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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Kelly



(pari-pūrṇa)+nāva+āsana (a+ā = ā)

(full) boat pose


completely, + filled, full



ardha+nāvā+āsana (ā+ā = ā)

half boat pose

I wondered where this pose came from and how old it was. It's complicated: you could just scroll down for the pictures.


Curiously, the two boat poses in Light on Yoga are distinguished as ‘full’ and ‘half’, the high pari-pūrṇa versus the lower ardha. In no other case is the standard version of a pose called full. In English for that matter everyone usually says just boat and half-boat.

The lower, ‘half’ version, now presented as a variation off the main pose, seems to be closer to the pose’s earlier form. A variation has supplanted its prototype.

The pose is not found in the older haṭha yogic texts (such as the first ‘light on yoga’ the Haṭha-pradīpika, which has a shorter 15th century version with 15 poses described, and a longer 18th century version with 96 poses. It is found however in the 19th century Haṭha-abhyāsa-paddhati/handbook on haṭha practice (henceforth HAP), and in a compendium that reproduced HAP’s āsana content, the Śrī-tattva-nidhi/ŚTN the Glorious treasury of Reality; on which see below.

Note that ‘19th century’ refers to the age of these manuscripts, which is not necessarily the same as the creation of the text (which may have passed through repeated copying), or their contents (which obviously must exist before they can be recorded: but how much before?).

For details on these (and related texts) see Jason Birch’s The Proliferation of Asana-s in Late Mediaeval Yoga Texts and for his and Mark Singleton’s work on HAP see my earlier note.

As Birch and Singleton show, the striking thing about the HAP is that it expanded not only the number of poses but their type and their interrelation—that is, for the first time we can see poses being presented in sequences: meaning, movement! This suggests that the break-out from static immobilisation (which is shared in their different ways by both meditation culture and hard-core ascetic practice) started earlier than was supposed. This also may give more prominence to indigenous rather than imported, western sources of innovation.

Most likely boat pose was created inside the highly inventive milieu that these texts are a witness to: either created there or imported from some other field of presumably indigenous practice.

Manuscripts of both these texts existed in Mysore where Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois were trained. From there through them (and evidently other practitioners) boat pose entered the repertoire of globalised modern yoga.


The first attested form of the name for this pose, with little difference in meaning, is naukāsana. (The -ka may indicate small boat.)

naukā+āsana (ā+ā = ā)

boat pose

This is the name used in Swami Yogeshwarananda’s First Steps to Higher Yoga (FSHY English translation 1970 online here; original Hindi edition 1961), where it is pose 152 out of 260.

The poses in this work diverge from Iyengar’s offering in many great or small details of execution, but much more noticeably in the names: FSHY’s ‘half moon’ for instance is the backbend called kapotāsana in Iyengar. Though the sets of poses differ, it is evident that a modern reworking of the tradition on very similar principles has occurred in both cases and that they have drawn on common sources of both local and foreign origin.

The same name, naukāsana, and yet another form of the pose occur in the early 19th century Srī-tattva-nidhi, the ‘treasurehouse of glorious reality,’ a lavishly illustrated manuscript encyclopedia commissioned by the Mahārāja of Mysore (the grandfather of the mahārāja who employed Krishnamacharya, the brother-in-law and teacher of Iyengar). It covers an array of topics: music, gods, animals...

Only one section of this enormous work relates to yoga: the compilers extracted that material from the HAP. It‘s quite likely they were not themselves practitioners in the tradition and may not be fully reliable transmitters. In particular, while the text of HAP, already terse and elliptical, sets out the poses in order with the descriptions flowing on from each other in sets, the compliers of the ŚTN jumbled them up—as if they had not noticed this fundamental fact of the text they were excerpting from. So the sequence involving boat in HAP is poses 11, 12, 13, 14 but appears scattered and reordered in ŚTN:

HAP 11 = ŚTN 4

HAP 12 = ŚTN 84

HAP 13 = ŚTN 7

HAP 14 = ŚTN 8

Goodbye to sequence.

Unfortunately, these manuscripts are not currently being made available for examination by scholars: they reside in the Mysore Oriental Research Institute. Some decades ago N.E. Sjoman did have direct access and in 1996 published a book-length study of the yoga section of the ŚTN entitled The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace. This book was a breakthrough work in the only recent endeavour to give yoga a genuine history.

He includes photographs of all the āsana pages. Unfortunately in some of the plates the quality of the reproduction is so poor one can barely make out the positioning of the body. This is the opening page:

The fourth pose here, marked with the red line, is a precursor of boat pose but balanced on the forearms. Sjoman translates the Sanskrit as follows. (The script here, which he could not read himself, is the local Old Kannada script — it was transcribed for him into the blockier northern Devanāgarī script that eventually became the normal one for Sanskrit).

