Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Typology of Modern Yoga


Over the summer of 2015, I had an opportunity to sit down with Dr. Elizabeth de Michelis and discuss the emerging field of academic study on Modern Yoga. 

Our discussion led to the creation of the diagram, Typology of Modern Yoga, which is based on the classification model first developed by Dr de Michelis in her important book, A History of Modern Yoga. This diagram aims to be a helpful tool for understanding the ever-evolving types of Yoga practised today and it explains the original coining of the term Modern Postural Yoga (MPY), which has become widely used within the Yoga community.

Her book paved the way for further academic study into Modern Yoga with some Universities now offering graduate level programmes, such as:

Master of Arts in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, UK.

Master Programme in Yoga Studies at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice, Italy (in Italian).

Master of Arts in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California, USA.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Infinite Lightness of Being | Katherine Virgils Exhibition

The Infinite Lightness of Being | Katherine Virgils Exhibition
5 - 29 October 2016

If you have never had an opportunity to travel to the exquisite desert lands of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, then you have a chance to taste its colour and vibrancy this October in London at the exhibition entitled, The Infinite Lightness of Being.

Artist Katherine Virgils draws upon imagery of the Nath Yogis and the delicate miniature paintings of the Mahamandir, which was a temple built by the Maharaja Man Singh (1803 - 43) for his Nath guru. This temple was the legacy of the Maharaja Man Singh whose patronage of the Naths in the 1830s led to a total revision of artistic impression. These miniature figures are of historical significance because they attest to a complex āsana practice in existence in eighteenth-century Rajasthan. Many of the āsanas are also described and illustrated in manuscripts of yoga texts of the period.

Katherine's work has driven a cultural and historical resurgence in Jodhpur this year. In January, she was invited by the current Maharaja Gaj Singh to set up her studio at the top of the magnificent Mehrangahr Fort and hold an exhibition there. The Mehrangahr Fort holds one of the world's most comprehensive collections of yoga manuscripts, many of which are being studied as part of the Haṭha Yoga Project at SOAS, University of London. 

Re-imagining the yogis, Virgils uses ancient methods and new technology alike. Indian miniature painting methods and gold leaf are blended with earth pigments, whilst the scale of each yogi is radically altered, the imagery becoming more resonant with a 21st century audience.

The show at the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery is the first time this specific yogic imagery has been seen in London and incorporates a lecture on yoga and its heritage by Dr. James Mallinson (Principal Investigator for the Haṭha Yoga Project), to be held on the 5th October at the gallery, from 6.30pm

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Role of Herbs in Medieval Yoga

Ascetics preparing and consuming narcotics.
Private Collection, Awadh, Northern India.
Reproduced in J.P. Losty (July 2016, p. 30)
Ascetics and Yogis in Indian Painting: The Mughal and Deccani Tradition

An extract from the forthcoming publication:

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

by Dr Jason Birch
Generally speaking, the role of herbs in medieval yoga texts is marginal at most. Most yoga texts do not mention them and those that do, mention them only in passing without details of recipes and their specific benefits for yogins. 
Moreover, even in those texts which describe herbal preparations, such as the Khecarīvidyā and the Yuktabhavadeva, the information on herbs appears to be unconnected to the system of yoga practice taught in the same texts. This suggests that the use of herbs was, at most, an inessential supplement for some yogins. In fact, even as Haṭhayoga became more sophisticated in the late medieval period with the integration of more elaborate techniques, metaphysics and doctrines, the Jogapradīpyakā is the only text [...] that explains how the practice of yoga might be combined with taking medicinal herbs for a period of time. The emphasis on attaining liberation in medieval yoga texts may partly explain the paucity of information on herbs, because the use of herbs is mainly advocated for the attainment of Siddhis
As to how herbs might have been combined with the practice of yoga, the most elaborate and compelling account of this is found in the eighteenth-century, Brajbhāṣā Jogapradīpyakā. 
Next, I will describe herbs and explain [them] extraordinarily clearly. Without herbs, one does not obtain Siddhis. Therefore, the yogin should always take herbs. Collect [the herb called] Bhṛṅga along with its root and having dried it, make a powder of it. Take black sesame, Emblic Myrobalan and curd and, having mixed [them] with three sweeteners, one should take the whole [mixture]. It will remove all ailments and diseases, and old age and death will disappear. Jayatarāma will speak of [other] herbs which have these qualities. One who consumes a single leaf of the Nirguḍī [plant] three times every day for a year, this will be the result: one destroys both old age and death. One should seek and obtain the [herbs called] Nirguḍī, Nalanī and Mūṇḍī from the forest in equal quantities. Then, combine them with sugar and ghee and, having taken them for a year, one obtains success. For six months, one should treat sulphur, make equal amounts of sesame and bitter orpiment and, having combined [them] with three sweeteners, make a powder. [By taking this powder,] one obtains the state of youth and immortality. Thus, the [section on] herbs. 
Now, the [yogin’s] manner of living [while undertaking the practice of Khecarī Mudrā]. First, build a solitary hut in a forest or [in the grounds of] a hermitage, where it pleases the mind. For six months, one should steadily practice postures and not talk with any people. One should repeat Mantras day and night, consume rice and water, and avoid salt. One should not eat dry ginger, the [fruit of the] wood-apple tree nor radish. [However,] one can eat a little sweet food. Having done the practice, one should take those herbs which were described previously. When every seventh day, [which is] Sunday, comes, one should cut [the fraenum]; every fortnight, milk [the tongue] and, day and night, churn it with the mind focused. When one does this for six months, one obtains a strong Khecarī [Mudrā]. The tongue grows four finger-breadths [in length] and one obtains two fruits, devotion and liberation. That man who has done what has to be done, washes off the impurities of birth and death. O Jayatarāma, having held one drop [of bindu] in the body, it dissolves in copper, which [then] becomes gold. This is the special quality of Khecarī Mudrā.   

bahuri auṣadi varani sunāu, divya divya prakaṭa kahi gāū |
auṣadi vinā sidhi nahī lahai, tātai jogī avaṣadi nita gahai ||665||
bhṛṅga samūla saṃgraha ānai, tāhi sukāyaru cūraṇa ṭhānai |
kriṣṇatila āmala dadhi levai, madha triya sādhi sakala kau sevai ||666||
dohā – roga vyādhi sab hī kaṭai, jarāmṛtyu miṭi jāya |
jayatarāma avaṣadha bhaṣai, to ye tā guṇa thāya ||667||
caupāī – eka eka nirguḍī pāta, dina prati tīn vera jo ṣāta |
varasa vāra hai aisau hovai, jarāmṛtyu donauṃ so ṣovai ||668||
nirguḍī nalanī arū mūṇḍī, sama kari vana tai lyāvai ḍhuṃḍhī |
bahuri sarkarā ghṛta ju milāve, varasa divasa sādhyā sidhi pāvai ||669||
ṣaṭa māsa gandhaka so dharai, tila karu golocana samakarai |
madhu traya jukti cūrṇa kara ṣāvai, ajara amara padavī so pāvai ||670||
iti auṣadha || 

atha rahana vidhāna |
caupāī - prathama ekānta maṭhī ika ṭhānai, vana graha māhi jahāṃ mani mānai |
ṣaṭa māsa āsana driḍha dharai, prāṇī mātra soṃ bāta na karai ||671||
mantrajāpa nisadina hī ucārai, cāvala peya bhaṣi lūṇa nivārai |
nāgara bela mūli nahi ṣāve, kachuka mīṭho bhojana pāvai ||672||
pūrava avaṣadha varanī joī, sādhana karai tāsa kau soī |
divasa sātavai ravidina āvai, tā tā dina chedana ju karāvai ||673||
pāṣi pāṣi prati dohana karai, mathana aho nisi hī mana dharai |
aisai karata māsa ṣaṭa jāvai, vṛddha khecarī pāvai tavai ||674||
aṅgura cyāri jībha baḍhi āvai, bhakti mukti dou phala pāvai |
kṛtya kṛtya soī nara hoya, janma mṛtya mala ḍārai dhoya ||675||
dohā - garayau ju tāṃvā uparai, būnda eka dhari deha |
jayatarāma so kanaka hoya, khecarī kā guṇa yeha ||676||
iti khecarī ||

Jogapradīpyakā 665 - 76 (Trans. Jason Birch)

666d madha (ms. ba) ] emend. : madhi Ed. 674b vṛddhi (ms. a) ] emend : vṛddhi Ed. I would like to thank Nirājan Kafle for his helpful comments on this passage.

