In this special online course, yoga scholar Seth Powell (Harvard University) offers an accessible overview of the latest scholarly research on the history of yogic postures (āsana) in premodern India—as understood through texts, sculptures, paintings, and more.
In recent years, the origins of yoga and āsana has become a heated topic of interest, with debates flaring over the purported antiquity and “authenticity” of the practice. Today the practice of yoga has become largely synonymous with sequenced postures and yogic stretching. But was this always the case? What traditionally was the role of āsana in premodern India?
This course will seek to offer clarity and insight to these historical discourses, by asking what do we actually know about yoga’s past, and how do we know it? By surveying the available historical evidence, we will see that while Indian yogis and ascetics have been disciplining their bodies in physical shapes for thousands of years, some of the familiar postures central to modern yoga practice appear to be of more recent invent. While other postural forms certainly date back to hundreds, if not thousands of years. The history of āsana reveals a fascinating story of change, adaptation, and innovation across traditions, cultures, space, and time.
Participants will walk away with a solid foundation in the history of āsana, a clearer understanding of the traditional role of the body and physical postures in premodern yoga traditions, insight into exciting new yoga scholarship, and a better understanding of how their own contemporary yoga practice fits into the much broader history of yoga.
Study the history and philosophy of yoga, at your own pace, from the comfort of your own home.
Engage in the traditional practice of "Self-Study," using the latest in modern online learning technologies.
Join a thriving online community of yoga teachers, practitioners, and students from around the world.
The first module will locate our earliest available evidence for yogic postures (āsana) in early Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jain sources. We'll see that rooted in the very Sanskrit word Āsana, is the sedentary and practical meaning of cultivating a stable and comfortable "meditative seat." We'll see how this is articulated most clearly in the Classical Yoga of Patañjali's Yogasūtra (c. 4th century CE) and its commentarial traditions. We'll also give attention to the creative and emancipatory ways in which ascetics cultivated the body through austerities (tapas) in ancient India—as represented across textual and visual sources.
The second module locates a major shift in the history of physical yoga, from seated to non-seated postures, around the end of the first millennium of the common era. With the rise of Tantra and Haṭha Yoga, we'll see how a changing view of the body may have led to innovations in yogic bodily praxis. Here we'll examine the increasing rise of complex non-seated balancing postures, twists, and inversions—as evidenced in the textual and sculptural record. We'll also consider the influence of ascetic traditions of tapas, as well as yoga's possible relations with other modes of Indian physical culture including wrestling, acrobatics, the art of love (kāmaśāstra), and martial arts.
In the final module, we'll examine early modern yoga treatises and illustrated manuscripts which begin to teach large numbers of 84+ postures. We will then look ahead to the rise of modern postural yoga against the backdrop of global physical cultural discourse and the colonial context of 20th-century India. We'll conclude the course by assessing the contested origins of vinyāsa, and the famous "sun salutations"(sūryanamaskāra), considering the latter's historical and political implications.
Study and move through the lectures entirely at your own pace.
Seth Powell is a longtime practitioner of yoga and a scholar of Indian religions, Sanskrit, and yoga traditions, and is the founder and director 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.
You can listen to a recent Podcast interview with Seth here.
This course is set up for self-study. Sign up today to begin moving through the modules at your own pace.
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"An easily-accessible course which I shall listen to again and again. It is really helping me to create a framework upon which to hang my own understanding, practice, and teaching, and I recommend it to anyone who wishes to dive below the cluttered surface of claims and assumptions about the history of yoga asana practice."
"This course combines art history and ancient, modern and contemporary texts relating to asanas— and it had me at the art images! It is serious scholarship without being pedantic. I was absolutely riveted to each of Seth's lectures and took to heart research that supports and integrates yoga, art, spirituality, and life."
"Great course with a lot of hard evidence and information on asana's origins, which provides great insight into current-day research on the subject."
"Throughout several courses I have studied with Yogic Studies, Seth has completely transformed my narrow perspective of yoga and opened my mind to a broader universe of curiosity. Seth is a knowledgable and enthusiastic teacher who shares with confidence yet with humbleness, not withholding anything from his students, always open to discussions and to extend his lessons when required in order to provide deeper and more nurturing information. I absolutely recommend his courses for yoga teachers and committed practitioners or students who are interested in understanding about the origins, interconnections and new questions to be answered about this extraordinary path of yoga."
"I recommend this course for all students and teachers of postural yoga to increase and deepen their knowledge of the roots of yoga."
"Another amazing course by Yogic Studies; such valuable information about the origins and history of today´s practice! Seth´s teachings take us out of the dark, he fills the information gaps in such an orderly fashion, the presentation is amazing, and he gives a lot of additional material to do our own research. And as always, the academic presentation is most appreciated :) Thank you!"
"This is a really interesting and important course. I think it is absolutely needed for anyone who studies yoga. "