Thursday, 23 June 2016

Textual Evidence for a Namaskāra as an Āsana


Pañcāṅganamaskārāsana of the Yogāsanam (circa 19th century)
Folio 15 of a manuscript called the Yogāsanam held at the Rajasthān Prāchya Vidyā Pratishthān, Bikaner, Rajasthan
(copy available at the Kaivalyadhama Library – accession No. R635Y8/15294) 

The practice of prostrating oneself on the ground, usually to a deity or guru, is mentioned in Sanskrit works, including some Tantras, that date back to at least the early medieval period of India’s history (i.e., 6th c. CE onwards). There were different ways of performing a prostration, some requiring that eight limbs be placed on the ground (aṣṭāṅgapraṇāma) and others stipulating that only six, five or four limbs touch the ground. Apart from paying homage to a deity or guru by bowing the head and holding the hands in the prayer gesture (añjalimudrā), medieval yoga texts do not mention prostrations such as the Aṣṭāṅgapraṇāma, nor any other type of Namaskāra, as a yoga technique.

However, we have recently found an exception: An undated Jain Yogāsana manual, which may have been written in the nineteenth-century, describes a five-limbed prostration (namaskāra) as an āsana. The five limbs, which are brought together on the ground, are the two knees, two hands and forehead.

Detail of Pañcāṅganamaskārāsana
Yogāsanam (circa 19th century)

         The Āsana of Prostration with Five Limbs - Pañcāṅganamaskārāsana

Having brought together the knees, hands and forehead on the ground, the excellent [yogin] should venerate with the [proper] sentiment a god that should be worshipped [thus] with five [limbs]. Purification of the mind and an increase of merit arise by [prostrating] with these limbs. The 'Āsana of Prostration with Five Limbs' posture has been taught by the gods. 
pañcāṅganamaskārāsanam ||15||
jānukaralalāṭān sa ekīkṛtya bhuvastale |
vandeta bhāvato bhavyaḥ prabhuṃ pūjyaṃ ca pañcakaiḥ ||29||
bhāvaśuddhiḥ puṇyavṛddhir aṅgair ebhiś ca jāyate |
pañcāṅganamaskāraṃ tu pīṭhaṃ devaiḥ samīritam ||30|| 
29a sa ] conj. : ya codex.

This unpublished Jaina manuscript contains descriptions of 108 āsanas with illustrations of each and provides an interesting window into the practice of late-medieval āsanas.1 It has been discussed in an article published in Kaivalyadhama’s Yoga Mīmāṃsā Journal

In his commentary on the fifteenth-century Haṭhapradīpikā, Brahmānanda (19th century) advised against practising many repetitions of Sūryanamaskāra and weightlifting because, in his opinion, such practices were too strenuous.2 His comments were prompted by the Haṭhapradīpikā’s caveat against afflicting the body (kāyakleśa). 

It is difficult to know whether Brahmānanda gave this advice because he disapproved of some yogins who were combining many repetitions of Sūryanamaskāra with Haṭhayoga. It may simply be that he considered Sūryanamaskāra and weightlifting to be good examples of practices that can afflict the body if done excessively. Nonetheless, one must wonder what Brahmānanda would have thought of the many strenuous āsanas described in late-medieval texts such as the Haṭharatnavalī, the Jogapradīpyakā and the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, the last of which contains moving and repetitive āsanas designed, as the text states, to develop bodily strength.3 

As Mark Singleton has argued, a fairly strenuous form of Sūryanamaskāra, which extends the practice of prostrating oneself on the ground by adding dog poses and lunges, was combined with yoga in the twentieth century as part of an Indian nationalist attempt to promote physical culture.4 As far as we are aware, there is no evidence for a medieval Sūryanamaskāra that resembles the modern one.

We would like to thank James Mallinson for his comments on a draft of this post and to thank Seth Powell for providing a copy of the folio image.

(1) Satapathy B, Sahay GS., A brief introduction of "Yogāsana - Jaina": An unpublished yoga manuscript
     Yoga Mimamsa [serial online] 2014 [cited 2016 Jun 19];46:43-55.

(2) Birch Jason, The Yogataravali and the Hidden History of Yoga
     Namarupa Magazine, Spring, 2015, pp. 11-12

(3) Birch Jason, The Proliferation of Asana in Late Mediaeval Yoga Traditions
     Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on a Global Phenomenon
     Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress (forthcoming 2016)

(4) Singleton Mark, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice 
     Oxford University Press (2010)

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Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Yamas and Niyamas: Medieval and Modern Views

Published: Yoga Scotland Magazine, Issue 50, May 2016

Download this article in full as a Digital PDF.