Ascetics consuming sweets and narcotics.
Private Collection, Awadh, Northern India.
Reproduced in J.P. Losty (July 2016, p. 29)
Ascetics and Yogis in Indian Painting: The Mughal and Deccani Tradition

Thursday, 14 July 2016

VINYĀSA: Medieval and Modern Meanings

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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.


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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Monday, 4 July 2016

Hathayogic Bandhas and Mudras of the Amritasiddhi

968 CE Lokeśvara (i.e. Avalokiteśvara) at the Mañjunāth temple at Mangalore
Photo Credit: James Mallinson

Advice from the earliest known Yoga text to teach the Haṭhayogic Bandhas and Mudrās.

Dr James Mallinson observes in his significant article, The Amṛtasiddhi: Haṭhayoga's Tantric Buddhist Source Text, that the Amṛtasiddhi was composed before the mid-twelfth century in a Vajrayāna Buddhist milieu and it contains many doctrinal innovations.

The Amṛtasiddhi is the earliest known yoga text to teach the practice of Mahāmudrā, Mahābandha and Mahāvedha with the throat-lock (kaṇṭhabandha) and root-lock (mūlabandha).
In a beautiful place, where there are agreeable customs, good people, plentiful food and no danger, one should practise the path of yoga. [...] The practice [of MahāmudrāMahābandha and Mahāvedha] should be done in such a way that the breath is not afflicted. For, when the breath is afflicted, the fire burns the bodily constituents.
śubhe deśe śubhācāre sajjanair vā samanvite |
abhyased yogamārgaṃ tu subhikṣe nirupadrave ||
prāṇapīḍā yathā na syād abhyāsaḥ kriyate tathā |
pīḍite prāṇavāte hi dhātuṃ dahati pāvakaḥ || 
Amṛtasiddhi 19.5 and 19.8 (Trans: Jason Birch) 
Mallinson (2016: 6) states, "These practices, which involve bodily postures and breath control, are used to make the breath enter the central channel and rise upwards.  They are an innovation of the Amṛtasiddhi and are taught in all subsequent haṭhayoga texts, albeit sometimes with different names."

Read Dr Mallinson's full article on Academia.edu:

The Amṛtasiddhi: Haṭhayoga's Tantric Buddhist Source Text

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Textual Evidence for a Namaskāra as an Āsana


Pañcāṅganamaskārāsana of the Yogāsanam (circa 19th century)
Folio 15 of a manuscript called the Yogāsanam held at the Rajasthān Prāchya Vidyā Pratishthān, Bikaner, Rajasthan
(copy available at the Kaivalyadhama Library – accession No. R635Y8/15294) 

The practice of prostrating oneself on the ground, usually to a deity or guru, is mentioned in Sanskrit works, including some Tantras, that date back to at least the early medieval period of India’s history (i.e., 6th c. CE onwards). There were different ways of performing a prostration, some requiring that eight limbs be placed on the ground (aṣṭāṅgapraṇāma) and others stipulating that only six, five or four limbs touch the ground. Apart from paying homage to a deity or guru by bowing the head and holding the hands in the prayer gesture (añjalimudrā), medieval yoga texts do not mention prostrations such as the Aṣṭāṅgapraṇāma, nor any other type of Namaskāra, as a yoga technique.

However, we have recently found an exception: An undated Jain Yogāsana manual, which may have been written in the nineteenth-century, describes a five-limbed prostration (namaskāra) as an āsana. The five limbs, which are brought together on the ground, are the two knees, two hands and forehead.

