• Andrew Kelly


Headstandas performed by girls in a gym class at Hoover High School, San Diego; photographs by Martha Holmes. Life Magazine, December 1946

On the left a haṭhayogin (and his water-fetching student). Illustration (no. 17 of the “84 asanas”) from the 1830 edition of the Jogapradipika, Light on Yoga, a text written in 1737 (Jog is Hindi for yoga.) The heading reads kapālī āsana 17, “skull pose”, one of the several names available. Shīrshāsana/headstand is not found before the 20th century. (On the right a shoulderstand labelled viparīta-āsana.)

Both images show the three-point headstand, the commonest version illustrated before recent times. The girls in San Diego are doing the ‘bregma’ headstand where the resting point is a few inches forward of centre and the body is lightly arched. (The bregma is where the three forward skull plates meet. For a discussion of the differences between the bregma and our ‘crown’ headstand see David Coulter, The Anatomy of Hatha Yoga 2001, p. 446ff, ‘The Two Headstands.’) The yogin in the coloured picture appears to be doing a fully upright version, but these are not meant to be usably realistic images.

The monochrome girls practice together: in unison and in a grid formation, even when in a wide open space. This is never found in pre-modern representations where yogins practice alone (usually outside next to a hut or small building); or as a group scattered across a stretch of landscape, separate but evidently still communal; or if clustered together in an ashram/camp site, then everyone pursues their own practice (as in last week’s illustration) under instruction from the guru. The one exception is what looks like verbal teachings, where a line of students sits facing a teacher: notably the line is never quite straight.

Modern practice has gone instead for rectilinear arrays, in which mats (another modern arrival) perform a key measuring service. Of course this fits easily into squared indoor spaces. But the modern format (‘the class’) came not from the ashram but from the training of (usually male) youngsters and perhaps even from martial drill (not always that far apart: the nuns at my primary school had us marching into class to military music). Thankfully the regimenting tone that came with that (which also suited the heavy hand of the guru) has long since been softened by other influences. Time, not visible in the pictures, also underwent a shift into a tighter regulation. Modern work and modern leisure have had their effect.

(Now Zoom: we appear in the grid of the screen with mats apparently aligned, but on the other hand it’s a new form of communal scattering, our true directions unknown, not in one room but our many own rooms and spaces, appearing and vanishing at will.)