinence, mistaken notion, and backsliding due to pride cause the chitta vikshepas, distractions of the mind, and are the obstacles.] Asana removes the heaviness of body arising from the preponderance of tamas….

Or, as B.K.S. Iyengar has summarized Brahmananda’s commentary:

“Health is eradication of the diseases that cause the chitta vikshepas [mental distractions that divert one from the path of yoga].”[31]

Despite the spiritual dimension of asana practice, some have denigrated asana as solely “physical.” Even the great nineteenth-century non-dualist Swami Vivekananda held conflicting views about the validity of asana practice when it was not as popular as it is today. He outrightly dismissed asana, equating it with hatha yoga in his introduction to his popular 1896 publication, Raja Yoga, because the aim of hatha yoga is purportedly only

“physical strength… and not spiritual growth. Health [resulting in long life] is the one goal of the hatha yogi.”[32]

His rejection could have been influenced by legitimate contemporary ethical assumptions, as well as sectarianism.[33] Nonetheless, elsewhere in his same text, he conceded a body-mind connection:

“The mind is intimately connected with the body…. If the body is sick, the mind becomes sick also. If the body is healthy, the mind remains healthy and strong.”[34]

Iyengar yoga

BKS Iyengar in Siddhasana: Light on Yoga, 1966

In light of this, it is hard to reconcile his dismissal of asana with his appreciation of how a healthy mind requires a healthy body. Moreover, if he could extol Shankaracharya’s recommendation of nadi (channel) purification through nadi sodhana pranayama,[35] it would be inconsistent to not then advocate nadi purification in asana, such as Siddhasana — which is specifically cited in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:

HYP I.39 Out of the 84 asanas Siddhasana should always be practiced, because it cleanses the impurities of 72,000 nadis [nadinam mala-sodhanam].

Asana is also cited to benefit the nadis in a general sense:

HYP III.124 This middle [susumna] nadi becomes straight and firm by steady practice of asana, pranayama, and mudra of the yogin.

Vivekananda’s lack of advocacy is especially inconsistent because there is a photo of him meditating in Siddhasana, dated 1886, in his biography! Moreover, experience tells us that judicious practice of all the various types of asanas and pranayamas is necessary to afford sufficient mobility of the hips and stability of the spine to be able to sit erect and motionless in Swastikasana with a steady mind for an extended period of time.

Ironically, when Vivekananda commented specifically on Yoga Sutra II.46 that defines asana in Raja Yoga, he repeated the intent of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika I.17 — firmness and health:

“When you have succeeded controlling the body and keeping it firm, your practice [ed. italics] will be steady; but while you are disturbed by the body, your nerves become disturbed, and you cannot concentrate the mind.”[36]

There is no doubt that a firm body steadies meditation. Guruji Iyengar takes the same basic approach as Vivekananda, but is more specific in his analysis. In his interpretation of PYS II.46, applying “stable” to the mind as well as the body, he describes the intelligence as steadied, not the practice; steadiness in practice is only inferred. It refers back to the stabilization of chitta (consciousness) that Patanjali uses to define yoga, and Vyasa’s description of that happening chitta is freed of the gunas (qualities of nature).[37] Guruji Iyengar’s interpretation concurs with BJ I.17, which makes it clear that not only does asana stabilize the body, but also steadies the manas (mind) — because it “kills the rajo-guna (movement-quality) that causes fickleness of the manas (mind).”[38] It also affirms Vyasa’s commentary on PYS II.47, which cites perfection in asana to prevent angam-ejayatva (limb-shakiness) — an obstacle to samadhi. Although shakiness ostensibly refers to the body, Guruji Iyengar also applies it to mental instability — which includes depression.[39]

Asana is further validated through subsequent commentaries on the Yoga Sutras by Vachaspati Misra, Bhojaraja, Narayana Tirtha, Vijnana Bhiksu, Nagoji Bhatta, Ramananda Yati, and Hariharananda Aranya in the eighth, eleventh, fourteenth, sixteenth, and twentieth centuries, respectively.[40]

Patanjali, as does Svatmarama, begins yoga practice with the ethical precepts of yama and the disciplines of niyama.[41] According to B.K.S. Iyengar, the yamas, beginning with a-himsa (non-violence) spring from the intrinsic purity of one’s conscience. But chitta (consciousness) becomes tainted by contact with society.[42] As noted in the discussion about himsa (violence), when chitta has been tainted by violent thoughts and deeds , it causes endless pain and ignorance. To maintain and cultivate innate purity, the Yoga Sutras cite the yamas as “universal vows unconditioned by class, time, or place.”[43] When it comes to yama, hatha yoga, too, does not differentiate amongst “thought, word, and deed”[44] — and that applies to the practice of asana, pranayama, mudra, and bandha.

