This post is the second in a series exploring myths surrounding the origins of yoga. The first post in the series discusses myths about yoga in ancient Egypt.
This post explores what I feel is the most common origin myth in yoga: the claim that yoga is 2,500 to 5,000 years old, having originated in ancient India. Invariably, if you have practiced yoga or are part of yoga culture, you will have heard this assertion. “Yoga is ancient! Yoga is thousands of years old! Yoga is part of cultural tradition! Yoga is authentic!” Most organizations, studios, styles of yoga, and teachers are quite willing and quick to make this point. Yogis around the world have deep faith in this idea. We talk about “traditional” poses, “traditional” styles, “authentic” practice, and so on, and so on.
Indeed, the infamous Yoga Alliance describes how yoga “developed up to 5,000 years ago in India as a comprehensive system for wellbeing on all levels.” Yoga Journal claims that the “Yoga Tradition and History section provides information on the beginnings and foundation of the 5,000 year old tradition that is yoga.” Iyengar Yoga traces this yoga style’s “lineage” back to Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras of 2,500 years ago. This list could go on, but you get my point. Though I realize many in yoga will consider questioning this claim blasphemy, I think it’s important to ask: is the idea that yoga is thousands of years old actually true?
The 5,000 Year Argument
There are two different dates that are often thrown around in the yoga community: the 5,000 year old argument, and the 2,500 year old argument. Let’s tackle the 5,000 year old argument first. The claim that yoga is 5,000 years old is based on the archeological discovery of the Pashupati Seal (pictured below) during the 1930s at a dig site in India. The seal was carbon dated to around 2500 BCE and is held to be one of the earliest depictions of the Hindu god Shiva seated in what appears to be the yoga pose mulabandhasana (according to the Iyengar tradition). And that’s pretty much all the evidence there is. There are a few other archeological finds that are not as old as this seal but have similar imagery (always seated postures of deities), but this one piece of stone has caused yogis everywhere to holler to the skies with a passion and devotion: “5,000 years old!”
As I mentioned in my previous post, there are so many problems in reading too deeply into these images and claiming they are representations of a “yoga tradition.” Interpreting visual evidence (especially images of, well, let’s face it: sitting) as yoga poses is often a result of modern day yogis grasping at straws to “prove” something they deeply believe about their practice and want desperately to be true. (The last post in this series will explore why we might be so desperate to believe these claims.) Numerous scholars, including those I mentioned last week (Singleton 2010; Doris Srinivasan 1984; Samuel 2008) have essentially said as much: that when we make claims that yoga is 5,000 years old based on this one seal and the few others like it we are just reading modern practices into the material. In short, we are being anachronistic. Such a reading is not sound base for constructing a history of yoga or a belief in a “classical tradition.” So the short answer is, yoga as we know it–as a postural practice, but in all likelihood the spiritual practice too–can’t be dated to 5,000 years ago. This claim is a myth, albeit one widely accepted and proclaimed today.
The 2,500 Year Argument
The 2,500 year old argument comes from textual evidence of yoga. In this case there are a number of references used as “proof” of the authentic, thousands year old yoga lineage. The first occurrence of the word “yoga” is in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (roughly third century BCE) where it is revealed to a boy by Yama, the god of death, as a way to overcome death itself. Also around the third century BCE the Svetāśvatara Upaniṣad describes a procedure for bringing the mind under control with breath restraint and an upright seated posture. The later Maitrı̄ Upaniṣad outlines a six-fold method of yoga: (1) breath control, (2) withdrawal of the senses, (3) meditation, (4) placing of the concentrated mind, (5) philosophical inquiry, and (6) absorption, or samadhi. (Note there is nothing about postural practices here.) These were later incorporated into Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga.
The two most well-known texts used to make the 2,500 year claim might be more familiar to yogis today, since they are often required reading in teacher trainings or the topics of articles in popular cultural products like this post in the Yoga Journal. First, the section of the Mahābhārata known as the Bhagavad Gıt̄a lays out the three paths of yoga by which one can know god: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jhana yoga. (During the twentieth century these were later incorporated into the “four paths of yoga” (along with raja yoga) by Vivekananda and Swami Sivananda.) Second, and most notably, is Patanjali’s Yogasūtras, dated to around 200 BCE and which is hailed in the yoga community as the “bible” of yoga that introduces the eight limbs of yoga in one of the sections. It’s important to keep in mind that though this text is often considered the primary yogic text by Westerners, it’s only one of many texts on yoga out there (even from this early time, as indicated above). Yoga, from its very beginnings, is a characterized by plurality and variation. In fact, the main reason we now accept it as the seminal work on yoga is not because it is the only, or oldest/most authentic, or best work on yoga. It’s because Orientalist scholarship done by the British during colonialism proved incredibly influential in its adoption by anglophones, and early promoters like Vivekananda included it in their teachings upon traveling to the West.
Now the question is, are these texts really part of a “classical tradition” of yoga that can be traced to modern yoga? Here’s where it gets tricky. If you are talking about the spiritual/meditative practice of yoga, as it is tied to Hinduism and becoming one with a Supreme Being, then the answer is a resounding yes. But if you’re talking about modern postural yoga that’s largely devoid of spiritual/meditative elements (recall the recent Encinitas court case where the judge ruled modern yoga was in no way “religious”), the answer is pretty clearly a resounding no.
Of all the earliest textual evidence that actual dates back to 2,500 years ago, only Patanjali’s Yogasūtras even mentions asana, or what we now think of as postural practice. In the ashtanga section asana is described as the third step or limb of the eighfold path in achieving samadhi, which traditionally meant an unbroken union with the divine. But wait! Surely this reference must be the elusive evidence these claims refer to? Unfortunately, if you’re holding out hope you’ll be mistaken. Again–tricky! In this reference asana is only one of many steps toward divine consciousness and spiritual enlightenment, so if you’re talking spiritual/meditative practices of yoga it’s possible to trace these this back this far in history. But, if your talking modern postural practice this doesn’t pan out.
While the word “asana” usually is translated to mean “pose” or “posture” today, what it literally means is “to sit down” in a comfortable (and still) seat. In other words, Patanjali wasn’t talking about sun salutations, or headstands, or even touching your toes. What he was talking about was using a few seated postures to aid meditation and spiritual enlightenment. In all the early textual evidence of yoga, there is little to no emphasis on any sort of postural practice of yoga as it exists today. Thus to make the claim that modern postural yoga is in fact directly connected to the “classical yoga tradition of 2,500 years ago” is highly questionable at best. The meditative/spiritual side of yoga, maybe. But the practice as we know it now? No. And since modern yoga has become so devoid of spiritual and meditative practices that a judge can rule in a court of law that it is not a “religious” practice, we can safely say the 2,500 year old argument is largely a myth.
Keep an eye out for Part III of this series, where I’ll explore exactly how old modern postural yoga actually is.
With love, light and…
If you’re curious and would like to read a bit more about this yoga myth, I’d recommend Mark Singleton’s excellent 2008 book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and these articles:
Yoga Journal: Yoga’s Greater Truth (also by Mark Singleton)