Detail of Pañcāṅganamaskārāsana
Yogāsanam (circa 19th century)

         The Āsana of Prostration with Five Limbs - Pañcāṅganamaskārāsana

Having brought together the knees, hands and forehead on the ground, the excellent [yogin] should venerate with the [proper] sentiment a god that should be worshipped [thus] with five [limbs]. Purification of the mind and an increase of merit arise by [prostrating] with these limbs. The 'Āsana of Prostration with Five Limbs' posture has been taught by the gods. 
pañcāṅganamaskārāsanam ||15||
jānukaralalāṭān sa ekīkṛtya bhuvastale |
vandeta bhāvato bhavyaḥ prabhuṃ pūjyaṃ ca pañcakaiḥ ||29||
bhāvaśuddhiḥ puṇyavṛddhir aṅgair ebhiś ca jāyate |
pañcāṅganamaskāraṃ tu pīṭhaṃ devaiḥ samīritam ||30|| 
29a sa ] conj. : ya codex.

This unpublished Jaina manuscript contains descriptions of 108 āsanas with illustrations of each and provides an interesting window into the practice of late-medieval āsanas.1 It has been discussed in an article published in Kaivalyadhama’s Yoga Mīmāṃsā Journal

In his commentary on the fifteenth-century Haṭhapradīpikā, Brahmānanda (19th century) advised against practising many repetitions of Sūryanamaskāra and weightlifting because, in his opinion, such practices were too strenuous.2 His comments were prompted by the Haṭhapradīpikā’s caveat against afflicting the body (kāyakleśa). 

It is difficult to know whether Brahmānanda gave this advice because he disapproved of some yogins who were combining many repetitions of Sūryanamaskāra with Haṭhayoga. It may simply be that he considered Sūryanamaskāra and weightlifting to be good examples of practices that can afflict the body if done excessively. Nonetheless, one must wonder what Brahmānanda would have thought of the many strenuous āsanas described in late-medieval texts such as the Haṭharatnavalī, the Jogapradīpyakā and the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, the last of which contains moving and repetitive āsanas designed, as the text states, to develop bodily strength.3 

As Mark Singleton has argued, a fairly strenuous form of Sūryanamaskāra, which extends the practice of prostrating oneself on the ground by adding dog poses and lunges, was combined with yoga in the twentieth century as part of an Indian nationalist attempt to promote physical culture.4 As far as we are aware, there is no evidence for a medieval Sūryanamaskāra that resembles the modern one.

We would like to thank James Mallinson for his comments on a draft of this post and to thank Seth Powell for providing a copy of the folio image.

(1) Satapathy B, Sahay GS., A brief introduction of "Yogāsana - Jaina": An unpublished yoga manuscript
     Yoga Mimamsa [serial online] 2014 [cited 2016 Jun 19];46:43-55.

(2) Birch Jason, The Yogataravali and the Hidden History of Yoga
     Namarupa Magazine, Spring, 2015, pp. 11-12

(3) Birch Jason, The Proliferation of Asana in Late Mediaeval Yoga Traditions
     Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on a Global Phenomenon
     Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress (forthcoming 2016)

(4) Singleton Mark, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice 
     Oxford University Press (2010)

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Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Yamas and Niyamas: Medieval and Modern Views

Published in Yoga Scotland Magazine, Issue 50, May 2016

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Related Posts

Part 1 of this two part series: The Yamas and Niyamas: Patanjali’s View

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Religiosity of the Yoga Mat


Image by Jacqueline Hargreaves

The use of a towel-sized mat that defines the space on which an individual practises yoga seems quite modern. However, there are historical precedents for the size, quality and type of surface on which a yogin should practise. Well before Angela Farmer’s ingenious carpet-underlay and the commercial branding of eco-friendly sticky mats, the iconic yoga mat has a long and intriguing history. 

Yogins of various traditions have favoured certain materials for their mats, as far back as the Bhagavadgītā (circa 2nd - 3rd century CE), which prescribed that a yogin should sit on a steady seat that was not too high nor too low, and was covered with cloth, antelope skin or Kuśa grass (6.11).

