Though much of the evidence for constructing the history of yoga traditions in precolonial India is to be found in Sanskrit manuscripts and texts, extensive and valuable information may be gathered from non-textual historical materials (e.g., through paintings, sculpture, temples, and epigraphy). In this talk, Seth discusses how the textual record can be informed and complimented by the visual and material evidence in order to illumine a more detailed understanding of yoga’s past. In particular, Seth shares his recent fieldwork and research at Hampi in the south Indian state of Karnataka, where he has documented numerous sculpted depictions of yogīs performing highly complex non-seated āsanas from the early 1500s CE, carved across the incredible Hindu temple complexes of the medieval capital of the Vijayanagara empire. The āsanas depicted include: standing postures, inversions, twists, unique “pretzel-shaped” balancing postures, and even the use of props. Moreover, several of these sculpted images bear a marked similarity to several non-seated āsanas featured in modern postural yoga systems, and might represent some of the earliest evidence of their existence—visual, textual, or otherwise. Together, we will “read” these incredible images alongside contemporaneous paintings, travel writings, and Sanskrit texts in order to illuminate our understanding of the sort of yoga practices and yogī traditions on the ground in late-medieval south India.
Seth Powell is a longtime practitioner of yoga and a scholar of Indian religions, Sanskrit, and yoga traditions, and is the founder of Yogic Studies. He is currently a PhD Candidate in South Asian Religions at Harvard University, where he is writing his dissertation on the history, theory, and practice of medieval and early modern yoga traditions. Seth also holds degrees in the study of religion from the University of Washington (MA) and Humboldt State University (BA). He has taught and lectured for numerous university courses on the religions and literature of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga traditions, and presents his research regularly at international conferences.
As a scholar-practitioner, Seth is gifted in his ability to present the ancient teachings of yoga clearly in an accessible, light-hearted, and inspiring manner—while maintaining a rigor and sensitivity to traditional Indian knowledge systems. Seth conducts workshops and lectures regularly on the history and philosophy of yoga at studios, teacher trainings, and universities around the country.
This lecture was featured as part of the online conference, Yoga Reconsidered, held at Embodied Philosophy. For more information, and for access to all 13 conference lectures and proceedings click here.LEARN MORE
For a fuller treatment of the research and sculptural images featured in this lecture as it relates to the broader history of yoga, you are invited to download a PDF of the article it is based on, entitled:
Powell, Seth. 2018. “Etched in Stone: Sixteenth-century Visual and Material Evidence of Śaiva Ascetics and Yogis in Complex Non-seated Āsanas at Vijayanagara.” Journal of Yoga Studies (1): 45-106.