As a result, any emphasis on physicality alone that ignores the role of the mind is decidedly unholistic: it reflects a Western interpretation that ignores the precepts of yama and niyama that lead to the inner peace lying at the very heart and soul of yoga. Some Westerners have claimed that aggressive Western calisthenics were modified and incorporated into asana practice to “toughen up” passive Indians as part of the twentieth-century Indian independence movement.[45] The phrase “toughen up” itself conveys a duality that comes from a lack of awareness. It is impossible to “toughen up” your conscience. Besides, it is presumptuous to assume that political success depends mainly upon individual physical prowess. No less than Mahatma Gandhi himself, the father of Indian independence, based his mass movement on the first two yamasahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truthfulness).[46]

Within the concept of “alignment” in asana, B.K.S. Iyengar has taught the difficult-to-put-into-practice philosophy of samatvam (eveness of mind), prana (life-force), prajna (wisdom), as well as yama (ethics) and niyama (discipline). Here, alignment has been used to clarify the intelligence and foster ahimsa:

Utthita Hasta Padasana; ahimsa

BKS Iyengar teaches how to purge the wrist of violence in Utthita Hasta Padasana: The Dalai Lama Speaks – Paths To Happiness. 11-20-2010

“Purging the mind [of aggression] begins by aligning the wrist in Utthita Hasta Padasana…. The left dorsal wrist is bulging, higher than her fingers… because of himsa, aggression, in the body…. Lacking sarira prajna [bodily understanding], she is only following the dictates of the body.[47] She is not using her body as an agent to clarify her intelligence. To remove the aggression, descend the left top wrist, lift the fingers and then stretch the arm and hand. That is a-himsa [non-violence].”[48]

The focus of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga has always been to destroy the impurities that obscure the highest state of awareness.[49] As part of that goal, the mastery of asana leads to the cessation of duality.[50] In the following demonstration, B.K.S. Iyengar has shown how to practice asana to bring about saucha (purity) and santosha (contentment), the first two niyamas:

BKS Iyengar adjusts left armpit chest to bring purity to the right armpit chest.

BKS Iyengar adjusts left armpit chest in Trikonasana to bring purity to the right armpit chest: The Dalai Lama Speaks – Paths To Happiness. 11-20-2010

“The projection of the student’s left armpit chest in Utthita Hasta Padasana fostered saucha, purity, because it allowed the blood to flow — like ‘taking a bath.’ [By contrast, because the student’s right side of the chest faced the floor, the lack of blood flow was taken to be] a sign of a-saucha, impurity, because it remained ‘unbathed.’ [After Guruji Iyengar rotated the student’s right armpit chest forward and up] to bring saucha, the right chest achieved santosha, contentment, [and was then able to proclaim], ‘Now I am happy here,’ because the right chest, as well as the left, has been ‘bathed’ with oxygenated blood.”[51]

Similarly, focusing attention on a particular area of the body in asana practice is dharana, concentration; maintaining and spreading that awareness in an unbroken flow evolves into dhyana, meditation.[52] However, any non-holistic approach automatically conflates the step-by-step process of learning physical postures with an exclusive emphasis on physicality itself — as expressed in the maxim, “by the body for the body.” But physical practice is a beginning, not an end. Whereas we may view knowledge of the body as both sophisticated and subtle, yogins consider it gross when compared to knowledge of the mind. Even if we begin practicing a few asanas to keep us healthy when young, spirituality becomes increasingly more important as we become middle-aged adults who seek relief from suffering, or contemplate our own death. For example, while many pre-teen girls take gymnastic classes to develop strength and coordination, 50-year old women have different needs. That’s why we practice “by the body for the mind.”

It has been the life work of B.K.S. Iyengar to restore asana to its rightful place in yogic practice. He has challenged the notion that asana is only a physical preparation for meditation by demonstrating that right action in asana reveals the infinite within. It’s what Patanjali calls ananta samapattibhyam — the assumption of the eternal form when asana is mastered, the “vastness within” that is synonymous with the ability of purusha to abide in his sva-rupa (own form), the goal of yoga:[53]

PYS II.47 Perfection in asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless, and the ananta [infinite being within] samapattibhyam [is reached].

