Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Headstand on the Fingers :

Yogis on their Heads in the Early Modern Period

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Follow the work of Jason Birch on academia.edu
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Monday, 31 December 2018

2018, A Year to Remember




It has been a jam-packed year, the busiest yet for The Luminescent.

2018 was definitely the year of unrelenting fieldwork for us. We visited government and university libraries, private collections, temples, palaces and museums in at least half a dozen states of India as well as other countries, such as Bhutan, Japan, Austria, France, Czech Republic, Canada, Italy, Australia and Britain. We also attended conferences, gave talks and facilitated reading (and practice) workshops in most of these countries. We feel very lucky to be at the leading edge of the emerging field of academic study into Yoga.

Every day of 2018 was spent on the road, sleeping in all sorts of conditions (some comfortable, some not so) and moving from week-to-week (sometimes, day-to-day) carrying our few worldly belongings on our back. 

Despite our endurance for nomadic ways and having our spirits elevated by several significant research successes, the itinerant life has certainly taken its toll on our wellbeing. So, we do hope to settle in one place for 2019 to rejuvenate and, most importantly, write up some of our findings.

Our TOP FIVE research achievements for 2018:

1. Yoga and Āyurveda |  It was in early April 2018 that the efforts of our time spent in Vienna as part of the AyurYog Project were officially put into print. The peer-reviewed article “Premodern Yoga Traditions and Ayurveda: Preliminary Remarks on Shared Terminology, Theory and Praxis” was published in the open-access journal, History of Science in South Asia. This article discusses the relevant theory (digestive fire, humoral theory, vital points, herbs) and praxis (āsana, ṣaṭkarma and therapy or cikitsā) of the Yoga texts in question in order to assess the possible influence of Āyurveda. 

2. Amaraughaprabodha | The earliest text to teach Haṭha Yoga |  In April, we traveled to Kyoto, Japan, to participate in RINDAS 2018: Traditional Indian Thought. Dr Jason Birch presented new manuscript evidence in his paper “The Amaraughaprabodha: Awakening with Buddhist and Śaiva Nectars.” These research findings have revealed that a short version of the Amaraughaprabodha was probably one of the earliest texts to teach Haṭhayoga. It is also evident that the author of the Amaraughaprabodha created Haṭhayoga from the yoga of the Amṛtasiddhi, which is a Vajrayāna work composed sometime before the mid-twelfth century. A forthcoming article by Birch on this topic is due for publication in 2019.

3. JoYS |  On the 1st May, we officially launched the Journal of Yoga Studies with preview events held (almost) simultaneously in Kyoto, London and Delhi. The creation of this peer-reviewed open-access academic journal, led by Dr Elizabeth de Michelis, has been a few years in the making. The journal hopes to spearhead the dissemination of research findings of this emerging field of study and the first two articles were certainly a taste for the quality and rigour of the publication. We are equally excited about the forthcoming contributions due for publication in 2019. Stay tuned.

4. Haṭhābhyāsapaddhatī | A Precursor of Modern Yoga |  It was during the 17th World Sanskrit Conference, which was held at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) in July 2018, that we were able to offer a preview of our efforts to reconstruct the 112 āsanas of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. We were extremely pleased with the reception it received by our learned audience, with some remarking “it is a groundbreaking form of outreach for this type of philological research.” We very much look forward to sharing the fruits of this exciting project in late-2019.

5. The Vienna Volume |  The much anticipated Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives was published by the University of Vienna in September 2018. This outstanding collection of articles covers the breadth of academic studies on Yoga and includes papers from world leading scholars in this field. It is the culmination of many years of collaborative research and editorial work, and documents the proceedings of papers that were presented during the conference (convened under the same name) at the University of Vienna in 2013.

Biggest impact story of the year:

Our most widely read story for this year was “A Culture of Silence: Satyananda Yoga”, co-authored by Jacqueline Hargreaves and Dr Josna Pankhania. Although it was officially publish in late-Dec 2017, the significance of this collaborative work has had lasting repercussions, impacting international industry standards (e.g., Yoga Alliance) as well as grievance policies and codes of conduct (i.e., Yoga Australia).


