Yoga, as we know it today, is practiced daily by millions of people around the world, though very few comprehend its essence. Practiced since the pre-Vedic period, it originated as a means of spiritually uniting the inner self with the Divine. To achieve this harmony of mind and body, the practitioner must address the seven primary schools of physical, mental, and spiritual discipline.
The Yoga we take pleasure in and identify with the most in modern times is Hatha Yoga – just one of the seven paths, and which is primarily a physical discipline. The other forms include Raja, Gyana, Bhakti, Karma, Mantra, and Tantra Yoga.
Leaving aside the form’s spiritual aspects, let us now focus on the physical path, which has been chronicled throughout the centuries with beautiful paintings, sculptures, and illustrations. Since the Vedas, there have been numerous textual manuals created for Hatha Yoga, the most comprehensive being – Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Shiva Samhita.
Unquestionably, humans are visual creatures, and therefore illustrative documentation of Yoga was inevitable. It is the graphic recording of Hatha Yoga, which began in the 16th century that resulted in so many remarkable artworks.
Bahr al-hayat or Ocean of Life (16th-century)- is the earliest known encyclopedic manuscript displaying brilliantly embellished Asanas, and is accompanied by detailed descriptions. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, the inventive piece was composed by Sufi master Muhammad Ghawth and illustrated by renowned artist Govardhan. The artworks depict ash-smeared Yogis in various postures, complemented with scenic backgrounds and detailed items used by a practitioner in their daily lives. The miniature drawings follow a subdued palette highlighting the pensive mood and austerities of a Yogic life. These disciplines in Hath Yoga were designed by the Sufi masters to enhance meditative power.
Miniature paintings (17th century)- Below is a rich collection of Miniature Asanas paintings based on Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic Sanskrit manual on Hatha Yoga. It is brilliantly colored and graphically impressive, accurately depicting the postures with well-defined angles.
Miniature Pahari painting (17th century)- Saptarishi (sons of Brahma) shown in different Yogic postures. Legend has it that Lord Shiva shared his knowledge of Yogic science with seven distinguished rishi’s, initiating each of them to the practice of Yoga. These aspects became the seven basic forms. Even today, Yoga maintains these seven distinct forms.
Watercolour on paper (17th century)- Lord Shiva, the Adiyogi or the first Yogi, regarded as the founder of Yoga, is shown seated in Eight Yogic Postures on a tiger skin, against a green background. Painted in opaque watercolors on paper, the artwork projects a serene and meditative feel.
Murals in the Dalai Lamas’ private meditation temple (17th century): The details of a brilliantly colored and animated mural in the Lukhang temple, or “Temple of the Water Spirits,” located in Lhasa, portrays Yogis in 23 Yoga positions, along with a brief description, titled “The Secret Keys of the Channels and Winds.” The veiled temple created by the fifth Dalai Lama during the 17th century – was reserved for the private meditation of his successors.
Engravings by Mrs. Belnos (1832): Believed to be the earliest visual record of Yogic practice and occurring during the colonial era in India, are the hand-colored engravings by Mrs. Belnos. The series of twenty-four graphic plates were prepared by the author and her French lithographer husband J.J. Belnos. The intricate drawings demonstrate various signs and postures performed as part of the morning devotional ceremonies.
Shown below are few illustrations from Mrs. Belnos work ‘Sundhya’
Sritattvanidhi (19th century): An ancient Kannada treatise, “The Illustrious Treasure of Realities,” contains instructions and illustrations for 122 postures, making it by far the most elaborate visual text on Asanas existing before the twentieth century.
Richly adorning the Indian temples are the sculptures, murals, and frescos depicting the ancient mythologies and symbolic themes from sacred texts like Vedas and Upanishads.
Yoga-Narasiṃha, a man-lion, is one of the several forms of Vishnu’s incarnation where he appears sitting cross-legged in a Yogic posture. At the request of his devotee, Prahlada, he manifested this Yoga form to calm his emanating heat. The avatar of Lord Vishnu is among the favorite pieces housed within the ancient South Indian temples. However, the Yoga Narasiṁha, which resides at the temple in Vijayanagara, Hampi, (13th and 17th centuries), is the most creatively striking of them all.
Temple Nataraj (Chola Era 10th-12th centuries) is where Sage Patanjali wrote Yoga Sutras. Its temple hosts the carvings, sculpture, and other allied arts of the Yogi’s and Yoginis in Hath Yoga postures.
An ancient sculpture of Patanjali depicted in half-man, half-serpent form, signifying his enlightenment. In Yogic science, a snake is symbolic of kundalini energy.
Jambukeswaram temple (2nd century AD) Shown below are some Hatha Yoga reliefs carved on pillars and walls of the temple.
Mahabalipuram (7th century): Ancient stone carving of Vrks Asana.
Written by: Baani
Ranganathaswamy Temple (6th to 9th centuries AD): Stone carvings of Yoga Asanas.
Srirangam Temple (6th to 9th centuries AD): Bas reliefs depicting Yogi’s performing various Hatha Yoga Asanas- Shown below are ‘Tree posture’ (Vrksa Asana) and ‘Bhujapid Asana’.