Appendix: Source Texts of Asana, Mudra & Bandha

(Pranayama omitted)

Patanjali Yoga Sutra



Vyasa Bhashya on Yoga Sutra



Buddha sitting in Padmasana ca. 480 C.E., Ajanta Cave No. 20: photo © Linda G. Swaty 2011

Sitting                       Padmasana, Virasana, Bhadrasana [Baddha Konasana], Swastikasana, Dandasana

Supported                 Sopashraya

Restorative                Paryankasana [Hariharananda: Savasana]

Unknown                 Krounchasana, Hasti-nisadana, Ustra-nisadana, Sama-samsthana


Hatha Yoga Pradipika

King Bhagiratha performs Vrksasana as penance: Descent of the Ganga, Mahabalipuram ca. 7th c. C.E.

King Bhagiratha performs Vrksasana as penance: Descent of the Ganga, Mahabalipuram ca. 7th c. C.E.: photo by

Sitting                       Swastikasana, Padmasana, Siddhasana, Bhadrasana [Baddha Konasana], Virasana, Gomukhasana, Simhasana

Hand balance            Kukkutasana, Mayurasana

Forward extension   Paschimottanasana, Dhanurasana [refers to either Akarna Dhanurasana or backbend Padangustha Dhanurasana], Kurmasana, Uttana Kurmasana

Twist                        Paripurna Matsyendrasana [Matsyasana], Baddha Padmasana

Restorative                Savasana

Inversion                  Viparita Karani mudra

Mudra & Bandha   Mahamudra, Mulabandha, Uddiyana Bandha, Jalandhara Bandha, Maha Bandha, Maha Vedha, Vajroli, Shakti Chalana


Gheranda Samhita

asana practice ca. 1820

Mughal painting of asanas including yogin hanging upside down, ca. 1820 British Museum, London

Adds to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:

Sitting                       Vajrasana, Mandukasana [Vajrasana variation], Matsyasana

Standing                   Vrksasana

Backbend                 Shalabhasana, Dhanurasana [GS II.41 designates as Ustrasana], Bhujangasana



B.K.S. Iyengar, “Adaptations of Postures from Yoga 90”, A Teacher’s Exchange Spiral Bound Program Guide, IYNAUS, 1996.

B.K.S. Iyengar, “Asana: Physical, Mental, or Spiritual Practice?,” Astadala Yogamala v.2, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2001.

B.K.S. Iyengar, “Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga,” Astadala Yogamala v.2, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2001

B.K.S. Iyengar, “Sri Yoga Vidya Yantra,” Astadala Yogamala v.8, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2008.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the YogaSutras of Patanjali, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, New York: Schocken Books, rev. 1979.

Elise Miller, “B.K.S. Iyengar Talks About the Sutras,” Yoga Journal #57, July-August, 1984.

Francie Ricks, ed., Walking with Mr. Iyengar: Teachers’ Notes and Transcriptions from Yoga ‘90, Los Angeles: BKS Iyengar Yoga Association of Southern California, 1991.

Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, Albany: SUNY Press, 1983.

Swami Veda Bharati (formerly Pandit Usharbudh Arya), Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol.2, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004.

British Museum: Mughal yogin painting ca. 1820: <;

Satischandra Chatterjee & Dhirendramohan Datta, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, Calcutta: Calcutta University Press, 1984 [8th ed.].

Raja Choudhury, Yoga: Aligning to the Source, Delhi: Public Service Broadcasting Trust, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India: <;

Carl W. Ernst, “A Case Study of Bahr al-Hayat,” Freer and Sackler Galleries: Yoga and Visual Culture: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, November 22, 2013: <; <;

Georg Feuerstein, Yoga, The Technology of Ecstasy, Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989.

Srinivasa Iyangar, The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama with Commentary Jyotsna of Brahmananda, Madras: Adyar Library and Research Center, The Theosphical Society, 1893. Revised 1972.

Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial theory, India and ‘the mystic East,’ London: Routledge, 1999. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2001. <;

James Mallinson, “From Tapas to Hard Yoga: The History of the Asanas of Hatha Yoga,” Freer and Sackler Galleries: Yoga and Visual Culture: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, November 22, 2013: <>

A. Parthasarathy, Choice Upanishads, Mumbai 2001.


Gabriel Pradipika, Hathayogapradipika <;

Ronald Steiner, Hathayogapradipika <;

Swami Swarupananda, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, (orig. 1909). Reprinted 2000.

