Tag Archives: India

striking a pose

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The land of the Far East was still a distant enigma for the West. The mystery that enamoured numerous, also intrigued American inventor Thomas Edison. His messenger was his cameraman, who set out to explore the terrain of China and India in the 19th century. His findings appeared on movie screens in the US in 1906. Edison’s Hindoo Fakir was the first movie produced about India — one that had the film’s protagonist display a variety of tricks for the camera, several of which could be classified as yogic postures. More than a century later, the film is again garnering interest. It has the audience queuing before the screen at Smithsonian’s Arthur M Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. Part of the exhibition “Yoga: The Art of Transformation”, it is one of the 130 exhibits sourced from 25 museums and private collections in India, Europe and the US. “These works of art allow us to trace, often for the first time, yoga’s meaning across the diverse social landscapes of India,” says Debra Diamond, Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Excerpt from The Indian Express Article Striking A Pose by Vandana Kalra


yoga’s twisted history

Today yoga has a large following in the West and many consider it synonymous with posture practice. How has hatha yoga, specifically asana practice, taken center stage, and what role has the West played in that? These are questions addressed in two new releases: Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, by Mark Singleton, and The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, by Stefanie Syman.

Yoga Body begins by examining perceptions of hatha yoga before and during Vivekananda’s time. Singleton writes:

At the time of Vivekananda’s synthesis of yoga in the 1890s, postural practice was primarily associated with the yogin (or more popularly, “yogi”). This term designated in particular the hatha yogins of the Nath lineage, but was employed more loosely to refer to a variety of ascetics, magicians, and street performers. Often confused with the Mohammedan “fakir,” the yogi came to symbolize all that was wrong in certain tributaries of the Hindu religion. The postural contortions of hatha yoga were associated with backwardness and superstition.

In his talks, Vivekananda never used the word “yoga,” a curious fact in light of some current scholarship which proposes that modern, transnational yoga began with him. Moreover, Vivekananda did not contort himself into the bow pose or any other asana. In India a yoga revival connected with Indian nationalism was in full swing, and Vivekananda was an advocate of the movement. But he avoided the word “yoga” because he thought Westerners would find it too foreign and frightening, and he avoided hatha yoga altogether because—along with the majority of his compatriots—he found it distasteful and wholly unsuitable for the yoga revival.

Excerpts from Mindful Article Yoga’s Twisted History by Andrea Miller


asanas old and new

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Ujjain Manuscript – Yogacintamani (photo: Jason Birch)

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’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.

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.”

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.

Excerpt from Article ASANAS Old and New: Unpublished manuscripts and hints of the missing Yoga Kurunta By JACQUELINE HARGREAVES


yoga and buddhism

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Yoga and Buddhism are sister traditions which evolved in the same spiritual culture of ancient India. They use many of the same terms and follow many of the same principles and practices. For this reason it is not surprising that many of us born in the West, particularly after an initial exposure, are apt to regard Yoga and Buddhist teachings as almost identical.

However, the tendency to find commonality between these two great spiritual traditions is not limited to the West. Swami Vivekananda, the first great figure to bring Yoga to the West, examined the Buddhist Mahayana scriptures (Sutras) and found their key teachings and those of Vedanta that he followed to be ultimately in harmony. In recent years with the influx of Tibetan refugees into India, including the Dalai Lama, there has been a new dialogue between the two traditions that is bringing about greater respect between them. Tibetan Buddhists often appear at Hindu religious gatherings and partake in all manner of discussions.

Nor is the attempt to connect the two traditions limited to modern times. Various synthetic Hindu-Buddhist teachings have existed through history. Buddha himself was born a Hindu and some scholars have argued that Buddhism as a religion apart from Hinduism did not arise until long after the Buddha had passed away. A Shiva-Buddha teaching existed in Indonesia in medieval times, and for many Tantric Yogis it is difficult to tell whether they were Hindus or Buddhists. Buddha became accepted as an avatar of Vishnu for the Hindus during the medieval period, and most Hindus still consider that we live in the age of the Buddha-avatar. Most Hindus accept Buddha as a great teacher, even if they do not accept all Buddhist teachings.

Yet, similarities and connections aside, the two traditions have had their differences, which have not always been minor. Such synthetic trends did not exclude disagreements and debates between the two traditions. Nor did they ever succeed in fully uniting them. Their traditions and lineages remain separate to the present day. Generally the Hindu Yoga tradition sought to absorb Buddhism into itself by reinterpreting Buddha in a Vedantic light. Buddhism however strove to maintain its separate identity by stressing its disagreements with Vedic theism or the Vedic recognition of a higher Self. Most Hindu and Buddhist teachers, including those of the different Yoga schools of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhists, have found it necessary to discriminate their doctrines, particularly on subtle levels of practice and insight. Refutations of Buddhist teachings are common in yogic texts and refutations of yogic and Vedantic teachings are common in Buddhist texts. So while we can honor the connections between these two systems, we cannot overlook their differences either.

