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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Kelly

Yogasopana, Stairway to Yoga

Page 34 (३४) of the 1905 Yogasopāna Pūrvacatuṣka by Yogi Ghamande. (Yoga-sopāna is ‘yoga-stairway’; pūrva-catuṣka is ‘earlier quarter’: I don’t know what this second element refers to.) 

1905 puts the YP well before the first use of the class format for āsana practice and before the development and incorporation of sun salutes and the standing poses. It includes 37 āsanas, along with 6 mudrās, and 5 bandhas. Nonetheless, the YP is the first modern, or all but modern, yoga manual—with its naturalistic images, detailed instructions and open dissemination via print.

For its images it uses the half-tone block process that had been widespread since the 1890’s for the mass reproduction of photo-like images. The figure in the illustrations is the author: this will be the norm in the photographic future. But the mere fact of representing a particular individual displaying a suite of poses (a sort of guru in a book) marks a complete shift from the parade of anonymous sages e.g. in the Joga-pradīpika, an 1830 manuscript now in the British Library (which has put online the full set of its images). 

The paintings in the Joga-pradīpika deploy a suite of elements that was well established in representing yoga practitioners: the hut or cave of the sage, his tiger skin; his smaller disciple-servant shown watching or fetching water, tending the fire; rivers, ponds, flowers, a few stray animals—and looming above a tree and its leaves which form a significant mass in almost every picture. This is a shift from a style of presentation where a single lush landscape is populated by a scattering of sages performing a sampling of practices: it’s as if such a landscape has been cut up to turn into a catalogue with each pose getting a share of the original setting. 

The YP has dropped all this: the poses shown seem generally to be indoors, a marked change in itself. Where landscape is present it is far-off mountains with a thin line of forest at their feet. The image above is also used on the front cover where it does get a few flowers inserted into the upper lefthand corner. It may be the needs of the cover that brought landscape in at all.

On the pages of the YP the heading (the bold line just above the image) has a number and then a Sanskrit sentence announcing the pose name. In the image above it is:

11 atha matsyendrāsana-vidhiḥ

11. Now here is the method for the pose of Matsyendra.

Below the picture is a verse, also in Sanskrit, from a haṭha-yogic text describing—in the cursory and often quite ambiguous manner of those texts—how to do the pose. Here it comes from the 15th century Haṭha-pradīpika 1.26. 

The longer non-bold text is not in Sanskrit but in Marathi, the language of the current Indian state of Maharashtra. This mode is not far from Iyengar’s 1966 Light on Yoga where too there is a catalogue framed in Sanskrit but with the meat of the information carried in a vernacular language. The word in bold at the start of the Marathi text is the Sanskrit word artha, ‘meaning’, announcing the text following as a commentary. Two other examples:

22 atha vṛkṣāsana-vidhiḥ

22. Now here are the instructions for tree pose.

Look, a yoga mat!

35 atha sarvāngāsana-vidhiḥ

35. Now here are the instructions for all-body pose (shoulderstand).

[Publisher: Janardan Mahadev Gurjar, Niranayasagar Press, Bombay 1905. Unfortunately only a selection of pages from the work is available online.  

Discussion in Mark Singleton’s 2010 Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Postural Practice, chapter 8 on visual representation, drawing on Partha Mitter’s 1994 Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850–1922.]


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