More and more people are approaching yoga. Studios fill up with practitioners, so do gyms, spas, parks, beaches and so on. Everyone sweating on the mat, increasing flexibility, calming the mind, losing weight, eliminating stress. Many stay at this level, but there are some who are also interested in philosophical and spiritual principles, perhaps travelling through India and following some in-depth course. So they bring up some questions when they read texts like the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita and the main discrepancies arise between the content of the texts and the yoga in the centres. Because, in effect, traditional yoga has very little to do with modern yoga, although this is (sometimes deliberately) ignored by many teachers themselves.
To make you understand how yoga has changed in recent years, especially since it came to us, I’ll tell you this anecdote. Whenever I say to a Western person that I teach yoga, he/she usually has this reaction: “Ah, beautiful! So are you super flexible? I would love to do it too but I’m too stiff”. When I say to an Asian person I am a yoga teacher, for example to a Nepalese guy, he asks me: “Interesting! How long do you meditate each day?”. The difference in approach and knowledge of the subject seems clear to me. While in the West it has become just another type of sport, a gymnastics to become flexible and lose weight, in the East it still tends to maintain the essential traits of its original state, although it is in strong crisis there too, or that of being a journey of spiritual transformation.
Yoga: birth and evolution
«Where the mind, well-restrained through Yoga-practice, remains yet; again where, observing, by the self, nothing but the Self, he (Yogi) is satisfied in the Self. Where he realises that limitless Bliss which is to be grasped by the intellect and is beyond senses; remaining where he does not stir out from the Reality»Bhagavad Gita
Definition and history
According to Mircea Eliade, the term yoga, Sanskrit, derives from the root yuj- which means “to unite, to yoke”. Yoga is, therefore, the union with Ultimate Reality and the subjugation of the senses, desires and experiences of the conscience. From a historical point of view, it is not clear when it was born. There are findings of seals depicting Shiva in the form of Pashupati (Lord of the animals) in the position called Mulabandhasana dated 5000 years ago. Although yoga was a secret discipline transmitted orally from master to disciple, there is no written evidence dating back to the time of the seals and according to many scholars it is absolutely anachronistic talking about yoga in the 2500 BCE, given the poor evidence of the sources and the image of a sitting humanoid can be interpreted in many ways. This does not stop most yoga newspapers, teachers and practitioners from going back to the Mohenjo Daro and Harappa period, cities where these seals were found when the speak about origins of yoga.
Veda and Upanishad
There are written references to yoga practices already in the Vedas (2000 – 1100 BCE), with the main meaning of “harnessing” the senses to devote themselves to spiritual activities, but it is above all in the Upanishads, where it is named for the first time (800 – 500 BCE) that we enter a little into the technical explanation. Yoga is what allows us to abandon pleasure and pain, contemplating in ourselves the divine that is difficult to see. It is a meditative discipline capable of realizing the divine power, called shakti, through the control of vital breaths and the restraint of the motion of the breath, in total concentration. Psychophysical techniques and overcoming the distraction already appear in the pre-classical era, aimed at achieving immortality.
The cornerstone of the Hindu religion, the Song of the God (Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, uncertain date but not later than the third century BCE) is a set of 18 songs extracted from the sixth book of the greatest epic poem ever written: the Mahabharata. In the songs in question, we find Krishna, Vishnu’s main avatar, in Arjuna‘s coachman version, struggling with the difficult task of convincing his warrior to undertake the terrible battle against his 100 bad cousins. The Mahabharata, in fact, speaks of the war between the Pandavas, the 5 legitimate brothers heirs to the throne, against their 100 bad cousins, usurpers of kingdoms. The day the battle must begin, Arjuna, the champion of the Pandavas, seeing in front of him his cousins and some friends and tutors, is taken by despair and refuses to fight a fratricidal war. Krishna, for his part, persuades him with a long speech in which he describes yoga and its characteristics as a main instrument of liberation.
