These excerpts are taken from the handout to our 20-hour YA-approved “Yoga Humanities” course: Intro to the History of Yoga: Philosophy, Practice, Transformation. Each excerpt is followed by a reflection question for use in class or individual study based on reflection questions in the course.
Each of these excerpts is from a text that is central to its particular era, or form, of Yoga, offered in a roughly chronological sequence. From the beginnings of Yoga as a meditative practice through the flowering of esoteric psychophysical techniques in the Tantra and Haṭha traditions, these texts describe practices of individual spiritual development with a variety of purposes. Although all of them point to liberation from suffering as the primary purpose of spiritual practice, they differ widely on what that liberation is, what it looks like and feels like, and of course on what practices lead to it.
The word “Yoga” has meant many things over the millennia, and will mean many more as ours unfolds. The final text in the collection, from the modern teacher perhaps most central to the transformation of Yoga in the 20th century into a body of physical exercises, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, both reaches back into the distant past for its core orientation, and looks forward into a complicated and often painful global future.
The very presence of these texts and translations on this screen is part of the long karma of colonialism, which is a gentle subtext throughout the course. It is my hope, and the basis of my teaching this material, that contact with the roots of this beloved tradition will only deepen the respect, reverence, and accountability I believe modern students of yoga must hold for the South Asian source traditions.
Blessings always, Sean.
Intro to the History of Yoga: Philosophy, Practice, Transformation
with Dr. Sean Feit Oakes, e-ryt 500
A 20-hour online course, approved by Yoga Alliance, to fulfill the foundational yoga history and philosophy curriculum in YTT programs.
The Classical Yogas
Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 700-400 BCE
3.3 Know the self as a rider in a chariot, and the body, as simply the chariot. Know the intellect as the charioteer, and the mind, as simply the reins.
4 The senses, they say, are the horses, and sense objects are the paths around them; He who is linked to the body, senses, and mind, the wise proclaim as the one who enjoys.
5 When a man lacks understanding, and his mind is never controlled; His senses do not obey him, as bad horses, a charioteer.
6 But when a man has understanding, and his mind is ever controlled; His senses do obey him, as good horses, a charioteer.
7 When a man lacks understanding, is unmindful and always impure; He does not reach that final step, but gets on the round of rebirth.
8 But when a man has understanding, is mindful and always pure; He does reach that final step, from which he is not reborn again.
9 When a man’s mind is his reins, intellect, his charioteer; He reaches the end of the road, that highest step of Viṣṇu.
6.10 When the five perceptions are stilled, together with the mind, And not even reason bestirs itself; they call it the highest state.
11 When senses are firmly reined in, that is Yoga, so people think. From distractions a man is then free, for Yoga is the coming-into-being, as well as the ceasing-to-be.
(tr. Patrick Olivelle)
This excerpt from the Kaṭha Upaniṣad describes an ancient image of the self riding in the body like the driver of a chariot. When the driver controls the horses, which are the senses, using the reins of the mind, they are able to attain the state of Yoga, which is described as a distraction-free state where the senses are fully restrained.
Does this image match your experience? Do you feel like the body is a kind of vehicle that contains, or carries, your self or soul?
How might we understand our very contemporary conversations about attention, distraction, and psychological states through this model?
Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma, 500-200 BCE
“Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.
“And what, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision … which leads to Nibbāna? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. …
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. …
“So long, bhikkhus, as my knowledge and vision of these Four Noble Truths as they really are… was not thoroughly purified in this way, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, Mara, and Brahma, in this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans. But when my knowledge and vision of these Four Noble Truths as they really are… was thoroughly purified in this way, then I claimed to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, Mara, and Brahma, in this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans. The knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘Unshakable is the liberation of my mind. This is my last birth. Now there is no more renewed existence.’”
(tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
This is a portion of the Buddha’s famous first discourse, given to five ascetic yogi friends shortly after his awakening. The core Buddhist framework of the Four Noble Truths presented here describes a similar understanding of suffering as all the Classical Yogas: distraction by, and grasping at, objects of the senses, is the source of our distress. Stopping that habitual mental orientation, which is really a kind of addiction, gives relief from the suffering it was causing.
Whether the thing was good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, it was causing a stir in your heart and mind. How would you describe the stillness left behind where that stir once was, and can you feel a peacefulness or even pleasure in that space? What do you think it would be like if you felt this way about everything?
Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra, 400 CE
1.1 atha yogānuśāsanam
Now, the teachings of yoga.
1.2 yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
1.3 tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe ‘vasthānam
Then, pure awareness can abide in its very nature.
1.4 vṛtti-sārūpyam itaratra
Otherwise, awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness.
