Friday, February 28, 2014

The Origins of a Famous Yogic/Tantric Image (part 1)

Mark Singleton
Ellen Goldberg
I'm delighted by the arrival from the bookshop of my copy of the excellent new book Gurus of Modern Yoga edited by Mark Singleton and Ellen Goldberg (ISBN 978-0-19-993872-8).

Full details of the book can be had from Peter Wyzlic's indologica.de website.





Yogini Sunita's Pranayama Image

Suzanne Newcombe
Suzanne Newcombe's chapter, "The Institutionalization of the Yoga Tradition: `Gurus' B. K. S. Iyengar and Yogini Sunita in Britain," is an outstanding description and evaluation of the impact of two yoga teachers in the UK.  One of Suzanne's subjects is Yogini Sunita (aka Bernadette Cabral), originally a Catholic from Bombay.  Although tragically killed by a car at the early age of 38, her work is kept alive by her son Kenneth Cabral and other yoga teachers (http://www.pranayama-yoga.co.uk).

Yogini Sunita published a book in 1965 called Pranayama, The Art of
Relaxation, The Lotus and the Rose (Worldcat).  It contained an illustration that has gone on to become one of the most famous and iconic images in yoga publishing.  The image is a line drawing in black on a white background showing the outline of a seated, cross-legged meditator superimposed on a wild network of lines, with annotations in Devanagari script. The Sanskrit word प्राणायाम (prāṇāyāma) "breath control" labels the image in the top right-hand corner.  The smaller writing, along the lines, is more or less illegible in all the reproductions I have been able to examine.  I can just discern the Devanagari alphabet being spelt out (अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ए ओ ऐ औ अं अः ...) on the right clavicle.  But the rest of the writing is unclear.  I am not confident that it is even real text, although it looks superficially like Devanagari or Gujarati script.  Only an examination of the original artwork or a good reproduction would settle the matter.

Yogini Sunita's signature
Yogini Sunita was not a confident Devanagari writer, as is evidenced by her signature in the preface to her book (in Devanagari, "yodinī saunīṭā").  She could not have produced the Pranayama the drawing herself, and must have commissioned it from a source or collaborator with a confident knowledge of Sanskrit and the Devanagari script, perhaps in Bombay.

Yogini Sunita's illustration has been reproduced almost endlessly in books and now on the internet, and there are multiple modifications and interpretations.  One of the more common is a negative version, with white lines on a black background.  Others are coloured, simplified, and interpreted in various creative ways.  It appears in various contemporary yoga-themed mashups.  The word प्राणायाम is often masked out.  The image is often shown as a representation not primarily of breath control, but of the nodes and tubes of the spiritual body (cakras and nāḍīs).

Suzanne Newcombe describes how Yogini Sunita's early death meant that her methods and ideas did not spread as widely as those of other 20th century yoga teachers.  Nevertheless, the Pranayama illustration from her 1965 book has become one of the most widely-known images of yoga in the 21st-century (Google images).

Update, July 2014: now see part 2 of this article

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