It was in 2018 that we broadened our contributions to include articles from up-and-coming academics Laura von Ostrowski, with her interesting piece on “Boris Sacharow: Germany’s first Haṭhayoga Teacher” and Seth Powell, with his well-researched contribution on “The Ancient Yoga Strap: A Brief History of the Yogapaṭṭa.” We look forward to sourcing more contributions from academics and the research community in 2019. It is through these efforts that we hope to continue to fulfil our vision as an independent, high-quality source of original research, news and discourse for the Yoga community.

Charity Fund Raisers:

The generosity of our readers enabled us to successfully support two GoFundMe campaigns in 2018. Firstly, we financed the purchase of much needed yoga equipment for the school children in Khed, Maharashtra (India). And, more recently, we have reached our target to send their inspiring Yoga teacher, Mangesh Khophar, on a fully-funded certified teacher training with Yoga Synergy.

2019, fingers-crossed!

Well, that’s the re-cap for 2018 and it only seems fitting to build some anticipation for what we hope will be an important year ahead. 

We are very excited to be collaborating with the AyurYog Project once again. This time to construct a web-based visual and textual timeline for premodern Ayurveda and Yoga. There is also the translation of Christian Bouy’s book in the pipeline. There will be the official launch of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhatī reconstruction project towards the end of 2019 (as we still have some important research findings to document in this regard). Several forthcoming publications, the first of the critical editions and translations of Haṭha Yoga Project, and more. Also, we’ll be expanding to include online trainings, exclusively designed ethical products and printed volumes. Phew!

Thank you so much to our colleagues, patreon supporters and followers. 

You have put some rice in our bowls this year and kept us nourished.


Jacqui & Jason
of The Luminescent

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Āsanas in Clay


The craft of doll making and clay modelling from the district of Ghurni in Krishnagar, Bengal, India is thought to be about 250 years old. To this day, artisans exquisitely handcraft dolls that attempt to capture the diverse lives and occupations of various people. These decorative creations often reflect the period in which they were produced. The style is realistic and most pieces are intricately painted or clothed in fabric. They were highly sought after by collectors in Europe during the late-19th and early 20th centuries.

The Albert Hall Museum of Jaipur, whose main vision is to collect, protect and persevere the industrial arts and handicrafts of India, has a gallery dedicated to such pottery works. Its impressive collection contains a selection of Sadhus performing a variety of seated, inverted and dynamic āsanas. Below are a few of these miniature clay figurines that can be dated to the late-19th century.

Dr M. L. Gharote of the Lonavla Yoga Institute (India) documented the complete collection, which includes one hundred āsana miniatures1, in his book, Encyclopaedia of Traditional Asanas (2006). Gharote (2006, lxvi) notes that the Jaipur Central Museum (also known as the Albert Hall Museum) commenced its collection in August 1881 and that its catalogue, which was first published by the Imperial Medical Hall Press in 1896, includes descriptions of these figurines by Pandit Lakshmi Nath Sastri, Principal Sanskrit College, Jaipur.

The models provide some insightful details about the lives of ascetics during this early modern period, such as their accoutrements (like a very practical umbrella), sectarian affiliation (most commonly Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva) and use of texts. Also, the collection as a whole is valuable for scholarly efforts to document premodern variations of āsanas. For example, there are three variations of viparītakaraṇāsana, four variations of aikapādāsana, and two variations of kappyāsana and kubri-āsana, respectively.

1 Although Gharote states there are one hundred āsana miniatures in the collection of the Jaipur Central Museum (2006, lxvi), I have found references to only seventy-two of these āsanas in his book.

A Sadhu seated in an āsana (labelled siddhāsana)
with arm raised (likely ūrdhvabāhu) and dressed in a loin clothe.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7143.
Bearded Sadhu with jaṭā (dreadlocked hair),
fire tongs and a kamaṇḍalu (water pot).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7240.
Sadhu from the Nirguna sect performing an āsana
(labelled vṛkṣāsana and resembles vātāyanāsna).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7152.

An ash covered ascetic performing an āsana
(labelled ardha garuḍa bheda).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7145.

Sadhu seated in an āsana
(labelled vajrāsana).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7161.

Sadhu performing a supine posture
(labelled matsyāsana).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7172.

Sadhu performing a dynamic back bending āsana from the standing position
(labelled ardha kapāliāsana).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7183.

Sadhu seated in an āsana (labelled kubriāsana)
with a crutch (yogadaṇḍa) under the his left armpit.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7199.

