Thursday, 17 December 2015

Did Ayurveda Influence Medieval Yoga Traditions?

Sanskrit Beta 1469Wellcome Library, London.
This Sanskrit manuscript is thought to be dated 1469 from the genre of Karmavipaka, meaning “the ripening of karma”.
It begins with a salutation to the sage Dhanvantari, the traditional author of the original works on Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest medical systems.

Did Ayurveda Influence Medieval Yoga Traditions?
Preliminary Remarks on their Shared Terminology, Theory and Praxis.

Abstract of a forthcoming article by Jason Birch.

Published by AyurYoga, a 5-year ERC-funded project. 

The combining of yoga and ayurveda (Indian medicine) is unexceptional in the current global market for wellness. More than a married couple, yoga and ayurveda are deemed by many to be sisters, born of the same scriptural family, the Vedas. The current interplay between yoga and ayurveda raises two questions: how old might their relationship be and was it as intimate in pre-modern times as it seems today? The first question is relatively easy to answer because textual evidence from the classical period of India’s history indicates that their relationship dates back to the beginning of the first millennium, but probably not to the Vedic period. Published articles by Dominik Wujastyk (2012) and Philipp Mass (2008) shed some light on this. The second question is the focus of this study, which will assess the influence of ayurveda on medieval yoga texts, in terms of terminology, theory and praxis.

Apart from the integration of yoga and ayurveda in modern times, the premise of the question that prompted this article rests upon the fact that the goals of these two disciplines are complementary, despite their differences. The classical ayurvedic source Carakasaṃhitā (1.11.3 – 4, 33) advises that one should cultivate desire for longevity, wealth and the other world (paraloka); the first is achieved by healthy people pursuing healthy activities and by the sick taking care to cure their diseases. One might infer that longevity provides more time for one to strive for the third aim, which Caraka says is attained by various pursuits including absorption of the mind (manaḥsamādhi). All medieval yoga traditions aim at liberation from transmigration and disease is regarded as an obstacle to this end.

A distinguishing feature of both ayurveda and yoga is that they are practical disciplines, which transmit specialized knowledge. Their orientation certainly appears to be different in the sense that ayurveda is a more worldly concern practised by doctors who help other people, whereas yoga aims to transcend the world and its practitioners pursue their own salvation. However, it is not unreasonable to suppose that yogins borrowed ayurvedic theory and praxis to cure their own illnesses and, if this were the case, to assume that their texts would contain evidence for this. Ultimately, I shall try to answer whether medieval yogins resorted to the specialized theory and praxis of ayurveda or whether they relied on a more general knowledge of healing and disease, which is found in earlier Tantras and brahmanical texts.

This article will focus on the names of diseases, the humoral theory (tridoṣa) of the body, the notion of increasing digestive fire, the body’s vital points (marman), herbs and the six therapeutic practices (ṣaṭkarma) in medieval yoga texts. It will examine references to an unidentified group of fourteenth-century yogins who supposedly practised a technique which was first taught by the divine physicians, the Aśvins, as well as a seventeenth-century digest (nibandha) on yoga that quotes and borrows extensively from the classical ayurvedic compendium, the Suśrutasaṃhitā, and a short eighteenth-century treatise on therapeutic interventions for yogins who injure themselves in the practice of postures (āsana), breathing exercises (prāṇāyāma), internal locks (bandha) and seals (mudrā).

In addition to the contents of medieval yoga texts, I shall refer to available biographic information of yogins as well as other sources that report of yogins as doctors. However, there is certainly scope for more research in this regard, in particular, on Persian works like the fourteenth-century Majmū-e Ḍiyā’ī, which is reported to contain a chapter on the “Medicine of Nāgārjuna and other yogis of India” (Mazars 2006: 14).


Maas, Philipp 2008:
Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens, 51, pp. 125-162.

Mazars, Guy 2006: 
Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Wujastyk, Dominik 2012:
Yoga in Practice, Ed. David Gordon White. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Friday, 11 December 2015

Extending the Breath to Defeat Death

Śivaliṅga (17th century), Rajasthan
Paint on Paper

A Freedive into Tantric Prāṇāyāma


While in Pondicherry, we have had the privilege of attending reading sessions at the École Française d'Extrême-Orient, where a team of scholars led by Professor Dominic Goodall are editing medieval tantric Śaiva ritual manuals called Paddhatis.

