Thursday, 14 July 2016

VINYĀSA: Medieval and Modern Meanings

By JASON BIRCH and JACQUELINE HARGREAVES
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Jālandharnāth at Jalore
By Amardas Bhatti.
India, Rajasthan, Marwar, Jodhpur, ca. 1805–10.
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; 39 x 29 cm.
Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 4126


The term vinyāsa is used in many different contexts in medieval literature. In describing a temple (mandira) in which a yogin should practise, for example, the Nandikeśvarapurāṇa specifies that it should have a beautiful design (ramyavinyāsa).1 In this context, vinyāsa means design or arrangement.

The term vinyāsa rarely occurs in medieval yoga texts. However, it does appear more frequently in the ritual sections of medieval Tantras. Nonetheless, never does the term vinyāsa mean the movement that links breath with postures (āsana) as is the case in modern yoga.

An excellent reference work on the meaning of words particular to Tantra is the Tāntrikābhidhānakośa. This extensive dictionary (in five volumes) has been written by an international team of scholars who are the foremost specialists in this field. Volume five, which is forthcoming, states that vinyāsa is a synonym for nyāsa

Nyāsa is defined in volume three of the Tāntrikābhidhānakośa (2013: 342) as:
The imposition or ritual placement of mantras on the body or on the material representation of the deity (sometimes on an object or a surface) in order to install the power of a mantra. It is a widespread practice, which is tantric and even more generally Hindu or Buddhist.2
In discussions on the practice of āsana and other techniques in medieval yoga texts, the term vinyāsa is not used. However, when related verbal forms (such as vinyasya) are used, they mean 'to fix or place'.

In the Haṭhapradīpikā, for example, vinyasya occurs in one of the descriptions of Siddhāsana:
Having placed (vinyasya) the left ankle on the penis and having put the other ankle on that, this is Siddhāsana
meḍhrād upari vinyasya savyaṃ gulphaṃ tathopari |
gulphāntaraṃ ca nikṣipya siddhāsanam idaṃ bhavet ||1.38||
A similar instance is found in the Dattātreyayogaśāstra (133), which describes the chin-lock in Mahāmudrā as “fixing the chin on the chest” ([...] cibukaṃ hṛdi vinyasya [...]).

The above medieval meanings are unrelated to the usage of vinyāsa in modern yoga, which denotes 'movement' rather than 'fixing'. A. G. Mohan (2010: 29) succinctly explains the modern meaning of vinyāsa in his biography of his teacher Kṛṣṇamācārya:
A special feature of the asana system of Krishnamacharya was vinyasa. Many yoga students today are no doubt familiar with this word – it is increasingly used now, often to describe the 'style' of a yoga class, as in 'hatha vinyasa' or 'vinyasa flow'. Vinyasa is essential, and probably unique, to Krishnamacharya's teachings. As far as I know, he was the first yoga master in the last century to introduce this idea. A vinyasa, in essence, consists of moving from one asana, or body position, to another, combining breathing with the movement.
Although Mohan's comments do not rule out a medieval precedent for Kṛṣṇamācārya's Vinyāsa, we are yet to find such a precedent in a medieval yoga text or Tantra.

The research of Dr James Mallinson and Dr Mark Singleton supports and further elaborates on these findings. They have also investigated related terms such as vinyāsakrama, viniyoga and pratikriyāsana. The following is an excerpt of a note from their forthcoming book Roots of Yoga (2017):
The Sanskrit word vinyāsa used (with considerable variation of meaning) by Krishnamacharya and his students to denote a stage in one of these linked sequences is not found with this meaning in premodern texts on yoga. Related verbal forms (vinyāsa is a nominal formation from from the verbal root √as prefixed by vi- and ni-), such as the absolutive vinyasya, are found in a handful of posture descriptions with the meaning “having placed [x on y]”, e.g. Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā 1.72 (3.6 “Having placed one foot on one thigh, and the other foot under the other thigh...”). Vinyāsa and related words are more common in tantric texts, where they usually refer to the installation of mantras on the body. The compound vinyāsakrama, which has been used by Krishamacharya and his students to denote a particular sequence of linking poses, is not found in premodern yoga texts. We have found five instances of it in tantric works. In four it refers to a sequential installation of mantras; in the fifth, Kṣemarāja’s commentary on verse 9 of the Sāmbapañcāśikā, it is used to refer to the sequence of strides across the three worlds taken by Viṣṇu in his Vāmana incarnation. The modern usage of vinyāsa is thus a reassignment of the meaning of a common Sanskrit word; the usage in modern yoga parlance of the word viniyoga (which in Sanskrit means “appointment”, “employment”, or “application”) to mean tailoring yoga to individual needs is a similar reassignment, while the word pratikriyāsana, used in the Krishnamacharya tradition to mean a “counter pose”, is a modern coinage not found in any premodern Sanskrit texts.

Gosain Sagargir, a Śaiva Yogī, 
seated on a Leopard Skin 3
Mankot, c. 1700.
Brush drawing with opaque pigments on paper, 21.2 × 17.3 cm. 








We would like to thank Shaman Hatley for informing us of the draft entry of vinyāsa in the forthcoming Tāntrikābhidhānakośa (vol. 5); Christèle Barois for her comments on our translation of the Tāntrikābhidhānakośa (vol 3) entry on nyāsa; and James Mallinson and Mark Singleton for allowing us to quote a note from their forthcoming book Roots of Yoga.


NOTES

1 This verse of the Nandikeśvarapurāṇa is quoted with attribution in the nineteenth-century commentary on the Haṭhapradīpikā called the Jyotsnā (1.13).

2 "L’imposition ou placement rituel de mantras sur le corps ou sur le support de la divinité (parfois sur un objet ou une surface) afin d’y installer la puissance du mantra est une pratique tantrique et même généralement hindoue, ou bouddhique, très répandue" (Tāntrikābhidhānakośa III, 2013: 342).

3 Francesca Galloway, Court Paintings from Persia and India 1500–1900. London: Francesca Galloway, 2016, p. 74.


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