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Tuesday, 8 October 2013

ASANAS Old and New

Unpublished manuscripts and hints of the missing Yoga Kurunta

By JACQUELINE HARGREAVES
Published: 9 October, 2013


The history and authenticity of Yoga is receiving a lot of attention these days.  Publications like Mark Singleton's Yoga Body have rightly pointed out the modern innovations and influences on the practice, but so much of the history of Yoga (particularly the practice of āsana in Haṭhayoga) is still unknown.  Most of it remains locked up in poorly resourced Indian libraries with minimal preservation care, often rotting away on palm leaf Sanskrit manuscripts.  The details contained in these past writings are of little interest to the modern Indian who desires the lifestyle, career and wealth advocated by the West.  Yet, Indian librarians guard this knowledge with national pride and make it difficult to access even by those keen, knowledgeable and skillful enough to read it.  The task of gaining access can be a long, complex and bureaucratic process, and then attempting to read something that is scribbled or scratched in a dead language means that the barriers to piecing together a coherent history is challenging and left only to those with a passion for puzzles and a doctorate in the language.

With modern Yoga becoming a mainstream lifestyle pursuit, its teachings are being diluted with all forms of exercise (from physiotherapy to pole dancing!).  At the same time, modern Yoga also appears to be forming an eclectic new age spirituality that is described by Elizabeth de Michelis as "an inward, privatized form of religion".  As such, many practitioners are looking to the past for inspiration and authenticity in the hope of making Yoga a more substantial offering.  Yet, when one tries to study the history of Yoga more questions than answers often arise.  

How old are the physical practices of Yoga?

Many claim that there is a historical thread that can be traced back 4000 years, while others clearly point to the influence of British physical education and gymnastics.   Neither polarized view offers an accurate picture.

Why is there so much movement in Yoga today when it's about sitting still in meditation?

To date, scholars have been unable to provide evidence that clearly points to the use of posture and movement in the form of asanas in traditional Yoga.  Many claim that the goal of traditional Yoga, to achieve the stone-like meditation state described by Patañjali's Yogasutras, is still the ultimate pursuit of modern Yoga.  Conversely, the recently published work of James Mallinson suggests that the heating techniques of Haṭhayoga have their origins in the renunciant traditions of India and are more closely related to the pursuit of tapas as a means to liberation.  And yet, a very big gap remains between the austere physical techniques of the renunciant traditions and the modern pursuit of Yoga that aspires to health, wellbeing and deep states of relaxation.

Why are so few asanas mentioned in the traditional Yoga texts, such as the Yogasutras and the Hathapradipika, and yet so many are practiced today in asana based systems like K. Pattahbhi Jois' Ashtanga Yoga and B. K. S. Iyengar Yoga?

It has been difficult to ignore the absence of historical evidence on the development of later Haṭhayoga.  Modern practitioners have clung to the hope of finding the long lost and mysterious Yoga Kuruṇṭa (a purported Sanskrit text allegedly used by Krishnamacharya) in the hope that it will validate the practice of vinyasa and Surya Namaskar as well as provide precedents to the ropes and props used by B. K. S. Iyengar.

A recent academic conference Yoga in Transformation held in September 2013 at the Vienna University was an extraordinary event that highlights the importance of this conversation and the efforts of scholars to provide a historically accurate picture while attempting to predict the future trajectory of this global phenomenon.

Jason Birch manuscript hunting in India
Jason Birch's presentation on the Unpublished Manuscript Evidence for the practice of Numerous Asanas in the 17th and 18th Century is a helpful piece in attempting to solve this complex puzzle.  Jason presents evidence to suggest that there were well over 100 āsana being practised in India before the British arrived.  He states:

"Generally speaking, there are very few seated, forward, backward, twisting and arm-balancing poses in modern yoga that have not been anticipated by these seventeenth and eighteenth-century sources."

Jason's research involved the detailed study of several 17th and 18th century manuscripts found in various library around India.  These particular findings are significant as they offer a window into the types of āsanas practiced in India at that time.  Some of the Haṭhayogic techniques were prominent enough to catch the inquisitive eye of the Mogul Court and are recorded in a Persian manuscript.

