Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Yoga?

Indian Postural Therapies in Mediaeval China

  • Dominic Steavu University of California


China has an unbroken history of therapeutic stretches, gymnastics, and callisthenic practices—collectively known as daoyin—that date back to the 2nd century BCE. Yet, despite a robust indigenous tradition, an iconic and influential set of eighteen daoyin postures was originally labelled an “Indian massage method” or “Brahmanic callisthenics” when it first surfaced in Daoist texts and medical treatises around the 6th or 7th century. Indeed, those eighteen postures bear a striking resemblance to bodily disciplines associated with traditional physical practices in India. In the first part of the chapter, we examine the earliest Chinese sources of the so-called “Indian massage methods,” namely, the Daoist scripture known as Daolin’s Treatise on Maintaining Life and the physician Sun Simiao’s (d. 682) Essential Emergency Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold [Pieces]. In the second part of the paper, we turn to the question of how these foreign practices were “naturalised” and renegotiated as native therapies. In a third section, we will consider the further peregrinations of “Brahmanic callisthenics” by following their traces in European accounts of Chinese self-cultivation techniques. We will seek to untangle the threads connecting Jesuit accounts and mediaeval Sino-Indian methods. We will also succinctly reflect on the reception of biospiritual disciplines in early-modern Europe and their re-circulation in India.

Author Biography

Dominic Steavu, University of California

Dominic Steavu is Associate Professor of Chinese Religions and Buddhism at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of The Writ of the Three Sovereigns: From Local Lore to Institutional Daoism (Hawaii UP, 2019) and the co-editor of Transforming the Void: Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Symbolism in East Asian Religions (Wellcome Asian Series, Brill 2016). He has published on the confluence of medicine with religion in premodern East Asian Buddhism and Daoism. His current research interests revolve around biospiritual health practices such as postural self- cultivation or the ingestion of psychotropic aids in visualizations methods.

How to Cite
STEAVU, Dominic. Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Yoga?. Journal of Yoga Studies, [S.l.], v. 4, p. 375 – 412, apr. 2023. ISSN 2664-1739. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 21 apr. 2024.