How to subdue distraction in meditation (YS 1.33-41)
Sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, hedonism, delusion, lack of progress, and inconstancy are all distractions, which by stirring up consciousness, act as barriers to stillness. When they do, one may experience distress, depression, or the inability to maintain steadiness of posture or breathing. One can subdue these distractions by working with any one of the following principles of practice:
Consciousness settles as one radiates friendliness, compassion, delight, and equanimity toward all things, whether pleasant or painful, good or bad. Or by pausing after breath flows in or out. Or by steadily observing as new sensations materialize. Or when experiencing thoughts that are luminous and free of sorrow. Or by focusing on things that do not inspire attachment. Or by reflecting on insights culled from sleep and dreaming. Or through meditative absorption in any desired object.
One can become fully absorbed in any object, whether vast or infinitesimal. As the patterning of consciousness subsides, a transparent way of seeing, called coalescence, saturates consciousness; like a jewel, it reflects equally whatever lies before it — whether subject, object, or act of perceiving.
Insight & liberation (YS 3.50-56)
Once one just sees the distinction between pure awareness and the luminous aspect of the phenomenal world, all conditions are known and mastered.
When one is unattached even to this omniscience and mastery, the seeds of suffering wither and pure awareness knows it stands alone. Even if the exalted beckon, one must avoid attachment and pride, or suffering will recur.
Focusing with perfect discipline on the succession of moments in time yields insight born of discrimination. This insight allows one to tell things apart which, through similarities of origin, feature, or position, had seemed continuous.
In this way, discriminative insight deconstructs all of the phenomenal world’s objects and conditions, setting them apart from pure awareness. Once the luminosity and transparency of consciousness have become as distilled as pure awareness, they can reflect the freedom of awareness back to itself.
(tr. Chip Hartranft)
Though the Yoga-Sūtra is venerated as the source text of modern yoga, it describes a practice that is far from the physical exercises many modern yogis focus on. Patañjali’s core practice is a kind of meditation based in deep relaxation and effortless stillness. Many modern practitioners find this kind of meditation very difficult, but feel like they can touch aspects of the stillness and clarity described in the Yoga-Sūtra through more dynamic practices like āsana (Yoga postures), dance, and chanting.
Do flow states attained in dynamic practice feel comparable to those attained in stillness for you?
If not, do you think this means that we can’t get liberated in the way Patañjali describes, or as fully?
If āsana is your primary practice, how do you cultivate stillness and effortlessness while in the flow of postures?
Bhagavad Gītā, 200-400 CE
Action (BG 2.13-50)
2.13 Just as, in this body, the Self passes through childhood, youth, and old age, so after death it passes to another body.
2.15 Only the man who is unmoved by any sensations, the wise man indifferent to pleasure, to pain, is fit for becoming deathless.
2.17 The presence that pervades the universe is imperishable, unchanging, beyond both is and is not: how could it ever vanish? These bodies come to an end; but that vast embodied Self is ageless, fathomless, eternal. Therefore you must fight, Arjuna.
2.31 Know what your duty is and do it without hesitation. For a warrior, there is nothing better than a battle that duty enjoins.
2.47 You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the action’s sake. And do not be attached to inaction. Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.
2.50 The wise man lets go of all results, whether good or bad, and is focused on the action alone. Yoga is skill in actions.
Devotion (BG 12.6-12)
Those who love and revere me, who surrender all actions to me, who meditate upon me with undistracted attention, whose minds have entered my being — I come to them all, Arjuna, and quickly rescue them all from the ocean of death and birth. Concentrate every thought on me alone; with a mind fully absorbed, one-pointed, you will live within me, forever.
If you find that you are unable to center your thoughts on me, strengthen your mind by the steady practice of concentration. If this is beyond your powers, dedicate yourself to me; performing all actions for my sake, you will surely achieve success. If even this is beyond you, rely on my basic teaching: act always without attachment, surrendering your action’s fruits. Knowledge is better than practice; meditation is better than knowledge; and best of all is surrender, which soon brings peace.
(tr. Stephen Mitchell)
The teaching on karma (action) in the Gītā is one of the most challenging in the whole yogic literature, telling us to learn to act without desire for result or fear of failure.
Think about something you either want or have to do in the near future. What might it feel like to do what’s right in terms of your duty (svadharma) or role in the situation, but to let go of thinking about or orienting toward a desired result?
What would motivate you to do things if you were not oriented toward achieving some desired end?
What might be the mind state of the yogi who practices this instruction?