Ujjain Manuscript - Yogacintamani (photo: Jason Birch)

It contradicts the assumption made by Scholars and Yoga Teachers alike that the physical āsana of modern Yoga have no precedent.  Jason states that in the manuscript evidence:

"The majority of these āsana were not seated poses, but complex and physically-demanding postures some of which involved repetitive movement, breath control and the use of rope.  When these manuscript sources are combined, the assemblage of āsana provides antecedents to most of the floor and inverted postures in modern systems of Indian yoga."

Folio Detail of Sunyasana
Jason confirms that moving āsana, rope āsana and standing āsana were all part of the picture long before the revival of physical yoga in the 20th century.  He also points out that Haṭhayoga had been appropriated by orthodox Brahmins before the 18th century, moving it away from the renunciant traditions, and they wrote yoga texts that blended Haṭhayoga with Patañjali's yoga, the Upaniṣads and Bhagavadgītā, much like we see today.

"Pioneering yoga gurus such as Kṛṣṇamācārya, Swami Kuvalayānanda and Shree Yogendra were all Brahmins with some disdain for the extreme asceticism and so-called Tantric practices of renunciants, and so, it is more likely that they would have been influenced by the knowledge of Brahmins whose erudite forefathers had been appropriating Hathayoga since the seventeenth century, as evinced by texts such as the Yogacintāmaṇi and the Hathasaṅketacandrikā."

Jason has been able to identify the earliest, dated evidence of a complete list of 84 asanas in a 17th century manuscript of the Yogacintāmaṇi.  Another of the manuscripts studied, the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, appears to be a valuable source text that hints at the content of the mysterious Yoga Kuruṇṭa, mentioned in Gītā Iyengar's book on Yoga for Women as the source of her rope poses.

Jason concludes that:  "The Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati confirms that rope-poses were incorporated into Haṭhayoga, possibly as early as the eighteenth century.  None of the names of its rope poses correspond to those in Gītā Iyengar’s book, but this does raise the question of whether the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati is related in some way to the Yoga Kuruṇṭa known to Kṛṣṇamācārya and via him to the Iyengars, Pattabhi Jois, Desikachar and his son, Kaustubh."

"One must wonder whether the name ‘Yoga Kuruṇṭa’ was derived from Kapālakuraṇṭaka, the author of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati.  The only available manuscript of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati appears to be incomplete and probably contains only part of the original text.  It does not mention the Yoga Kuruṇṭa, but it does establish that there was a Haṭha text called the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati which may have contained āsanas similar to those reported in the Yoga Kuruṇṭa."

Front and Back Covers (photo: Jason Birch)
Although Jason has yet to find specific evidence for the practices of Surya Namaskara and vinyasa, he does highlight that most postures in K. Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga Yoga have a strong connection to the past.

 "Though moving āsana are described in the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, this text does not provide general guidelines on how the postures were practised.  In fact, Sanskrit yoga texts do not stipulate whether āsana were held for long or short periods of time, whether special sequences were followed or whether manipulating the breath was important in the practice of āsana."

To learn more, Jason has provided the full presentation he delivered in Vienna for download here:

Jason Birch - 'Yoga in Transformation' Presentation

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Searching for the True Meaning of Haṭha

By JACQUELINE HARGREAVES
Published: 10 April, 2012


Modern yoga teachers and their teachings are an eclectic mix.  Attend a yoga class in your local area today and it may be promoted using any number of colourful adjectives: "hot", "fast", "dynamic", "vinyasa", "flow", "insightful", "powerful".  You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that the Sanskrit term haṭhayoga literally means "the Yoga of force".  Most styles of modern yoga, including Aṣṭāṅga and Iyengar, are said to be forms of Haṭhayoga but rarely do you read marketing material describing a yoga class as "forceful" or "violent".  So why is the term force used to describe Haṭhayoga when most teachers emphasize the guiding principle of ahiṃsā (non-violence)?

Ask an Indian guru and he may answer that the force (or the violence) of Haṭhayoga refers to the self-torture endured by those practising extreme asceticism or tapas, such as fasting or holding one arm above one's head for many years.  Or he may offer a more esoteric definition based on the syllables ha and ṭha, that is "the union of the sun (ha) and moon (ṭha)" in the body.

Finding the first definition particularly difficult to apply in practice (and perhaps market!), most Western teachers opt for the more poetic definition "the union of the sun (ha) and moon (ṭha)".  This meaning has become so prolific in modern yoga publications that it would be easy to believe this is the more accurate and wholesome definition.

