20120502-Trailanga_Swami 2.jpg
Swami Trailanga
Some say yoga is 5,000 years old. The modern form is said to be based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 196 Indian sutras (aphorisms) which are purported to have been written by a famous sage named Patanjali in the 2nd century B.C. The classical manual on hatha yoga is said to date back to the 14th century. Purportedly, some of the ancient positions were discovered on ancient manuscripts made of leaves in the early 1900s but have since been eaten by ants. Some say this story is not true. They insist many of the positions were derived from British calisthenics in the colonial period.

Indus Valley stone carvings suggest that yoga was practiced as early as 3300 B.C. The word “yoga” is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit root “yui,” meaning to control, unite or harness. The Yoga Sutras were compiled prior to A.D. 400 taking materials about yoga from older traditions. During the British colonial rule, interest in yoga declined and a small circle of Indian practitioners kept it alive. In the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a Hindu revivalist movement breathed new life into India's heritage. Yoga took root in the West in the 1960s when eastern philosophy became popular with young people.

Andrea R. Jain of Indiana University wrote in the Washington Post, “Beginning around the 7th and 8th centuries, Buddhists, Hindus and Jains reworked yoga into varying tantric systems with goals ranging from becoming an embodied god to developing supernatural powers, such as invisibility or flight. In the early days of modern yoga, turn- of-the-century Indian reformers, along with Western social radicals, focused on the practice’s meditative and philosophical dimensions. For most of them, the physical aspects were not of primary importance.” [Source: Andrea R. Jain, Washington Post, August 14, 2015. Jain is an assistant professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the author of “Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture”]

David Gordon White, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in his paper “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea”: “The yoga that is taught and practiced today has very little in common with the yoga of the Yoga Sutras and other ancient yoga treatises. Nearly all of our popular assumptions about yoga theory date from the past 150 years, and very few modern-day practices date from before the twelfth century.” The process“reinventing” yoga has been ongoing for at least two thousand years. “Every group in every age has created its own version and vision of yoga. One reason this has been possible is that its semantic field—the range of meanings of the term “yoga”—is so broad and the concept of yoga so malleable, that it has been possible to morph it into nearly any practice or process one chooses. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea”]

Websites and Resources: Yoga Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Yoga: Its Origin, History and Development, Indian government mea.gov.in/in-focus-article ; Different Types of Yoga - Yoga Journal yogajournal.com ; Wikipedia article on yoga Wikipedia ; Medical News Today medicalnewstoday.com ; National Institutes of Health, US government, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction ; Yoga and modern philosophy, Mircea Eliade crossasia-repository.ub.uni-heidelberg.de ; India's 10 most renowned yoga gurus rediff.com ; Wikipedia article on yoga philosophy Wikipedia ; Yoga Poses Handbook mymission.lamission.edu ; George Feuerstein, Yoga and Meditation (Dhyana) santosha.com/moksha/meditation

Definition of Yoga

yogi seated in a garden, from the 17th or 18th century

According to the Indian government: “Yoga is a discipline to improve or develop one’s inherent power in a balanced manner. It offers the means to attain complete self-realization. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word Yoga is ’Yoke’. Yoga can therefore be defined as a means of uniting the individual spirit with the universal spirit of God. According to Maharishi Patanjali, Yoga is the suppression of modifications of the mind. [Source: ayush.gov.in ***]

“The concepts and practices of Yoga originated in India about several thousand years ago. Its founders were great Saints and Sages. The great Yogis presented rational interpretation of their experiences of Yoga and brought about a practical and scientifically sound method within every one’s reach. Yoga today, is no longer restricted to hermits, saints, and sages; it has entered into our everyday lives and has aroused a worldwide awakening and acceptance in the last few decades. The science of Yoga and its techniques have now been reoriented to suit modern sociological needs and lifestyles. Experts of various branches of medicine including modern medical sciences are realizing the role of these techniques in the prevention and mitigation of diseases and promotion of health. ***

“Yoga is one of the six systems of Vedic philosophy. Maharishi Patanjali, rightly called "The Father of Yoga" compiled and refined various aspects of Yoga systematically in his "Yoga Sutras" (aphorisms). He advocated the eight folds path of Yoga, popularly known as "Ashtanga Yoga" for all-round development of human beings. They are:- Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. These components advocate certain restraints and observances, physical discipline, breath regulations, restraining the sense organs, contemplation, meditation and samadhi. These steps are believed to have a potential for improvement of physical health by enhancing circulation of oxygenated blood in the body, retraining the sense organs thereby inducing tranquility and serenity of mind. The practice of Yoga prevents psychosomatic disorders and improves an individual’s resistance and ability to endure stressful situations.” ***