Some centuries later, more complicated rules for the use of a mat occur in some Tantras. These were summarized in the Puraścaraṇacandrikā, which is a compilation on the preliminary rites (puraścaraṇa) for mantra recitation. It was written by Devendrāśrama, who probably lived in the fifteenth century.*

Before teaching postures (āsana), Devendrāśrama includes a number of verses on the types of mat (also called āsana) on which the practitioner should sit. His concern is mainly the practice of tantric ritual. The following account indicates that a fairly large array of mats were prescribed for use by some Tantrikas: 

"Hear of the Āsana [mats] which have been prescribed by sages.  
One should know that a tiger's skin brings success in all things; a deer skin is for mastery over [one's] location; a mat of cloth destroys illness; one made of cane increases prosperity; a silk [mat] is nourishing [and] a woollen one alleviates suffering.  
In [performing] rituals that harm enemies, [one should use] a black [mat] and in rituals that subjugate [others], etc., a red one. In pacifying rituals, a white [mat] is prescribed and in all [other tantric] rituals, a variegated one. In rites that paralyse [others], an elephant's skin and in death-dealing rites, a buffalo's skin. [Alternatively,] in rites that expel [enemies], a ewe's skin and in rites of subjugation, a rhinoceros' skin. In rites that cause dissension, a jackal's hide is prescribed and in pacifying rites, a cow's hide. 
When repeating a universal mantra, [sitting] on a bamboo mat [causes] poverty [and sitting] on a wooden one, misfortune. [Sitting] on the earth causes suffering and on stone, disease. [Sitting] on a straw mat destroys one's reputation and [sitting] on [one made of] twigs causes mental distraction. And [sitting] on [a seat made of] bricks results in anxiety.  
An initiated householder should never sit on a spotted black antelope skin. An ascetic, a forest dweller, a celibate (brahmacarī) and one who has taken the ritual bath [to mark the end of Brahmacarya] should sit on a completely square [mat] made of Kuśa grass, antelope skin or cotton, raised up one or two hands or four finger-breaths [from the ground]." 

The Puraścaraṇacandrikā is undoubtedly a compilation because many of its verses are found in earlier Tantras. It teaches eighteen postures and most of their names and descriptions occur in either earlier Tantras or yoga texts, such as the twelfth-century Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā

Several of the postures described in the Puraścaraṇacandrikā, which cannot be traced to a pre-fifteenth century source, can be found in the Haṭhapradīpikā (15th century CE). Seeing that the Haṭhapradīpikā and the Puraścaraṇacandrikā were probably written in the same century and that both are compilations, it's likely they borrowed these descriptions of Āsana from an earlier text that is no longer extant. 

It should be noted that such injunctions on the type of mat are not seen in Haṭhayoga texts. 

In contemporary times, the make and brand of a yoga mat is often a clear indicator of the style of practice; Aṣṭāṅgavinyāsa practitioners preferring the cotton threads of a woven Mysore rug, while Iyengar yoga practitioners tend to favour a sticky surface that can be easily folded for use as a prop.

With the advent of group classes, the particular direction and the gap between mats to allow for maximum attendance (or minimum interference) seems to depend not only on the popularity of the class but also cultural customs regarding personal space and teaching methodology for particular styles. Many of these rules are unstated, some are rational, others form part of an evolving ritualised tradition handed down from teacher to student, thus forming new conditioned behaviours. 

Some behaviours are obvious cultural observances inherited from India, like the simple action of taking off footwear (a sign of respect for the place and the teacher). However, many normative values have developed to help govern personal space while practising in a place shared with others and these often serve a functional purpose, such as the use a sticky surface to safely navigate postural proficiency. 

As various unspoken understandings of behaviour have evolved in modern postural yoga, use of the mat has come to symbolize an individual’s pursuit of transcendence (or personal health) as opposed to taking action in the community. This has led to the coining of slogans such as “Off the mat and into the world” in an attempt to combine concepts of social service and conscious activism with the practice of yoga. When viewed in contrast to the medieval tantric concept of attaining both liberation and worldly power through yoga and ritual performed on a specific mat, these slogans seem quite ironic.