But are either of these definitions the true historical meaning of Haṭhayoga?  Where does the name Haṭhayoga come from?  How old is it?  How does the term haṭha (force) apply to a yoga practice?

A recently published article "The Meaning of haṭha in Early Haṭhayoga" by Jason Birch in the Journal of the American Oriental Society (December, 2011) goes some way to answer these questions. 

Jason states that "rather than the metaphysical explanation of uniting the sun (ha) and moon (ṭha), it is more likely that the name Haṭhayoga was inspired by the meaning ‘force’."

In this article, Jason identifies the earliest use of the term Haṭhayoga as far back as the Buddhist tantras in the 8th century.  His research concludes that the ha-ṭha syllable definition was a late development and that the name Haṭhayoga was probably first adopted because the techniques forced apāna (the downward moving breath) to move upwards; "The descriptions of forcefully moving kuṇḍalinī, apāna, or bindu upwards through the central channel suggest that the “force” of Haṭhayoga qualifies the effects of its techniques, rather than the effort required to perform them."

The meaning of Sanskrit terms such as kuṇḍalinī, apāna, and bindu are interpreted differently by various teachers and traditions.  But perhaps practitioners of all styles of modern yoga could benefit by contemplating whether their practice is forceful in the sense of 'effective' and having 'powerful results' on vitality, or whether it is forceful in terms of 'exertion'.  

An effective practice requires skill, knowledge and experience whereas forceful exertion does not.  Practising yoga with exertion may lead to fatigue or injury which detract from both the physical and mental benefits of yoga.  In fact, the Haṭhapradīpikā includes exertion in a list of six obstacles to yoga.
  
We are pleased to share Jason's article "The Meaning of haṭha in Early Haṭhayoga" in full for wider distribution.  Please feel free to use it in your teaching or research.  Be warned that it is an academic read, so best to skip the footnotes unless you are that way inclined or find it particularly interesting.   Acknowledgment of the author and publisher when quoting from this article is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Getting the History Right - Yoga in the New York Times

By JASON BIRCH
Published: 1 March, 2012


Williams Broad's recent article in the New York Times on "Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here"
contains historical inaccuracies which undermine his argument and integrity.  He claims that Haṭhayoga "began as a sex cult".  This bizarre statement is based on his mistaken belief that the sexual practices of Tantra were adopted by Haṭhayoga, and these practices included the postures and breathing exercises which have become central to modern yoga.

Mahāmandir in Jodhpur (late 18th - 19th c.)
Tantric Śaivism reached its zenith in the 10 - 11th centuries with the work of the great Kashmirian Śaiva, Abhinavagupta.  Textual evidence confirms that Haṭhayoga rose to prominence from the 12 - 15th centuries A.D. (in works such as the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, Vivekamārtaṇḍa, Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā, Gorakṣaśataka, Yogabīja and so on).  Much of the terminology in the early Haṭha texts derived from Tantra, but two great innovations had occurred.  Firstly, Haṭhayoga had discarded the complex metaphysics, doctrine and ritual system of Tantra.  This included any transgressive practices of consuming meat, alcohol and ritualized sex.  And secondly, the focus of Haṭhayoga was almost entirely on the practice of yoga rather than other methods of liberation such as gnosis and rituals like initiation (dīkṣā).  By the time of the 15th century, Haṭhayoga had developed a much more complex system of physical practice than earlier forms of Tantric yoga, including many new complex postures (āsana) and breathing exercises with locks (bandhas) and seals (mudrā).

Broad’s comments imply that sex was central to Tantra’s ritual practice.  This is not true.  Ritualized sex was not practiced by all Tantric sects and, when it was practiced, it was but one component in a complex ritual system, which was built on the use of mantras, visualisation, mandalas, mudrās, contemplation, worshiping a deity, making offerings into a fire, etc.  The rich diversity of this religion is lost in Broad's comments and I would encourage anyone who is curious about Tantra to read Alexis Sanderson’s articles, which include the textual, epigraphical and archaeological evidence behind his statements.   

