Is yoga Indian? Till a few years ago, the question would have sounded absurd. Only in some flaky New Age circles, there was talk of “Egyptian yoga” or “yoga among the Atlanteans”, but this was sensibly dismissed as fanciful. Now, however, some American scholars argue that yoga is a recent development owing more to British army drills than to native tradition. Or at least, that is how the New York Times has overstated their case. Enough for alerting US Hindus to “take back yoga”. What is the true story behind this commotion?
Modern postural yoga, developed a century ago by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya at the Maharaja of Mysore’s court, does owe a few elements to Western culture. These include iconic exercises like the Headstand and the Salute to the Sun, a series of older postures now linked into a dynamic sequence. While there is no explicit record of Krishnamacharya borrowing either the general idea or the final product, earlier texts or depictions seem not to refer to them. Add to this the reorientation to a female public (“yoga for pregnancy”); traditionally, yoga was meant for men, mostly monks, not for expectant mothers.
Then again, Krishnamacharya only added some external details to an existing tradition. Hatha Yoga, featuring contorted postures and breathing exercises, is well-attested since ca. 1100 among a sect called the Nath Yogis. The American term “Power Yoga”, popular among showbiz celebrities, is only a rough translation of “Hatha Yoga”. Even the seemingly trendy promise of a lustrous body, attractive to the opposite sex, appears in some yoga classics.
Under another name, the physical discipline may go back even earlier. The Naga Sadhus, already attested in the Rg-Veda, are martial monks who train in wrestling-halls. India’s martial arts, like China’s and Japan’s, contain both dynamic sequences and long-held postures, often requiring extremes of force, suppleness or will-power. From those practices to modern postural yoga is not such a big leap.
Most importantly, yoga was originally conceived as meditation, aided by a straight yet relaxed body. On Harappan seals, we find quite a few depictions of someone sitting in meditation posture, but never in contortions or standing on his head. So the tree trunk of meditation is already at least 4.500 years old in India, while some additional branches grew later. Of these, a small percentage may indeed have a foreign origin, but this makes little difference to yoga’s over-all rootedness in the Indian soil.
What is definitely Western, however, is the idea of a “Yoga Day”. Narendra Modi has managed to convince the United Nations to accept 21 June (Summer Solstice, no less) as a special day for yoga. Every disease, every long-dead artist and every attention-hungry cause now has its own day, or month, or year. But yoga is not a disease yearning for public money or for ego-stroking. India has shown for thousands of years that yoga can thrive without such a Day.
(India Today on-line, 14 Dec. 2014)