Have you ever heard a yoga teacher say, “We’ve been doing this pose for five thousand years!”?
While yogis would love to claim that asana, the physical practice of yoga, is thousands of years old, other than certain seated poses, most of the postures practiced today are younger than we may think. This is particularly true for many of the more complicated poses seen on social media. Still, there are more traditional, or “old-school,” poses that yogis have been refining for well over a century. Poses that, while perhaps not millennia old, can still be powerful tools for moving us toward the ultimate goal of yoga—which is to still our mind and realize our true Self.
Today, it seems as though there is an endless drive for more, better, and newer, stoked by media that’s constantly telling us that we are not enough. Unfortunately, the yoga teaching landscape is not immune to this pressure to consume, and lately it appears that those more old-school poses are being pushed aside for shinier, fancier shapes—the wow factor outweighing tradition. Complex, wild poses seem to be invented every day, with even more complex and wild names. Suddenly a simple pose like warrior III just does not sound as exciting as “super soldier pose.”
Today, it seems as though there is an endless drive for more, better, and newer, stoked by media that’s constantly telling us that we are not enough.
The quest for newer and better leaves us perpetually unsatisfied. Thankfully, the deeper work of yoga involves a stripping away of those outer layers to reveal what lies beneath them: our true nature—the place inside us all where we are already perfect and whole.
Let’s look at the history of this physical practice, including what has drawn us to make these shapes in the first place. With a greater appreciation for the why of asana, we may also gain a greater appreciation for these old-school poses.
One of the earliest representations of physical postures came in the form of the Pashupti Seal, found in the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization. This artifact depicts Lord Shiva in seated meditation surrounded by animals. It dates back as far as 2500–2400 B.C.E.
The first written mention of yoga as a physical discipline was in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, written around the 4th century C.E.
Patanjali’s classic text is made up of 196 aphorisms, or short statements (195, according to some transliterations). It explains yoga as “the stilling of the movements of the mind.” Of the abundant teachings within this seminal book, three sutras are devoted to asana—frequently defined as “a comfortable and steady seat”—cultivated for the purpose of single-pointed awareness. Patanjali also says that the practice of meditation leads us to realize that we are not the bodies we wear or the roles we play, but that we are infinite and eternal.
One of the first books to list specific yoga postures and their benefits was the (15th century C.E). This guide to the physical practice of yoga and cleansing rituals describes 15 postures, of which most are seated postures.
Other lesser known but equally seminal texts discussing asana were the Gheranda Samhita (dating somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries C.E.) and the Shiva Samhita (dating between the 15th and 17th centuries C.E.). While both describe numerous postures, the Gheranda mentions only one standing pose—tree pose (vrksasana). The rest were mostly—you guessed it—seated poses! The Gheranda Samhita also describes postures as limitless, saying, “There are 84 hundreds of thousands of asanas as described by Shiva. The postures are as many in number as there are numbers of species of living creatures in this universe.” Yet it lists only 32.
These three texts were unique in that they described not only how to do the poses, but also their energetic benefits. Yogis had already begun to view the body as an essential vehicle to self-realization by means of opening the flow of energy, or shakti.
The dawn of “modern” yoga can be linked to the teachings of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989). Though Krishnamacharya has been called “the father of modern yoga,” I’ve intentionally placed the word modern in quotes for the fact that the so-called modern period of yoga is considered to be about a hundred years old.
Aside from being a renowned yoga teacher, Krishnamacharya was also an ayurvedic healer and believed in asana as medicine. Through his lineage, the styles of Ashtanga Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, and Viniyoga were born—all of which have had a huge impact on yoga in the West.
As I have mentioned, asana has always been used to access something beyond the physical. The history of yoga reminds us that yoga asana is not about becoming different or new, but remembering who we already are. It can be thought of as an inward journey toward the self.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, yoga is becoming increasingly external. As a result, many of the classical shapes that appeared in the original texts are being taught less than newer, more physically demanding related postures. This is not to say we should never try fun poses! Rather, we might consider the benefits of building a practice that incorporates both old-school and newer poses. In fact, the traditional shapes often serve as blueprints for more creative variations.