Pancham Sinh, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Delhi: Sri Satguru Publ., (Allahabad, 1915). Reprinted 1984. <;

S.C. Vasu, The Gheranda Samhita: A Treatise on Hatha Yoga, Delhi: Sri Satguru Publ. Reprinted 1986. <;

S.C. Vasu, The Siva Samhita, Delhi: Sri Satguru Publ. Reprinted 1984.


<; [English with omitted text]

Vivekananda, The Yogas and Other Works, NY: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1953.




Author Transcriptions of Iyengar Yoga Classes & Demonstrations:

B.K.S. Iyengar & H.H. The Dalai Lama, Paths to Happiness: Lecture Demo 11-20-10, New Delhi. <;

B.K.S. Iyengar, “Astanga Yoga and Iyengar Yoga,” 9-27-05 AM Asana Intensive Class, Estes Park.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Depression Q & A 9-29-05, Estes Park.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Viparita Karani Q & A 9-29-05, Estes Park.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga ‘93 Invocation 8-7-93, Ann Arbor.

Geeta S. Iyengar, Asana 5-23-96 AM Class, Estes Park.

Prashant S. Iyengar, “Breath Lacks Delimitation & Generates Movement,” 7-30-09 AM Pranayama, Pune.

Prashant S. Iyengar, Guru Purnima Address 7-2-04, Pune.


[1]         Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, SUNY Press, 1983: VB II.46 Vyasa’s sitting asanas are Padmasana, Virasana, Bhadrasana [Baddha Konasana], and Swastikasana. Please refer to the Appendix for the entire list of asanas, mudras, and bandhas in the various texts cited.

Srinivasa Iyangar, The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama with Commentary Jyotsna of Brahmananda, Adyar Library and Research Center, The Theosphical Society, Madras, 1893, rev. 1972:

HYP I.33 Shiva taught 84 asanas. Of these the first four being essential ones, I am going to explain them here. (Padmasana, Virasana, Bhadrasana [Baddha Konasana], Swastikasana)

[2]         S.C. Vasu, The Gheranda Samhita: A Treatise on Hatha Yoga, Sri Satguru Publ., Delhi repr. 1986:

GS II.1 There are 84 hundred thousand asanas described by Shiva. The asanas are as many in number as there are number of species of living creatures in this universe. [Note 1 lakh = 100,000 in Indian numeracy.]

[3] [Retrieved 1-2014.]

[4]         B.K.S. Iyengar, “Astanga Yoga and Iyengar Yoga,” 9-27-05 AM Asana Intensive Class, Estes Park. +20:15 Author transcription.

[5]         A.G. Mohan, Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings, Shambhala, Boston, 2010. [Wikipedia citation retrieved 1-2014]

A.G. Mohan (tr.), Yoga Yajnavalkya, Svastha Yoga, 2013. Some Western scholars date Yoga Yajnavalkya much later. It emphasizes pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana, as well as nadis, vayus, and mahabhutas. An apparently different Sage Yajnavalkya (ca. 850 B.C.E.) also authored the oldest Upanisad, the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanisad (13th-6th c. B.C.E.), a discourse about Brahman. [Retrieved from Wikipedia 1-2014.]

[6]         The word guru means “the one who removes darkness” of ignorance and false identification with body, mind and ego. See PYS II.5: Avidya [spiritual ignorance] is mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure and the non-self for the Self (and vice versa).

[7]         The spate of English translations of yogic texts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries probably had more to do with the newly acquired press and concurrent British interest in Indian philosophy than any contemporary authorship, as even late yogic texts predated printing by several hundred years. Printing was introduced to India by Christian missionaries in coastal areas starting in the 16th century: Goa (west) 1556; Cochin (south) 1579; Bombay (west) 1674; Tranquebar & Madras (east) 1712 & 1751; Calcutta (northeast) 1780 first newspaper. First English translations include Charles Wilkins: Bhagavad Gita (1785); Nobin Candra Paul: Treatise on Yoga Philosophy (1850); and James Ballantyne: The Aphorisms of the Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, with Illustrative Extracts from the Commentary by Bhoja Raja (1852).