David Gordon White, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in his paper “When seeking to define a tradition, it is useful to begin by defining one’s terms. It is here that problems arise. “Yoga” has a wider range of meanings than nearly any other word in the entire Sanskrit lexicon. The act of yoking an animal, as well as the yoke itself, is called yoga. In astronomy, a conjunction of planets or stars, as well as a constellation, is called yoga. When one mixes together various substances, that, too, can be called yoga. The word yoga has also been employed to denote a device, a recipe, a method, a strategy, a charm, an incantation, fraud, a trick, an endeavor, a combination, union, an arrangement, zeal, care, diligence, industriousness, discipline, use, application, contact, a sum total, and the Work of alchemists. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea”]

yoginis (female ascetics) in the 17th or 18th century

“So, for example, the ninth-century Netra Tantra, a Hindu scripture from Kashmir, describes what it calls subtle yoga and transcendent yoga. Subtle yoga is nothing more or less than a body of techniques for entering into and taking over other people’s bodies. As for transcendental yoga, this is a process that involves superhuman female predators, called yoginīs, who eat people! By eating people, this text says, the yoginīs consume the sins of the body that would otherwise bind them to suffering rebirth, and so allow for the “union” (yoga) of their purified souls with the supreme god Śiva, a union that is tantamount to salvation. In this ninth-century source, there is no discussion whatsoever of postures or breath control, the prime markers of yoga as we know it today. More troubling still, the third- to fourth-century CE Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita, the two most widely cited textual sources for “classical yoga,” virtually ignore postures and breath control, each devoting a total of fewer than ten verses to these practices. They are far more concerned with the issue of human salvation, realized through the theory and practice of meditation (dhyāna) in the Yoga Sutras and through concentration on the god Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita.

Yoga in Ancient India

Historians are not sure when the idea or practice of yoga originated first appeared and debate on the topic is ongoing. Indus Valley stone carvings suggest that yoga was practiced as early as 3300 B.C. The term “yoga” is found in the Vedas, ancient India’s earliest known texts whose oldest parts date to around 1500 B.C.. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the Vedas are the oldest writings of Hinduism and Sanskrit literature.The term “yoga” in the Vedas refers mostly to a yoke, as in the yoke used to control animals. At times it refers to a chariot in the midst of battle and a warrior dying and transcending into heaven, being carried by his chariot to reach the gods and higher powers of being. During the Vedic period, ascetic Vedic priests carried out sacrifices, or yajna, in positions that some researchers argue are precursors to the yoga poses, or asanas, we know today. [Source: Lecia Bushak, Medical Daily, October 21, 2015]

White wrote; “In the circa fifteenth- century BCE Rg Veda, yoga meant, before all else, the yoke one placed on a draft animal—a bullock or warhorse—to yoke it to a plow or chariot. The resemblance of these terms is not fortuitous: the Sanskrit “yoga” is a cognate of the English “yoke,” because Sanskrit and English both belong to the Indo- European language family (which is why the Sanskrit mātr resembles the English “mother,” sveda looks like “sweat,” udara—“belly” in Sanskrit—looks like “udder,” and so forth). In the same scripture, we see the term’s meaning expanded through metonymy, with “yoga” being applied to the entire conveyance or “rig” of a war chariot: to the yoke itself, the team of horses or bullocks, and the chariot itself with its many straps and harnesses. And, because such chariots were only hitched up (yukta) in times of war, an important Vedic usage of the term yoga was “wartime,” in contrast to ksema, “peacetime.” The Vedic reading of yoga as one’s war chariot or rig came to be incorporated into the warrior ideology of ancient India. In the Mahābhārata, India’s 200 BCE–400 CE “national epic,” we read the earliest narrative accounts of the battlefield apotheosis of heroic chariot warriors. This was, like the Greek Iliad, an epic of battle, and so it was appropriate that the glorification of a warrior who died fighting his enemies be showcased here. What is interesting, for the purposes of the history of the term yoga, is that in these narratives, the warrior who knew he was about to die was said to become yoga-yukta, literally “yoked to yoga,” with “yoga” once again meaning a chariot. This time, however, it was not the warrior’s own chariot that carried him up to the highest heaven, 4 reserved for gods and heroes alone. Rather, it was a celestial “yoga,” a divine chariot, that carried him upward in a burst of light to and through the sun, and on to the heaven of gods and heroes. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea”]

“Warriors were not the sole individuals of the Vedic age to have chariots called “yogas.” The gods, too, were said to shuttle across heaven, and between earth and heaven on yogas. Furthermore, the Vedic priests who sang the Vedic hymns related their practice to the yoga of the warrior aristocracy who were their patrons. In their hymns, they describe themselves as “yoking” their minds to poetic inspiration and so journeying—if only with their mind’s eye or cognitive apparatus—across the metaphorical distance that separated the world of the gods from the words of their hymns. A striking image of their poetic journeys is found in a verse from a late Vedic hymn, in which the poet-priests describe themselves as “hitched up” (yukta) and standing on their chariot shafts as they sally forth on a vision quest across the universe.

