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A Response to Mark Singletons Yoga Body by James

James Mallinson -
December ,
[is is a revised version of a paper given at the American Academy of Religions conference in San Francisco on th November .]
Firstly I would like to thank Stuart and Mark for inviting me to take part in this discussion, and to thank and congratulate Mark for a wonderful piece of work, which for me
has made sense of something I little understood. I study traditional yoga primarily through
texts and eldwork amongst Hindi-speaking ascetics. My domain of inquiry is thus quite
distinct from the anglophone modern yoga studied by Mark and with which I am altogether unacquainted. But I had often wondered how the ubiquitous modern postural yoga
had come to take the form it has. In particular I could not understand how srya namaskr
had become so integral to yoga when it is nowhere to be found in the sources I work with.
Mark has answered my questions.
For me, as a philologist, the eureka moment in reading Yoga Body came just a few pages
from the end when it is suggested that the modern As. t
. nga yoga gets its name not from
Patajalis eight-fold yoga but from the as.t
the stick-like prostra.
tion in which eight parts of the body are to touch the ground.
As I have said, I am no expert on modern yoga. I would therefore like to contribute
to this discussion by summarising my thoughts on pre-modern physical yoga practice in
India and inviting others to comment on its continuities and discontinuities with modern
postural yoga. Marks analysis of pre-modern yoga, which is in the main accessible only
through texts, was limited by the inadequacy of philological studies of those texts. Over
the course of the last years I have been seeking to delimit and analyse the corpus of
Sanskrit texts on hathayoga
and I shall now say a few words about the conclusions I have
drawn concerning yogas physical practices.
Until about a thousand years ago, in the context of yoga the Sanskrit word sana referred to seated postures for meditation (as the word itself, which means seat or throne,
implies) and not the more complicated physical postures with which it is now associated.
en, in texts written in the th or th centuries, we nd the rst instances of sana
referring to non-seated poses (and not long afterwards sana is likewise used to refer to
non-seated postures in the contexts of sex, wrestling and armed combat, as well as of
ghting elephants - this is evinced by the early th-century Mnasollsa, the th- to
th-century Mallapurna
e rst
. and the early th-century Maithil Varnaratnkara).
descriptions of non-seated sanas called as such in the context of yoga are found in Pcartrika Samhits.
e earliest, that in the c. tenth-century Vimnrcankalpa, describes

mayrsana, the peacock. e slightly later Ahirbudhnysamhit

adds kukkutsana,
cockerel, and krmsana, the tortoise; the verses describing these three sanas were used to
compile Svtmrmas seminal th-century work, the Hathapradpik.
(And here I note
in passing that the c. th-century Matsyendrasamhit
. and
krma sanas, but unlike those in contemporaneous Pcartrika works they are all seated
postures: contrary to the received opinion reiterated in Yoga Body, non-seated yogic sanas
appear to have developed outside of aivism. Furthermore, and this is something I believe
to be worthy of further investigation, these Pcartrika Samhits
are canonical works of
rvais. navism,
his pupils were adher.
ents, and with which some of the Hindi-speaking ascetic practitioners of hathayoga
whom I have lived are also connected.)
It is during the same period, in codications of the practices of what was called hatha.
yoga, that we nd other physical yoga techniques, namely the hathayogic
mudrs, also
being taught for the rst time. But the appearance of textual descriptions of physical yoga
practices does not mean that those practices were invented then. We nd descriptions of
ascetic physical practices in texts composed a thousand or more years earlier and many of
them show a marked similarity with the techniques of hathayoga.
ere is no time to go into
the details now, but forerunners of both the mudrs and sanas of hathayoga
are mentioned
in the Pali Canon, in early Jain works, in the Mahbhrata and in dharmastric works
such as the Vaikhnasasmrtastra. Ascetics are said to sit in vrsana, an unidentied but
by implication uncomfortable seated posture, and utkatsana,
a squatting position. ey
are also said to spend long periods inverted, or standing on two or one legs, or holding
their arms in the air.
Although the ascetics who used these techniques were also associated with the practice of yoga, the physical techniques themselves were not. ey are techniques of tapas,
asceticism, and early hathayoga
is a codication of the physical practices of these ascetics,
practices whose main aim was to assist in the sublimation of bindu, semen, the vital essence
of the body whose preservation was key to the cultivation of ascetic power.
us, as it name makes clear, hathayoga
was originally associated with asceticism, and
it is to this day. Only last week at the Nth monastery at Jwalamukhi in Himachal Pradesh
I heard a Nth tapasv being praised as an exemplary hath
. yog because of his mastery of
the ascetic practices of sitting surrounded by re in the hot season and immersed in cold
water in winter; no mention was made of skill in sana, prnyma
and so forth.
e reason for the composition of the hathayogic
corpus, for the sudden codication
of these ascetic practices, was that they were being made available for the rst time to a
wider, non-ascetic audience. e texts encode the teachings of a variety of ascetic orders
and the ascetic is still said to be the ideal practitioner of hathayoga,
but it is stated ex.
plicitly that its practice is benecial to all. Over the subsequent centuries the practice of
continued relatively unchanged among ascetic practitioners (bar the superimpo.
sition of tantric physiology in the course of hathayogas
appropriation by the forerunners of
the Nth sampradya),
but in its textual formulations its aims became more aligned with
those of householders, with health benets coming to the fore. More overtly householderoriented works such as the c. th-century ivasamhit
even foreshadowed modern yoga
by promising a beautiful body and the ability to attract members of the opposite sex.
Another foreshadowing of modern yoga evinced by the texts of the hathayogic
was in the way in which sana became the rubric under which all physical practice of so

