This research evaluates yoga’s historical development and discerns continuities and discontinuities within the practice. Prominence is given to changing attitudes towards physical mortification and cultivation over the period of 2,500 years. In addition to the exposition of the development of body ideals, this essay attempts to recognise and combine yoga’s substantial legacy with the demands of the present-day world.

Moreover, a compound definition of yoga is set forth to identify the formula for yogic success and avenues for its realisation.

Many ‘yogas’ for the body-mind complex

Yoga originated in multi-traditional India. A number of traditions it featured in gradually rendered it into systematic practice. It comprised psychophysical methods for the body-mind complex aimed at the transformation of consciousness and attainment of some form of ‘liberating insight’ (Samuel 2008, 1-2). Therefore, as Mallinson and Singleton (2017) specify, yoga signified both or either the practice and its goal.

Such a standpoint diversifies the definition of success. In Advaitic and Tantric traditions ‘yoga-as-goal’ denoted union – of oneself with one’s nature, reality levels, supreme self, god’s power, or of all dualities (4-5). In other schools of thought, and their numerous interpretations, yoga designated samādhi, nirvāṇa, aloneness, equanimity accompanied by skill in action, and separation of pure consciousness (puruṣa) from material reality (prakṛti) (4-5).

As per the underlying pattern, yoga was a higher state attainable through the successful performance of yogic practices. This preliminary ‘yoga-as-means’ used the body and its energies for soteriological ends. The practices of yoga were manifold, with two prominent types either conjunct or antagonistic: physical haṭhayoga (“[the state of] yoga [achieved] by means of force” or “the forceful yoga [practice]”) and quietistic rājayoga (the state of or the practices of samādhi) (6-7, 12). Haṭhayoga and rājayoga do not equate with the mortifying self-discipline and cultivation debated in this essay, however, are relevant to the discourse. 

Self-mortification in pre-modern India

Asceticism was a fundamental feature of early yoga. Arguably, it was drawn upon the Vedic tradition associated with overcoming one’s nature to effect its control (Kaelber 1989, 144): “Crazy with asceticism, we have mounted the wind. Our bodies are all you mere mortals can see” (Ṛg Veda in Samuel 2008, 157-158). Vedic sages, priests and sacrificers engaged in austerities (tapas) by means of chastity, fasting, restricted movement, or isolation. They inflicted upon themselves purifying pain, bestowed meditative illumination, or accumulated ‘fertile’ energy (Bronkhorst 2020, 67; Kaelber 1989, 146). Their self-restraint on occasion comprised elementary breath control and was rewarded with worldly boons from gods (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, xiv, 128; Witzel 2005, 80; Flood 1996, 40-41).

Nevertheless, mass renunciation in the centuries BCE in search for heterodox existential alternatives challenged tapas of the Vedas. Renunciants propagated the concept of karmic retribution and escape from the cycle of rebirths. These doctrines devalued worldly achievements bestowed by Vedic gods. The new single-minded dedication to tapas defied gods, burned off individual karmic traces and stopped their accumulation on the path to complete liberation. Moreover, the ascetics were disinclined to identify with their body and mind and practised detachment in adverse conditions (Bronkhorst 2016, 18). Their techniques to still the mind and cease the personal identity resulted in an irreversible “ontological suicide” (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, xxiii). However, more extreme forms of mortification were rejected by other śramaṇas. The Buddha diverged from tapas and conceived ‘the middle way’ instead. This act further diversified the soteriological traditions that gave rise to systemic yoga.

Yogis were indistinguishable from ascetics—up until the second century CE after which yoga started to crystallise into distinct traditions and guru lineages (Diamond 2013, 28). They lived in celibacy on the fringe of society to seek transcendence. Holding their naked bodies in difficult positions in unbearable conditions, they were overcoming the senses, annihilating karma and acquiring ascetic powers (siddhis). Common practices of mortification were inversions, standing on one leg, holding arm(s) up, and lying down on thorns. The ascetics also made use of cold water and fire, and ‘dried up’ their bodies by means of fasting or breath control. An alternative was a religious suicide.

