The central figure in the Pashupati seal from the Indus Valley Civilization of c. 2500 BC was identified by Sir John Marshall in 1931 as a prototype of the god Shiva, recognised by being three-faced; in a yoga position as the Mahayogin, the god of yoga; having four animals as Pashupati, the Lord of Beasts; with deer beneath the throne, as in medieval depictions of Shiva; having a three-part headdress recalling Shiva's trident; and possibly being ithyphallic, again like Shiva. If correct, this would be the oldest record of an asana. However, with no proof anywhere of an Indus Valley origin for Shiva, there is no evidence that a yoga pose is depicted in the seal.
Asanas originated in India. In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali (c. 2nd to 4th century CE) describes asana practice as the third of the eight limbs (Sanskrit अष्टांग, ashtanga, from asht, eight, and anga, limb) of classical, or raja yoga.
The word asana, in use in English since the 19th century, is from Sanskrit: आसन āsana "sitting down" (from आस ās "to sit down"), a sitting posture, a seat.
A page from Patanjali
's Yoga Sutras
commentary (c. 2nd to 4th century CE), which placed the practice of asanas as one of the eight limbs of classical yoga
The eight limbs are, in order, the yamas (codes of social conduct), niyamas (self-observances), asanas (postures), pranayama (breath work), pratyahara (sense withdrawal or non-attachment), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (realization of the true Self or Atman, and unity with Brahman, ultimate reality).
Asanas, along with the breathing exercises of pranayama, are the physical movements of hatha yoga and of modern yoga. Patanjali describes asanas as a "steady and comfortable posture", referring to the seated postures used for pranayama and for meditation, where meditation is the path to samadhi, transpersonal self-realization.
The Yoga Sutras do not mention a single asana by name, merely specifying the characteristics of a good asana:
sthira sukham āsanam
Asana means a steady and comfortable posture. Yoga Sutras 2:46
The Sutras are embedded in the Bhasya commentary, which scholars suggest may also be by Patanjali; it names 12 seated meditation asanas including Padmasana, Virasana, Bhadrasana, and Svastikasana.
The 10th-11th century Vimanarcanakalpa is the first manuscript to describe a non-seated asana, in the form of Mayurasana (peacock) — a balancing pose. Such poses appear, according to the scholar James Mallinson, to have been created outside Shaivism, the home of the Nath yoga tradition, and to have been associated with asceticism; they were later adopted by the Nath yogins.
The Goraksha Sataka (10–11th century), or Goraksha Paddhathi, an early hatha yogic text, describes the origin of the 84 classic asanas said to have been revealed by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva. Observing that there are as many postures as there are beings and asserting that there are 84 lakh[b] or 8,400,000 species in all, the text states that Lord Shiva fashioned an asana for each lakh, thus giving 84 in all, although it mentions and describes only two in detail: Siddhasana and Padmasana. The number 84 is symbolic rather than literal, indicating completeness and sacredness.[c]
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th century) specifies that of these 84, the first four are important, namely the seated poses Siddhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana and Simhasana.
The pillars of the 16th century Achyutaraya temple at Hampi are decorated with numerous relief statues of yogins in asanas including Siddhasana balanced on a stick, Chakrasana, Yogapattasana, and a hand-standing inverted pose with a stick, as well as several unidentified poses.
By the 17th century, asanas became an important component of Hatha yoga practice, and more non-seated poses appear. The Hatha Ratnavali by Srinivasa (17th century) is one of the few texts to attempt an actual listing of 84 asanas,[e]
although 4 out of its list cannot be translated from the Sanskrit, and at least 11[f] are merely mentioned without any description, their appearance known from other texts.
The Gheranda Samhita (late 17th century) again asserts that Shiva taught 84 lakh of asanas, out of which 84 are preeminent, and "32 are useful in the world of mortals."[g] The yoga teacher and scholar Mark Singleton notes from study of the primary texts that "asana was rarely, if ever, the primary feature of the significant yoga traditions in India." The scholar Norman Sjoman comments that a continuous tradition running all the way back to the medieval yoga texts cannot be traced, either in the practice of asanas or in a history of scholarship.
From the 1850s onwards, a culture of physical exercise developed in India to counter the colonial stereotype of supposed "degeneracy" of Indians compared to the British, a belief reinforced by then-current ideas of Lamarckism and eugenics. This culture was taken up from the 1880s to the early 20th century by Indian nationalists such as Tiruka, who taught exercises and unarmed combat techniques under the guise of yoga. Meanwhile, proponents of Indian physical culture like K. V. Iyer consciously combined "hata yoga" [sic] with bodybuilding in his Bangalore gymnasium.
Singleton notes that poses much like Durvasasana, Ganda Bherundasana and Hanumanasana were found in Thomas Dwight's 1889 article "Anatomy of a Contortionist", while poses close to Warrior Pose, Downward Dog, Utthita Padangusthasana, Supta Virasana and others were described in Niels Bukh's 1924 Danish text Grundgymnastik eller primitiv gymnastik (known in English as Primary Gymnastics). These in turn were derived from a 19th century Scandinavian tradition of gymnastics dating back to Pehr Ling, and "found their way to India" by the early 20th century.
Yoga asanas were brought to America in 1919 by Yogendra, sometimes called "the Father of the Modern Yoga Renaissance", his system influenced by the physical culture of Max Müller.
