Yogis and ascetics used to wander freely around South Asia, practicing martial arts alongside their yoga and providing armies for hire. And then the modern world caught up with them.
Very little is known about the yogi from Mirzapur (above), whose photo appears in a book called ’The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India’ (1905).
He is simply described as "lightly clad, smeared with ashes, and wearing a nadh (a wooden pipe)" and strings of beads around his neck. According to the author the 'pipe' would have been sounded morning and evening and before eating or drinking anything.
By the end of the 19th century this mysterious and "even dangerous" figure represented the archetypal Indian yogi. But there is far more to the yogi's story than this iconic image.
Ascetics, people who renounce ordinary life for a simpler existence of abstinence or spiritual communion, are common across the religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent. Over time, these ascetics exchanged beliefs, including yogic practices.
Yogis – those who who practice yoga – might be Jain, Buddhist or Hindu. They may be male or female (yoginis). They may be devotees of one god or of several, or none in particular.