Read Part 1 of this two part series here: The Yamas and Niyamas: Patanjali’s View

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Religiosity of the Yoga Mat


The use of a towel-sized mat that defines the space on which an individual practises yoga seems quite modern. However, there are historical precedents for the size, quality and type of surface on which a yogin should practise. Well before Angela Farmer’s ingenious carpet-underlay and the commercial branding of eco-friendly sticky mats, the iconic yoga mat has a long and intriguing history. 

Yogins of various traditions have favoured certain materials for their mats, as far back as the Bhagavadgītā (circa 2nd - 3rd century CE), which prescribed that a yogin should sit on a steady seat that was not too high nor too low, and was covered with cloth, antelope skin or Kuśa grass (6.11).

Some centuries later, more complicated rules for the use of a mat occur in some Tantras. These were summarized in the Puraścaraṇacandrikā, which is a compilation on the preliminary rites (puraścaraṇa) for mantra recitation. It was written by Devendrāśrama, who probably lived in the fifteenth century.*

Before teaching postures (āsana), Devendrāśrama includes a number of verses on the types of mat (also called āsana) on which the practitioner should sit. His concern is mainly the practice of tantric ritual. The following account indicates that a fairly large array of mats were prescribed for use by some Tantrikas: 

"Hear of the Āsana [mats] which have been prescribed by sages.  
One should know that a tiger's skin brings success in all things; a deer skin is for mastery over [one's] location; a mat of cloth destroys illness; one made of cane increases prosperity; a silk [mat] is nourishing [and] a woollen one alleviates suffering.  
In [performing] rituals that harm enemies, [one should use] a black [mat] and in rituals that subjugate [others], etc., a red one. In pacifying rituals, a white [mat] is prescribed and in all [other tantric] rituals, a variegated one. In rites that paralyse [others], an elephant's skin and in death-dealing rites, a buffalo's skin. [Alternatively,] in rites that expel [enemies], a ewe's skin and in rites of subjugation, a rhinoceros' skin. In rites that cause dissension, a jackal's hide is prescribed and in pacifying rites, a cow's hide. 
When repeating a universal mantra, [sitting] on a bamboo mat [causes] poverty [and sitting] on a wooden one, misfortune. [Sitting] on the earth causes suffering and on stone, disease. [Sitting] on a straw mat destroys one's reputation and [sitting] on [one made of] twigs causes mental distraction. And [sitting] on [a seat made of] bricks results in anxiety.  
An initiated householder should never sit on a spotted black antelope skin. An ascetic, a forest dweller, a celibate (brahmacarī) and one who has taken the ritual bath [to mark the end of Brahmacarya] should sit on a completely square [mat] made of Kuśa grass, antelope skin or cotton, raised up one or two hands or four finger-breaths [from the ground]." 

The Puraścaraṇacandrikā is undoubtedly a compilation because many of its verses are found in earlier Tantras. It teaches eighteen postures and most of their names and descriptions occur in either earlier Tantras or yoga texts, such as the twelfth-century Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā

Several of the postures described in the Puraścaraṇacandrikā, which cannot be traced to a pre-fifteenth century source, can be found in the Haṭhapradīpikā (15th century CE). Seeing that the Haṭhapradīpikā and the Puraścaraṇacandrikā were probably written in the same century and that both are compilations, it's likely they borrowed these descriptions of Āsana from an earlier text that is no longer extant. 

It should be noted that such injunctions on the type of mat are not seen in Haṭhayoga texts. 

In contemporary times, the make and brand of a yoga mat is often a clear indicator of the style of practice; Aṣṭāṅgavinyāsa practitioners preferring the cotton threads of a woven Mysore rug, while Iyengar yoga practitioners tend to favour a sticky surface that can be easily folded for use as a prop.

With the advent of group classes, the particular direction and the gap between mats to allow for maximum attendance (or minimum interference) seems to depend not only on the popularity of the class but also cultural customs regarding personal space and teaching methodology for particular styles. Many of these rules are unstated, some are rational, others form part of an evolving ritualised tradition handed down from teacher to student, thus forming new conditioned behaviours. 

Some behaviours are obvious cultural observances inherited from India, like the simple action of taking off footwear (a sign of respect for the place and the teacher). However, many normative values have developed to help govern personal space while practising in a place shared with others and these often serve a functional purpose, such as the use a sticky surface to safely navigate postural proficiency. 

As various unspoken understandings of behaviour have evolved in modern postural yoga, use of the mat has come to symbolize an individual’s pursuit of transcendence (or personal health) as opposed to taking action in the community. This has led to the coining of slogans such as “Off the mat and into the world” in an attempt to combine concepts of social service and conscious activism with the practice of yoga. When viewed in contrast to the medieval tantric concept of attaining both liberation and worldly power through yoga and ritual performed on a specific mat, these slogans seem quite ironic.

