Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Foundational Yoga Books from Yoga Vidya

I’ve been asked to review four foundational yoga texts from Yoga Vidya. Brian Akers saw my blog post on Yoga history, and liked it well enough to send me copies. Which is a surprise, because I’m neither an expert on Dharmic religion nor even on hatha yoga -- outside of practicing it every day. My curiosity about how hatha yoga became transformed from an obscure, often secret, practice into something that soccer moms do at their local gym is just a quirk of mine -- I’m always interested in the history of whatever I happen to be into. And, of course, as all my friends know, I love to read books on religion and religious history. My only claim to expertise is the two journal articles I got published on the Baha’i Faith, which were very specifically focused, and a far cry from examining medieval spiritual texts.

Undaunted, however, I decided to begin with the oldest, and most familiar of these books, the Bhagavad Gita, which I first read back in high school -- as many others did -- in Christopher Isherwood’s translation, which is still on my shelves.

I compared Lars Martin Fosse’s translation with the one I have, and found, to my surprise that a whole phrase out of one of my favorite verses had disappeared -- or rather, the earlier translator must have invented it to make it sound more pleasing. In translation, there is always something of a trade-off between eloquence and literal meaning, and Fosse, as he says himself, leans towards the literal -- although his translation is quite smooth and lucid. The Sanskrit original is there for comparison, for those who know it -- or become inspired to learn it.

Fosse‘s introduction is definitely worth reading, to understand the history and context of theBhagavad Gita, as well as its place in the classic scriptures of the world. Again, I found myself fascinated at the interplay of ideas between India and the West, and how, as in hatha yoga, they have become not simply “Eastern“ or “Western“, but a product of several exchanges between the two.

The word “yoga” occurs nearly 150 times in theGita, but we are not yet talking of any form of physical culture, but a type of mental discipline, based upon knowledge, selfless service, or devotion. One could almost use it as a synonym for “spiritual path” or “spiritual practice”. So, in this sense, we can see the book as a foundational text -- maybe *the* foundational text, for yoga.

It seems to me more practical to consider the three hatha books together, since there is a good deal of overlap between them. Unlike the Gita, which has been read as sacred scripture in India for over a thousand years, and has been a source of inspiration for spiritual seekers in the West since the time of the Transcendentalists, these medieval (dating between 1300 and 1700 C.E.) hatha texts were meant to be secret teachings for spiritual aspirants that worked with a guru, and are not particularly well-known even among the millions who practice yoga today.

Westerners are accustomed to an asana-based practice i.e. mostly consisting of physical poses, with maybe a little easy pranayama or a few minutes meditation, depending on the teacher. These traditional texts relegate the asanas to only one section, giving equal or greater prominence to meditation, pranayama, cleansing practices, etc. Seasoned yoga practitioners who are at least familiar with the idea of these practices will find these books interesting. They would be overwhelming, even shocking, to beginning yoga students, or those who think of yoga as primarily a tool for fitness and relaxation.

Here we find a hatha yoga that is presented as a necessary foundation for Raja yoga , so they would be of most interest to those who are pursuing yoga as a spiritual path.

I found myself rather put off by some of the extravagant benefits promised the hatha yogi -- that this or that pose or breathing technique will destroy disease, grant magical powers (known as siddhis), or even conquer death. Any Western reader is going to find some of the practices bizarre, like Khecharimudra, which encourages the yogi to lengthen his tongue by various means so he can stick it into the hole behind the soft palate, where, it is promised, he will find sustaining nectar. (Nectar? More like post-nasal drip.)

However, to be fair, one would be hard put to find any religious text that isn’t jarring to modern sensibilities in some way. Christian gnostic texts can get pretty weird in places, too, but this does not negate their value. Unlike earlier translations, those published by Yoga Vidya don’t omit the less appealing passages.