[8]         This practitioner speculates that the need for secrecy prevented the corruption and dilution of the art of yoga. Although enthusiastic beginners often want to share what they have learned, it takes at least 10-15 years of practice and teaching to teach others both safely and effectively. It is comparable to the lengthy process a music student must go through to learn the fundamentals of music before applying them as a successful concert artist.

[9]         S.C. Vasu, The Siva Samhita, Sri Satguru Publ., Delhi reprinted 1984. SS III.11, 13

[10]       Prashant S. Iyengar, Guru Purnima Address, 7-2-04. Author notes.

[11]       B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005. p. 69-70

[12]       Prashant S. Iyengar, Guru Purnima Address, 7-2-04. Author notes: “If the goal of a ‘professional’ yoga teacher is to expand clientele, it [becomes] a business, not a profession.”

[13]       In 2002 our students were unable to find the Hatha Yoga Pradipika for purchase in the U.S.

[14]       In 2011 74% of Indians were literate. Yet, one third of the world’s illiterates lived in India. [2005]

Country Literacy
1500 India 02%
England 10%
1700 England 47%
1800 India 03%
England 52%
US 50%
1881 India 03%
US 80%
1947 India 12%
2003 US 97%
2011 India 74%


[15]       Brahmananda Jyotsna I.14 The various standard books on yoga are… for gurus to use as guide-books to regulate their pupil’s training. In hatha yoga… it is absolutely necessary to have a guru, who has passed successfully through the course, who can see clearly through the system, and observe the effects of the various processes and modify them accordingly.

[16]       Francie Ricks, ed., Walking with Mr. Iyengar: Teachers’ Notes and Transcriptions from Yoga ‘90, BKS Iyengar Yoga Association of Southern California, 1991. p. 18

Geeta S. Iyengar, Asana 5-23-96 AM Class: Urdhva Dhanurasana. Author notes: “Guruji did not say, ‘Let me create.’ It came to him when he saw where people were suffering, where they had a problem. He says, ‘If this person complains, then I have to try.’ [Why] do you apply your method? Why don’t you respect what your guru has given you — ‘These are the poses which will bring recovery’? Just to show off that you can do something different? [Can’t you teach] our simple way, just say, ‘Do this, do this’?”

[17]       Because of guna-parinama, the gunas are always in a constant state of flux. Changing states mask their permanence; they are neither born nor die. Only when they have been reabsorbed back into mula-prakrti from whence they have come, do they neither manifest nor continue to mutate. See Samkhya Cosmogeny in Asana at

[18]       B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga ‘93 Invocation 8-7-93. Author onsite notes: fluctuating mind = citta vrttis of PYS I.2

[19]       B.K.S. Iyengar, “Astanga Yoga and Iyengar Yoga,” 9-27-05 AM Asana Intensive Class, Estes Park. +20:15 Author transcription.

[20]       B.K.S. Iyengar, “Adaptations of Postures from Yoga 90”, A Teacher’s Exchange Spiral Bound Program Guide, IYNAUS, 1996. P.1 This practitioner has personally seen yoga student injuries caused by these immature teaching modifications.

rtambhara prajna: rta-a-bhara. rta = sacred or pious action, divine law or truth, eternal order; bhara = maintaining, bearing.

B.K.S. Iyengar, “Sri Yoga Vidya Yantra,” Astadala Yogamala v.8, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2008, p. 297. Bearing divine truth in one’s self, citta becomes aware of purusa and Isvara.

[21]       The “junior” teachers at RIMYI — most of whom have taught for over 15 years — are often corrected in the middle of class by Guruji Iyengar or Geetaji. This level of supervision adds immeasurable depth to their teaching.

[22]       Francie Ricks, ed., Walking with Mr. Iyengar: Teachers’ Notes and Transcriptions from Yoga ‘90, BKS Iyengar Yoga Association of Southern California, 1991. p. 8

[23]       B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the YogaSutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1993. P.95 PYS I.48-50;

[24]       As we have seen, Patanjali’s definition of yoga is the absence of movement in the consciousness. When that occurs, the yogin grasps that he is purusa, the Self, and “that’s all.” There is no further theological speculation.

[25]       Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial theory, India and ‘the mystic East,’ London: Routledge, 1999. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2001. P. 135: The tenet of Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta, “All is Brahman (sarvam brahma asti),” has come to dominate both Indian thought in general and Hindu theology in particular due, in part, to Vivekananda’s persuasive advocacy at the end of the nineteenth century and its subsequent adoption by the swaraj [self-rule] independence movement of the twentieth century.