Krishna speaks of yoga as a way of life, with different peculiarities. Karma yoga, or the yoga of the action, is the way human beings can act without accumulating karma that would lead them to reincarnate in the next life. To do this, it is necessary to act with total detachment, without interest, giving up the fruits of this action. We don’t do something to get something else in return, we do it because it is our nature that tells us. I renounce any kind of result and this causes my disinterested action to produce no karma. In this way every action, even the most profane, becomes sacred and action is seen as a ritual act, a sacred gesture offered to God.
Bhakti yoga is that of devotion to a personal deity, or a spiritual master. It is a devotion lived with emotional transport, intense and total adoration. God is thus treated as a person of flesh and blood, and the devotee addresses him/her directly, conversing, offering him/her food, flowers, prayers, asking for his/her help, forgiveness, strength and so on. A typical approach of devotional movements, the Gita tells us that God not only reciprocates the affection we give him, but he can be a friend and even more. Through this total abandonment to the Lord, the devotee, whoever he/she is, achieves liberation regardless of caste, sexuality, social status, etc.
The path of knowledge, or jnana yoga, is the path that through metaphysical knowledge leads to the Absolute, the Brahman, the Unmanifest. This Brahman is identified with our own Self, when this happens the individual soul realizes its identity with the Supreme soul and thus frees us from samsara, the cycle of rebirths. According to this approach, suffering is given by the metaphysical ignorance that acts as a veil (Maya) that covers reality and prevents us from seeing our own divine nature. Far from being a merely intellectual knowledge, jnana yoga involves meditation through which to experience union with the divine through spiritual vision or deep intuition. It is a mystical experience that has nothing to do with intellectual knowledge.
The Bhagavad Gita does not limit itself to explaining these four types of yoga, which are not separate ways but intersect with each other, and precisely describes psychophysical techniques to achieve liberation. He strongly insists on dhyana, or meditation (attention, contemplation) and on how to practice it: observing chastity, maintaining a stable position, focusing on a single point, with a pacified soul and a disciplined mind.
The classical period
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The classical period of yoga is started with its most famous text to date: the Yoga Sutras attributed to Patanjali. Of uncertain date, between the second century BCE and the fifth century BCE, it is a systematic redaction of the knowledge of the time, and the previous ones, regarding yoga, practice, philosophy, techniques and precepts. Being a vast and interesting topic, I preferred to dedicate an entire article to that, which you can read here.
Other traditional yoga schools
“You cannot worship a god unless you are a god”Tantric motto
If we look at all the historical texts written on Yoga, it’s an endless work. There are infinite ways to interpret and live it, with schools that give more emphasis on one thing and others on another. We will only briefly describe the most significant ones.
This is an extremely important movement within Hinduism, vastly misinterpreted and distorted to the present day. We will talk about this in this article. What we need to know is that tantra is born in the Hindu sphere (and then also develops in the Buddhist one with different meanings) as a sectarian spiritual movement contrary to the teachings of the Vedas, for this reason, considered unorthodox. Born in the midst of the non-learned people, as opposed to Vedic ritualism and the philosophical ramblings of the Upanishads, it is actually a re-emergence of the Dravidian (pre-Aryan) spirituality of India, of a matriarchal matrix, as opposed to the Arian patriarchal one. A fundamental list of the peculiarities of tantra (which being a very large movement, can vary enormously from one sect to another):
- Immanence: all that exists is permeated by the divine energy, called shakti, symbolized by a Goddess.
- Transmission: the tantrika, or the practitioner of Tantra, is an initiate into secrets from a master, the guru; this involves transmission of the doctrine of master in master.
- Secrecy: teachings and practices must remain secret, within the sect.
- Puja: it is the name given to the ritual of adoration of a deity, which is always tantric in its structure even if addressed to a non-tantric divinity.
- Mandala: the pantheon, always vast, is organized in mandalas, geometric images with high energy power.
- Mantra: the word, the vibration, takes on a fundamental role in all practices and rituals. Mantras are omnipresent; many of them are the phonic form of a deity.
- Yoga: the existence of a close connection with yoga.
This last point is what interests us most. In fact, within this vast movement, the practice of yoga was a constant and there was no separation between the yogi and the tantrika. Each tantric discipline, therefore, had a section, called yoga, in which the practical techniques for obtaining liberation were listed.
Energy and body
What unites the various tantric yoga is the vision of reality as a field of supernatural energies (shakti). The human body, which is formed by various bodies: the physical (or food) and the yogic (or tantric) that is immaterial. The practitioner literally creates the latter using various rituals involving visions. This body is made up of energy channels, called nadis (the most important are: ida, pingala and shushumna), the centers in which this force accumulates, the so-called chakras (literally “wheels”), the breath of life (vayu) and finally the kundalini, a divine energy that, usually asleep at the base of the coccyx, is awakened through special techniques and made to ascend along the nadi shushumna (it joins the perineum to the point on the top of the head); when it reaches the top of the head it causes liberation. The kundalini is tendentially considered to be a particular version of the shakti which, once it rises, rejoins Shiva who symbolically resides in the last chakra.
Tantric practices, just like Patanjali’s yoga, make possible to obtain siddhis (or superpowers) by manipulating energy. The body is in fact seen as a mirror microcosm of the Universe which is the macrocosm. Tantra, in this, takes the distance from the dualist currents in which matter was seen as something negative, to render dignity and importance to it as a tool to free itself from the cycle of lives. Through the body one can arrive at liberation, using the inverse process of emanation: according to tantra, in fact, everything proceeds from a unity, a monad, often associated with Shiva, which manifesting itself divided into the polarity that distinguishes the universe (consciousness and energy, passivity and activity, etc.), has increasingly divided creating the various aspects of matter. Doing the reverse path, starting from the body, we return to this original unity. Tendentially, therefore, tantra is non-dualistic and in this, it is opposed to the yoga of Patanjali who, based on samkhya, affirms that reality is composed of two absolute essences. What we needed to know about tantra is enough (here an in-depth article).
Considered the tantric yoga par excellence it is certainly the most famous, although it has almost nothing to do with modern Hatha Yoga (Western or Indian). Tradition traces it back to the master Gorakhnath, a character of whom little is known, except that he lived between the 9th and the 12th century. The teachings of this discipline were written by Svatmarama in the famous Hatha Yoga Pradipika, compiled in the fifteenth century and in later texts such as the Gheranda Samhita and the Shiva Samhita. In them, yoga is traced back to the god Shiva (as in many other yoga traditions). The meaning of the word Hatha is uncertain: recent scholars maintain that it means “force“. It is, indeed, a yoga that strengthens the body and the spirit to prepare for meditation. The traditional interpretation claims that “ha” means “sun” and “tha” instead means “moon”. This indicates the two dual principles, the masculine and the feminine, the body and the soul, which the yogi must unite and integrate through practice.
The text lists the techniques and practices necessary to obtain the liberation: the 6 shatkarmas or purifications of the body (cleaning of the nose, digestive tract, abdominal massage, cleaning of the skull through breathing, colonic irrigation, fixing a point to purify the eye; 15 asanas or positions; pranayama or breathing exercises and breath retention; mudras or sacred gestures to be done; mantras to be recited, meditation; chakra theory; the use of bandhas or closures to fix posture and energy; the theory of the nadis; the meditation on the inner sound. Each of these practices has a well precise purpose that goes beyond the physical but works above all on the plan of the energy. All the aforementioned 15 asanas, allow to reach a particular power, i.e. how to make all white hair disappear, eliminate diseases, neutralize poisons; while pranayama ensures the achievement of siddhis, or perfections, already mentioned in the Yoga Sutras.
Not very known in the West, it is based on the concept of returning to the primordial stage in which the elements of matter (earth, water, fire, air and ether) are reabsorbed in a pre-spatial and pre-temporal state in which the effects of karma are cancelled. Layla, in fact, means “dissolution“. It is based on the dual philosophy of samkhya, in which prakriti, or matter, is an absolute essence as much as purusha (spirit). The first unfolds by generating the elements that in turn create all that exists. The movement or unfolding of prakriti is given by the karma: what was done in previous lives pushes the matter to create a new universe and purushas to reincarnate again. Only by extinguishing karma will this continuous cycle of creation and reincarnation stop. Through visualization techniques, the practitioner must imagine dissolving the five elements that make up his body, one in the other: the earth in the water, the water in the fire, the fire in the air, the air in the ether and this in the more and more subtle elements until reaching the supreme Goddess.