Excerpt From American Institute Of Vedic Studies Article, Yoga And Buddhism: Similarities And Differences, By David Frawley


kalarippayatu

Boys Learning Martial Art (Gusthi and Kalari) – Kerala 1905

In the well-known Bhagavad Gita section of India’s Mahabharata epic, Krishna elaborates a view of duty and action intended to convince Arjuna that, as a member of the warrior caste (ksatriya), he must overcome all his doubts and take up arms, even against his relatives. As anyone familiar with either the Mahabharata or India’s second great epic, the Ramayana, knows, martial techniques have existed on the South Asian subcontinent since antiquity. Both epics are filled with scenes describing how the princely heroes obtain and use their humanly or divinely acquired skills and powers to defeat their enemies: by training in martial techniques under the tutelage of great gurus like the brahmin master Drona, by practicing austerities and meditation techniques which give the martial master access to subtle powers to be used in combat, and/or by receiving a gift or a boon of divine, magical powers from a god. On the one hand, there is Bhima who depends on his brute strength to crush his foes, while on the other, we find the “unsurpassable” Arjuna making use of his more subtle accomplishments in single point focus or his powers acquired through meditation.

Among practitioners and teachers of kalarippayattu, the martial art of Kerala, southwestern coastal India, some. . . model their practice on Bhima, emphasizing kalarippay attu’s practical empty hand techniques of attack, defense, locks, and throws. Others. . . follow Arjuna and emphasize kalarippayattu as an active, energetic means of disciplining and “harnessing” (yuj, the root of yoga) both one’s body and one’s mind, that is, as a form of moving meditation. As comparative religions scholar Mircea Eliade has explained, “One always finds a form of yoga whenever there is a question of experiencing the sacred or arriving at complete mastery of oneself . . .” (Eliade, 1975:196).

From the early Tamil Sangam “heroic” (puram) poetry, we learn that from the fourth century B.C. to 600 A.D., a warlike, martial spirit predominated across southern India. . .

Each warrior received “regular military training” (Subramanian, 1966:143144) in target practice, and horse riding, and specialized in the use of one or more of the important weapons of the period, including lance or spear (vel), sword (val) and shield (kedaham), bow (vii) and arrow. The importance of the martial hero in the Sangam Age is evident in the deification of fallen heroes through the planting of hero-stones (virakkal; or natukal, “planted stones”) which were inscribed with the name of the hero and his valorous deeds (Kailaspathy, 1968:235) and worshipped by the common people of the locality (Subramanian, 1966:130).

The heroes of the period were “the noble ones,” whose principal pursuit was fighting and whose greatest honor was to die a battlefield death (Kailasapathy, 1968; Hart, 1975, 1979). The heroic warriors of the period were animated by the assumption that power (ananku) was not transcendent, but immanent, capricious, and potentially malevolent (Hart, 1975:26, 81). War was considered a sacrifice of honor, and memorial stones were erected to fallen heroic kings and/or warriors whose manifest power could be permanently worshipped by one’s community and ancestors (Hart, 1975, 137; Kailasapathy, 1968, 235).

Like their epic and purist counterparts, for traditional kalarippayattu practitioners attaining power in practice is still a composite, multi-dimensioned set of practices. There is the power to be attained through repetition of mantra, each of which must be individually accomplished; the power inherent in discovery and control of the internal energy/breath (prana-vayu); the strength of mental power (manasakti) manifest in one-point focus and complete doubtlessness; the elemental discovery and raising of the power per se (kundalini sakti); and the powers of the divine gained through worship and rituals (puja), meditation, devotion, and/or magic.

However, to gain access to the majority of these types of power, one must begin with the body and its training in actualizing particular powers. A Muslim master once told me, “He who wants to become a master must possess complete knowledge of the body.” As assumed in traditional yoga practice, knowledge of the body begins with the physical or gross body (sthula-sarira), discovered through exercises and massage. Together they are considered body preparation” (meyyorukkam). The exercises include a vast array of poses, steps, jumps, kicks, and leg movements performed in increasingly complex combinations back and forth across the kalari floor. Collectively, they are considered a “body art” (meiabhyasam). Individual body-exercise sequences (meippayattu) are taught one by one, and every student masters simple forms before moving on to more complex and difficult sequences. Most important is mastery of basic poses (vadivu), named after animals and comparable to basic postures (asana) of yoga, and mastery of steps (cuvadu) by which one moves into and out of poses. Repetitious practice of these outer forms eventually renders the external body flexible (meivalakkam) and, as one master said, “flowing (olukku) like a river.”

Exerpts from Actualizing Power(s) and Crafting A Self in Kalarippayatu: A South Indian Martial Art and the Yoga and Ayurveda Paradigms by Phillip B. Zarrilli

 


ancient superheroes

 

Virabhadra, Vasistha & Vishvamitra, Astavakra, Hanuman, Goraksha & Matsyendra…

If we’d grown up in India, these heroes, saints, and sages might be as familiar to us as Superman. But most Western yoga practitioners weren’t raised on tales from Indian classics like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas. For us, learning about these legendary heroes can provide new insights into the deeper dimensions of yoga, a practice that is ultimately concerned with much more than assuming the forms of the asanas. As Kausthub Desikachar, grandson of revered Indian yoga master T.K.V. Krishnamacharya, puts it: “By meditating on these characters, we hope that we might come to embody some of their attributes.”

Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article Heroes, Saints, and Sages by Colleen Morton Busch