Vivekananda, “The Atman: Brooklyn 2-2-1896 Lecture,” The Yogas and Other Works, NY: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1953. 2nd ed. P. 310: However, there is a widespread acceptance of diversity within Hinduism, which includes dualist Hindu temple worship. This reflects what Vivekananda also said: “Most Indians are dualists,” believing man and God are separate.

[26]       The metaphoric abode of Shiva is also the target for his rising consort Shakti [HYP III.111]: The seat of Shiva is between the eyebrows, and the mind becomes absorbed there. This condition (in which the mind is thus absorbed) is known as turya, and death has no access there. [HYP IV.48] Siva-sthanam is the Shiva-abode at the bhruvor-madhye (middle eyebrows) [BJ III.24] where the Rudra granthi (at the ajna chakra) is pierced by Shakti at the highest stage [HYP IV.76].

[27]       B.K.S. Iyengar, Viparita Karani Q & A 9-29-05, Estes Park. Author transcription: “You cannot conquer death, but you need not suffer ill health, and your life may be prolonged. There is an inner meaning, not a surface meaning, that when life is prolonged, death is delayed.” B.K.S. Iyengar also compared the value of Viparita Karani in facing death to the divine eye that Krishna granted Arjuna [BG XI.8]: “The divine eye made Arjuna less nervous…. [It] strengthen[s] the nerves of the unconscious mind to enable it to remain calm to bear the vision of the light of the soul when it flashes.”

[28]       Georg Feuerstein, Yoga, The Technology of Ecstasy, Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989. p. 42

[29]       B.K.S. Iyengar & H.H. The Dalai Lama, Paths to Happiness: Lecture Demo 11-20-10, New Delhi. Author transcription. +28:30: B.K.S. Iyengar explicates on the relationship of vritti – nirodhah to the various aspects of ashtanga yoga, in association with the evolutes of prakrti: “Although yoga starts from the Self and extends towards the external frontier of the skin, actual practical yoga starts from the skin. It touches the karmendriyas through yama and the jnanendriyas through niyama. Then snayu – vritti – nirodhah [muscles, fascia, tendons – dysfunction – eradicated] through asana, prana [energy]– vritti – nirodhah through pranayama, mano [mind] – vritti – nirodhah through pratyahara [withdrawal of senses], buddhi [intellect] – vritti – nirodhah through dharana [concentration], and ahamkara [ego] – vritti – nirodhah through dhyana [meditation] to experience the state of the Self.”

[30]       B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the YogaSutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1993. P. 78-79

[31]       B.K.S. Iyengar, “Asana: Physical, Mental, or Spiritual Practice?,” Astadala Yogamala v.2, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2001, P. 91 Transcript of 12-25-76 Panchagani Lecture.

[32]       Vivekananda, “Raja Yoga: The First Steps,” The Yogas and Other Works, NY: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1953. 2nd ed. [orig. 1896] P. 586-7

[33]       Vivekananda’s objections may have reflected a perception of the body that preexist our current Western viewpoint, the need both to distinguish Vedanta from competing schools and to distinguish between religion and philosophy in the West, and his personal mission to establish a world religion.

Swami Vivekananda did favor psychologically-oriented asana over physically-oriented calisthenics. However, as a renunciant, he was probably influenced by Indian myths that attribute the greed for immortality to unethical and ignorant character flaws, similar to the greed for wealth in the West. There are also Hatha Yoga mudras that the Victorians thought sexually vulgar, such as Vajroli, that contemporary commentators have interpreted less literally, with greater nuance. (See also the subsequent discussion about yama and niyama.) This was very different from the environment in the U.S. where Puritan prohibitions against play had been gradually supplanted by the idea of exercise compatible with Christianity (thus the beginning of the YMCA); where immigrant German gymnastics and Swedish therapeutic exercise had been absorbed into American culture; and where leisure time had increased due to industrialization and urbanization. All these events had resulted in the demand for universal education (including physical education) that did not exist in colonial India — which was primarily provincial and agricultural. Although asana-as-exercise has value, how important could it have been to those working as subsistence agricultural laborers compared to those working in a factory or at a desk?

