The Surprising Origins of Modern Postural Yoga

If we look back over the last 2,000 years of yoga history, there was little to predict or prepare for the sudden upsurge of what has become known as Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) now practiced in some form or other in yoga studios on every street corner.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, written by Patanjali, the so-called father of yoga 2,000 years ago, offer no details about any specific poses or asanas even though the infamous Bikram Choudray, of Bikram Yoga fame, implies otherwise with his disingenuous reference to the “eighty-four asanas as derived from Patanjali” (Mark Singleton, Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Postural Yoga 2010).

Bikram was a key figure who introduced yoga from modern India to America. He franchised his very precise style in licensed studios from his base in Hollywood throughout North America and across the world in the 

1970s and 1980s.However, this book is primarily about a different, broader line of influence.

Before the twentieth century, there had been no books focusing primarily on yoga poses.The sixteenth-century Hathayogapradipika names only fifteen poses, or asanas—most of them seated or supine. There are no sun salutations, no downward-facing dogs or warriors, no sequences and certainly no classes. The seventeenth-century Gheranda Samhita has just thirty-two asanas. Asanas in both books are subservient to other aspects of yoga. Other aspects include pranayama (the yogic science of breathing), instructions for drawing discharged semen back into the penis so as to overcome death, and even guidance on severing the tendon connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth to lengthen the tongue in order to touch one’s own forehead!

Until the early twentieth century, middle-class Indians and their British colonial overseers showed disdain for the ‘occult’ practices of what we now come to know widely as hatha yoga. Yoga icon, Swami Vivekananda, who first brought yoga to the West at the end of the nineteenth century reflected current opinion of the time. “We have nothing to do with it here, because its practices are very difficult and cannot be learnt in a day, and, after all, do not lead to much spiritual growth,” he wrote in his seminal work, Raja Yoga (23).

The upsurge of interest in dozens of asanas and their requirement for limitless flexibility arose from of a curious combination of three circumstances in the early and mid-twentieth century—circumstances of which the previous millennia of yoga practitioners could hardly have conceived.

They were:

  1. the worldwide revival of physical culture in the early twentieth century; 
  2. the sponsorship of a gymnastic style of vinyasa yoga by a powerful Indian raj; and
  3. the preservation and virtual sanctification of one of these many vinyasas and their adoption by a Western audience 

(Extract from pages 3/4 of The New Yoga: From Cult and Dogma to Science and Sanity)


    1. Thank you for sending me The Story of Yoga by Alistair Shearer.
      Looks interesting. Was there something in particular you wanted me to notice.
      Rob Walker

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