ancient Egyptian dancer on a piece of potteru dated to 1292-1186 BC

The earliest extant systematic account of yoga and a bridge from the earlier Vedic uses of the term is found in the Hindu Kathaka Upanisad (KU), a scripture dating from about the third century BCE . Here, the god of Death reveals what is termed the “entire yoga regimen” to a young ascetic named Naciketas. In the course of his teaching, Death compares the relationship between the self, body, intellect, and so forth to the relationship between a rider, his chariot, charioteer, etc. (KU 3.3–9), a comparison which approximates that made in Plato’s Phaedrus. Three elements of this text set the agenda for much of what constitutes yoga in the centuries that follow. First, it introduces a sort of yogic physiology, calling the body a “fort with eleven gates” and evoking “a person the size of a thumb” who, dwelling within, is worshiped by all the gods (KU 4.12; 5.1, 3). Second, it identifies the individual person within with the universal Person (purusa) or absolute Being (brahman), asserting that this is what sustains life (KU 5.5, 8–10). Third, it describes the hierarchy of mind-body constituents—the senses, mind, intellect, etc.—that comprise the foundational categories of Sāmkhya philosophy, whose metaphysical system grounds the yoga of theYoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and other texts and schools (KU 3.10–11; 6.7–8). “Because these categories were hierarchically ordered, the realization of higher states of consciousness was, in this early context, tantamount to an ascension through levels of outer space, and so we also find in this and other early Upanisads the concept of yoga as a technique for “inner” and “outer” ascent. These same sources also introduce the use of acoustic spells or formulas (mantras), the most prominent among these being the syllable OM, the acoustic form of the supreme brahman. In the following centuries, mantras would become progressively incorporated into yogic theory and practice, in the medieval Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Tantras, as well as the Yoga Upanisads.”

Yoga and Early Buddhism and Jainism

In the 3rd century B.C., the term “yoga” appearred occasionally in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist scriptures. In Mahayana Buddhism, the practice now known as Yogachara (Yogacara) was used to describe a spiritual or meditative process that involved eight steps of meditation that produced “calmness” or “insight.” [Source: Lecia Bushak, Medical Daily, October 21, 2015]

White wrote: “Following this circa third-century BCE watershed, textual references to yoga multiply rapidly in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist sources, reaching a critical mass some seven hundred to one thousand years later. It is during this initial burst that most of the perennial principles of yoga theory—as well as many elements of yoga practice—were originally formulated. Toward the latter end of this period, one sees the emergence of the earliest yoga systems, in theYoga Sutras; the third- to fourth-century scriptures of the Buddhist Yogācāra school and fourth- to fifth-century Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa; and the Yogadrstisamuccaya of the eighth-century Jain author Haribhadra. Although theYoga Sutras may be slightly later than the Yogācāra canon, this tightly ordered series of aphorisms is so remarkable and comprehensive for its time that it is often referred to as “classical yoga.” It is also known as pātanjala yoga (“Patanjalian yoga”), in recognition of its putative compiler, Patanjali. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea” ]

emaciated Buddha from Gandhara, dated to the AD 2nd century

“The Yogācāra (“Yoga Practice”) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism was the earliest Buddhist tradition to employ the term yoga to denote its philosophical system. Also known as Vijnānavāda (“Doctrine of Consciousness”), Yogācāra offered a systematic analysis of perception and consciousness together with a set of meditative disciplines designed to eliminate the cognitive errors that prevented liberation from suffering existence. Yogācāra’s eight-stage meditative practice itself was not termed yoga, however, but rather “calmness” (śamatha) or “insight” (vipaśyanā) meditation (Cleary 1995). The Yogācāra analysis of consciousness has many points in common with the more or less coevalYoga Sutras, and there can be no doubt that cross-pollination occurred across religious boundaries in matters of yoga (La Vallee Poussin, 1936–1937). The Yogavāsistha (“Vasistha’s Teachings on Yoga”)—a circa tenth-century Hindu work from Kashmir that combined analytical and practical teachings on “yoga” with vivid mythological accounts illustrative of its analysis of consciousness [Chapple]—takes positions similar to those of Yogācāra concerning errors of perception and the human inability to distinguish between our interpretations of the world and the world itself.

“The Jains were the last of the major Indian religious groups to employ the term yoga to imply anything remotely resembling “classical” formulations of yoga theory and practice. The earliest Jain uses of the term, found in Umāsvāti’s fourth- to fifth-century Tattvārthasūtra (6.1–2), the earliest extant systematic work of Jain philosophy, defined yoga as “activity of the body, speech, and mind.” As such, yoga was, in early Jain parlance, actually an impediment to liberation. Here, yoga could only be overcome through its opposite, ayoga (“non-yoga,” inaction)—that is, through meditation (jhāna; dhyāna), asceticism, and other practices of purification that undo the effects of earlier activity. The earliest systematic Jain work on yoga, Haribhadra’s circa 750 CE Yoga- 6 drstisamuccaya, was strongly influenced by theYoga Sutras, yet nonetheless retained much of Umāsvāti’s terminology, even as it referred to observance of the path as yogācāra (Qvarnstrom 2003: 131–33).

This is not to say that between the fourth century BCE and the second to fourth century CE, neither the Buddhists nor the Jains were engaging in practices that we might today identify as yoga. To the contrary, early Buddhist sources like the Majjhima Nikāya—the “Middle-length Sayings” attributed to the Buddha himself—are replete with references to self-mortification and meditation as practiced by the Jains, which the Buddha condemned and contrasted to his own set of four meditations (Bronkhorst 1993: 1–5, 19–24). In the Anguttara Nikāya (“Gradual Sayings”), another set of teachings attributed to the Buddha, one finds descriptions of jhāyins (“meditators,” “experientialists”) that closely resemble early Hindu descriptions of practitioners of yoga (Eliade 2009: 174–75). Their ascetic practices—never termed yoga in these early sources—were likely innovated within the various itinerant śramana groups that circulated in the eastern Gangetic basin in the latter half of the first millennium BCE.