The only sexual practice described in some of the above-mentioned Haṭha texts is Vajrolīmudrā, in which the male Yogin absorbs, via his urethra, a mixture of his semen and a female yoga practitioner's sexual fluids.  The aim of this practice was not "rapturous bliss" but the retention of sexual fluids, which was believed to bring about greater strength, a longer life, a pleasant smell to the body and freedom from disease.  These benefits could also be achieved through chastity and other mudrās, so Vajrolīmudrā was not central to Haṭhayoga and half of the aforementioned texts omit it. 

Mahāmandir in Jodhpur (late 18th - 19th c.)
Far from describing the practices of a sex cult, Haṭhayoga texts generally advise male yogins not to associate with women.  After all, Haṭhayoga was usually practiced alone in an isolated place.  Apart from the goal of liberation from worldly life, the texts frequently mention that postures and breathing exercises purify body and mind, give freedom from disease and lead to steadiness of body and mind.  Contrary to Broad's claim, I know of not one instance in a Haṭha text where a posture or breathing exercise is said to bring about sexual arousal.

One must wonder whether Broad has read that Haṭhayoga was designed to raise Kuṇḍalinī, which, far from her early origins as a Goddess, became a metaphor for sexual energy in some 20th-century yoga books influenced by New Age religion.  The raising of Kuṇḍalinī in pre-20th century Haṭhayoga texts is said to cause meditative absorption (i.e. samādhi) and is not concerned with boosting one’s sexual performance.  Even in New Age yoga books, sexual energy is raised for purposes which they considered to be “higher” than mere worldly sexual intercourse.

As to why Haṭhayoga fell into disrepute in 19th century India, see the second chapter of Mark Singleton's book, Yoga Body.  It is true that modern yoga was the result of a reformation in the early 20th century, but the suggestion that its founders unwittingly or otherwise adopted techniques designed for sexual stimulation is false.  The fact that gurus such as Kṛṣṇamācārya and Iyengar do not mention Tantra in their publications has more to do with their own religious affiliation which is closer to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions of India rather than Tantric ones.  Hence, they prefer and teach Patañjali's Yogasūtras and the Bhagavad Gītā, and quote the Haṭha texts to a lesser degree.

The underlying flaw in Broad's argument is that he presents no evidence, scientific or historical, that Haṭhayoga practices cause sexual arousal.  They may lead to health and perhaps less likelihood of impotence, but the suggestion that they cause sexual arousal is absurd.  He does not consider whether the sexual transgressions of gurus and yoga teachers derive from the temptation of a charismatic leader to abuse their power over devoted followers.  One must wonder why Broad has attempted to link yoga techniques with sex scandals in the way that he has.  Some journalists do think that controversy benefits all and to this end are willing to ignore or cherry-pick the evidence and throw out the truth.

Jason Birch
Jason Birch has been dedicated to the study of Sanskrit and the practice of Yoga since 1996.  His special interest is in the Medieval Yoga traditions of India, particularly the Sanskrit texts of Hatha Yoga and the Raja Yoga that stemmed from Tantric Shaivism.  He is reading for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Oriental Studies (Sanskrit) at Oxford University under the supervision of Professor Alexis Sanderson.

Friday, 8 April 2011


    It started as a whisper amongst the snow drops.... idle gossip.... 
    then the cherry blossoms began to sing,
    and the daffodils joined in the chorus.
    It must be true.... Spring is here!

    Blue bells, purple iris, and a carnival of pink hyacinths.
    The tulips make a striking stance, as the magnolias proudly flaunt their bountiful blossom.
    Fragrant air a buzz, while an inner tingle of warmth rises to greet the returning Sun.

Yoga for Spring Blossoms

1.  Rise with the Sun.

2.  Cleanse the eyes, nose and mouth with warm water.

3.  Gargle with warm salty water (1tsp salt in 1 cup of water) to gently loosen and remove any phlegm build up.

4.  Perform several rounds of Uḍḍiyāna Bandha to fully open the sinuses.  If unfamiliar with Uḍḍiyāna Bandha, at the end of an exhale, practice holding the breath out for 5 seconds, and then breath in steadily through the both nostrils until the air moves freely through the sinuses.

5.  Practice Sūtra Neti to cleanse and strengthen the sinuses.  The most effective practice for avoiding Hay fever!!!  Watch this demonstration video, and ask an experienced/qualified Yoga Teacher to show you how.