This shallow boat lies behind not full boat, but half boat. Unlike Iyengar’s version it has the elbows, and so the forearms, on the ground; but the lower the legs the more the weight of the body will rest on forward on the backside, just as it does in Iyengar’s boats.

In his Proliferation article Jason Birch’s transcribes and translates the āsana descriptions from the HAP. Below I lay out from there the two 'boats' and the two following poses they lead into in HAP each with the pictures and translations in the ŚTN as found in Sjoman’s book. Both manuscripts are illustrated but it seems Birch was only allowed access to a transcription of the HAP that did not include include the pictures.

Birch HAP pose 11:

= Sjoman ŚTN pose 4

Birch HAP pose 12:

= Sjoman ŚTN pose 84:

Both Sjoman and then Birch translated the red-underlined phrase as ‘horizontal boat pose’ which I don’t think makes much sense in the context. The word tiryaṅ, which in fact works very differently from English horizontal, can also mean slanty, oblique, which suits better here.

This picture given in ŚTN of this horizontal/oblique boat is this one:

This can’t be right.

According to this image the arm base of the pose has pivoted from the forearms onto the upper arms, turning it (as Sjoman says) into a kind of viparīta karaṇī or low slanted shoulderstand.

Either the text left out any mention of this shift in the upper body (which seems an important feature), or the drawing is inaccurate or misplaced.

The answer is not far to seek: the drawing for the next pose (ŚTN 7 = HAP 13 and not actually next to the pose it's meant to follow) is identical to the one just above. The compiler of the ŚTN drew the same pose twice by mistake. Even in this terrible reproduction that seems clear:

At any rate, the sequence of four poses runs like this:

From lying fully supine, up to a low boat 11, then a raised-leg boat 12, then a back-down legs-vertical position 13, then up toward a shoulderstand, here called narakāsana, the pose from hell 14!

Birch HAP pose 13:

Birch HAP pose 14:

Here too the published image from the ŚTN is poor. Hard to make out what the arms are doing, but at least one can say, in disagreement with Sjoman's remark below, it's a shoulder- and not a head-stand.

Sjoman ŚTN pose 84:

Pose from hell may be a good place to stop.


Into the word itself

nāvā and naukā, both meaning boat, are, unsurprising, related to the English word naval.

The slight difference in their first syllable is the same as between naval and nautical, just triggered by the type of sound that follows:

nāv + vowel

nau + consonant

(nau could just as well be written nāu.)

nāvā and naukā are expansions from a simpler, more basic form of the word, which is nauḥ, ship, boat.

The long ā on the end of both nāvā and naukā marks them as feminine nouns: they have taken their gender from nauḥ which is also feminine.

The -kā on naukā can mean small boat, but that distinction often seems faded in Sanskrit usage. The real reason for having the -ka is so it, like nāvā, can end in an a-vowel. The a-vowel just makes things simpler when words dock with each other in compounds.

(The basic Sanskrit word for foot is pad, but it has an extended form pāda which tends to replace the simpler form: it’s usually this second one that gets used in the pose names.)

The on the end of nauḥ is the ‘case marker’ that makes the word the subject of its sentence, and carries the number as well: many boats sailing would be nāvaḥ. In western grammars this is called nominative case: Sanskrit calls it the ‘first’ case.

Normally when Sanskrit words are quoted or borrowed into English we leave the endings off and give it in a bare ‘stem’ form: yoga, guru. If these words were the subjects of a Sanskrit sentence they would be yogaḥ, guruḥ. Many yogas and gurus, yogāḥ and guravaḥ.

On the other hand Latin and Greek words in English always come with the nominative singular case marker still attached, in many cases an s.







hocus pocus

That base word for ship, boat turns up in many Indo-European languages, all feminine nouns:

Sanskrit nauḥ nau |

Greek naus nau | s

Icelandic nór nó | r

Latin nāvis nāv-i | s

In the grey column on the right the case marker, in red, has been separated. Despite the apparent variety they are all just their language’s particular modification of the same marker whose original form was s.

It’s a little curious to have this so neatly obvious Indo-European common word. The current consensus is that the early Indo-European speakers were grouped together in the region that is currently sourthern Russia and Ukraine four or five thousand years ago: horses, cows and chariots are prominent, but not the sea — the words for sea in the languages are not shared, but were often picked up from local language after the spreading and splitting of the Indo-European languages; or like Latin mare/sea started out as word for lake (like the English word mere in the sense of small lake, pond).

The original common form of the word for boat has been reconstructed to be *neH2u-s, where the asterisk (*) means reconstructed and not actually found anywhere; and the H2 is a hypothetical unknown consonant conventionally referred as a laryngeal (the 2 because there might, or might not, be three mystery consonants in play, H1 H2 H3). They guess what it was but calculate its effects down into the evolving daughter langiages: what fun.

The word probably meant boat for a lake or river, rather than sea ship and is from a verb meaning to float or swim (Latin nāvit/she swam; Welsh nofiaf/I swim): a boat is a floater.


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