Shifting Definition of Yoga Between 300 B.C. and A.D. 400

ancient cave painting of people picking grain looks sort of like yoga

For a long time yoga was a vague idea, whose meaning was difficult to pin down but was related more to meditation and religious practice than the exercises were associate it with today. Around the A.D. 5th century, yoga became a rigidly defined concept among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains whose core values included: 1) uplifting or broadening consciousness; 2) using yoga as a path to transcendence; 3) analyzing one’s own perception and cognitive state to understanding the root of suffering and using meditation to solve it (the aim was for mind to “transcend” bodily pain or suffering in order to reach a higher level of being); 4) using mystical, even magical, yoga to enter other bodies and places and act supernaturally. Another idea that was addressed was the difference between “yogi practice” and “yoga practice”, which White said “essentially denotes a program of mind-training and meditation issuing in the realization of enlightenment, liberation, or isolation from the world of suffering existence.” Yogi practice, on the other hand, referred more the ability of yogis to enter other bodies to expand their consciousness. [Source: Lecia Bushak, Medical Daily, October 21, 2015]

White wrote: “Even as the term yoga began to appear with increasing frequency between 300 BCE and 400 CE, its meaning was far from fixed. It is only in later centuries that a relatively systematic yoga nomenclature became established among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. By the beginning of the fifth century, however, the core principles of yoga were more or less in place, with most of what followed being variations on that original core. Here, we would do well to outline these principles, which have persisted through time and across traditions for some two thousand years. They may be summarized as follows: [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea”]

“1) Yoga as an analysis of perception and cognition: Yoga is an analysis of the dysfunctional nature of everyday perception and cognition, which lies at the root of suffering, the existential conundrum whose solution is the goal of Indian philosophy. Once one comprehends the cause(s) of the problem, one can solve it through philosophical analysis combined with meditative practice...Yoga is a regimen or discipline that trains the cognitive apparatus to perceive clearly, which leads to true cognition, which in turn leads to salvation, release from suffering existence. Yoga is not the sole term for this type of training, however. In early Buddhist and Jain scriptures as well as many early Hindu sources, the term dhyāna (jhāna in the Pali of early Buddhist teachings, jhāna in the Jain Ardhamagadhi vernacular), most commonly translated as “meditation,” is far more frequently employed.

“2) Yoga as the raising and expansion of consciousness: Through analytical inquiry and meditative practice, the lower organs or apparatus of human cognition are suppressed, allowing for higher, less obstructed levels of perception and cognition to prevail. Here, consciousness-raising on a cognitive level is seen to be simultaneous with the “physical” rise of the consciousness or self through ever-higher levels or realms of cosmic space. Reaching the level of consciousness of a god, for example, is tantamount to rising to that deity’s cosmological level, to the atmospheric or heavenly world it inhabits. This is a concept that likely flowed from the experience of the Vedic poets, who, by “yoking” their minds to poetic inspiration, were empowered to journey to the farthest reaches of the universe. The physical rise of the dying yoga-yukta chariot warrior to the highest cosmic plane may have also contributed to the formulation of this idea.

Yoga sutra, dating back to maybe AD 1st century, Patanjali's Yogabhasya, Sanskrit, Devanagari script

“3) Yoga as a path to omniscience. Once it was established that true perception or true cognition enables a self ’s enhanced or enlightened consciousness to rise or expand to reach and penetrate distant regions of space—to see and know things as they truly are beyond the illusory limitations imposed by a deluded mind and sense perceptions—there were no limits to the places to which consciousness could go. These “places” included past and future time, locations distant and hidden, and even places invisible to view. This insight became the foundation for theorizing the type of extrasensory perception known as yogi perception (yogipratyaksa), which is in many Indian epistemological systems the highest of the “true cognitions” (pramānas), in other words, the supreme and most irrefutable of all possible sources of knowledge. For the Nyāya-Vaiśesika school, the earliest Hindu philosophical school to fully analyze this basis for transcendent knowledge, yogi perception is what permitted the Vedic seers (rsis) to apprehend, in a single panoptical act of perception, the entirety of the Vedic revelation, which was tantamount to viewing the entire universe simultaneously, in all its parts. For the Buddhists, it was this that provided the Buddha and other enlightened beings with the “buddha-eye” or “divine eye,” which permitted them to see the true nature of reality. For the early seventh-century Mādhyamaka philosopher Candrakīrti, yogi perception afforded direct and profound insight into his school’s highest truth, that is, into the emptiness (śūnyatā) of things and concepts, as well as relationships between things and concepts. Yogi perception remained the subject of lively debate among Hindu and Buddhist philosophers well into the medieval period.