We were lucky enough to read one of the yoga sections of these Paddhatis, which is based on the Saptāṅgayoga (i.e. Yoga with Seven Auxiliaries) of an earlier Tantra called the Mṛgendratantra (pre-10th century). This Tantra contains a very concise description of prāṇāyāma and it's one of the few sources that defines prāṇāyāma as extending the breath, rather than stopping it:
Breath (prāṇa) is the vital wind (vāyu) already defined. Its extension is the strenuous exercise of that wind by expelling it, drawing it in and holding it. Its effect is to remove any defects in the faculties.
Mṛgendratantra, Yogapāda 4. Trans. Alexis Sanderson 1999:5

Therefore, one prāṇāyāma is a single breath, which consists of an inhalation, a retention and an exhalation.

The Mṛgendratantra states that there are three grades of prāṇāyāma: inferior, intermediate and superior. The grade depends on the length, which is measured in units of Tāla. A Tāla is defined as twelve circumambulations of the knee:
The span of time termed a Tāla is what it takes to move [the palm of] one’s hand round the circumference of one’s knee-cap twelve times.
Mṛgendratantra, Yogapāda 28ab. Trans. Alexis Sanderson 1999:5

The commentary of Nārāyaṇakaṇtha and later Paddhatis make it clear that the three grades of prāṇāyāma have the following lengths:
Inferior          = 12 Tāla    = 144 circumambulations
Intermediate = 24 Tāla    = 288 circumambulations
Superior        = 48 Tāla    = 576 circumambulations
That's quite a lot of handwork in a single breath! Let's assume conservatively that it takes one second to circumambulate the knee-cap with the hand. This means the tantric sādhaka is extending the breath to 2 minutes 24 seconds, 4 minutes 48 seconds and 9 minutes 36 seconds, respectively.
Inferior           = 12 Tāla    = 2 minutes 24 seconds
Intermediate  = 24 Tāla    = 4 minutes 48 seconds
Superior         = 48 Tāla    = 9 minutes 36 seconds
Is it possible to extend one’s breath to 9 minutes 36 seconds?

Well, it seems that some of the best freedivers can do it. In 2001, the world record for holding one's breath (Static Apneawas 8 minutes 6 seconds (by Martin Štěpánek, 3 July 2001) and it has been slowly increasing since then to the current record set in 2014:
The new Guinness World Record for Static Apnea is 11 minutes 54 seconds set by Branko Petrovic on October 7 [2014], under the supervision of the Guinness adjudicators.

Nonetheless, the tantric yogis of the 10th century were ahead of their time. It makes one wonder whether they were able to move their hands extremely quickly, thus reducing the time of a Tāla, or whether the superior grade of prāṇāyāma was an exaggerated claim.

What was the aim of this Tantric Prāṇāyāma?

Kālī (17th century), Rajasthan
Paint on Paper

It restores health (puṣṭi) and defeats death (mṛtyujaya). And should one be so inclined, it can enable one to burn things without fire, cause trees to wither, destroy seeds, paralyse creatures, cause insanity and intensify the effects of poison in others. Its soteriological purpose was to accomplish tantric Śaiva visualization practices, worship, repetition of Mantras and yogic suicide (i.e. deliberately leaving the body at the end of one's life). It was also prescribed for initiation rites and the installation of deities (Mṛgendratantra, Yogapāda 25 – 27ab). 

The desired results depend on nasal dominance at the time of practice; that is, whether the breath is moving predominantly in the left nostril, the right nostril or both equally (i.e. the central channel). 

The prāṇāyāma of the Mṛgendratantra is quite distinct from that of the prāṇāyāma in Haṭhayoga texts, which began to emerge several centuries later. Not only is the Mṛgendratantra's definition of prāṇāyāma as extension of the breath different from that of yoga traditions which aim at extinguishing the breath, it doesn't incorporate the internal locks called bandhas nor any of the various techniques for manipulating the breath, such as alternating the nostrils.

We hope to discuss more about these distinctions in a follow up post.


Alexis Sanderson, 1999: 
Yoga in Śaivism: The Yoga Section of the Mṛgendratantra, An Annotated translation with the Commentary of Bhaṭṭa Nārāyāṇakaṇṭha 
(Available on

Franck André Jamme, André Padoux, Lawrence Rinder, 2011:
Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan 
(Available on Amazon)