Image by Jacqueline Hargreaves

* The Puraścaraṇacandrikā was quoted by name in a text called the Kramadīpikā, which was probably composed sometime after the end of the fifteenth century (see Alexis Sanderson, The Śaiva Literature, 2014, p. 69 n. 267). The Puraścaraṇacandrikā contains verses of texts that can be dated to the 12th – 15th centuries. Therefore, Devendrāśrama, the author of the Puraścaraṇacandrikā, probably lived in the fifteenth century. Much of the Puraścaraṇacandrikā's section on āsana is quoted with attribution in the Puraścaryārṇava (6.109 – 11, 6.116 – 42cd) of Mahārāja Pratāp Singh Shāh of Nepal (1774–1777). The section on mats is largely reproduced (without acknowledging the source) in the Tārābhaktisudhārṇava of Śrīnarasiṃha Ṭhakkura 1668 CE, (the Tantrik Text Series by Arthur Avalon, 1940, p. 367) and a paper manuscript called 'Āsana' (f. 1v) in the National Archives of Kathmandu (E0991-09), which is a compilation of various Āsanas and hand Mudrās. Textual parallels are also found in the Aṃśumadāgama (IFP TS3-019), the Sammohanatantra (quoted in the Prāṇatoṣiṇī (1820 CE) of Rāmatoṣaṇa Bhaṭṭācārya, the Merutantra and the Dīkṣāprakāśa of the Maithila Jīvanātha (1869 – 70). A similar verse to vaṃśāsane, etc., is quoted and attributed to the Nāradapañcarātra in Gopālabhaṭṭa's Haribhaktivilāsa. Thus, it appears that these verses found their way into a number of Tantric compilations in the late medieval period.

NGMPP A42/5; from folio 5r, line 2 onwards.

uktāni munibhir yāni āsanāni niśāmaya |

sarvasiddhyai vyāghracarma sthānasiddhyai mṛgājinaṃ |
vastrāsanaṃ rogaharaṃ vetrajaṃ śrīvivardhanaṃ |
kauśeyaṃ pauṣṭikaṃ jñeyaṃ kāmbalaṃ duḥkhamocanaṃ |

abhicāre kṛṣṇavarṇaṃ raktaṃ vaśyādikarmaṇi |
śāntike dhavalaṃ proktaṃ citrakaṃ sarvakarmasu |
stambhane gajacarma syān māraṇe māhiṣaṃ tathā |
meṣīcarma tathoccāṭe khaḍgijaṃ vaśyakarmaṇi |
vidveṣe jāmbukaṃ proktaṃ bhaved gocarma śāntike |

vaṃśāsane dāridryaṃ daurbhāgyaṃ dārujāsane |
dharaṇyāṃ duḥkhasaṃbhūtiḥ pāṣāṇe vyādhisambhavaḥ |
tṛṇāsane yaśohāni pallave cittavibhramaḥ |
iṣṭakāyām athādhiḥ syād etatsādhāraṇe jape |

na dīkṣito viśej jātu kṛṣṇasārājine gṛhī |
viśed yatir vanasthaś ca brahmacārī ca snātakaḥ |
kuśājināmbareṇāḍhyaṃ caturasraṃ samantataḥ |
ekahastaṃ dvihastaṃ vā caturaṅgulam ucchritam |

Please note the following: munibhir ] emend. : munir Codex. niśāmaya ] emend. : niśomaya Codex. śrīvivardhanaṃ ] corr. : śrīrvivardhanaṃ Codex. meṣī ] corr. : maiṣī Codex.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Sādhus of Northern India in the later 20th century

The Hartsuiker Archive of the British Museum

The Hartsuiker Archive of colour photographs has recently been catalogued and made available by the British Museum. 

This archive documents Indian mendicants or Sādhus, mostly Hindu, but including some Jain practitioners, in the later 20th century in northern India. The images were taken by Dolf Hartsuiker over many years, from the 1970s onwards. There are 1900 colour slides, divided in 1600 35mm slides and 300 in 6x6 format.

It offers an extraordinary account of a variety of yogic practices ranging from the physically demanding headstand variations (Viparītikaraṇi) and peacock pose (Mayūrāsana) through to extreme forms of tapas, such as standing on one leg for many years.  The images also include ascetic methods for maintaining the vow of celibacy (brahmacarya) that are still practised in India today.

Here are just a few that we have enjoyed viewing so far. We believe this archive will be a valuable resource that informs ethnographic research in the future.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Haṭha Yoga Project : A Brief Summary

Yoga: Austerity, Passion and Peace
The British Museum, 8th April, 2016

This is the last section of a talk given by Dr Jason Birch as part of a special event held at The British Museum (8th April) called "Yoga: Austerity, Passion and Peace." It provides a brief overview of the Haṭha Yoga Project, a five-year research project hosted by SOAS University of London funded by the ERC.