In 1924, Swami Kuvalayananda founded the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in Maharashtra. He combined asanas with Indian systems of exercise and modern European gymnastics, having according to the scholar Joseph Alter a "profound" effect on the evolution of yoga.
In 1925, Paramahansa Yogananda, having moved from India to America, set up the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, and taught yoga, including asanas, breathing, chanting and meditation, to tens of thousands of Americans, as described in his 1946 Autobiography of a Yogi.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) studied under Kuvalayananda in the 1930s, creating "a marriage of hatha yoga, wrestling exercises, and modern Western gymnastic movement, and unlike anything seen before in the yoga tradition." Sjoman argues that Krishnamacharya drew on the Vyayama Dipika gymnastic exercise manual to create the Mysore Palace system of yoga. Singleton argues that Krishnamacharya was familiar with the gymnastics culture of his time, which was influenced by Scandinavian gymnastics; his experimentation with asanas and innovative use of gymnastic jumping between poses may well explain, Singleton suggests, the resemblances between modern standing asanas and Scandinavian gymnastics. Krishnamacharya, known as the father of modern yoga, had among his pupils people who became influential yoga teachers themselves: the Russian Eugenie V. Peterson, known as Indra Devi; Pattabhi Jois, who founded Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in 1948; B.K.S. Iyengar, his brother-in-law, who founded Iyengar Yoga; T.K.V. Desikachar, his son, who continued his Viniyoga tradition; Srivatsa Ramaswami; and A. G. Mohan, co-founder of Svastha Yoga & Ayurveda. Together they revived the popularity of yoga and brought it to the Western world.
In 1959, Vishnudevananda Saraswati published a compilation of sixty-six basic postures and 136 variations of those postures.
In 1966, Iyengar published Light on Yoga: Yoga Dipika, illustrated with some 600 photographs of Iyengar demonstrating around 200 asanas; it systematised the physical practice of asanas. It became a bestseller, selling three million copies, and was translated into some 17 languages.
In 1984, Dharma Mittra compiled a list of about 1,300 asanas and their variations, derived from ancient and modern sources, illustrating them with photographs of himself in each posture; the Dharma Yoga website suggests that he created some 300 of these.
Origins of the asanas
The asanas have been created at different times, a few being ancient, some being medieval, and a growing number recent. Some that appear traditional, such as Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), are relatively recent: that pose was probably devised by Krishnamacharya around 1940, and it was popularised by his pupil, Iyengar. A pose that is certainly younger than that is Parivritta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose): it was not in the first edition of Pattabhi Jois's Yoga Mala in 1962. Viparita Virabhadrasana (Reversed Warrior Pose) is still more recent, and may have been created since 2000. Several poses that are now commonly practised, such as Dog Pose and standing asanas including Trikonasana (triangle pose), first appeared in the 20th century, as did the sequence of asanas, Surya Namaskar (Salute to the Sun). A different sun salutation, the Aditya Hridayam, is certainly ancient, as it is described in the "Yuddha Kaanda" Canto 107 of the Ramayana. Surya Namaskar in its modern form was created by the Raja of Aundh, Bhawanrao Shriniwasrao Pant Pratinidhi; K. Pattabhi Jois defined the variant forms Surya Namaskar A and B for Ashtanga Yoga, possibly derived from Krishnamacharya. Surya Namaskar can be seen as "a modern, physical culture-oriented rendition" of the simple ancient practice of prostrating oneself to the sun.
In 1966, Iyengar's classic Light on Yoga was able to describe some 200 asanas, consisting of about 50 main poses with their variations. Sjoman observes that whereas many traditional asanas are named for objects (like Vrikshasana, tree pose), legendary figures (like Matsyendrasana, the sage Matsyendra's pose), or animals (like Kurmasana, tortoise pose), "an overwhelming eighty-three" of Iyengar's asanas have names that simply describe the body's position (like Utthita Parsvakonasana, "Extended Side Angle Pose"); these are, he suggests, the ones "that have been developed later". A name following this pattern is Shatkonasana, "Six Triangles Pose", described in 2015. Mittra illustrated 908 poses and variations in his 1984 Master Yoga Chart, and many more have been created since then. The number of asanas has thus increased with time, as summarised in the table.
Sjoman notes that the names of asanas have been used "promiscuous[ly]", in a tradition of "amalgamation and borrowing" over the centuries, making their history difficult to trace. The presence of matching names is not proof of continuity, since the same name may mean a different pose, and a pose may have been known by multiple names at different times. The estimates here are therefore based on actual descriptions of the asanas.
Estimates of the number of asanas
|No. of asanas
||Describes Siddhasana, Padmasana; 84 claimed[c]
||4 seated asanas described, 84 claimed; 11 mudras
||हठ योग प्रदीपिका
||Hatha Yoga Pradipika
||Light on Hatha Yoga
||15 asanas described, 4 (Siddhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana and Simhasana) named as important
||Descriptions of 32 seated, backbend, twist, balancing and inverted asanas, 25 mudras
||A Treatise On Hatha Yoga
||52 asanas described, out of 84 named[h]
||Light on Yoga
||84 asanas and 24 mudras in rare illustrated edition of 18th century text
||Stairway to Yoga
||Describes and illustrates 37 asanas, 6 mudras, 5 bandhas
||Light on Yoga
||B. K. S. Iyengar
||Descriptions and photographs of each asana
||Master Yoga Chart
||Photographs of each asana
The graph shows the rapid growth in number of asanas in the 20th century.