Nonetheless, as stated by the Bhagavadgītā, all such practices ought to be approved: “[Krishna:] know that men who undertake extreme ascetic practices unsanctioned by scripture (...) mindlessly emaciating the aggregate of elements that make up the body (...) are set on the demonic.” (Johnson 1994, 17.5-6). A pivotal compilation of early yoga traditions was brought in the fourth century CE by Patañjali. However, considering the phenomenal range of the two texts—the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and Bhagavadgītā—yoga had come to mean different things to different groups (Alter 2013, 86).

Yoga of Patañjali continued to highlight tapas: “Yoga is not successful for one who does not engage in asceticism” with “no austerity superior to breath-control” (Pātañjalayogaśāstra in Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 25, 142). The staple practice, prāṇāyāma, was performed in āsana, a steady and composed seated pose. Other ascetic elements involved simple living, the endurance of extremes, and the acquisition of siddhis. The latter was either desired or impeding the progression depending on traditions—which freely exchanged ideas and methods beyond the ascetic archetype (Mallinson 2013, 69). The transforming heat of tapas, prāṇāyāma, seated āsana and siddhis were incorporated into Tantric teachings. Meanwhile, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra was equated with rājayoga. By the turn of the seventh century CE, “the core concepts, practices, and vocabulary of almost every yoga system were established” (Diamond 2013, 23).

Considerable changes were introduced with haṭhayoga, taught prior to the beginning of the second millennium CE and systematised by the fourteenth century CE. Depending on the translation, haṭha denoted ‘austerity’ or ‘force’ effecting body transformation (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, xx; White 2013, 38). This branch of yoga featured a variety of tapas-oriented practices: cleansing techniques, complex breathing methods, mudrās, and āsanas. Nevertheless, the mortifications were less extreme than their renunciation-oriented forerunners, having undergone adaptation to a wider audience of ‘worldly yogis’. Married with children householders embarked on the path to liberation without renouncing the society: “[I]nternally abandoning attachment and then seeing the mark of success on the path of yoga, the householder enjoys himself once he has mastered my teaching” (Śivasaṃhitā in Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 61).

As a consequence, views on ascetic practices were modernised, but inconclusively. Certain texts recommended to refrain from ‘body torture’, including prāṇāyāma; while other stated that haṭha can be mastered solely through breath-retention (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 127-128). The haṭhayoga corpus detailed new āsanas including non-seated body balances and inversions. Moreover, some manipulating vital energies mudrās developed into āsanas. Both were likely derived from early śramaṇa methods (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 230).

Throughout the recent several centuries, the yoga of exertion underwent further diversifications. Āsanas developed exponentially into complex non-seated postures and dynamic repetitive movements (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 482-483). The Jogpradīpakā manual resurfaced ancient 'bat penance', whereas the ascetic Purāṇ Puri – extreme tapas for penance and devotion (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 90, 119-121). Ethnographic fieldwork of Bevilacqua (2007) demonstrated that ascetic haṭha continues to denote tapasyā—the inner mental-spiritual fire applied to or resulting from the practice of yoga. For these contemporary practitioners, yoga remains a full-time religious commitment under the guidance of a guru, and may feature physical exertion. In contrast, the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati stated that asceticism is simply “following one's own dharma”, therefore embracing the hardship of one’s duty without renunciation. 

The shift to body cultivation

But tapas is downplayed in the history of yoga. Despite numerous assertions across texts, it was superseded by the body-positive approach. This section charts this transposition – towards body cultivation and away from the body as an obstacle, or of insignificance, on the path to liberation. Appearing in yoga texts from the turn of the first millennium CE, it remains effective as of today.

Therapeutic benefits were introduced with haṭhayoga. In that period spanning over a few centuries, traditions put forward an array of doctrinal yogic bodies. Early haṭhayoga incorporated the ancient model of bindu, concerned with the preservation of semen. Reversing its flow back to the head by means of mudrās and breath was stated to still the mind and bring about immortality. Central to later haṭhayoga was a metaphysical frame provided by Buddhist Tantra, affirming the body and harnessing its subtle energies (Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution 2020). In the Kuṇḍalinī model, the equivalent of bindu was rejuvenating amṛta, stored in the head and manipulated to flood the body with immortality (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 180-183). Moreover, textual materials combining asceticism with Tantra oftentimes instructed aspiring yogis on cultivation-oriented matters such as lifestyle and diet (Powell 2018, 54-55).