“4) Yoga as a technique for entering into other bodies, generating multiple bodies, and the attainment of other supernatural accomplishments. The classical Indian understanding of everyday perception (pratyaksa) was similar to that of the ancient Greeks. In both systems, the site at which visual perception occurs is not the surface of the retina or the junction of the optic nerve with the brain’s visual nuclei, but rather the contours of the perceived object. This means, for example, that when I am viewing a tree, a ray of perception emitted from my eye “con-forms” to the surface of the tree. The ray brings the image of the tree back to my eye, which communicates it to my mind, which in turn communicates it to my inner self or consciousness. In the case of yogi perception, the practice of yoga enhances this process (in some cases, establishing an unmediated connection between consciousness and the perceived object), such that the viewer not only sees things as they truly are, but is also able to directly see through the surface of things into their innermost being.

Another Yoga sutra, dating back to maybe AD 1st century, Patanjali's bhasya, Sanskrit, Devanagari script

“The earliest references in all of Indian literature to individuals explicitly called yogis are Mahābhārata tales of Hindu and Buddhist hermits who take over other people’s bodies in just this way; and it is noteworthy that when yogis enter into other people’s bodies, they are said to do so through rays emanating from their eyes. The epic also asserts that a yogi so empowered can take over several thousand bodies simultaneously, and “walk the earth with all of them.” Buddhist sources describe the same phenomenon with the important difference that the enlightened being creates multiple bodies rather than taking over those belonging to other creatures. This is a notion already elaborated in an early Buddhist work, the Sāmannaphalasutta, a teaching contained in the Dīgha Nikāya (the “Longer Sayings” of the Buddha), according to which a monk who has completed the four Buddhist meditations gains, among other things, the power to self-multiply.”

Tantric Ideas Influence Yoga in Medieval India

During the medieval era (A.D. 500-1500), different schools of yoga emerged. Bhakti yoga developed in Hinduism as a spiritual pathway that focused on living through love and devotion toward God. Tantrism (Tantra) emerged and began to influence medieval Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions around the A.D. 5th century. According to White, new goals also emerged: “No longer is the practitioner’s ultimate goal liberation from suffering existence, but rather self-deification: one becomes the deity that has ben one’s object of meditation.” Some of the sexual aspects of Tantrism date back to this time. Some Tantric yogis had sexual relations with low-caste women whom they believed were yoginis, or women who embodied Tantric goddesses. The belief was that having sex with them could lead these yogis to a transcendent level of consciousness. [Source: Lecia Bushak, Medical Daily, October 21, 2015]

White wrote: “In a universe that is nothing other than the flow of divine consciousness, raising one’s consciousness to the level of god-consciousness—that is, attaining a god’s-eye view that sees the universe as internal to one’s own transcendent Self—is tantamount to becoming divine. A primary means to this end is the detailed visualization of the deity with which one will ultimately identify: his or her form, face(s), color, attributes, entourage, and so on. So, for example, in the yoga of the Hindu Pāncarātra sect, a practitioner’s meditation on successive emanations of the god Visnu culminates in his realization of the state of “consisting in god” (Rastelli 2009: 299–317). The Tantric Buddhist cognate to this is “deity yoga” (devayoga), whereby the practitioner meditatively assumes the attributes and creates the environment (i.e., the Buddha world) of the Buddha-deity he or she is about to become. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea”]

Buddhist tantric image

“In fact, the term yoga has a wide variety of connotations in the Tantras. It can simply mean “practice” or “discipline” in a very broad sense, covering all of the means at one’s disposal to realize one’s goals. It can also refer to the goal itself: “conjunction,” “union,” or identity with divine consciousness. Indeed, the Mālinīvijayottara Tantra, an important ninth-century Śākta-Śaiva Tantra, uses the term yoga to denote its entire soteriological system (Vasudeva 2004). In Buddhist Tantra—whose canonical teachings are divided into the exoteric Yoga Tantras and the increasingly esoteric Higher Yoga Tantras, Supreme Yoga Tantras, Unexcelled (or Unsurpassed) Yoga Tantras, and Yoginī Tantras— yoga has the dual sense of both the means and ends of practice. Yoga can also have the more particular, limited sense of a program of meditation or visualization, as opposed to ritual (kriyā) or gnostic (jnāna) practice. However, these categories of practice often bleed into one another. Finally, there are specific types of yogic discipline, such as the Netra Tantra’s transcendent and subtle yogas, already discussed.

“Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Tantra—and with it, Buddhist Tantric Yoga—developed in lockstep with Hindu Tantra, with a hierarchy of revelations ranging from earlier, exoteric systems of practice to the sex- and death-laden imagery of later esoteric pantheons, in which horrific skull-wielding Buddhas were surrounded by the same yoginīs as their Hindu counterparts, the Bhairavas of the esoteric Hindu Tantras. In the Buddhist Unexcelled Yoga Tantras, “six-limbed yoga” comprised the visualization practices that facilitated the realization of one’s innate identity with the deity [Wallace]. But rather than simply being a means to an end in these traditions, yoga was also primarily an end in itself: yoga was “union” or identity with the celestial Buddha named Vajrasattva—the “Diamond Essence (of Enlightenment),” that is, one’s Buddha nature. However, the same Tantras of the Diamond Path (Vajrayāna) also implied that the innate nature of that union rendered the conventional practices undertaken for its realization ultimately irrelevant.