6.  Finish with 40 rounds of Kapālabhāti (gently but rigorously exhaling the breath through the nostrils).


Now, we are ready to salute the Sun!



Wednesday, 6 April 2011




“F@!%$&*CKKKK!” was the cry that came from deep within.  My persistently resistant right hip was opposed to the shape I had taken and was protesting as strongly as the Egyptians in Tahrir Square.  I only hoped that this internal demonstration would end as quickly and peacefully.

As I reminded myself of the words ‘gently, gently’ that permeate the ancient Sanskrit Yoga texts as guides, it seemed that Ahiṃsā (non-violence) was the only noble path to face this situation.  But why does one persist with the practice of Yoga when it often feels like a self-imposed battle?  Surely facing these daily acts of bodily disobedience, and all too often mental disobedience, as well as the stubborn resistance to change, could only lead to exhaustion?!?

Believe me, I am by no means a taskmaster.  In fact, in many other parts of my life, I wouldn’t be surprised if others called me a lazy procrastinating non-ambitious drop out.  Yet, the process of continuous transformation that results from a daily practice of Yoga has had me dedicating long days and studying well into the night, without tiring, for over a decade now.  So what is the power of Yoga that has infected me, and so many others, in the modern world?

Yesterday, I meet an inspiring fellow known fondly as “The Kid”, at a teacher training conducted by the
Prisons Phoenix Trust (PPT).  The PPT aim to assist prisoners and prison staff in the development of their spiritual welfare through the practice of meditation and yoga. The Kid is an ex-criminal that stumbled across a Yoga book written in Spanish while locked up in an Argentinean prison for 10 years.  This was his second time in the lock up as he’d already endured 10 long years in a UK prison for similar deeds. The fact that he couldn’t read Spanish
didn’t inhibit his interest.  He simply spent the first 6 months, with a dictionary in hand, translating it into English.  With plenty of time and the strong urge to reform his life, he practiced alone in his cell, teaching himself from pictures and progressing laboriously through book after book on Yoga, absorbing it’s teachings like a parched dessert thirsty for water.

“Arrrrgh, that’s the easy way!” I thought enviously…. consider your prison cell your Ashram, a small isolated hut without distractions, no need to gather food, no struggle for survival, no engaging in relationships or worldly events, the job is half done!  All temptations have been removed and it is only self-discipline that is required to fight the battle.  Could I really think the grass looks greener inside an Argentinean prison cell?

The Kid’s remarkable story of renewal and transformation would leave any disbeliever in awe of the power of Yoga.  He practiced steadily and consistently for 10 years with the Sūtras as his teacher, reshaping himself from hardened drug smuggler to inspirational self-healed Yoga teacher.  His tale is nothing short of miraculous.  But what did Yoga do?  Why did it work?  Why is The Kid’s path so similar (in many respects) to all others who practice Yoga with consistency and determination?

Considering this more closely, it appears that the most alluring qualities of Yoga are in its ability to renew and empower.  The practitioner, when faced with looking directly at themselves, is not restricted by circumstances, upbringing, wealth nor even health.  One quickly realises that it is actions that take immediate affect on the body, breath and mind, and that these actions also shape life experiences.  The practice of Yoga generously offers an opportunity to break free of any confinements (physical, mental, emotional, situational) and provides the tools to dig a pathway out!  Proficiency comes when one is no longer cast from side-to-side by the daily throws of life and quietly confronts whatever arises.    But does the practice of Yoga really help us choose our actions more wisely?

The sage Patañjali (4th C) talks of the shift in perspective that results in a world eternal and the allure of Siddhis (powers).  In modern times, the allure of power and enlightenment certainly attracts some, but for most practitioners, it is the joy of profound changes in life experiences that encourages further enquiry and growth.  In fact, it is common, for those dedicated to Yoga, to marvel at how their practice cultivates the feelings of Friendliness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity (known as Bhāvanā) in all other aspects of their lives.  So whether faced with times of great happiness or suffering, success or failure, there appears to be an empowered shift towards a Life in which Bhāvanā are prevalent.  Thankfully, Patañjali concisely describes this as the rise of Citta Prasādanam - - clarity, brilliance, tranquility and serenity!  

Perhaps it is Citta Prasādanam that has us all eagerly returning to our practice?