Other body-positive benefits of yoga were stated to be generated by (i) prāṇāyāmas, (ii) cleansing techniques, and (iii) āsanas. Within the tantric corpus, breathwork purified the energy channels and expiated wrongdoings. Hemacandra’s prāṇāyāma brought about “nourishment and the destruction of disease”, as well as strength and stamina (Hemacandra’s Yogaśāstra in Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 152-153). Similarly, contributing to the positive body image cleansing techniques began to denote the removal of physical impurities, such as mucus and fat. Comparably, the textual material repeatedly mentioned benefits of āsanas such as “steadiness, freedom from disease, and lightness” (Haṭhapradīpikā in Powell 2018, 60), along with their contributions to other auxiliaries of yoga. By the end of the second millennium CE, the number of āsanas significantly increased but were considered detrimental if practised to excess (Powell 2018, 50). Additionally, Powell (2018) suggests that Tantra and haṭhayoga traditions seeking to stimulate kuṇḍalinīśakti and prāṇa “opened new avenues for the anatomical potential of the body” (97), contributing to its firmness and suppleness. Noteworthy, certain practices continued to be significant in both cultivation and tapas—for instance, headstands.

In spite of the body affirming approach gaining momentum with haṭhayoga, body cultivation was no new development in pre-modern India. The Buddha eliminated exertion from his practice and attained awakening with a nourished body adopting asceticism solely for “the destruction of the roots of desire” (Bronkhorst 2020, 66). Whicher (Samuel 2008) argues that the Pātañjalayogaśāstra did not promote extreme asceticism and renunciation but a “responsible engagement” with the world (222). This is not to understate that Pātañjali was explicit about the importance of “disgust for one’s own body” and avoidance of others (Pātañjalayogaśāstra in Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 83). Samuel, however, supports Whicher’s claim referring to the attainment of siddhis as meaningless in complete renunciation (Samuel 2008, 222-223). On a similar note, Yogabīja and later Yogaśikhā Upaniṣad implied that rājayoga was the attainment of yoga without renouncing worldly pleasures (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 7). Additionally, a departure from fasting and ‘drying up the body’ was recommended in the Mahābhārata. Whilst breathwork appeared to be beneficial for the sense organs in the Laws of Manu: “For just as metals’ impurities are burnt up when they are smelted, so faults in the sense organs are burnt up by restraint of the breath” (Mānavadharmaśāstra in Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 140).

Nevertheless, the yoga upheaval of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has no parallel with that of haṭhayoga and Tantra. Having moved onward from medieval reformations, yogis seized opportunities of colonial modernity and combined yoga with sport and athletics. At the forefront of the innovation were Indian wrestlers, bodybuilders, paramilitary and fitness instructors, yogis, and researchers (Alter 2013; Singleton 2013). These body cultivators sought to develop an Indian program of physical culture inspired by British colonisation. Their national scheme of “masculine self-development” successfully “captured the middle-class imagination” (Alter 2013, 87). Navigating nationalist aspirations—Atreya, Yogendra, Kuvalayananda, and Krishnamacharya—drew on various traditions: yoga, martial arts, wrestling, and Western physical culture. The body cultivation they introduced linked āsana to strength, stamina, flexibility and muscle tone, while prāṇāyāma, cleansing techniques and metaphysics to health, hygiene and personal power. This process rearranged yoga into training, a scheme for physical athleticism and self-development. Next generations of instructors—Iyengar, Jois, and (Bikram) Choudhury—disseminated postural yoga around the world as athleticism and healthism. This was in line with Atreya who argued that even “wrestling is yoga with a slight twist and that the body of the wrestler reflects the material essence of yogic power” (Alter 2013, 90).

The international popularisation and demystification of yoga established a cultural translation. Blurring the boundaries between supernatural and natural influenced the modern yogic body ideal in India and abroad. Inevitably, global yoga became associated with physical cultivation, with few references to subtle domains (Alter 2013, 88-89). New āsanas were developed exponentially with no Indian precedents. Contrary to the textual material, underscoring the role of gurus, modern practitioners (and teachers) became selective about yogic practices. Notably, prior to yoga’s arrival in Europe and America, body-honouring stretching and ‘spiritual gymnastics’ were a commercial success among women who became yoga’s main recipients (Singleton 2013, 98). They reframed its misogynistic ‘by men for men’ narration in which the presence of female ascetics was marginal and problematic since ancient times (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 53; Samuel 2008, 182-183). Further commercialisation, however, increased “the perceived narcissism of the contemporary yoga marketplace” (Singleton 2013, 102).

