Rehabilitating hatha yoga
Yogendra was the ‘householder yogi’. He was married and had a family. His yoga was a sanitised, modern form of hatha yoga, designed to appeal to the respectable middle classes as a health and fitness activity.
Like Vivekananda, he was keen to distance it from the disreputable persona of the ‘wild’ yogi. But unlike Vivekanada, who rejected physical yoga altogether, Yogendra rehabilitated it into a rational, domesticated practice, which could ultimately lead to “physical well-being, mental harmony and moral elevation”.
He saw yoga as a holistic practice with an ancient tradition, and he was dismissive of what he saw as adjuncts such as surya namaskars. “Surya namaskars or prostrates to the sun – a form of gymnastics attached to the sun worship in India” were “indiscriminately mixed up with yoga physical training by the ill-informed”, he insisted.
Yoga not yoga?
Kuvalayananda was also familiar with surya namaskars. Mark Singleton points out that the Bombay Physical Education Committee syllabus Kuvalayananda developed for schools in the province has a chapter devoted to “individualistic exercises, dands, baithaks, namaskars and asanas”.
In this chapter, namaskars are distinct from asanas, but both are categorised as physical training. The surya namaskar sequence he presents is a series of dands, described as Ashtang dand, probably in reference to an existing position known as Ashtanga namaskara, in which eight parts of the body touch the ground simultaneously. At this point, surya namaskar is not recognised as a sequence of yoga asanas but, like yoga, it has been put in the category of physical culture.
By the late 1930s, all the elements of modern yoga are present in colonial India: the synthesis of modern and traditional physical techniques, the therapeutic methods for health and well-being, and the ancient spiritual and mystical roots that appealed to orientalists and New Agers in the West, and nationalists in the East.
All these elements existed in what has been described as the crucible of global yoga, the Mysore school of yoga. And it was there that the surya namaskars so beautifully demonstrated by Eunice entered the canon of yoga asanas.