teriological value came to be included. us the well-known avsana or corpse pose,

for example, was originally a samketa
or secret [meditational] technique of layayoga, not
an sana; similarly the hathayogic
. mudr became sarvngsana; and the ancient bat-penance in which the ascetic suspends himself upside-down became, in the
th-century Jogpradpak, the tap-kar san.
In Yoga Body it is implied that sana practice was of little importance in the pre-modern
era but our sources in fact suggest otherwise. e notion of - or even lakh - sanas
dates to at least the th century, and, contrary to Marks assertion (p.), citing Gudrun
Bhnemann, that the depictions of sanas in an manuscript of the Jogpradpak are
unique, we nd depictions of a yogi in dierent sanas in a manuscript of a Persian
yoga text, the Bahr al-Hayt, which was written and illustrated in . Travellers reports
from the early medieval period onwards highlight the practice of sana by ascetics, usually
seeing it as a form of tapas or self-mortication, and towards the end of the pre-modern
period we nd textual descriptions of or more sanas in a variety of yoga manuals. e
same period saw the incorporation of teachings on non-seated sanas from early works on
in the new Yoga Upanisads,
showing that they were not beyond the pale of the
orthodox, as has been suggested by a variety of scholars.
As Mark points out in Yoga Body, the number of basic gymnastic or contortionist postures that the body can assume is nite and similarities between yogic sanas and such postures as practised in the West cannot be put down to inuence either way. But one feature
of certain styles of modern postural yoga identied by Mark as an innovation brought in
under the inuence of modern Western gymnastics does set it apart from pre-modern yoga:
the linking of sanas into sequences. With a couple of anomalous and trivial exceptions it
is clear from textual sources, travellers reports and my own eldwork among ascetic yogis
today that in traditional yoga practice sanas, like the poses held by ascetics mentioned
in the Mahbhrata and other ancient texts, are to be held for relatively long periods and
that no xed order is prescribed for their practice. Such a conclusion is unsurprising in the
light of the implication of sedentariness expressed by the word sana itself. In order to be
sure, however, that there are not Indian precedents for the sequences of postures I suggest
that traditional wrestling exercises and the training regimes of militant ascetics need to be
examined more thoroughly.
Now, to wrap up this brief hotchpotch of comments. Marks book has been a catalyst for occasionally vituperative arguments over who owns yoga. Without wishing to
add fuel to the re, I would like to note here the strong anti-sectarianism displayed by
most of the texts of hathayoga.
By way of example, let me quote from the c. th-century
Datttreyayogastra, the rst text to teach a systematised hathayoga:
. h. ramano
. vpi bauddho vpy rhato 'thav|
kpliko v crvkah. raddhay sahitah. sudhh||
yogbhysarato nityam. sarvasiddhim avpnuyt|
Whether a Brahmin, an ascetic, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Skull-Bearer or a
materialist, the wise man who is endowed with faith and constantly devoted
to the practice of yoga will attain complete success.
Elsewhere, in the chapter on yoga in the th-century radtilaka, after four contrasting denitions of the metaphysics of yogas goal, its method is taught, a method that works

irrespective of conceptions of the ultimate reality. Prior to the medieval adoption of Yoga
as one of the six daranas - an orthodox attempt to co-opt yogas newfound popularity the concept of yoga philosophy was an oxymoron: yoga was - and, for most, remained a practical method of achieving liberation that was open to all, irrespective of philosophy
or theology.
e composition of the corpus of texts on hathayoga
is symptomatic of this univer.
salism. In a development which, by freeing the individual from the clutches of priestly
intermediaries and the exclusivity of cultic initiation, foreshadowed the development of
the bhakti sects, these texts make the methods and aims of yoga available to all, not just to
ascetics or initiates of tantric cults. us the composers and compilers of the rst texts to
teach physical yoga would have no problem with practitioners of Christian yoga or the like.
Indeed it is the antisectarianism of these texts that allowed them to be borrowed from by
the orthodox compilers of the Yoga Upanisads
or translated by scholars at Mughal courts.
I wish I had more time: there is so much more in Yoga Body to reect upon. I would
like to nish by once again congratulating Mark on his landmark work.
ank you.