So if we ever find ourselves feeling overwhelmed trying to mimic some shape we saw on Instagram, we can remind ourselves of the primary purpose of asana—to realize that we are already perfect and whole.
With that in mind, here are six old-school poses that I think deserve a comeback.
Gate pose is a great side-lengthener, which helps open up the rib cage, creating more space for the lungs and breath to expand. Despite its potent effects, I can honestly count on my hands the number of times I have taught this pose. I am on a mission to practice and teach it more—perhaps you will join me!
Optional props: blanket, block The Practice
Start in a high kneeling position, facing the long edge of your mat. If your knees are sensitive, place a blanket underneath your shins. Step your left leg out to the side, externally rotating your left thigh. Either point your left toes and press the ball of the left foot into the floor, or keep the ankle flexed and toes pointing upward. Allow your right hip to turn slightly toward the left, creating space in your lower back. As you inhale, reach both arms overhead, and as you exhale, side-bend to the left. Bring your left fingertips either to the floor or to a block behind your left leg, and keep reaching your right arm overhead to the left. Lengthen on each inhale, revolving your torso forward with each exhale. If comfortable for your neck, look up under your right arm.
Remain for 15 breaths. To come out, root into your right shin and bring your torso upright on an inhale. Rebend your left knee and come back to kneeling. Switch sides.
Revolved triangle seems to have all but disappeared from most vinyasa flow classes. Despite being considered a fundamental pose in certain yoga systems, it can be quite challenging. However, its challenges are also its benefits. This posture offers an epic hamstring stretch and one of the deepest standing twists.
Optional props: block
Stand at the front of your mat, with one block on the highest setting at the top right corner of the mat. Placing your hands on your hips, step your right foot back about three feet, with the width between your heels about one inch (adjusting as needed for stability). Turn your right foot in about 45 degrees. On an inhale, reach your right arm up alongside your ear and lengthen your spine. On an exhale, hinge forward at your hip crease, placing your right hand on the block inside your left foot. Maintain length through your spine, which will determine the height of the block. Feel free to try different levels, as long as you are able to breathe fully. On an inhale, lengthen your spine from your outer left hip to the crown of your head. On an exhale, revolve your torso to the left, as if trying to turn your ribs toward the ceiling. Reach your left arm up to the sky.
Hold for 10 full breaths. To come out, ground into your feet; on an inhale, bring your torso upright. On an exhale, place your hands on your hips. Step to the top of your mat and switch sides.
This backbend is a wonderful way to stretch the entire front body, from the chest to the tops of the feet! It is known as the “eastern stretch” because it stretches the front of the body, and yogis traditionally practice facing the east.
Begin by sitting in staff pose (dandasana). Place your hands a few inches behind you, palms down, fingers facing forward. On an inhale, press into your hands, and lift your entire body up toward the ceiling. Actively point through your toes in an effort to bring the bottoms of your feet to the floor. If you are unable to reach your feet to the floor or straighten your legs fully, modify the pose by keeping your knees bent. Spread your collarbones wide and reach your tailbone toward your heels to keep your pelvis lifted as your inner thighs internally rotate toward the floor, widening your lower back. If your chest is well lifted, try taking your head back, reaching out through the crown of your head and keeping your throat soft.
Stay for eight breaths. Slowly release on an exhale, head coming up last. Lower onto your buttocks and then pause, seated. This is a good pose to repeat one more time.
This pose is good preparation for:Shiva pose
Shoulderstand is being taught less in public classes for many reasons: Class times around the world seem to be getting shorter and shorter, leaving little time for the setup necessary to practice it safely. Also, our lifestyle—driving and hunching over screens—encourages rounding of our shoulders, which can undermine our ability to draw our shoulders under, a key component of doing this pose effectively. Lastly, most bodies require two to four blankets to maintain the natural curve of the neck, and unfortunately, most studios do not have sufficient supplies. Thank goodness for a home practice!
Props: 2–4 blankets, 1 strap, 1 block
Stack three neatly folded blankets near the top of your mat. If you are using the traditional Mexican blankets with fringe, make sure the edges without the fringe are facing the same direction your head will be facing. To prevent your elbows from slipping, take the front end of your mat and fold it over the blankets. You can also use a strap to keep your arms in place. If you’re using a strap, fashion it into a shoulder-width loop and loop it around one elbow. Then lie on your blankets, with the back of your head on the floor and the top of your shoulders 1–2 inches in front of the edge of the blankets.