“Here, one can speak of two principal styles of Tantric Yoga, which coincide with their respective metaphysics. The former, which recurs in the earliest Tantric traditions, involves exoteric practices: visualization, generally pure ritual offerings, worship, and the use of mantras. The dualist metaphysics of these traditions maintains that there is an ontological difference between god and creature, which can gradually be overcome through concerted effort and practice. The latter, esoteric, traditions develop out of the former even as they reject much of exoteric theory and practice. In these systems, esoteric practice, involving the real or symbolic consumption of forbidden substances and sexual transactions with forbidden partners, is the fast track to self-deification.”

Hindu Tantric image: Varahi on a tiger

“In the exoteric Tantras, visualization, ritual offerings, worship, and the use of mantras were the means to the gradual realization of one’s identity with the absolute. In later, esoteric traditions, however, the expansion of consciousness to a divine level was instantaneously triggered through the consumption of forbidden substances: semen, menstrual blood, feces, urine, human flesh, and the like. Menstrual or uterine blood, which was considered to be the most powerful among these forbidden substances, could be accessed through sexual relations with female Tantric consorts. Variously called yoginīs, dākinīs, or dūtīs, these were ideally low-caste human women who were considered to be possessed by, or embodiments of, Tantric goddesses. In the case of the yoginīs, these were the same goddesses as those that ate their victims in the practice of “transcendent yoga.” Whether by consuming the sexual emissions of these forbidden women or through the bliss of sexual orgasm with them, Tantric yogis could “blow their minds” and realize a breakthrough into transcendent levels of consciousness. Once again, yogic consciousness-raising doubled with the physical rise of the yogi’s body through space, in this case in the embrace of the yoginī or dākinī who, as an embodied goddess, was possessed of the power of flight. It was for this reason that the medieval yoginī temples were roofless: they were the yoginīs’ landing fields and launching pads.

Yogis In Early Tantric Yoga

White wrote: “In many Tantras, such as the eighth-century CE Matangapārameśvarāgama of the Hindu Śaivasiddhānta school, this visionary ascent became actualized in the practitioner’s rise through the levels of the universe until, arriving at the highest void, the supreme deity Sadāśiva conferred his own divine rank upon him (Sanderson 2006: 205–6). It is in such a context—of a graded hierarchy of stages or states of consciousness, with corresponding deities, mantras, and cosmological levels—that the Tantras innovated the construct known as the “subtle body” or “yogic body.” Here, the practitioner’s body became identified with the entire universe, such that all of the processes and transformations occurring to his body in the world were now described as occurring to a world inside his body. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea” ]

“While the breath channels (nādīs) of yogic practice had already been discussed in the classical Upanisads, it was not until such Tantric works as the eighth-century Buddhist Hevajra Tantra and Caryāgīti that a hierarchy of inner energy centers—variously called cakras (“circles,” “wheels”), padmas (“lotuses”), or pīthas (“mounds”)—were introduced. These early Buddhist sources only mention four such centers aligned along the spinal column, but in the centuries that follow, Hindu Tantras such as the Kubjikāmata and Kaulajnānanirnaya would expand that number to five, six, seven, eight, and more. The so-called classical hierarchy of seven cakras—ranging from the mūlādhāra at the level of the anus to the sahasrāra in the cranial vault, replete with color coding, fixed numbers of petals linked to the names of yoginīs, the graphemes and phonemes of the Sanskrit alphabet—was a still later development. So too was the introduction of the kundalinī, the female Serpent Energy coiled at the base of the yogic body, whose awakening and rapid rise effects the practitioner’s inner transformation.

“Given the wide range of applications of the term yoga in the Tantras, the semantic field of the term “yogi” is relatively circumscribed. Yogis who forcefully take over the bodies of other creatures are the villains of countless medieval accounts, including the tenth- to eleventh-century Kashmirian Kathāsaritsāgara (“Ocean of Rivers of Story,” which contains the famous Vetālapancavimśati— the “Twenty-five Tales of the Zombie”) and the Yogavāsistha.

yogis under a Banyan tree, from a European explorer in 1688

“In the seventh-century farce entitled Bhagavadajjukīya, the “Tale of the Saint Courtesan,” a yogi who briefly occupies the body of a dead prostitute is cast as a comic figure. Well into the twentieth century, the term yogi continued to be used nearly exclusively to refer to a Tantric practitioner who opted for this-worldly self-aggrandizement over disembodied liberation. Tantric yogis specialize in esoteric practices, often carried out in cremation grounds, practices that often verge on black magic and sorcery. Once again, this was, overwhelmingly, the primary sense of the term “yogi” in pre-modern Indic traditions: nowhere prior to the seventeenth century do we find it applied to persons seated in fixed postures, regulating their breath or entering into meditative states.”

