Krakow 2. The History of Standing Asanas. James Mallinson’s Report

The next report that I would like to give my special consideration to was made by a person who is believed to be a living legend of yoga insider studies – James Mallinson. A British aristocrat addicted to Oriental studies since his early youth; a man who’s been practicing in one of authentic Traditions for more than twenty years and the only European with a highest degree of this Tradition consecration. They say that in order to decide whether a European can be assigned with such a status a special convention of the School Masters was held. He got his doctor’s degree at the University of Oxford and is a lecturer in SOAS, University of London.Advanced and efficient expert in Sanskrit, he is the author of a good deal of Yoga, Nath and other texts’ translations into English. Generally speaking – a most interesting person! The report made by Mallinson was devoted to the subject of “standing” asanas history. Anyone having at least some vague knowledge of Sanskrit might understand the irony and the relevance of the topic. The point is that the root as from that the word asana derived means “to sit”. From the perspective of etymology asana means sitting or a sitting pose.

Patanjali determines asana to be “stable and comfortable” but he never draws any examples; just like the instances of asanas can be found neither in Bhagavad Gita nor in any other ancient texts (that nevertheless do contain plenty of information about pranayamas). From this point of view a term like “standing asana” or “inverted asana” is an oxymoron. But in actual fact we have them in the yoga of today and know them to have been present in medieval yoga as well. This is the statement of the problem the speaker has explored.Mallinson’s approach to the subject matter investigation has been very extended and history-based. He showed that in terms of early texts any complex descriptions of asanas were indeed absent, while asana was just a comfortable pose meant for meditative practices. Yet starting from ca. 6-8 cent. BC the situation began to change.

Having scrupulously examined the texts one by one, the presenter illustrated the process of how the notion of asana was being developed and the way the idea of concern for one’s physical body and control over it started penetrating into yoga, so that the range of the exploited asanas was extended and after numerous perturbations their traditional names were adopted. In general it took 500 years for this process to happen. And it is in relatively late treatises like Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita that we can already find the established Hatha yoga that we know and enjoy. I won’t be boring the reader with names of the texts that Mallinson used: first, most of them are available only in Sanskrit, and second, he shall most probably make his research work public in a short time. I will just explain why I consider this study to be remarkably relative. There are two opposite misconceptions being disseminated among yoga practitioners who have only some shallow knowledge of the issue’s historical background. Some of them live under the illusion of yoga to have originated from the XXth century masters (Iyengar, Jois etc.) without a moment’s thought about pre-history. Others are even more presumptuous: they represent their yoga to be “the yoga of Patanjali” and believe the rest to be groping in the dark (one can come across it even in Russian-speaking community). However the truth is much more interesting and complex, as it has been exemplified by James Mallinson’s work. Yoga is a life Tradition that is developing along with the Mankind. Patanjali is one of the roots of the Tree of Yoga, yet they are the fruits of an apple-tree, not the roots, that we eat.