On an inhale, sweep your legs overhead, starting in plough pose (halasana). If your feet do not reach the floor, consider using a block or the wall to support them. Weave the other arm into the strap loop and interlace your fingers, pressing your outer wrists strongly into the floor. Draw your upper arms under you, getting high up onto your shoulders.
Take your time preparing. Then, on an inhale, lift your right leg up to the sky, followed by your left.
Bend your elbows and place your palms onto your back. Press your upper arms into the mat. Work your arms farther up your back. Continue to press your outer upper arms into the floor, and lengthen through your waist. Reach your legs toward the ceiling, sitting bones toward your knees, in order to prevent creasing at the hips. If you like, build up toward longer holds, starting with 20 breaths. (For most benefits, the pose should be held for a while.)
Once complete, come down as slowly as you came up, lowering one leg at a time into plough pose. Remove your hands from your back, slip out of the strap, and reach out to grab the edges of the mat with your hands. Bend your knees softly, and on an exhale, roll down slowly, one vertebra at a time, engaging your core and keeping your head on the ground (although your chin may lift). Once you are flat on your back, rest there. Consider countering your shoulderstand practice with a version of fish pose (matsyasana).
This pose is good preparation for: niralamba sarvangasana (unsupported shoulderstand pose), shoulderstand drop backs.
The first time I practiced this pose was while watching a videotape in the ’90s. I remember thinking that this was one of the more aptly named yoga postures—“stomach churning pose”—as my tummy burned with effort! While this may be challenging to teach in Vinyasa classes because of space limitations, it is an excellent way to build oblique strength.
Begin by lying on your back with your legs extended straight up toward the ceiling and arms in a T, palms down. Inhale, and then on an exhale, bring your legs toward your left hand, reaching strongly through your right leg. Press your right hand firmly into the floor. On an inhale, bring your legs back up through the center; on an exhale, twist to the right, bringing your feet toward your right hand and reaching strongly through your left leg. Press your left hand into the floor. Inhale and bring your legs back up to center, completing one full round.
Note: If you are unable to keep your legs straight for this practice, feel free to bend them.
Repeat four more times for a total of five full rounds. Once complete, pull your knees into your chest and take a full breath in and out.
This pose is good preparation for: dwi pada koundinyasana.
Janu sirsasana’s almost identical sister, maha mudra, can be found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, mentioned earlier. The difference between these two practices is that maha mudra is not considered an asana, but a mudra—a way to “lock” and build energy in the body. In maha mudra, the big toe is grasped, while the practitioner works to engage all the bandhas; in janu sirsasana the practitioner folds forward and binds one wrist with the other hand around the foot.
Despite decades of reverence for this pose, it has been a long time since I’ve seen it taught in a public class—perhaps because it is not as sensational as other hip openers, such as pigeon pose (eka pada raja kapotasana) or frog pose (mandukasana). But it lengthens the hamstrings of the straight leg and the inner thigh of the bent-knee leg, and as far as I’m concerned, it deserves a comeback! Optional props: 1–2 blankets, strap The Practice
Begin by sitting in staff pose. If your back rounds when you’re sitting directly on the floor, sit up on a folded blanket. Bend your left knee, open it to the side, and place the heel of your left foot high up on your inner right thigh. On an inhale, reach your arms overhead; on an exhale, fold forward, grabbing your right wrist with your left hand, and looping your hands (or a strap) around your right foot. Despite the pose being named head to knee pose, visualize the top of your head reaching your right foot so that your spine remains long.
Stay for 10 breaths. Inhale to lift your torso up and stretch your right leg out before switching sides.
This pose is good preparation for: flying lizard
As the saying goes, everything old is new again. Bringing back these classic shapes will not only help to incorporate more tradition into your practice, but it may also imbue it with some freshness. It’s like finding clothing you’ve not worn for decades—and it suddenly feels brand new.
Photography: Emilie Bers at Embrace Yoga