Sadhu seated in sahajāsana under an umbrella.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7211.
Sadhu performing kukkuṭāsana.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7144.
(Photograph: Borayin Maitreya Larios)

Sadhu performing gorakṣāsana.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7177.
(Photograph: Borayin Maitreya Larios)

Watch the Bengali artisans at work in this documentary.


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Wednesday, 3 October 2018

What is Haṭha Yoga? The evolving definition.


The Haṭha Yoga Project team members: (from left) Daniela Bevilacqua, James Mallinson (P.I.),
Jason Birch and Mark Singleton

As the Haṭha Yoga Project marks the end of its third year, this gallant team of scholars chose to gather at the newly formed SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies to present their evolving understandings of the term haṭhayoga. On the surface, this appears to be a fairly straight forward and simple topic to discuss, because haṭhayoga is a familiar phrase which is commonly used to categorize many of the popular forms of transnational yoga practised around the world. However, when scrutinised historically through the lens of philology and when the ethnographical data from contemporary ascetic practitioners is considered, its varied meanings and the subtle nuances of understanding quickly form a very complex debate.

Each of the panelist offered insights into the definition of the term given their particular area of study. The audio recording of this event is available here:

Listen here.


Dr James Mallinson
[00:00-24:51] Early Haṭha Yoga and proto-Haṭha texts. 
Dr Jason Birch
[24:58 - 43:30] The formative years of Haṭha and Rāja Yoga and their influence on 15th - 18th century literature. 
Dr Daniela Bevilacqua
[43:31 - 58:05] The study of contemporary ascetics in India and their understanding of Haṭha Yoga. 
Dr Mark Singleton
[58:10 - 01:13:50] The transnational meanings of Haṭha Yoga which are developing in the globalised milieu of contemporary yoga.
Below are some notable quotes from each of the researchers.

The Amṛtasiddhi is the oldest of the ten texts that we’re [...] editing, as part of the Haṭha Yoga Project. And it introduces various things which become very important in later textual treatments of haṭhayoga, including these three practices that I just mentioned: mahāmudrāmahābandha and mahāvedha. 
It also goes into the principles of the yogic body: sun, moon, fire, bindu, that I’ve been mentioning; these three knots that the breath pierces as it rises up the central channel; a connection between the mind, breath and bindu (if you control one, you control the other two); the four states of practice; and then, four levels of aspirant. 
Now, we’ve just, Jason and I and others in the room, we’ve just had a workshop in Italy where we read this text very closely and we made great progress understanding it. It’s a complex text. One of the things we knew already, from a close reading of it, was that it was written by tantric Buddhists, which is a big revelation and an exciting development in our understanding of early Haṭhayoga’s history.

Here is some open access background reading material on this topic by Mallinson:
Haṭhayoga's Philosophy: A Fortuitous Union of Non-Dualities

The early proponents of Haṭhayoga do not characterise the practice of Haṭhayoga as difficult or dangerous, but they do acknowledge that manipulating prāṇa forcefully was dangerous and could kill the practitioner. Therefore, they advise that the techniques of Haṭhayoga should be learnt from an expert and that they should be practised gradually, and never forcefully. 
Nonetheless, those who rejected Haṭhayoga emphasised the dangers of forcing the breath and advocated for easier and safer ways for achieving liberation. In particular, gnostic traditions tend to exaggerate the difficulty and exertion of physical yoga techniques because, from their point of view, there are more effective methods for gaining knowledge. 
Perhaps, in response to this criticism, haṭhayoga was defined (in the fourteenth century) as the union of the sun and moon, which was interpreted to mean the practice of prāṇāyāma. This definition became the preferred one of erudite Brahmins who wrote scholarly compendiums that incorporated teachings on Haṭhayoga. In defining Haṭhayoga as prāṇāyāma, within the system of aṣṭāngayoga, these compendiums downplay the forceful effects of physical yoga techniques and emphasise their compatibility with older systems of yoga.