Hatha Yoga Emerges Around the A.D. 8th Century

Ideas associated with Hatha yoga emerged from Tantrism and appeared in Buddhist texts around the A.D. 8th century. These ideas dealt with common “psychophysical yoga,” a combination of bodily postures, breathing, and meditation. White wrote: “A new regimen of yoga called the “yoga of forceful exertion” rapidly emerges as a comprehensive system in the tenth to eleventh century, as evidenced in works like the Yogavāsistha and the original Goraksa Śataka (“Hundred Verses of Goraksa”) [Mallinson]. While the famous cakras, nādīs, and kundalinī predate its advent, hatha yoga is entirely innovative in its depiction of the yogic body as a pneumatic, but also a hydraulic and a thermodynamic system. The practice of breath control becomes particularly refined in the hathayogic texts, with elaborate instructions provided concerning the calibrated regulation of the breaths. In certain sources, the duration of time during which the breath is held is of primary importance, with lengthened periods of breath stoppage 16 corresponding to expanded levels of supernatural power. This science of the breath had a number of offshoots, including a form of divination based on the movements of the breath within and outside of the body, an esoteric tradition that found its way into medieval Tibetan and Persian [Ernst] sources. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea”]

“In a novel variation on the theme of consciousness-raising-as-internalascent, hatha yoga also represents the yogic body as a sealed hydraulic system within which vital fluids may be channeled upward as they are refined into nectar through the heat of asceticism. Here, the semen of the practitioner, lying inert in the coiled body of the serpentine kundalinī in the lower abdomen, becomes heated through the bellows effect of prānāyāma, the repeated inflation and deflation of the peripheral breath channels. The awakened kundalinī suddenly straightens and enters into the susumnā, the medial channel that runs the length of the spinal column up to the cranial vault. Propelled by the yogi’s heated breaths, the hissing kundalinī serpent shoots upward, piercing each of the cakras as she rises. With the penetration of each succeeding cakra, vast amounts of heat are released, such that the semen contained in the kundalinī’s body becomes gradually transmuted. This body of theory and practice was quickly adopted in both Jain and Buddhist Tantric works. In the Buddhist case, the cognate of the kundalinī was the fiery avadhūtī or candālī (“outcaste woman”), whose union with the male principle in the cranial vault caused the fluid “thought of enlightenment” (bodhicitta) to flood the practitioner’s body.

Dzogchen, a 9th century text from Dunhuang in western China that states that atiyoga ( a tradition of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism aimed at discovering and continuing in the natural primordial state of being) is a form of deity yoga

“The cakras of the yogic body are identified in hathayogic sources not only as so many internalized cremation grounds—both the favorite haunts of the medieval Tantric yogis, and those sites on which a burning fire releases the self from the body before hurling it skyward—but also as “circles” of dancing, howling, high-flying yoginīs whose flight is fueled, precisely, by their ingestion of male semen. When the kundalinī reaches the end of her rise and bursts into the cranial vault, the semen that she has been carrying has been transformed into the nectar of immortality, which the yogi then drinks internally from the bowl of his own skull. With it, he becomes an immortal, invulnerable, being possessed of supernatural powers, a god on earth.

“Without a doubt, hatha yoga both synthesizes and internalizes many of the elements of earlier yoga systems: meditative ascent, upward mobility via the flight of the yoginī (now replaced by the kundalinī), and a number of esoteric Tantric practices. It is also probable that the thermodynamic transformations internal to Hindu alchemy, the essential texts of which predate the hatha yoga canon by at least a century, also provided a set of theoretical models for the new system.

Development of Asanas in Hatha Yoga

The postures of hatha yoga are called asanas. White wrote: “With respect to modern-day postural yoga, hatha yoga’s greatest legacy is to be found in the combination of fixed postures (āsanas), breath control techniques (prānāyāma), locks (bandhas), and seals (mudrās) that comprise its practical side. These are the practices that isolate the inner yogic body from the outside, such that it becomes a hermetically sealed system within which air and fluids can be drawn upward, against their normal downward flow. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea”]

“These techniques are described in increasing detail between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, the period of the flowering of the hatha yoga corpus. In later centuries, a canonical number of eighty-four āsanas would be reached. Often, the practice system of hatha yoga is referred to as “six-limbed” yoga, as a means of distinguishing it from the “eight-limbed” practice of theYoga Sutras. What the two systems generally share in common with one another—as well as with the yoga systems of the late classical Upanisads, the later Yoga Upanisads, and every Buddhist yoga system—are posture, breath control, and the three levels of meditative concentration leading to samādhi.

15th-16th century asana sculpture at Achyutaraya temple at Hampi in Karnataka, India

“In theYoga Sutras, these six practices are preceded by behavioral restraints and purificatory ritual observances (yama and niyama). The Jain yoga systems of both the eighthcentury Haribhadra and the tenth- to thirteenth-century Digambara Jain monk Rāmasena are also eight-limbed [Dundas]. By the time of the fifteenthcentury CE Hathayogapradīpikā (also known as the Hathapradīpikā) of Svātmarāman, this distinction had become codified under a different set of terms: hatha yoga, which comprised the practices leading to liberation in the body (jīvanmukti) was made to be the inferior stepsister of rāja yoga, the meditative techniques that culminate in the cessation of suffering through disembodied liberation (videha mukti). These categories could, however, be subverted, as a remarkable albeit idiosyncratic eighteenth-century Tantric document makes abundantly clear.

“Here, it should be noted that prior to the end of the first millennium CE, detailed descriptions of āsanas were nowhere to be found in the Indian textual record. In the light of this, any claim that sculpted images of cross-legged figures—including those represented on the famous clay seals from third millennium BCE Indus Valley archeological sites—represent yogic postures are speculative at best.”

