Yoga’s Violent Past

In 2008, the yoga industry (apparel, retreats, instruction, etc.) was worth approximately $5.7 billion annually. In four years, that figure almost doubled to $10.3 billion spent in 2012. For all that money, very few people realize that the exercise meant to bring peace to mind and body waged bloody battles hundreds of years ago.

No one is sure when yoga was invented, but the term derives from the Hindu word meaning “to concentrate.” Images of figures in yoga positions have been discovered during excavations of the Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished 4,000-5,000 years ago. The images, on the so-called “Proto-Siva” (sometimes written as “Proto-Shiva”) seals, were discovered by John Marshall in the 1920s and ’30s. The seal’s name can broken down to mean “the original Shiva,” or really, the origin of Hinduism.

Though this theory of Hinduism’s beginning has its skeptics, yogis, practitioners of yoga, would have beaten those skeptics senseless.

According to Hindu tradition, Shiva was the perfect yogi. The Devas (also Devi or Suras), or deities, “accepted the Shiva way” and defeated the Gunas (the process of creation, preservation, and destruction). Thus, a yogi is able to transcend the natural pattern of the world through mindful care of the body and spirit.

Yoga Statue

photo credit: El Paso Times

This ability to rise above the world was portrayed in a visual form in the 11th century. Images of yoginis, master practitioners of yoga, in this period are often seen as floating, fierce females, in many cases wielding swords and shields. Not only that, but the women are certainly leaving nothing to the imagination in terms of the feminine figure. The image on the right is from 1000 AD and can be found in the Smithsonian’s new exhibition on yoga. Says the curator of the exhibition, Debra Diamond, “They’re the tough chicks of the 11th century.”

One of the funny quirks of yoga is that there is no original form. Seemingly from the beginning, different methods of attaining that “concentration” have existed. This resulted in a number of sects to arise, each developing and practicing different positions and techniques. Movements came from ShaivismVaisnavismBhakti and Tantra, and each group fought for recognition in India.

The competition between the groups was furthered by the Islamic Mughal emperors, who took control of the Indian sub-continent in the 12th century. Yogis were hired as mercenaries for these emperors and would go to war, swords aflying like the yoginis of old. In some cases, thousands of yogis slaughtered each other on the battlefield. Don’t believe me? Check out the painting below, which depicts the Battle at Thaneshwar:


Yogi Battle

photo credit: The Smithsonian

Maybe it’s just me, but this image is a little different from how I usually visualize yoga. Slightly more disemboweling.

Over the years, especially after the British disbanded the mercenary bands of yogis, the practice of yoga has become a bit more subdued. However, even at the turn of the 20th century, yogis were viewed as sinister, half naked mystics. Personally, my first impression of yoga came from Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaohs, when The Fakir is introduced as a high raking (and frightening, and probably pretty racist) member of an opium syndicate:

The_Fakir Now I tend to think of yoga more like this:

Yoga on beach

photo credit: Zooma Race Series

But a few centuries ago, this image might convey a little less relaxation and a little more war prep.