Up until this point, the essay examined the evolutionary journey of the yoga body. The process was intricate and heterogeneous: from renunciatory asceticism to secular imitations, from metaphysics to medical realism, from individual forceful determination to global commercial trend, from a guru and lineage to self-help and bricolage, from liberation to practice. Diagnosis is one – modern yoga significantly diverged from its roots. Traditional tapas underwent subtle and gradual rejection. Moreover, it was adapted to the new paradigm of body cultivation which was secondary if not absent from the religious landscape of ancient India. Under its pressure, doctrinal yogic bodies became obscured by scientific pragmatism, while an additional pivot from prāṇāyāma rendered āsanas almost synonymous with yoga. As a consequence, the term ‘yoga’ became equated with techniques rather than the goal achievable through them (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, 2, 90). Stripped of its doctrinal context, global yoga is susceptible to scrutiny and criticism. The following sections will argue pro and con the shift to arrive at an intermediary approach.

Constructive avenues of modern cultivation

Yoga is a product of millennia of transformation. As a practice and as a philosophy, it always encountered and adapted to foreign traditions and their unique discourses of the body. Similarly, just as ‘Buddhisms’1 accommodated new cultures and belief systems on new territories2, so are ‘yogas’ on the global stage. Thus, to accept the new ‘bodies’ created in the process is to respect yoga’s rich history.

Contemporary innovations brought a range of improvements to accessibility and quality. Modern yoga is virtually at everyone’s convenience, whereas earlier it was an exclusive pursuit requiring complete renunciation. Brought to the laity, currently, as a business service, yoga can be practised with a varying degree of engagement by those reluctant to the antiquated abnegation. Repackaging, through yoga reconstructionists such as Vivekananda, divorced yoga from embarrassing heritage (White 2013, 42; Samuel 2008, 336), and eliminated reliance on historic, non-exhaustive3 and agenda-driven4 compilations. But the contemporary notion of yoga brands is not free from self-interest either. Yoga in capitalism is adjusted to demand. Self-mortification is unprofitable. Holding a single body pose for 3 hours and 48 minutes is to emulate an extreme renouncer from Bevilacqua's research (2017, 203). The opposite encourages originality of thought and attracts indispensable customers further propelling the evolution of yoga.

Lastly, if the rapid shift to radical cultivation renders yoga inauthentic, then the presence of yoga in the West ought to be in question. Above all, it was the British who fell for their own reflection skilfully constructed by descendants of Indian yogis (King 1999, 156; Alter 2013, 87). The import of oriental ‘technologies of the self’ offset Western deficiencies. Modern yoga supports and advances life choices of its practitioners in an unprecedented way.

In defence of traditional self-mortification

Notwithstanding the benefits, the new construct—global yoga—is problematic on a few fronts. This section will examine the impact of orientalism, capitalism, doctrinal reductionism, and egoism on classical yoga born out of asceticism.

In contrast to Buddhism, yoga is a complex import product, further affected by orientalism. As King (1999, 97) and Alter (2013, 90) expose, the European hopes and fears rendered yoga traditions both mystical and backward, combining nostalgia for classicism and colonial superiority. Furthermore, “[t]raditional yoga rarely, if ever, occurs outside of particular religious and doctrinal contexts” (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, xi). Its privatisation shapes it into a consumer good, a leisure-time commodity, in line with secular scepticism of possibilities of human experience. ‘Diasporic yogas’ at times opposed and not centred around one teacher, such as was the case of the Buddha, live lives on their own and further adapt to changes in place and time (Raby in Diamond 2013, 16; Mallinson & Singleton 2017, xxi).

