Yoga is commonly associated erroneously with only the poses or postures, called “asanas” in Sanskrit. In actuality, yoga is more of a system of which the asanas are but one part. And a lesser one at that. Meditation and pranayama are the main focus of the physical activity aspects of traditional “meditation yoga” (as opposed to modern “exercise yoga”).
My endless curiosity has been intrigued since starting up meditation as to the origins of the techniques and practices. This includes the asanas of yoga, which I’ve recently started experimenting with. Some brief research revealed that I was not alone in thinking these questions, and author and scholar Mark Singleton did all of the hard work for me. He discovered what seems to be an origin of yoga asanas in the country of Denmark, where he discovered an early 20th-century Danish system of dynamic exercise called Primitive Gymnastics that were uncannily similar and not influenced by yoga or by yogis of India. And it seems as if the asanas were covertly introduced into yoga by anarchists!
Amy Vaughn over at Elephant Journal goes into the more yoga side of the asana origins story, where she discusses the early yoga texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the asanas which were described and prescribed by the ancient authors. It seems that these sages used the word “asana” more in reference to the postures used while sitting in meditation rather than anything to do with stretching, fitness or exercise. The “meditation yoga” of old was far more focused on concentration and meditation (sustained concentration) techniques, as well as breath control (pranayama).
I myself have found the asanas suggested over at Advanced Yoga Practices to be helpful in building strength and flexibility for sitting in the siddhasana pose (a slight variation on a basic cross-legged sitting pose) while meditating.
Meditation, it seems, maintains the ancient legacy. It definitely pre-dates the Buddha, since he used meditation techniques to reach Enlightenment. The Indus Valley seal at the top of this post is considered early (c. 3000 B.C.) possible evidence of meditation practices.