The presentation slides of the complete talk are available for download here.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Some Advice on the Practice of Āsana from a Medieval Jain


Rishabhanatha seated in Two Stages of Meditation
Five Auspicious Events in the Life of the First Jina
Panchakalyanaka (ca. 1680)
Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, The San Diego Museum of Art

In the Jain text called the Jñānārṇava (circa 11th century), Śubhacandra gives advice on the practice of āsana:
On a wooden or stone slab, on the earth or sand, the wise [yogin] should adopt a very steady āsana for attaining Samādhi. 
Sages should perform that agreeable āsana by which they, sitting comfortably, can make the mind still. 
The rules concerning place and āsana are the foundation of success in meditation. 
Without either [the proper place or posture], the sage's mind will immediately be distracted. 
Now, the yogin whose senses have been subdued should master āsana
Those whose posture is very steady do not tire at all in Samādhi. However, because of a weakness in the practice of āsana, steadiness of the body is not experienced. Because of [such] a weakness in their body, [those people] certainly tire at the time of Samādhi. 
The yogin who has accomplished mastery of āsana does not tire even if afflicted repeatedly by wind, heat, cold, etc., and by [various] types of insects.
Translation by Jason Birch (2016).

Śubhacandra's Jñānārṇava

dārupaṭṭe śilāpaṭṭe bhūmau vā sikatāsthale |
samādhisiddhaye dhīro vidadhyāt susthirāsanam ||26.9||

yena yena sukhāsīnā vidadhyur aniścalaṃ manaḥ |
tat tad eva vidheyaṃ syān munibhir bandhurāsanam ||26.11||

sthānāsanavidhānāni dhyānasiddher nibandhanam |
naikaṃ muktvā muneḥ sākṣād vikṣeparahitaṃ manaḥ ||26.20||

athāsanajayaṃ yogī karotu vijitendriyaḥ |
manāg api na khidyante samādhau susthirāsanāḥ || 26.30||
āsanābhyāsavaikalyād vapuḥsthairyaṃ na vidyate |
khidyante tv aṅgavaikalyāt samādhisamaye dhruvam || 26.31||

vātātapatuṣārādyair jantujātair anekaśaḥ |
kṛtāsanajayo yogī khedito 'pi na khidyate ||26.32||

Tuesday, 22 March 2016


Pārvatī and Sadhus on a steep hill
approached by Vishnu, Śiva, Brahma, and others who climb up towards the shrine.
Drawing in black ink on European watermarked paper (c. 1801 - 1805)
British Museum (1940,0713,0.243)

Forthcoming article, due out early April:


By Jason Birch and Jacqueline Hargreaves
Yoga Scotland Magazine, Issue 50 (April 2016)

"Most early traditions of Haṭha and Rājayoga omitted the Yamas and Niyamas from their teachings. A striking example is the fifteenth-century Haṭhapradīpikā, the manuscript transmission of which does not contain verses on these behavioural guidelines. Their omission begs the question of what moral code the practitioners of early Haṭha and Rājayoga were expected to follow. One possible answer is that these practitioners followed the moral code of their own religious tradition. Some of the texts indicate that Haṭha and Rājayoga were practised by a wide variety of people."

Topics covered:

• The Changing Enumeration of Yamas and Niyamas

• The Omission of Yamas and Niyamas

• The Ongoing Influence of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra

• Ahiṃsā

• Brahmacarya

• Tapas

"The Liṅgapuraṇa allows a Brahmin to live as both a householder and a yogin. On the one hand, he could practise this Purāṇa’s eightfold system of Aṣṭāṅgayoga, which was for the most part the same as Patañjali’s Aṣṭāṅgayoga. In so doing, he abides by the Yama of Brahmacarya by abstaining from sex at those particular times of the month prescribed by the Dharmaśāstras. On the other hand, he may also fulfil his Brahmanical responsibility to reproduce by having sex with his wife at other prescribed times of the month.

Seeing that most of the gurus who transmitted yoga to the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Brahmins, it is no surprise that the householder view of Brahmacarya has been so widely disseminated."