I found it interesting just to compare what I was reading with the yoga I’m familiar with -- for example, I had no idea that a one-legged forward bend and the shoulder-stand were considered mudras, not asanas -- I thought mudras were hand gestures that were used in meditation. But other things strike me as being quite familiar -- the dietary advice, for example. All three books have black-and-white photos demonstrating the asanas described, and like Yoga Vidya’s translation of the Gita, the Sanskrit original is also included.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the best known of the the three, Yoga Vidya’s version is translated by Brian Dana Akers . The Pradipika was written in the 15th century by Yoga Svatmarma, who describes asanas as the first step, which enables the practitioner to gain “steadiness, health, and lightness of body.” Some of these poses will be familiar to even the most casual yoga student; others are extremely difficult and way out of range for anyone who hasn’t been practicing for many years. My guess is that Svatmarama assumes that the aspirant will be guided by his guru as to preparation for these advanced positions. He regards Siddhasana, sometimes known to us as “Half-lotus“, to be the most important asana of all, reinforcing the purpose of hatha yoga as a physical preparation for mental discipline. After asana, the book presents pranayama (breathing practices, bandhas(energy "locks"), mudras to movekundalini, and finally meditation to attain samadhi.

I was also pleased to see in the Pradipika a recognition that women can also be yogis, or more properly called, yoginis. Most of the time, these classical writers assume the practitioner is male. In the West, most yoga students are women.

The Gheranda Samhita was composed around 1700; Yoga Vidya’s version was translated by James Mallinson. “Gheranda” is the teacher in the text, the author is unknown. The book presents a sevenfold path, instead of the familiar eight levels outlined by Pantajali (None of these hatha books spend any time on yamas or niyamas, i.e. the restraints and observances that constitute the ethical part of classical yoga.) I found the Gheranda Samhita to be very comprehensive and clear -- indeed, of the three classical hatha books, I enjoyed this one the most. It begins with purification practices, then asana, mudras, pratyahara, pranayama, meditation, and samadhi. The chapter on meditation (dhyana) includes specific visualizations that the aspirant should practice.

Before reading the Gheranda Samhita, I had been wondering exactly how yoga was tied into Aryuveda medicine: Well, here it is; various cleansing practices are said to balance the doshas, a concept that seems to me akin to the “humours” of medieval Western medicine. I also have enough trouble trying to maintain a healthy diet without being told that a kapha type like myself should eat more beans and avoid nuts; I’m still trying to get as much plant protein as I can. But that’s my own bias -- Aryuveda seems to be growing in popularity among those interested in alternative medicine, and the Gheranda Samhita would be useful for them.

I’m afraid that the Shiva Samhita was my least favorite of the three. Besides being badly organized and confusing at times, it also has more elements that are going to seem odd or even repulsive to most of us. The book is framed as a conversation between the Hindu God Shiva and his consort, Parvarti. The first two chapters are philosophical explanation. Even when it does get around to presenting yoga practices, this book has the least emphasis on asana practice of the three hatha books. On the one hand, it insists on devotion and obedience to one’s guru, on the other it will promise that some of those practices will allow the aspirant to avoid any penalty for sins, even those so heinous as killing one’s guru or sleeping with his wife. While reading it, I couldn’t help but think it’s no wonder that hatha yoga had such a bad reputation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, because there seems to be a clear thread of yogic thought that holds you can sin all you like as long as you perform the proper asanas and mudras. Then, the book will turn around and tell us that the greatest obstacle to liberation is “enjoyment.” This muddling is due to the book being a compilations from several authors, and there seems to have been no attempt by any of them to explain these contradictions.

There is a detailed explanation of meditation on the chakras, so a person interested in this approach might be interested in this book. I also was intrigued to notice that the schedule recommended for pranayama (morning, noon, evening, midnight) is exactly the same as one of Sivananda’s early books that I recently ran across. So, in spite of its faults, the Shiva Samhita is a historically influential hatha yoga text -- and the historically-minded may value it simply for that reason.

Overall, Yoga Vidya has done a terrific job in making foundational yoga texts more accessible to the Western reader. I hope to see more from them in the future -- maybe a translation of Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras?