Tuesday, 20 January 2015

50 years of The British Wheel of Yoga

We are pleased to announce that we will be part of the 50 year celebrations for The British Wheel of Yoga - Congress 2015.  This extensive programme will be held from 10th - 12th April 2015 at Warwick University, UK.

Bookings will open online on 26th January, 2015 at the BWY website.

The Evolution of Yoga: Is History Repeating Itself?
Saturday 14:15 - 15:30

The Yogic Breath
Friday 15:00 - 14:30

Yoga and Mindfulness: Strengthening the Quiet Place Within
Friday 21:00 - 22:00

Tuesday, 6 January 2015


An Understanding of the History and Context

Published: 6 January 2014

In modern times, yoganidrā is generally understood to be a specific type of guided meditation performed in a supine position. This common interpretation is largely due to the success of the Satyananda Yoga Nidra technique that has been trademarked and taught by the Bihar School of Yoga. In Swāmī Satyānanda Saraswati's book Yoga Nidra, first published 1976, he claims to have constructed this seven part guided meditation technique from 'important but little known practices' (2009 edition: p. 3), which he found in various Tantras. 

This article has been prompted by the recent allegations against the late Swami Satyānanda in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse which took place in Sydney, Australia (December 2014). For a discussion on these allegations and the implications for the Yoga community, refer to the post by Matthew Remski, Boycott Satyānanda's Literature and Methods.

The aim of this article is to examine the term yoganidrā in its historical context so that those practising and teaching Yoga Nidra today may decide whether the modern practice (or components of the modern practice) can be used and appreciated within a broader understanding of South Asian history.

Yoganidrā is a term that has a diverse and ancient history in Sanskrit literature.  It has been used with various meanings and can be found in Epic and Purāṇic literature, Śaiva and Buddhist Tantras, medieval Haṭha and Rājayoga texts (including the widely known Haṭhapradīpikā) and it even became the name of a yoga posture (āsana) in the 17th century.  

This article draws upon research of various Sanskrit texts, in particular, medieval works on yoga written between the 11-18th centuries. All translations are by Jason Birch unless otherwise indicated.

This article is presented in two sections:

You can download this full article in PDF form here:
YOGANIDRĀ: An Understanding of the History and Context



Swāmī Satyānanda (2009: 1) correctly states that the term consists of two words yoga and nidrā, the latter meaning 'sleep'.  He defined it as follows:
"During the practice of yoga nidra, one appears to be asleep, but the consciousness is functioning at a deeper level of awareness. For this reason, yoga nidra is often referred to as psychic sleep or deep relaxation with inner awareness."
As a Sanskrit compound, yoganidrā could be interpreted several ways, including 'the sleep that is yoga', 'the sleep caused by yoga' and 'the sleep of yoga'.  However, the specific meaning of the term depends on its historical context.

Epics and Purāṇas

It occurs in the first book of the Mahābhārata, an epic tale which is usually dated between 300 BCE and 300 CE. In the Mahābhārata (1.19.13), yoganidrā refers to Viṣṇu's sleep between the cycles of the universe (yuga). This meaning is also found in later works on Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇu (e.g., Bhāgavatapurāṇa 1.3.2; Viṣṇumahāpurāṇa 6.4.6; Jayākhasaṃhitā 2.45; etc.).  

Yoganidrā is the name of a goddess in the Devīmāhātmya (1.65-85), which is part of a larger text called the Mārkaṇḍeyapurāṇa.  Brahmā implores the goddess Yoganidrā to wake Viṣṇu so that he can fight the two Asuras, Madhu and Kaiṭabha.

These early references to the term yoganidrā are not defining a practice or a technique in a system of yoga, but are describing a god's transcendental sleep and the goddess' manifestation as sleep.

Lord Vishnu Kills Madhu and Kaitabh on His Thighs as 

Yoganidra (The Great Goddess) Looks On

Artist: Kailash Raj (Water Color Painting on Paper)

 describing a god's transcendental sleep
and the goddess' manifestation as sleep


Evidence for the use of the term yoganidrā in the context of meditation can be found in several Śaiva and Buddhist Tantras. For example, in the Śaiva text called Ciñcinīmatasārasamuccaya (7.164), yoganidrā is described as a 'peace beyond words' (vācām atītaviśrāntir yoganidrā) that is obtained from the guru's teachings. 

Yoganidrā is mentioned in the Buddhist Mahāmāyātantra (2.19ab) as a state in which perfect Buddhas enter to realise secret knowledge. In explaining this passage, a later commentator by the name of Ratnākaraśānti adds that yoganidrā is like sleep because it is absolutely free of distraction, and it is called such because it is both yoga and sleep. 

Medieval Yoga Texts

It is not until the 11-12th centuries that the term yoganidrā appears in a yoga text: that is to say, a text in which the practice of yoga is taught as the sole means to liberation (rather than gnosis, ritual, devotion and so on). These examples are found in several texts which taught Haṭha and Rājayoga. Here, the term yoganidrā was used as a synonym for a profound state of meditation known as samādhi, in which the yogin does not think, breath or move. 

yoganidrā was used as a synonym
for a profound state of meditation
known as samādhi

In a 12th-century Rājayoga text called the Amanaska, several verses play on the fact that samādhi is similar to both sleeping and waking but beyond both. Samādhi is a yogic sleep in which the yogin is asleep to the mundane world but awake to a reality beyond sense objects. The Amanaska (2.64) says, 
"Just as someone who has suddenly arisen from sleep becomes aware of sense objects, so the yogin wakes up from that [world of sense objects] at the end of his yogic sleep." (1)
This transcendent state of yogic sleep (i.e., samādhi, yoganidrā) was achieved through the practice of Śāmbhavī Mudrā (in which the eyes are half open, half closed and the gaze internal while sitting completely still) along with complete detachment and devotion to the guru. 

The yogic sleep of samādhi (yoganidrā) is described more elaborately in the Yogatārāvalī (24-26), a 13-14th century yoga text which teaches both Haṭha and Rājayoga: 
"[This] extraordinary sleep of no slothfulness, which removes [any] thought of the world of multiplicity, manifests for people when all their former attachments have vanished because of the superiority of their inward awareness. Yoganidrā, in which extraordinary happiness arises from uninterrupted practice, blossoms in the yogin whose basis of intentional and volitional thought has been cut off and whose network of Karma has been completely uprooted. Having mastered cessation [of the mind while sleeping] in the bed of the fourth state, which is superior to the three states beginning with the mundane, O friend, forever enter that special thoughtless sleep, which consists of [just] consciousness." (2)
Extending the metaphor of sleep, the yogin in yoganidrā does not sleep in an ordinary bed but the bed of the fourth state (turīya), which is just another synonym for samādhi in Haṭha and Rājayoga texts. Samādhi is the fourth state because it is beyond the usual three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, which are experienced by ordinary people.

beyond the usual three states of
waking, dreaming and deep sleep

Reference to a fourth state (turīya) beyond waking, dreaming and deep sleep can be found in the Māṇḍūkyopaniṣad and later Advaitavedānta texts such as the Gaudapādakārikā, a commentary (on the Māṇḍūkya) generally ascribed to the 6-7th CE. 

In the Advaitavedānta tradition, turīya is a gnostic experience of a non-dual reality beyond the mundane world. Rather than the practice of yoga, listening to and contemplating the teachings of the Upaniṣads is of utmost importance. The term yoganidrā is not found in the early texts of this tradition (in fact, it occurs in only a few relatively recent Yoga Upaniṣads) and it's doubtful that gnostics would ever aspire to the stone-like state of samādhi/yoganidrā in Haṭha and Rājayoga.

Both the Amanaska and the Yogatārāvalī (mentioned above) were known to the author of the Haṭhapradīpikā, which was written in the 15th century and has become the definitive text on Haṭhayoga. Yoganidrā appears in the fourth chapter of the Haṭhapradīpikā, which describes how Khecarī Mudrā (i.e., turning the tongue back and placing it in the nasopharyngeal cavity) can be used to achieve samādhi. The text (4.49) states:
"One should practice Khecarī Mudrā until one is asleep in yoga. For one who has achieved Yoganidrā, death never occurs." (3)
The commentator Brahmānanda adds that, in this verse, yoga means cessation of all mental activity (sarvavṛttinirodha). 

The meaning of yoganidrā as samādhi persisted into the 18th century, as seen in a so-called Yoga Upaniṣad, the Maṇḍalabrāhmanopaniṣad (2.5.2):
"[The yogin] who is capable of moving around the whole world, having deposited his seed in the sky of the supreme self, becomes liberated while alive by pursuing the state of complete bliss in the Yogic sleep (yoganidrā) which is pure, non-dual, without inertia, natural and without mind." (4)
In his commentary on this passage, Upaniṣadbrahmayogin glosses yoganidrā as nirvikalpasamādhi, which is a term for the highest state of samādhi in some Advaitavedānta texts (e.g., Vedāntasāra 193, etc.).

Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, p. 306 (1979 Ed.)
yoganidrā was adopted as the name of a
yogic posture (āsana)
in the 17th century

It's worth mentioning that yoganidrā was adopted as the name of a yogic posture (āsana) in the 17th century. Yoganidrāsana was described in the Haṭharatnāvalī (3.70) as follows:
"Having wrapped the legs around the [back of the] neck and binding the back with both hands, the yogin should sleep (śayana) in this [posture]. Yoganidrāsana bestows bliss." (5)


In addition to understanding yoganidrā as a state of meditation to be attained, Swāmī Satyānanda uses it as the name for a unique systemisation of various yoga techniques from different religious traditions, both modern and medieval. In the discussion below, medieval antecedents have been indicated where possible. It is not certain that Satyānanda knew all of these specific precedents when he created his systemised practice of Yoga Nidra. However, the existence and absence of precedents gives some indication of the influence of tradition and innovation.

Swāmī Satyānanda (2009: 69-73) explains the Satyananda Yoga Nidra technique as having seven parts:
1.  Preparation
2.  Resolve
3.  Rotation of Consciousness
4.  Awareness of Breath
5.  Feelings and Sensations
6.  Visualisation
7.  Ending the Practice

1. Preparation

Satyānanda instructs that one should assume Śavāsana.

The earliest reference in a yoga text to a practice of lying on the ground like a corpse until the mind dissolves is in a section on Layayoga in the 12th-century Dattātreyayogaśāstra. This Layayoga technique, which was not yet considered to be a yoga posture (āsana), probably derives from earlier Tantras such as the Vijñānabhairavatantra, in which simple meditative techniques (e.g., lying supine on the ground) are taught for dissolving the mind (cittalaya). Therefore, Satyānanda's choice of lying on the ground as a position in which meditative techniques are practised is not new to Indian yoga traditions.

As a yoga posture (āsana), Śavāsana dates back to the 15th-century Haṭhapradīpikā. In this text, it is described as follows:
"Lying supine like a corpse on the ground is Śavāsana. It remedies fatigue and causes the mind to stop." (6)
Perhaps, inspired by the Haṭhapradīpikā, modern yoga gurus such as BKS Iyengar have taught that Śavāsana should be practised after other āsana in order to alleviate fatigue. Satyānanda's book Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha also teaches Śavāsana for this purpose.

However, in the case of Satyananda Yoga Nidra, Śavāsana is simply the first of seven stages. The deliberate structure of Yoga Nidra distinguishes it from the practice of Śavāsana as a specific remedy for fatigue.

(Jacqueline Hargreaves)
Photo Credit: Ben Fulcher
earliest reference in a
yoga text to a practice of 
lying on the ground
like a corpse
until the 
mind dissolves 
is in the 12th-century

2. Resolve: Sankalpa

At the beginning of the practice, the practitioner is asked to formulate a personal 'Sankalpa' which is described as a short, positive, clear statement such as 'I will awaken my spiritual potential,' 'I will be successful in all that I undertake,' etc.

The Sanskrit word saṅkalpa occurs frequently in yoga texts, usually with the meaning of intentional thinking. Quite unlike Satyananda Yoga Nidra, the medieval yogin, whose goal was samādhi, aimed to rid the mind of all saṅkalpa. For example, samādhi is described in the following way in the Amanaska (2.22):
"This extraordinary meditative absorption, in which all saṅkalpas have been cut off and all movement has ceased, is intelligible only to oneself and is beyond the sphere of words." (7)
the medieval yogin
whose goal was samādhi
aimed to rid the mind
of all saṅkalpa

Outside of yoga texts, the term saṅkalpa can refer to the desired result of an action, in particular a ritual or ascetic observance. This is explained in an important scripture on Hindu religious duties (dharma) called the Manusmṛti (2.3): 
"Desire (kāma) is grounded in intentional thinking (saṅkalpa), and the performance of sacrifices derives from intentional thinking. All ascetic observances [such as bathing] and ascetic restraints [such as non-violence] are considered by tradition to derive from intentional thinking." 
This type of saṅkalpa was also rejected by the Amanaska (2.104):
"The yogin does not abandon [vedic] rituals. For, [in the no-mind state] he is abandoned by rituals, simply because of the cessation of saṅkalpa, which is the root cause of rituals." (8)
It seems that Swāmī Satyānanda adopted the word saṅkalpa in order to integrate the practice of auto-suggestion, as evinced in his recommended Sankalpas, such as 'I will be successful in all that I undertake.' Mark Singleton, in his excellent article called "Salvation through Relaxation: Proprioceptive Therapy and its Relationship to Yoga," has traced this practice back to 19th-century Western relaxation therapies (see Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 20, No. 3, 2005 pp. 289–304). Singleton also identifies much of the western rhetoric of relaxation (e.g., stress and tension as the cause of illness, relaxation as the cure, etc.) which is in Satyānanda's discourse on Yoga Nidra.

There might be parallels between Satyānanda's use of saṅkalpa and the meaning of this term in the context of ritual (i.e., the desired result). It is clear that a statement such as 'I will be successful in all that I undertake' is the desired result. However, Satyānanda integrated intentional thought in a meditative practice in order to achieve a desired outcome. This contrasts with medieval meditative practices which aimed at annihilating intentional thought and desires. The stage of Resolve (Sankalpa) in Satyananda Yoga Nidra appears to be an innovation that was inspired by Western relaxation therapies. 

3. Rotation of Consciousness 
Moving the mind from one part of the body to another in a definite sequence.

In the introduction to the book Yoga Nidra, Swāmī Satyānanda (2009:3) reveals that his inspiration for the rotation of consciousness was the practice of nyāsa as described in various Tantras. He gives the example of aṅguṣṭhādiṣaḍaṅganyāsa (i.e., fixing seed mantras into six limbs beginning with the thumbs) and cites Sir John Woodroofe's edition of the Mahānirvānatantra. The relevant section of Woodroofe's translation (chapter 3, 39-43) appears to be the following:
"Now listen, dear One, whilst I speak to You of Anga-nyasa and Kara-nyasa (39-40). O great and adorable Devi! the syllable Om, the words Sat, Chit, Ekam, Brahma, should be pronounced over the thumb, the threatening finger, the middle, nameless, and little fingers respectively, followed in each case by the words Namah, Svaha, Vashat, Hung, and Vaushat; and Ong Sachchidekam Brahma should be said over the palm and back of the hand, followed by the Mantra Phat (41, 42). The worshipper disciple should in the like manner, with his mind well under control, perform Anga-nyasa in accordance with the rules thereof, commencing with the heart and ending with the hands (43)."
It seems plausible that Satyānanda could have derived a basic sequence of points in the body from the Tantric practice of nyāsa. He must have elaborated on this basic sequence to arrive at the one seen in his book.

There is a clear precedent 
in medieval yoga 
for practising pratyāhāra 
by moving the breath sequentially
through eighteen vital points
in the body

Also, there is a clear precedent in medieval yoga for practising pratyāhāra (i.e., withdrawing the senses) by moving the breath sequentially through eighteen vital points (marmasthāna) in the body. The seventh chapter of the 14th-century Yogayājñavalkya describes this variety of pratyāhāra which appears to be an antecedent to the body-scanning techniques of modern relaxation therapy. It is described as follows (7.6-31ab):
"Holding the breath in the eighteen vital points (marmasthāna), having drawn it from point to point, is known as Pratyāhāra. O Gārgi, the two Aśvins, the best physicians of the gods, taught the vital points in the body for the sake of power (siddhi) and for liberation in yoga. Listen, I will tell you all of them in their proper sequence. The two big toes, the ankles, the middle of shanks, the root of the shanks, the middle of the knees and the thighs and the anus. After that, the middle of the body, the penis, the navel, the heart, the pit of the throat, the root of the palate, the root of the nose, the eyeballs, the middle of the eyebrows, the forehead and [top of the] head. These are the vital points.
Now listen to their measure one by one. The measure from the [bottom of the] foot to the ankle is four and a half finger-breadths. From the ankle to the middle of the shank is ten finger-breadths. From the middle of the shank to the root of the shank is eleven finger-breadths. From the root of the shanks to the knee is two finger-breadths. From the knee to the middle of the thighs is nine finger-breadths. From the middle of the thighs to the anus is nine finger-breadths. From the anus to the middle of the body is two and half finger-breadths, from the middle of the body to the penis is two and half finger-breadths, from the penis to the navel is two and half finger-breadths, from the navel to the heart is four finger-breadths, from the heart to the pit of the throat is six finger-breadths, from the pit of the throat to the root of the tongue is four finger-breadths, from the root of the tongue to the root of the nose is four finger-breadths, from the root of the nose to the point in the eye is half a finger-breadth. From that to the centre of the eyebrow, which is the interior of the self, is half a finger-breadth, from the centre of the eyebrow to the forehead is two finger-breadths, from the forehead to [that] known as 'space' [at the top of head] is three finger-breadths. Having raised the breath along with the mind through these vital points, the yogin should hold it [in each one.] Having drawn the breath and mind through each point, the yogin performs Pratyāhāra [thus.] All diseases disappear and yoga is accomplished for that yogin. 
Some other yogins and men skilled in yoga teach Pratyahāra [as follows.] Listen, O beautiful woman, I will explain it to you. One should hold the breath like a full pot along with the mind from the big toes to the top of the head. The wise teach this as prāṇāyāma. Having drawn the breath from the aperture in the space [at the top of the head,] one should hold it in the forehead. Again, having drawn it from the forehead, one should hold it in the middle of the eyebrows. Having drawn it from the middle of the eyebrows, one should hold it in the eyes. Having drawn the breath from the eyes, one should hold it at the root of the nose. From the root of the nose, one should hold the breath at the root of the tongue. Having drawn it from the root of the tongue, one should hold it in the pit of the throat. From the pit of the throat, hold it in the heart; from the heart, hold it in the navel; from the navel, hold it again in the penis; from the penis, hold it in the middle of the body; from the middle of the body, hold it in the anus; from the anus, hold it at the root of the thigh; from the root of the thigh, hold it in the middle of the knees; from there, hold it at the root of the shank; from there, hold it in the middle of the shank. Having drawn it from the middle of the shank, hold it in the ankles. From the ankles, O Gārgi, one should hold it in the big toes of the feet. Having drawn the breath from point to point, the wise man should hold it thus. He becomes one who is purified of all sin and lives as long as the moon and stars." (9)
There is no indication in Swāmī Satyānanda's book on Yoga Nidra that he was aware of the above medieval practice of pratyāhāra, but he does say:
"Yoga nidra is one aspect of pratyahara which leads to the higher states of concentration and samadhi" (2009: 2).

4. Awareness of Breath 
Watching the breath in the nostrils, chest or the passage between the navel and throat without forcing or changing it. 

As far as we are aware, there is no meditation technique (dhyāna) in a medieval Sanskrit yoga text described as the passive observation (i.e., awareness) of the natural breath. When the breath is the focus of a practice, it is either deliberately changed in some way (i.e., prāṇāyāma) or made to disappear spontaneously through some meditation technique. The spontaneous disappearance of the breath is a requisite for samādhi

A possible exception may the the Ajapā mantra. It is not explicitly described as a passive awareness of the breath, but one might reasonably infer that it required such. It is mentioned in several medieval yoga texts, and described as follows in the 12-13th century Vivekamārtaṇḍa:
"[The breath] goes out with the sound 'ha' and enters again with the sound 'sa'. The Jīva always repeats this mantra 'haṃsa, haṃsa.' There are seventy-two thousand, six hundred breaths in a day and night. The Jīva always repeats the [Ajapā] mantra this many times." (10)
The Vivekamārtaṇḍa goes on to say that the Ajapā mantra, otherwise known as the Gāyatrī Mantra to yogins, raises Kuṇḍalinī. The ascent of Kuṇḍalinī up through the central channel is generally accredited with stopping the breath and dissolving the mind. The Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (5.86-94) describes how the Ajapā mantra leads to Kevalakumbhaka, the spontaneous retention of the breath. 

The aim of Satyānanda's awareness of breath practice is deeper relaxation (2009: 71). However, he adds:
"Awareness of the breath not only promotes relaxation and concentration, but also awakens higher energies and directs them to every cell of the body. It assists pratyahara from the subtle body in the practices that follow."
One might also cite the Buddhist practice of observing the breath called ānāpānnasati, which is taught in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, and it would be helpful if anyone might comment on whether such a practice as this (or any other ancient or medieval one) inspired Satyānanda's awareness of breath technique. In an article on the yoga system of a modern Jain sect called the Terāpanthī (see Yoga in Practice, edited by David White, pp. 365-82, 2012), it was found that the Terāpanthī's use of passive breath awareness in meditation was inspired by Goenka's Vipassana.   

5. Feelings and Sensations 
Pairing of opposite feelings (e.g., heat and cold, heaviness and lightness, pain and pleasure, etc.)

In one medieval yoga text, there is a description of samādhi as 'the union of opposites' (sarvadvandvayor aikyaṃ – see Nowotny's edition of the Gorakṣaśataka, verse 185). Elsewhere, the yogin is described as free from opposites (dvandvavinirmukta – see Śivasaṃhitā 3.27, 5.154) and as having a mind in which the opposites have disappeared (naṣṭadvandvaMaṇḍalobrāhmaṇopaniṣat 3.1.4). In fact, in the Yogabīja (90), yoga is defined as the union of the multitude of opposites (dvandvajālasya saṃyogo yoga ucyate).

In the Yogabīja
yoga is defined as
the union of
the multitude of opposites

Whether these sort of expressions inspired Swāmī Satyānanda to work with opposite feelings and sensations in his Yoga Nidra remains unclear, but he does say that this component of the practice:
"harmonizes the opposite hemispheres of the brain" (2009: 72)
The difference seems to be that medieval texts talk of a state that transcends opposites, whereas Satyānanda incorporates them into a meditative practice.

6. Visualisation

In Satyananda Yoga Nidra, the practitioner visualises images which are named or described by the instructor. Such images include landscapes, oceans, mountains, temples, saints, flowers, etc. as well as cakras, the liṅga, the cross and golden egg.

Visualisation practices were the hallmark of Tantric yoga. Meditation (dhyāna) in Tantra was usually the visualisation of some deity. The descriptions can become very complex, often entwining images with doctrine and metaphysics.

Unlike Tantric yoga, visualisation practices were largely absent from early Rāja and Haṭhayoga texts, but such practices were incorporated into later yoga texts (i.e., post 16th-century). For example, see the description of the practice of meditation (dhyāna) in the 18th-century Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā.

Satyānanda has obviously experimented with some images which would not be found in medieval descriptions of visualisation practices (e.g., the cross, the golden egg, etc.), but his understanding of the practice in terms of concentration (dhāraṇa) and meditation leading to a state in which distractions cease is similar to the way visualisation was integrated into yoga texts (i.e., as the auxiliaries, dhāraṇa or dhyāna leading to samādhi).  

7. Ending the practice: 
The repetition of the Sankalpa and gradually bringing the mind to the waking state.

For a discussion on saṅkalpa, please see point two above.


We would like to thank ELIZABETH DE MICHELIS for her comments on a draft of this article.


Yoga Nidra, Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Yoga Publicatins Trust, Munger, Bihar, India. 2009 (Sixth edition, reprinted).

References to the Mahābhārata, Purāṇas and Tantras can be found in the digital libraries of GRETIL (http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/) and Muktabodha (http://www.muktabodha.org/).

Mahanirvana Tantra (Tantra of the Great Liberation), trans. Arthur Avalon (aka Sir John Woodroffe). Published by the library of Alexandria (no date: ISBN 1465537147).

Quotations from Yoga Texts

The dates and bibliographic details of these medieval Sanskrit yoga texts can be found on the first two pages of the published article:  'Meaning of haṭha in Early Haṭhayoga' by Jason Birch (Journal of the American Oriental Society).

1. Amanaska 2.64
yathā suptotthitaḥ kaś cid viṣayān pratipadyate |
jāgraty eva tato yogī yoganidrākṣaye tathā ||

2. Yogatārāvalī 24-26
pratyagvimarśātiśayena puṃsāṃ prācīnasaṅgeṣu palāyiteṣu |
prādur bhavet kā cid ajāḍyanidrā prapañcacintāṃ parivarjayantī ||
vicchinnasaṃkalpavikalpamūle niḥśeṣanirmūlitakarmajāle |
nirantarābhyāsanitāntabhadrā sā jṛmbhate yogini yoganidrā ||
viśrāntim āsādya turīyatalpe viśvādyavasthātritayoparisthe |
saṃvinmayīṃ kām api sarvakālaṃ nidrāṃ sakhe nirviśa nirvikalpām ||

3. Haṭhapradīpikā 4.49
abhyaset khecarīṃ tāvad yāvat syād yoganidritaḥ |
samprāptayoganidrasya kālo nāsti kadā cana ||

4. Maṇḍalabrāhmaṇopaniṣat 2.5.2
sarvalokasaṃcāraśīlaḥ paramātmagagane binduṃ nikṣipya śuddhādvaitājāḍyasahajāmanaskayoganidrākhaṇḍānandapadānuvṛttyā jīvanmukto bhavati ||

5. Haṭharatnāvalī 3.70
atha yoganidrāsanam -
pādābhyāṃ veṣṭayet kaṇṭhaṃ hastābhyāṃ pṛṣṭhabandhanam |
tanmadhye śayanaṃ kuryād yoganidrā sukhapradā ||

6. Haṭhapradīpikā 1.34
uttānaṃ śavavad bhūmau śayanaṃ tac chavāsanam |
śavāsanaṃ śrāntiharaṃ cittaviśrāntikārakam ||

7. Amanaska 2.22
ucchinnasarvasaṅkalpo niḥśeṣāśeṣaceṣṭitaḥ |
svāvagamyo layaḥ ko 'pi jāyate vāgagocaraḥ ||

8. Amanaska 2.104
na karmāṇi tyajed yogī karmabhis tyajyate hy asau |
karmaṇāṃ mūlabhūtasya saṅkalpasyaiva nāśataḥ ||

9. Yogayājñavalkya 7.6-31ab
A parallel passage to this is found in the Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā (3.61-74), which was composed sometime (perhaps, a century or two) before the Yogayājñavalkya. Some of the emendations below are based on readings in the Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā. I wish to thank James Mallinson for informing me that this particular practice of pratyāhāra can be traced back to an earlier Vaiṣṇava text called the Vimānārcanākalpa (97) which might be as old as the 9th century (see Gérard Colas, "Vaiṣṇava Saṃhitās". Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism, vol. 2, 153-167. Leiden: Brill, 2010).

7.6ab aṣṭādaśasu yad vāyor marmasthāneṣu dhāraṇam
7.6cd sthānāt sthānāt samākṛṣya pratyāhāro nigadyate
7.7ab aśvinau ca tathā brūtāṃ gārgi devabhiṣagvarau
7.7cd marmasthānāni siddhyarthaṃ śarīre yogamokṣayoḥ
7.8ab tāni sarvāṇi vakṣyāmi yathāvac chruṇu (em: chṛnu) suvrate
7.8cd pādāṅguṣṭau ca gulphau ca jaṅghāmadhye tathaiva ca
7.9ab cityor mūlaṃ ca jānvoś ca madhye corudvayasya ca
7.9cd pāyumūlaṃ tataḥ paścād dehamadhyaṃ ca meḍhrakam
7.10ab nābhiś ca hṛdayaṃ gārgi kaṇṭhakūpas tathaiva ca
7.10cd tālumūlaṃ ca nāsāyā mūlaṃ cākṣṇoś ca maṇḍale
7.11ab bhruvor madhyaṃ lalāṭaṃ ca mūrdhā ca munisattame
7.11cd marmasthānāni caitāni mānaṃ teṣāṃ pṛthak śṛṇu
7.12ab pādān mānaṃ tu gulphasya sārdhāṅgulacatuṣṭayam
7.12cd gulphāj jaṅghasya madhyaṃ tu vijñeyaṃ tad daśāṅgulam
7.13ab jaṅghamadhyāc cityor mūlaṃ yat tad ekādaśāṅgulam
7.13cd cityor mūlād varārohe jānuḥ syād aṅgulidvayam
7.14ab jānvor navāṅgulaṃ prāhur ūrumadhyaṃ munīśvarāḥ
7.14cd ūrumadhyāt tathā gārgi pāyumūlaṃ nāvāṅgulam
7.15ab dehamadhyaṃ tathā pāyor mūlād ardhaṅguladvayam
7.15cd dehamadhyāt tathā meḍhraṃ tadvat sārdhāṅguladvayam
7.16ab meḍhrān nābhiś ca vijñeyā gārgi sārdhadaśāṅgulam
7.16cd caturdaśāṅgulaṃ nābher hṛnmadhyaṃ ca varānane
7.17ab ṣaḍaṅgulaṃ tu hṛnmadhyāt kaṇṭhakūpaṃ tathaiva ca
7.17cd kaṇṭhakūpāc ca jihvāyā mūlaṃ syāc caturaṅgulam
7.18ab nāsāmūlaṃ tu jihvāyā mūlāc ca caturaṅgulam
7.18cd netrasthānaṃ tu tanmūlāt ardhāṅgulam itīṣyate
7.19ab tasmād ardhāṅgulaṃ viddhi bhruvor antaram ātmanaḥ
7.19cd lalāṭākhyaṃ bhruvor madhyād ūrdhvaṃ syād aṅguladvayam
7.20ab lalāṭād vyomasaṃjñaṃ syād aṅgulitrayam eva hi
7.20cd sthāneṣv eteṣu manasā vāyum āropya dhārayet
7.21ab sthānāt sthānāt samākṛṣya pratyāhāraṃ prakurvataḥ
7.21cd sarve rogā vinaśyanti yogāḥ siddhyanti (em: yogaḥ siddhyati) tasya vai
7.22ab vadanti yoginaḥ kecid yogeṣu kuśalā narāḥ
7.22cd pratyāhāraṃ varārohe śṛṇu tvaṃ tad vadāmy aham
7.23ab sampūrṇakumbhavad vāyum aṅguṣṭhān mūrdhamadhyataḥ
7.23cd dhārayed anilaṃ (?em:dhārayen manasā) buddhyā prāṇāyāmapracoditaḥ
7.24ab vyomarandhrāt samākṛṣya lalāṭe dhārayet punaḥ
7.24cd lalāṭād vāyum akṛṣya bhruvor madhye nirodhayet
7.25ab bhruvor madhyāt samākṛṣya netramadhye nirodhayet
7.25cd netrāt prāṇaṃ samākṛṣya nāsāmūle nirodhayet
7.26ab nāsāmūlāt tu jihvāyā mūle prāṇaṃ nirodhayet
7.26cd jihvāmūlāt samākṛṣya kaṇṭhamūle (em: -kūpe) nirodhayet
7.27ab kaṇṭhamūlāt (em: -kūpāt) tu hṛnmadhye hṛdayān nābhimadhyame
7.27cd nābhimadhyāt punar meḍhre meḍhrād vahnyālaye tataḥ (em:dehasya madhyame)
7.28ab dehamadhyād gude gārgi gudād evorumūlake
7.28cd ūrumūlāt tayor madhye tasmāj jānvor nirodhayet
7.29ab citimūle tatas tasmāj jaṅghayor madhame tathā
7.29cd jaṅghāmadhyāt samākṛṣya vāyuṃ gulphe nirodhayet
7.30ab gulphād aṅguṣṭhayor gārgi pādayos tan nirodhayet
7.30cd sthānāt sthānāt samākṛṣya yas tv evaṃ dhārayet sudhīḥ
7.31ab sarvapāpaviśuddhātmā jīved ā candratārakam

10.  Gorakṣaśataka 42-43 (Nowotny's edition).
This edited text is a late version of the Vivekamārtaṇḍa. The oldest manuscript of the Vivekamārtaṇḍa contains verses on the ajapā mantra, but not 43 below.
42ab hakāreṇa bahir yāti sakāreṇa viśet punaḥ
42cd haṃsa haṃsety amuṃ mantraṃ jīvo japati sarvadā
43ab ṣaṭśatāni divārātrau sahasrāṇy ekaviṃśatiḥ
43cd etatsaṅkhyānvitaṃ mantraṃ jīvo japati sarvadā

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

ASANAS Old and New

Unpublished manuscripts and hints of the missing Yoga Kurunta

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

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

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.