Yoga Asanas and their Mysore Connection
Yoga has been an integral part of India’s rich culture and heritage, but did you know that a lot of what we practice as asanas or stretches in yoga can be attributed to one man and the city of Mysore?
The Origins of Yoga ‘Asanas’
The textual tradition of Yoga, based on the ‘Yoga Sutras’ of Rishi Patanjali is believed to have been penned down somewhere around 150 CE. But the tradition of ‘Hatha Yoga’, based on texts like ‘Hathayoga Pradipika’ (15th century) which primarily deals with various asanas of yoga poses, evolved over four centuries stretching from 1400 CE to 1800 CE. But interestingly, the Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutras’ have no mention of specific asanas. The ‘Hathayoga Pradipika’ mentions only 12 Asanas such as Dhanurasana and Virasana.
So how did the multitude of asanas, which are very popular today emerge?
To begin with it is important to note that there is a consensus among scholars and historians that unavailability of textual references does not mean that Yoga asanas were not practiced. There was a long tradition of these asanas among the ‘Natha Yogis’ or the followers of the Natha tradition, but these were extremely secretive and only taught by the Guru to his Sishya (disciple).
The popularization of asanas, as we know them today, can be traced to the royal Palace of Mysore palace and Maharaja’s yoga guru T Krishnamacharya, one of the pioneers of yoga. It was T Krishnamacharya’s students like the famous BKS Iyengar of Iyengar Yoga fame, B Prattabhi Jois who founded Vinayasa Yoga and Eugenie Peterson who popularized Yoga Asanas among common folk.
The Tragic Loss of Records
One of the biggest tragedies for a researcher of Yoga’s history,is the fact that much of the records on yoga and its history got destroyed during a great fire that destroyed the old Mysore palace in 1897. Important records on Yoga teachings going back centuries, perished here. But what survived was an important manuscript known as ‘Sritattvanidhi’, a treatise on Yoga composed by a Mysore maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (1794-1868), which is considered an important document on yoga.
Following the defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799 CE, a 5-year-old child, Krishnaraja Wodeyar-III (Mummadi), was placed on the throne of Mysore by the British. The Maharaja developed a passion for Yoga at an early age and patronized a number of Yoga masters. A ‘Yogashala’ or ‘Yoga School’ was established in the Mysore palace. And the Maharaja himself composed ‘Sritattvanidhi’ a text with diagrams and details of 122 asanas, which were developed and practiced in the Yogashala of the Mysore palace.
Taking Yoga to the People
In 1926, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV (1884-1940) was visiting Varanasi, when he heard of a great Yoga master known as T Krishnamacharya. The Maharaja got him to Mysore and appointed him as his Yoga Guru. Under royal patronage, T Krishnamacharya developed a large number of asanas, using various texts such as ‘Sirttatvanidhi’.
The Maharaja was extremely keen on popularizing Yoga among common people and sent Krishnamacharya for lectures and Yoga demonstrations across India. Initially, Krishnamacharya had to resort to drama and theatricals to get people interested in Yoga. In fact he even resorted to tricks to get people interested and make headlines. Feats like suspending his pulse, stopping cars with his bare hands, performing difficult asanas, and lifting heavy objects with his teeth had the right impact.
But the turning point came in 1933, when the Maharaja asked Krishnamacharya to open a Yogashala for common people in the wing of Jaganmohan palace at Mysore. It is here that some of the greatest Yoga masters of the 20th century like BKS Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, K Desikachar and Eugiene Peterson studied. In 1934, Krishnamacharya wrote the book Yoga Makaranda ("Essence of Yoga"), which was published by the Mysore University.
The students of T Krishnamacharya adapted and reinterpreted his asanas and developed many of the Yoga styles which are popular today such as ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ and ‘Vinayasa Yoga’ . Initially there was a great social taboo regarding asanas. BKS Iyengar, in his biography, recalled "In the early days, Yoga was an alien subject to the Indians. It was not respected by scholars or the pandits or anyone else. Only they were interested in the philosophical aspect, but not in the practical aspect at all. There was a feeling that those who embraced Yoga in the early days, they may be mentally disturbed”
But as the time passed, asanas became extremely popular and came to be seen as an important aspect of Yoga. Today, there are thousands of asanas and new ones are being developed all over the globe.
The Yogashala of the Mysore Palace was shut down after India’s independence. But its legacy and the impact of one man who led it, thrives.
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