* The Puraścaraṇacandrikā was quoted by name in a text called the Kramadīpikā, which was probably composed sometime after the end of the fifteenth century (see Alexis Sanderson, The Śaiva Literature, 2014, p. 69 n. 267). The Puraścaraṇacandrikā contains verses of texts that can be dated to the 12th – 15th centuries. Therefore, Devendrāśrama, the author of the Puraścaraṇacandrikā, probably lived in the fifteenth century. Much of the Puraścaraṇacandrikā's section on āsana is quoted with attribution in the Puraścaryārṇava (6.109 – 11, 6.116 – 42cd) of Mahārāja Pratāp Singh Shāh of Nepal (1774–1777). The section on mats is largely reproduced (without acknowledging the source) in the Tārābhaktisudhārṇava of Śrīnarasiṃha Ṭhakkura 1668 CE, (the Tantrik Text Series by Arthur Avalon, 1940, p. 367) and a paper manuscript called 'Āsana' (f. 1v) in the National Archives of Kathmandu (E0991-09), which is a compilation of various Āsanas and hand Mudrās. Textual parallels are also found in the Aṃśumadāgama (IFP TS3-019), the Sammohanatantra (quoted in the Prāṇatoṣaṇī (1820 CE) of Rāmatoṣaṇa Bhaṭṭācārya, the Merutantra and the Dīkṣāprakāśa of the Maithila Jīvanātha (1869 – 70). A similar verse to vaṃśāsane, etc., is quoted and attributed to the Nāradapañcarātra in Gopālabhaṭṭa's Haribhaktivilāsa. Thus, it appears that these verses found their way into a number of Tantric compilations in the late medieval period.

NGMPP A42/5; from folio 5r, line 2 onwards.

uktāni munibhir yāni āsanāni niśāmaya |

sarvasiddhyai vyāghracarma sthānasiddhyai mṛgājinaṃ |
vastrāsanaṃ rogaharaṃ vetrajaṃ śrīvivardhanaṃ |
kauśeyaṃ pauṣṭikaṃ jñeyaṃ kāmbalaṃ duḥkhamocanaṃ |

abhicāre kṛṣṇavarṇaṃ raktaṃ vaśyādikarmaṇi |
śāntike dhavalaṃ proktaṃ citrakaṃ sarvakarmasu |
stambhane gajacarma syān māraṇe māhiṣaṃ tathā |
meṣīcarma tathoccāṭe khaḍgijaṃ vaśyakarmaṇi |
vidveṣe jāmbukaṃ proktaṃ bhaved gocarma śāntike |

vaṃśāsane dāridryaṃ daurbhāgyaṃ dārujāsane |
dharaṇyāṃ duḥkhasaṃbhūtiḥ pāṣāṇe vyādhisambhavaḥ |
tṛṇāsane yaśohāni pallave cittavibhramaḥ |
iṣṭakāyām athādhiḥ syād etatsādhāraṇe jape |

na dīkṣito viśej jātu kṛṣṇasārājine gṛhī |
viśed yatir vanasthaś ca brahmacārī ca snātakaḥ |
kuśājināmbareṇāḍhyaṃ caturasraṃ samantataḥ |
ekahastaṃ dvihastaṃ vā caturaṅgulam ucchritam |

Please note the following: munibhir ] emend. : munir Codex. niśāmaya ] emend. : niśomaya Codex. śrīvivardhanaṃ ] corr. : śrīrvivardhanaṃ Codex. meṣī ] corr. : maiṣī Codex.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Sādhus of Northern India in the later 20th century

The Hartsuiker Archive of the British Museum

The Hartsuiker Archive of colour photographs has recently been catalogued and made available by the British Museum. 

This archive documents Indian mendicants or Sādhus, mostly Hindu, but including some Jain practitioners, in the later 20th century in northern India. The images were taken by Dolf Hartsuiker over many years, from the 1970s onwards. There are 1900 colour slides, divided in 1600 35mm slides and 300 in 6x6 format.

It offers an extraordinary account of a variety of yogic practices ranging from the physically demanding headstand variations (Viparītikaraṇi) and peacock pose (Mayūrāsana) through to extreme forms of tapas, such as standing on one leg for many years.  The images also include ascetic methods for maintaining the vow of celibacy (brahmacarya) that are still practised in India today.

Here are just a few that we have enjoyed viewing so far. We believe this archive will be a valuable resource that informs ethnographic research in the future.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Haṭha Yoga Project : A Brief Summary

Yoga: Austerity, Passion and Peace
The British Museum, 8th April, 2016

This is the last section of a talk given by Dr Jason Birch as part of a special event held at The British Museum (8th April) called "Yoga: Austerity, Passion and Peace." It provides a brief overview of the Haṭha Yoga Project, a five-year research project hosted by SOAS University of London funded by the ERC.

The presentation slides of the complete talk are available for download here.