Yoga, as we know it today, is practiced daily by millions of people though very few understand the essence of it. Dating back to the pre-vedic period, Yoga originally was a means of spiritually uniting one with the Divine, within oneself.
To achieve this harmony of mind and body, Yoga has seven primary schools of physical, mental and spiritual disciplines. Today, the Yoga we take pleasure in and identify the most with is Hatha Yoga, which is one of the seven paths, its primarily about physical discipline, the other forms include Raja, Gyana, Bhakti, Karma, Mantra and Tantra Yoga.
Leaving aside the spiritual aspects of the practice let’s focus on how the physical path ‘Hatha Yoga’ which is most loved and practiced across the world was chronicled down the centuries with beautiful paintings, sculptors and illustrations. Starting from Veda’s, in the course of history there have been numerous textual manuals for Hatha Yoga, most comprehensive being- Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Shiva Samhita. However, unquestionably, humans are visual creatures, illustrative documentation of Yoga was inevitable. Starting 16th century, the visual recording of Hatha Yoga gave result to remarkable artworks.
Bahr al-hayat or Ocean of Life (16th-century)- is the earliest known encyclopedic manuscript with brilliantly illustrated Asanas accompanied with detailed descriptions. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir the creative piece was composed by Sufi master Muhammad Ghawth and illustrated by renowned artist Govardhan. The Sufi masters’ motive was to teach his disciples Hath Yoga to gain meditative power. The artworks depict ash-smeared Yogi’s in various postures complemented with scenic backgrounds and detailed items used by the Yogi’s in their daily life. The miniature drawings follow a subdued palette highlighting the pensive mood and austerities of a Yogic life.
Shown below are few leafs from the manuscript
Miniature paintings (17th century)- A rich collection of Miniature paintings of Asana’s based on Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic Sanskrit manual on Hatha Yoga. This brilliantly colored manual is graphically impressive with accurate postures paired with well-defined angles.
Shown below are few paintings from the collection
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 and laid different characteristics of Yoga into each one of them, these aspects became the seven basic forms of Yoga. 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 meditative and serene 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 with brief description, titled “The Secret Keys of the Channels and Winds.” The temple was a secret space created by the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century – and reserved for the private meditation for his successors.
Engravings by Mrs. Belnos (1832): Hand-colored engravings by Mrs. Belnos are believed to be the earliest visual record of Yogic practice’s followed during colonial India. The series of twenty-four graphic plates were prepared by author Mrs. Belnos’s French lithographer husband J.J. Belnos. The intricate drawings demonstrate different signs and postures performed during morning devotional ceremonies.
Sritattvanidhi (19th century): An ancient Kannada treatise, “The Illustrious Treasure of Realities” has one of its sections that includes instructions and illustrations of 122 postures, making it by far the most elaborate visual text on Asanas in existence before the twentieth century.
Sculptors, Murals and Frescos of Yogi’s and Yogini’s, richly adorn the Indian historical temples, these ancient artworks narrate mythological scenes 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. On the request of his devotee, Prahlada, He took this Yoga form to calm the heat emanating from Him. This avatar of Lord Vishnu has been one of the favorite subjects for the artworks in ancient South Indian temples.
Yoga Narasiṁha form at a temple in Vijayanagara, Hampi (13th and 17th centuries) is the most creatively striking art-piece amongst them all.
Temple Nataraj (Chola Era 10th-12th centuries) is where Sage Patanjali wrote Yoga Sutras. The temple hosts carvings, sculpture and other allied arts of Yogi’s and Yogini’s in different 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.
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’.
Jambukeswaram temple (2nd century AD) Shown below are some Hatha Yoga reliefs carved on pillars and walls of the temple.
Ranganathaswamy Temple (6th to 9th centuries AD): Stone carvings of Yoga Asanas.
Mahabalipuram: Ancient stone carving of Vrks Asana
Yoga Guru Shobhna Juneja, elaborates on the powerful connection between ‘Art’ and ‘Yoga’.
“The system of Yoga is so vast and generous that deriving creative expression from it is natural for the artists. Although the yoga discipline is strictly an internal experience but sometimes yogis creatively ‘digress’ from it and start enjoying the artful dimensions of yoga mudras. No wonder then we see yoga as artful and glossy.
Yoga has been preserved through Guru Parampara (from Guru Lineage) whereas artworks inspired by Yoga have ‘glorified’ this ancient inner science (yoga). More so, if one sees these masterpieces, one wonders that ‘Yoga is beautiful’ and it’s a path to ‘Pure Love and Liberation.”