By Sarvesh K Tiwari
You can read Origins of Yoga – PART 1 here
samIpe sarasaH so ‘sya tapas tepe mahAdyutiH
sthANubhUto mahAtejA vIrasthAnena pANDava
atiSThat subahUn kAlAn ekadeshe vishAM pate
sa valmIko ‘bhavad R^iShir latAbhir abhisaMvR^itaH
kAlena mahatA rAjan samAkIrNaH pipIlikaiH (MBh 3.122.1-3)
akSayAs tasya vai lokAH sarvakAmagamAs tathA MBh 13.7.13
yogacharyAkR^itaiH siddhaiH kAmakrodhavivarjanam
vIrashayyAm upAsadbhir vIrasthAnopasevibhiH
yuktair yogavahaiH sadbhir grIShme pa~ncatapais tathA
vIrAsanagatair nityaM sthaNDile shayanais tathA
shItayogo ‘gniyogashcha chartavyo dharmabuddhibhiH (MBh 13.130.8–10)
[“Observant of the excellent ordinances relating to Yoga, having alleviated the passions of lust and violence, seated in the posture called vIrAsana in the midst of four fires on four sides with the sun overhead in summer months, duly practising what is called mANDUkya yoga, and sleeping on bare rocks or on the earth, these men, with hearts set upon dharma, expose themselves to the extremes of cold and warm (and are unaffected by the duality).”]
Not only do we find evidence in mahAbhArata therefore, of the importance given to the postures, specific postures, we should also observe that much before pata~njali, mahAbhArata already describes the yoga praxis in great detail. In the anushAsana parvan, it even describes the aShTA~Nga-s of yoga and even lists the famous teachers of sAMkhya and yoga, in which list pata~njali does not figure. This also means that the yoga text in the bhArata was pre-pata~njali and that by the time of pata~njali, yoga was quite a very well founded practice, its Asanas included.
In the early classical saMskR^ita literature also, we find the Asana-s mentioned. The Emperor of saMskR^ita poetry, mahAkavi kAlidAsa, already names the yaugika postures. He mentions vIrAsana in his raghuvaMsham by name (13.52) and also beautifully describes the siddhAsana through a verse. Ancient drama mR^ichcHakaTikA, going back to the BCE age, also describes yoga posture (see the opening chapter).
But the observation is inaccurate. Indeed we have enough textual and non-textual records of Hindu Asana-s also in standing, half-standing and leaning postures too from fairly old periods. mahAbhArata itself attests to this at multiple places, too numerous to recount, that standing postures were common for tapashcharyA. We find many ancient frescoes, murals, and bas-relief from old temples displaying the yoga postures in the standing position, see for instance the pallava temple carvings at mahAbalIpuram, dated to the 600s, depicting arjuna, bhagIratha and other characters (including a charlatan cat), to be performing the ascetics standing in the classical postures like the tADAsana and vR^ikShAsana. There are many other sources that attest to the postures in standing position, particularly for performing the tapascharyA, more specifically recorded by the early nAstika grantha-s, and both the bauddha and jaina texts record the standing postures.
mahAvIra’s austerities in pristine tADAsana is all too famous. Also important to note is that the jaina-s carefully record that bhagavat mahAvIra acquired his siddhi while he was in a specific yoga posture known as the godohanAsana (see image), so called because it resembles how one milches the cow. godohanAsana remains a classical standard yoga posture.
Coming to the climate part, yoga authors specifically mention that the Asana, by one of its very purposes, takes the body of the practitioner beyond the effects of climate and other such dualities. Explaining the last yoga sUtra on Asana, “dvandvAnabhighAt”, rAjan bhoja explicitly gives the example of climate, saying when the practitioner has perfected the yogAsana, the very effect of it is that Asana makes his body transcend and withstand the effects of extreme climate, both warm and cold.
To summarize, what the foregoing discussion aimed to show is that Asana had already acquired a technical sense during mahAbhArata, and even before, from upaniShadic times. That pata~njali does not need to define Asana itself, but simply add more specific qualifiers to it, also shows that the concept of specific Asanas was already a common knowledge. Such names of Asanas as padmAsana, daNDAsana, bhadrAsana, svAstikAsana, and vIrAsana, vajrAsana etc. were so very common and well known among the Hindus already from very early days. By as early as the 6th century we find the yoga authors not only mentioning them by name, but in a sense that it was such a common knowledge that simply indicating a few names appended by ‘etcetera’ is sufficient to indicate them all. We also see that even these ancient Hindus were conscious about much further antiquity of the system of postures for yoga, as even AchArya shaMkara remarks about its obscurely ancient origins and wide popularity and recognition already by the time of the old layer of the upaniShada-s. We also noted that the Asana-s, the postures, is what he takes as being a general identifying characteristic trait of the yoga system. There are old records of not only sitting but standing, half-standing and leaning postures being practiced, and that the yoga authors were particular about Asana being for the very purpose to make the body of practitioner withstand the worldly dualities like the hot and cold climate.