Subsequently, reduced to physical exercise, or psychotherapy, yoga is forced into new constrictions and objectives. Its original potential is diminished, its heritage trivialised, while practitioners deprived of support on the occurrence of mystical states. Ought such a construct be classified as yoga? In accordance with Indian traditions, right understanding and right perception are not attainable without inner transformation at the level of the soul brought about by comprehensive and methodical practice. Therefore, postural yoga is devoid of the ‘liberating insight’ (Samuel 2008, 351). Moreover, the latest consideration of yoga as recreation inhibits the development of fortitude. Haṭhayoga practice requires “fasts, mortification and ascetic disciplines” (Briggs is Bevilacqua 2007, 190). In such an approach the body is a tool, “a means to further mental control” (Briggs is Bevilacqua 2007, 190), an equivalent of ‘a finger pointing away to the moon’. Under such conditions, the goal of liberation is unobscured by the preoccupation with self-cultivation resulting in narcissism and superiority5, because the practice of self-mortification relentlessly brings attention to one’s limitations. With the support of renunciation, the practitioner is “untouched by the vicissitudes and fluctuations of worldly existence” (King 1999, 181), for “some ascetics do it (...) to finally meet God; (...) while others claim to perform it for the wellness of society, trying also to give an example of religious commitment to householders” (Bevilacqua 2007, 189).

Therefore, the practice of self-mortification can be viewed as a practice of compassion. Whilst an ‘altered’ state of consciousness can be seen as ‘natural’, instead of that of ‘everyday’ experiences (King 1999, 22). That is what, “[o]ver generations, countless individuals seeking enlightenment or empowerment refined its metaphysics and techniques” for (Diamond 2013, 23).

Conclusion

In a nutshell, this essay briefly explored two polarised strategies for the body in yoga, and yoga on the whole. As demonstrated, ancient self-mortification aimed at higher goals, while modern post-lineage cultivation is an end in itself. Haṭhayoga’s combination of therapeutics, asceticism and practices of laity positions it halfway in time and in approach. However, to mitigate the tension between the ascetic origins and contemporary concerns, the axis would further benefit from a deliberate appliance of the Buddha’s ‘middle way’. Partial mortification would bring partial positive transformation if employed as a practice of fortitude, mindfulness, compassion, and responsible engagement with the world. The notion of body cultivation, on the other hand, would deem necessary to strike a balance, bring scientific evidence and enable both liberating insight and health. This would open avenues for the practice of yoga on and off the mat without renunciation, while the acknowledgement of Indian legacy would foster its correct and constructive understanding and use. A further debate on the subject ought to be taken beyond yoga to consider opposing cultures, political systems, religion, and secularism.

Footnotes

1. See Gethin’s “The Foundations of Buddhism”, 1998, p. 2.

2. For the influence of Tibet on Buddhism see Kapstein’s “Tibetan Buddhism”, 2014.

3. Pātañjali knew more āsanas than he listed, according to Mallinson and Singleton (2007), p. 86.

4. Mallinson and Singleton (2017) argue that the Pātañjalayogaśāstra is a partisan text appropriating rivalry methods, p. xi-xii.

5. See “An Exploration of Spiritual Superiority” published in “European Journal of Social Psychology”, 2020.

References

Alter, Joseph 2013. “Yoga, Bodybuilding, and Wrestling: Metaphysical Fitness”. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 85-93.

Bevilacqua, Daniela 2017. “Let the Sādhus Talk. Ascetic Understanding of Haṭha Yoga and Yogāsanas”. Religions of South Asia 11 (2): 182–206.

Bronkhorst, Johannes 2016. “Can Religion Be Explained? The Role of Absorption in Various Religious Phenomena”. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 29: 1–30.

Bronkhorst, Johannes 2020. “Historical Context of Early Asceticism”. The Oxford History of Hinduism: Hindu Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 62-78.

Diamond, Debra 2013. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Flood, Gavin D. 1996. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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King, Richard 1999. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’. London: Routledge.

Johnson, Will 1994. The Bhagavad Gita. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mallinson, James 2013. “Yogis in Mughal India”. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 69-83.

Mallinson, James and Singleton, Mark 2017. Roots of Yoga. Milton Keynes: Penguin Books.

Powell, Seth 2018. “Etched in Stone: Sixteenth-century Visual and Material Evidence of Śaiva Ascetics and Yogis in Complex Non-seated Āsanas at Vijayanagara”. Journal of Yoga Studies 1: 45-106.

Samuel, Geoffrey 2008. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge: University Press.

Singleton, Mark 2013. “Globalized Modern Yoga”. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 95-103.

Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution (2020) [Exhibition]. British Museum, London. 24 September 2020 – 24 January 2021.

White, David G. 2013. “Yoga in Transformation”. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 35-45.

Witzel, Michael 2005 [2003]. “Vedas and Upaniṣads”. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Blackwell. 68-101.

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