Gorakhnāth, The Nath Yogis and Hatha Yoga

White wrote: “All of the earliest Sanskrit-language works on hatha yoga are attributed to Gorakhnāth, the twelfth- to thirteenth-century founder of the religious order known as the Nāth Yogīs, Nāth Siddhas, or simply, the yogis. The Nāth Yogīs were and remain the sole South Asian order to self-identify as yogis, which 18 makes perfect sense given their explicit agenda of bodily immortality, invulnerability, and the attainment of supernatural powers. While little is known of the life of this founder and innovator, Gorakhnāth’s prestige was such that an important number of seminal hatha yoga works, many of which postdated the historical Gorakhnāth by several centuries, named him as their author in order to lend them a cachet of authenticity. In addition to these Sanskrit-language guides to the practice of hatha yoga, Gorakhnāth and several of his disciples were also the putative authors of a rich treasury of mystic poetry, written in the vernacular language of twelfth- to fourteenth-century northwest India. These poems contain particularly vivid descriptions of the yogic body, identifying its inner landscapes with the principal mountains, river systems, and other landforms of the Indian subcontinent as well as with the imagined worlds of medieval Indic cosmology. This legacy would be carried forward in the later Yoga Upanisads as well as in the mystic poetry of the late medieval Tantric revival of the eastern region of Bengal [Hayes]. It also survives in popular traditions of rural north India, where the esoteric teachings of yogi gurus of yore continue to be sung by modern-day yogi bards in all-night village gatherings. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea”]

another 15th-16th century asana sculpture at Achyutaraya temple at Hampi in Karnataka, India

“Given their reputed supernatural powers, the Tantric yogis of medieval adventure and fantasy literature were often cast as rivals to princes and kings whose thrones and harems they tried to usurp. In the case of the Nāth Yogīs, these relationships were real and documented, with members of their order celebrated in a number of kingdoms across northern and western India for having brought down tyrants and raised untested princes to the throne. These feats are also chronicled in late medieval Nāth Yogī hagiographies and legend cycles, which feature princes who abandon the royal life to take initiation with illustrious gurus, and yogis who use their remarkable supernatural powers for the benefit (or to the detriment) of kings. All of the great Mughal emperors had interactions with the Nāth Yogīs, including Aurangzeb, who appealed to a yogi abbot for an alchemical aphrodisiac; Shāh Alam II , whose fall from power was foretold by a naked yogi; and the illustrious Akbar, whose fascination and political savvy brought him into contact with Nāth Yogīs on several occasions.

“While it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction in the case of the Nāth Yogīs, there can be no doubt but that they were powerful figures who provoked powerful reactions on the part of the humble and mighty alike. At the height of their power between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, they appeared frequently in the writings of north Indian poet-saints (sants) like Kabīr and Guru Nānak, who generally castigated them for their arrogance and obsession with worldly power. The Nāth Yogīs were among the first religious orders to militarize into fighting units, a practice that became so commonplace that by the eighteenth century the north Indian military labor market was dominated by “yogi” warriors who numbered in the hundreds of thousands (Pinch 2006)! It was not until the late eighteenth century, when the British quashed the so-called Sannyasi and Fakir Rebellion in Bengal, that the widespread phenomenon of the yogi warrior began to disappear from the Indian subcontinent.

“Like the Sufi fakirs with whom they were often associated, the yogis were widely considered by India’s rural peasantry to be superhuman allies who could protect them from the supernatural entities responsible for disease, famine, misfortune, and death. Yet, the same yogis have long been dreaded and feared for the havoc they are capable of wreaking on persons weaker than themselves. Even to the present day in rural India and Nepal, parents will scold naughty children by threatening them that “the yogi will come and take them away.” There may be a historical basis to this threat: well into the modern period, poverty-stricken villagers sold their children into the yogi orders as an acceptable alternative to death by starvation.”

Yoga Upanisads

Kapala Asana (headstand) from Jogapradipika 1830

White wrote: “The Yoga Upanisads are a collection of twenty-one medieval Indian reinterpretations of the so-called classical Upanisads, that is, works like the Kathaka Upanisad, quoted earlier. Their content is devoted to metaphysical correspondences between the universal macrocosm and bodily microcosm, meditation, mantra, and techniques of yogic practice. While it is the case that their content is quite entirely derivative of Tantric and Nāth Yogī traditions, their originality lies in their Vedānta-style non-dualist metaphysics (Bouy 1994). The earliest works of this corpus, devoted to meditation upon mantras— especially OM, the acoustic essence of the absolute brahman—were compiled in north India some time between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. [Source: David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea” ]

“Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, south Indian brahmins greatly expanded these works—folding into them a wealth of data from the Hindu Tantras as well as the hatha yoga traditions of the Nāth Yogīs, including the kundalinī, the yogic āsanas, and the internal geography of the yogic body. So it is that many of the Yoga Upanisads exist both in short “northern” and longer “southern” versions. Far to the north, in Nepal, one finds the same influences and philosophical orientations in the Vairāgyāmvara, a work on yoga composed by the eighteenth-century founder of the Josmanī sect. In some respects, its author Śaśidhara’s political and social activism anticipated the agendas of the nineteenth-century Indian founders of modern yoga [Timilsina].

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.