Only in the twentieth century does it become a specific style of yoga, which is none other than a synthesis of other traditions, a mixture of bhakti, raja and shakti (tantra) yoga. There are those who do not differentiate it from traditional Hatha Yoga, who instead uses the term kundalini for what was before the modern Hatha Yoga, to differentiate it from the current one with which little has to do. The Kundalini yoga uses different techniques from different currents to move the kundalini: asanas, bandhas and pranayama from Hatha Yoga, self-discipline (tapas), study (svadhyaya) and abandonment to God (ishvara pranidhana) from the Yoga Sutras and tantric visualizations and meditation techniques from Laya Yoga.
The term kundalini means “coiled”, referring to the coils of the serpent. This powerful but subtle energy is described as a snake rolled 3 and a half times on itself that bites its tail and is dormant. Thus, it needs to be awakened and pushed to rise. In this way, his energetic quality is refined to become pure in the encounter with Shiva in the last chakra. In recent years, 1968, Yogi Bhajan introduced his style of Kundalini Yoga (registering it as a brand) in the US, taking yoga postures, tantra concepts and Sikh mantras synthesizing a new form of Kundalini Yoga, still very popular. It promotes an experience of God more than devotion, it does not follow strict ascetic rules allowing marriage and activism in society, working and participating in worldly life.
Mantra is a Sanskrit word meaning “instrument of the mind“. These are sentences, sometimes simple words or syllables, which have particular vibrations and powers. The mantra par excellence is the OM. This type of yoga, described in texts from the 14th century onwards, is based on the use of mantras for the attainment of liberation. We have seen that mantras are a peculiar aspect of tantrism, as they represent the phonic form of a deity. The tantrikas use it both in rituals and in everyday life. The mantra is something that is transmitted by a master, it cannot be learned by listening or reading and their use is strictly regulated by the sacred texts, on pain of ineffectiveness. The act of repeating the mantra ritually is called japa, it is often accompanied by a kind of rosary (aksamala), where each grain is a repeated mantra. Sometimes the japa is associated with mudras and/or visionary practices, for example, the one in which the mantra is imagined going back along the same path as the kundalini.
An example of the esoteric symbology associated with mantras, is that concerning the sacred OM. The mantra par excellence is actually formed by the three AUM sounds. Each of these sounds represents something on a metaphysical level. First of all, the vowel “A” is emitted in the most external part of the oral cavity. Glissando slowly towards the “U”, which instead resides in the innermost part, covers all the possible positions of the sounds emitted by our mouth. This symbolizes the totality of creation in all its disparate manifestations, which reside in the OM mantra. Finally the nasalization “M” which represents the cosmic vibration of the energy that permeates all things. There is more: “A” represents the god Brahma who has the role of creator, symbol of the vigil; the “U” instead depicts Vishnu, the preserver, god of dream; the “M” indicates Shiva, the destroyer, god of sleep without dreams; finally the silence after the mantra symbolizes Brahman, the Unmanifested, God in the state prior to his manifestation as a universe.
The purpose of using mantras and associated techniques is always to achieve liberation, transforming the material body into a divine body. Consciousness is elevated to the point of becoming Shiva’s own consciousness, of which the tantrika participates and with it to the breath of the Universe made of emission, expansion and reabsorption. Until the final return to the unmanifested Brahman, without form, without name, unconditional, immobile, pure power, without action and change, he who alone is.
This dissertation on the origins and development of yoga ends here, only to leave room for the next article concerning modern yoga, or as a traditional ancient discipline, based on secrecy, sects, asceticism, moral precepts, sometimes even religious, practical of purification of the body, mystical, esoteric beliefs, rituals, use of mantras, mandalas, whose purpose was to obtain liberation from the cycle of lives, union with the Absolute, supreme and eternal bliss through attainment of superpowers that allowed control over the matter, has become a practice of gym contortionism whose purpose is psychophysical well-being.