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Inverting the Body: An evolution from Mudrā to Āsana


In the early texts of physical yoga, inverting the body was considered to be a mudrā. The term mudrā means 'seal' and it can be understood in the context of yoga to seal (i.e., stop) the downward flow of nectar (amṛta) from the head to the abdomen. The aim of retaining the nectar in the head was to prolong the lifespan of the yogin (for more details, see Haṭhapradīpikā 3.78 - 82).

After the time of the Haṭhapradīpikā (15th-century), inversions were also incorporated in yoga texts as āsana. For example, the 18th-century Jogapradīpyakā teaches viparītikaraṇ āsan ('the pose of inverting the body'), which is similar to a modern day shoulderstand (i.e., the head and neck remain on the ground). Headstand is described as an āsana in various texts of this period under the name kapālāsana or narakāsana. Also, the types of inverted āsana become more varied.

One such example is viparītanṛtyāsana ('the pose of dancing upside down'), which is a dynamic pose from the 18th-century Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. It is described as dancing on the hands while keeping the feet in the air.

Having supported [oneself] with the palms of both hands on the ground, one should dance on the hands while keeping the tips of the feet lifted [in the air]. This is the pose of dancing upside down.
Translation by Jason Birch (2015)

The image seen above is an artistic representation from the 19th-century royal digest named the Śrītattvanidhi.

This topic (and more) will be discussed during the Keynote Session featuring Dr James Mallinson and Dr Jason Birch at the international academic conference 'Yoga Darśana, Yoga Sādhana: Traditions, Transmissions, Transformations' to be held in Krakow on 19th - 21st May, 2016.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Haṭha Yoga Project

James Mallinson says:

"Each of the texts that is to be edited in the Haṭha Yoga Project (HYP) is a worthy object of study in its own right and is described in detail below. They include the earliest text to teach any of the practices of haṭha yoga (Amṛtasiddhi), the first text to teach a haṭha yoga called as such (Dattātreyayogaśāstra), the first text to teach physical practices for the raising of Kuṇḍalinī (Gorakṣaśataka), the first text to combine the practices of the tantric and ascetic yoga traditions (Vivekamārtaṇḍa), the first Nāth text to call its practices haṭha yoga (Yogabīja), the first text to attempt to combine haṭha and rāja yoga traditions (Yogatārāvalī) and the first text to describe individually each of the 84 āsanas (Yogacintāmaṇi). The most recent of the texts to be edited, the Kapālakuruṇṭaka- haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, scans of the single known manuscript of which have recently been obtained by Birch, is of particular interest for scholars and practitioners of globalised modern yoga: various features of it (on which see below) suggest that it might be the lost “Yoga Kurunta” from which T.Krishnamacharya took much of his teaching. Krishnamacharya’s students include B.K.S.Iyengar, T.K.V.Deshikachar and Pattabhi Jois, the most influential teachers of modern yoga. It is hoped that through text-critical analysis in combination with Singleton’s work on Krishnamacharya the HYP team will be able to establish whether or not the Kapālakuruṇṭakahaṭhābhyāsapaddhati is indeed the same as the Yoga Kurunta."

The ten sanskrit texts to be critically edited, translated and published as part of this project include:

1. Amṛtasiddhi.
2. Dattātreyayogaśāstra.
3. Gorakṣaśataka.
4. Vivekamārtaṇḍa.
5. Yogabīja.
6. Amaraughaprabodha.
7. Yogatārāvalī.
8. Yogacintāmaṇi.
9. Haṭhasaṃketacandrikā.
10. Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati.

A full description of the Haṭha Yoga Project (HYP) is available for download in the link below:

Monday, 4 January 2016

The Yamas and Niyamas: Patanjali’s View

Published: Yoga Scotland Magazine, Issue 49, January 2016

Download as a PDF

Below is a scanned version of our article published in Yoga Scotland Magazine. Each page of the article can be enlarged by clicking on an image. If you find it difficult to read the text in these images, you can download this article in full as a Digital PDF here.

Download as a PDF

Related Posts

Part 2 of this Series: The Yamas and Niyamas: Medieval and Modern Views