Here is some open access background reading material on this topic by Birch:
The Meaning of haṭha in early Haṭhayoga

The majority of the ascetics that I interviewed were understanding haṭhayoga not as a kind of method of yoga, but mostly as a kind of mental intention. So, Haṭhayoga is a dṛdh saṅkalp and it is a firm determination to accomplish something or reach a goal. […] 
[The] use of the breath as an interpretation of Haṭhayoga is another type of meaning that the sādhus give to the [term]. And, in fact, this has been explained to me by a sādhu, Garuḍ Dās jī Mahārāji. [He is] a Rāmānujī, and he understood haṭhayoga as [follows]:

Manhant Garuḍ Dās jī Mahārāji: 
“The aim of Haṭhayoga is to reach keval kumbhak and then to go into samādhi. Therefore, the haṭha yogi reaches a stage where he is not going to breathe again if he does not want to and, in so doing, he can push his body into death. The final stage of Haṭhayoga would be the death of the yogi who remains in samādhi.”

Here is some open access background reading material on this topic by Bevilacqua:
Let the Sādhus Talk. Ascetic understanding of Haṭha Yoga and yogāsanas.

An idea that has been growing in popularity, at least since the book called Selling Spirituality (2004) by Carrette and King, is that Yoga along with practices that are prevalent now such as Mindfulness, can be seen as political tools, which are used in conjunction with neoliberalism and commercialisation, in order to get people back to work. So, you relax people and send them back to work the next day. It’s sort of a critique of Haṭhayoga, and in some ways quite a powerful one and [it is] something of an academic trend to see practices (including Haṭhayoga), framed this way. There are some obvious problems with such a theory. [...]

So, I am musing at the moment, as I’m currently reading the new book by Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, where he is talking about the rise of artificial intelligence and the coming of the part-human, part-AI cyborg. This is an idea that I first came across in the context of yoga in the work of Joseph Alter:

In many respects the cyborg is in effect the ultimate embodied form of yogic practice, a jivanmukta as everyman. 
I’m wondering what will now become of Haṭhayoga and how we are going to think about and define Haṭhayoga in a world where humans are increasingly interacting with technology: with biohacking; with possibilities for the elongation of life (so a very typical goal of hathayoga would be immortality, which is apparently now a very near biomedical reality); with new trends to use [tools, such as] the MUSE headband for monitoring your own brainwaves into order to bring yourself into meditative states and NADI X yoga pants that will actually vibrate to tell you how you should move in a particular yoga posture.
So, a philosophical question to leave you with: 
What does yoga become in a post-human cyborg world?

Here is some further helpful (open access) background reading on this topic by Singleton:
Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives.


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Monday, 1 October 2018

Yoga in Transformation: The Vienna Volume

The much anticipated volume Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives has been published. This outstanding collection of articles covers the breadth of academic studies on Yoga and includes papers from world leading scholars in this field. It is the culmination of many years of collaborative research and editorial work, and documents the proceedings of papers that were presented during the conference (convened under the same name) at the University of Vienna in 2013. 

The abstract for the volume states:
This volume explores aspects of yoga over a period of about 2500 years. In its first part, it investigates facets of the South Asian and Tibetan traditions of yoga, such as the evolution of posture practice, the relationship between yoga and sex, yoga in the theistic context, the influence of Buddhism on early yoga, and the encounter of Islam with classical yoga. The second part addresses aspects of modern globalised yoga and its historical formation, as for example the emergence of yoga in Viennese occultism, the integration of yoga and nature cure in modern India, the eventisation of yoga in a global setting, and the development of Patañjali’s iconography. In keeping with the current trend in yoga studies, the emphasis of the volume is on the practice of yoga and its theoretical underpinnings.
Below is the Table of Contents, which outlines its comprehensive contribution to the history of Yoga in South Asia and Tibet, as well as transnational and globalised forms of contemporary Yoga. 

Through the efforts of the editors Prof. Karl Baier, Dr. Philipp Maas and Prof. Karin Preisendanz of the University of Vienna, and the financial support of AMRAY, this volume has been made available both in print and as an open-access PDF. It is a tremendous triumph to have made such a prestigious publication freely available.

The book can be purchased in hardback here:

or at other booksellers by using the following bibliographical data:
Karl Baier / Philipp A. Maas / Karin Preisendanz (eds.). Yoga in Transformation - Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Wiener Forum für Theologie und Religionswissenschaft, Vol. 16, 2018. Vienna University Press by V&R unipress. 
ISBN 978-3-8471-0862-7.
The download of a PDF of the whole volume is possible free of charge in accordance with open access.

We truly hope you savour this publication as much as we do!



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