Secondly, as a non-dual Vedantin, Vivekananda dismissed the competing philosophical schools of Samkhya, Patanjali Yoga, and the Purva (“early”) Mimamsa (who emphasize Vedic ritual to attain merit) — all of whom are dualist, and therefore, reject the Vedantic precept that “All is Brahman.” Because all schools have flourished concurrently, it has always been in the best interest of each school to refute the others. Nevertheless, all Indian schools believe in an eternal moral order (called rta in the Rg Veda) that must be understood to overcome suffering. Ignorance of this reality is what causes the bondage of rebirth and its suffering. Vedanta and Mimamsa depend primarily on the authority of the Vedas to understand the nature of God’s existence, similar to Western religious thought. In contrast, Samkhya and Yoga, without denying Vedic authority, depend on primarily direct perception, as does Western philosophy. For example, Patanjali’s astanga yoga does this by uprooting our impulses, clarifying our thoughts, and refining our actions to prevent future suffering. Nevertheless, despite sectarian differences, the distinction between religion and philosophy is not discrete: Brahmananda’s commentary on the niyamas of hatha yoga quotes the 14th century Sandilya Upanishad, which cites Vedic ritual as well as Vedantic philosophy. His commentary on Ishvara-puja, “Lord-worship,” is illustrated by worship of Vishnu or Shiva. His interpretation of siddhanta-sravana, “sutras of a specific school – learning,” is the study of Vedanta, as opposed to Patanjali Yoga Sutras.]

Thirdly, the early nineteenth century Transcendentalists, influenced by Hinduism, endorsed Universalism, finding truths common to all religions. Universalism, in turn, influenced Vivekananda, who saw Advaita Vedanta as the logical world religion, to the exclusion of other schools. Contemporary Western “spirituality” reflects this Universalist view, and is now considered an alternative to the specific tenets of the Abrahamic faiths.

[34]       Vivekananda, “Raja Yoga: Intro,” The Yogas and Other Works, NY: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1953. 2nd ed. [orig. 1896] P. 583

[35]       Vivekananda, “Raja Yoga: The First Steps,” The Yogas and Other Works, NY: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1953. 2nd ed. [orig. 1896] P. 587 He cites Shankaracharya’s commentary in the Svetasvatara Upanisad 2.8-9, which is also similar to Bhagavad Gita 5.27-8.

[36]       Vivekananda, “Raja Yoga: The First Steps,” The Yogas and Other Works, NY: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1953. 2nd ed. [orig. 1896] P. 664

[37]       PYS I.2 Yoga is chitta [consciousness] vrtti nirodha [movement-cessation].

VB I.2 When the veil of [tamas] is completely removed and the mind becomes completely sattvic [luminous], … that mind being influenced by a trace of rajas, the mind (inclines) towards dharma [duty], jnana [knowledge], vairagya [detachment], and aisvarya [sovereignty]. When the last vestige of rajas is entirely removed, the citta rests in itself, realizes the distinction between the buddhi [intellect] and purusa [spirit] and proceeds to dharma-mega, the samadhi of the highest wisdom.

[38]       When manas [mind] is stable, it no longer seeks “objects of the senses” which need be presented to buddhi [intelligence]. Manas, buddhi, and ahamkara [ego], are three functions housed within the citta [consciousness].

[39]       B.K.S. Iyengar, Depression Q & A 9-29-05, Estes Park +56:15 Author transcription: “Because the mind becomes weak, the stability of the body disappears. What is called ‘nervous breakdown’ in today’s language, [in] Patanjali’s time [was] ‘body shakes inside’ [angamejayatva].”

[40]       Swami Veda Bharati (formerly Pandit Usharbudh Arya), Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol.2, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2004. P. 568-588: Discussion of PYS II.46-48. Vachaspati Misra cites similar seated poses from the Vasishta Samhita I.71-79.

[41]       PYS II.30 ahimsa [non-violence], satya [truth ], non-stealing, continence, non-possessiveness are the yama [restraints]. PYS II.32 sauca [cleanliness], santosa [contentment], self-discipline, self-study, and self-surrender to God are the niyama [observances].

Inclusion of yama and niyama in the HYP seems to contradict the tantric concept of inherent contentment that comes as a result of the control of prana in the body, as opposed to extrinsic restraint and discipline of yama and niyama. This practitioner finds the aspirational goals of yama and niyama helpful in overcoming obstacles.

[42]       B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005.P. 250

[43]       PYS II.31 [Yamas are the] universal vows unconditioned by class, place, (or) time.

[44]       Brahmananda Jyotsna I.16. This practitioner believes that “thought, word, and deed” refers to yamas as universal vows that cannot be violated by oneself, by another as an agent of oneself, or even condoned, exactly as in PYS II.34.

B.K.S. Iyengar, “Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga,” Astadala Yogamala v.2, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2001, p. 137-145 Transcript of 8-29-87 London Lecture: Commentators on HYP I.16 list 10 yama and 10 niyama, which include all of Patanjali’s yama and niyama. Additional yamas: ksama [forgiveness], dhrti [endurance], daya (compassion], arjava [straight forwardness], mita-ahara [moderate diet], and sauca [purity]. Additional niyamas: dana [charity with devotion], hri [modesty], mati [discerning mind], japa [recitation of mantra], and huta [sacrifice].

[45]       Bhishnu Ghosh, Swami Yogananda’s younger brother, although primarily interested in wrestling and physical culture, helped Swami Shivananda design an asana program for his school. Ghosh himself thought yama and niyama were too difficult to follow for the common man. Bikram Choudhury was a student of Ghosh.

[46]       Although the British described the Bengalis as weak and passive compared to their muscular Victorian ideal, after the failed 1857 Revolt they recruited only loyal Sikhs for their army, excluding Hindus and Muslims, and discouraged indigenous martial sports in an effort to demilitarize Indian civilians and keep them passive. It did not work. Starting in 1890 the government schools then tried to depoliticize the growing nationalist movement, but it culminated in the bomb-making, political banditry, and assassination of British officials during the 1905-08 Swadeshi movement.

Vivekananda preached abhiti, fearlessness, in yoga, which later was used by Gandhi as a goal for his physical training to achieve non-violent resistance — as opposed to the violent resistance of the militaristic revolutionaries. Gandhi found that the true strength of “soul-force” in ahimsa was indispensable for attaining self-rule. His three campaigns, the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920, the Salt March of 1930, and the Quit India Campaign of 1942, depended on satya-graha — the British colonizers “grasping-the-truth” that they were unwittingly obstructing what was best for both India and Great Britain. These principles were adopted a generation later by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial theory, India and ‘the mystic East,’ 1999. p. 134: Recently, scholars have recast Gandhi’s role in terms of gender politics: Gandhi “inverted colonial presuppositions about Bengali effeminancy, otherworldly spirituality, and the passivity of the ascetic ethics of ahimsa.” His non-violent demonstrations “feminized the manly spirituality of Vedanta” to mobilize women, using the spinning wheel as a symbol of self-rule and passive satya-graha.

[47]       Prashant S. Iyengar, “Breath Lacks Delimitation and Generates Movement,” 7-30-09 AM Pranayama Class +29:50 – +43:00. Author transcription: “The body has exhibited an undue authority, claiming, ‘I am old, young, well, indisposed’ as the determinant of ‘what I can do, and how I can do it.’”

[48]       B.K.S. Iyengar & H.H. The Dalai Lama, Paths to Happiness: Lecture Demo 11-20-10, New Delhi. Author transcription. +32:30

[49]       PYS II.28 By dedicated practice of the yoganga ([eight] limbs of yoga), the impurities are destroyed and jnana (wisdom) radiates in viveka khyateh.

[50]       PYS II.48 From that arises immunity to the pairs of opposites.

[51]       B.K.S. Iyengar & H.H. The Dalai Lama, Paths to Happiness: Lecture Demo 11-20-10, New Delhi. Author transcription. +38:20-+40:20

[52]       B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the YogaSutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1993. P. 150. Commentary on PYS II.46 cites PYS III.1-2: Fixing the consciousness on one point or region is dharana [concentration]. The uninterrupted flow of attention directed towards the same point or region is dhyana [meditation].

[53]       PYS I.3 Then the drasta [Seer] dwells in his svarupe [own state].

B.K.S. Iyengar, Depression Q & A 9-29-05, Estes Park. +59:30 Author transcription: “[In Brick Supported Savasana has] his [chest] gone to vastness? Is his chest fully opened? When the chest is opened… the lungs empty for the breath to occupy more space, without asking him to do deep breathing.”

Elise Miller, “B.K.S. Iyengar Talks About the Sutras,” Yoga Journal #57, July-August, 1984. P.31: “[Samadhi] comes to each and every one of us in a split second. Those who are intelligent can catch it.”

1 thought on “Provenance — Where Does Yoga Asana Come From?

  1. Pingback: Three Rivers of the Spine in Dog Pose | Yoga St. Louis Blog

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