A Brief History of Āsana

An 8-hour on-demand course

with Seth Powell
PhD Candidate, Harvard University


How old is your downward-facing dog? What about the tree pose? Salutations to the sun?

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.

Yoga + Āsana

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.

Distance Learning

Study the history and philosophy of yoga, at your own pace, from the comfort of your own home. 

Digital Svādhyāya

Engage in the traditional practice of "Self-Study," using the latest in modern online learning technologies.

Online Community

Join a thriving online community of yoga teachers, practitioners, and students from around the world. 


Module 1 —Sthira Sukham Āsanam: Meditative Seats and Tapas in Ancient and Classical India

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 Indiaas represented across textual and visual sources.   


Module 2 — Complex Non-Seated Āsanas: Yogic Postures in Medieval India

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. 


Module 3 — The Proliferation of Postures: Āsanas in Early Modern India and Beyond

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. 


Sign up anytime and receive immediate access!

Study and move through the lectures entirely at your own pace.

Students enrolled in this course will receive:

  • 3 video Lectures + Q&A (8 hrs)
  • 3 audio recordings of lectures (MP3)
  • Readings & Extended Bibliography (PDF)
  • Optional Final Quiz
  • 8 Hours of CE credit
  • Access to the private Yogic Studies Online Community Forum

Your Instructor


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

Enrollment is OPEN

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This course is eligible for 8 hours of Continued Education (CE) credits with Yoga Alliance


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