“Churning the Ocean of Milk,” from Mahābhārata & Purāṇas, 400 BCE – 400 CE
…The Gods and the Asuras knew that they could gain Amṛta, the Water of Life, if they churned up one of the seven oceans that, ring beyond ring, encircles the worlds. They came down to the Ocean of Milk. They took the Mountain Mandara for a churning-pole and the hundred-headed serpent Vāsuki for a churning-rope. They wound the serpent around the mountain … and the Ocean of Milk frothed and bubbled as they churned. For a thousand years the Gods and the Asuras churned the Ocean of Milk. All that time Vāsuki, the serpent, from his hundred heads spat venom. The venom bit into the rocks and broke them up; it flowed down, destroying the worlds of Gods and men. Then all creation would have been destroyed in that flood of venom if it had not been for the act of one of the Gods. Śiva took up the venom in a cup and drank it. His throat became blue with that draught of bitterness. But by his act, the Gods won to more powers than the Asuras had. …
Then out of the Ocean of Milk came the wish-bestowing cow, Surabhi. Gods and Asuras rejoiced at the prosperity that came with her. Then appeared the Apsarases, the heavenly nymphs, and the Gods and the Asuras sported with them. The moon was churned up, and Śiva took it and set it upon his forehead. But now the Asuras wearied in their toil, and more and more they sported with the Apsarases. The Gods, their powers increased through Śiva’s deed, labored at the churning, and the whole Ocean of Milk foamed and bubbled. Then was churned up the gem of gems, Kaustubha, and then white Uccaiḥśravas, the best of horses.
Now the Gods grew in strength as they labored, and they labored as they grew in strength, while the Asuras abandoned themselves more and more to pleasures, and they fought amongst themselves on account of the pleasures that all of them sought. And then, seated on a lotus and holding a lotus in her hand, a lovely Goddess appeared. She went to Viṣṇu; she cast herself on the breast of the God, and, reclining there, she delighted the Gods with the glances she bestowed on them. All knew her for Śrī, the Goddess of Good Fortune. And the Asuras, in despair because Good Fortune had gone to the side of the Gods, stood around, determined to seize by force the next good thing that came out of the churning.
And then, behold! there appeared the sage Dhanvantari, and in his hands was the cup that held the Amṛta, the Water of Life. The Asuras strove to seize it; they would drink it all themselves, or else they would fling the Amṛta where the serpent’s venom was dripping on the rocks. Almost they overpowered the Gods in their efforts to seize the Amṛta. Then Viṣṇu changed himself into a ravishing form; he seemed to be the loveliest of the nymphs of Heaven. The Asuras went towards where the seeming nymph postured for them. Even then they fought amongst each other. And the Gods took the cup, and, sharing it, they drank of the Amṛta. And now they were filled with such vigor that the Asuras could not overpower them. Many they drove down into hell where they became Demons. That was the beginning of the wars between the Gods and the Demons–the wars that went on for ages. The Gods were triumphant and the three worlds became filled with radiance and power. Indra, king of the Gods, seated upon his throne, made a hymn in praise of Śrī. She granted him his wish, which was that she should never abandon the Gods.
(tr. Padraic Colum)
Though this story is ostensibly a colorful myth about a battle between gods and demons, it hinges on the same yogic teaching about the dangers of the senses as everything we’ve encountered so far. At the climactic moment of the story, in order to distract the demons, Viṣṇu takes the form of a beautiful nymph, causing the demons in their lust for her to abandon their fight for the Water of Life. The ancient Yoga of controlling the senses has always been centrally about resisting the power of lust, and like in this story, that teaching is most often described in the patriarchal gender structure: male gaze, female object.
Should we read a story like this as sexist or patriarchal because of a detail like this?
The myth ends with Indra asking the goddess, Śrī, never to abandon the gods. If we do read the story as patriarchal, how do we understand this veneration of the goddess as even higher than the gods?
Modern yoga can also be seen as being woman-centered, both in demographic and philosophy, and many modern yogis venerate images of the divine feminine. What is the relationship for you between veneration of a divine feminine and the experiences of modern women or the goals of modern feminism?
Tantra, Haṭha, & Modern Yogas
Kulārṇava Tantra, 11-1400 CE
12.51 Śiva is all-pervading, subtle, transcending the mind, without attributes, imperishable, space-like, unborn, infinite: how could he be worshiped, O Dear One? This is why Śiva takes on the visible form of the guru who, [when] worshiped with devotion, grants liberation and rewards. I am Śiva without any form, O Goddess, imperceptible to the human senses. This is why the virtuous disciples can worship [Me] in the form of the guru. The guru is the the supreme Śiva himself, manifestly perceptible as enclosed in human skin. Remaining thus concealed, he bestows grace (anugraha) on the good disciple.
12.104 Many are the gurus who shine [feebly] like lamps in a house. Difficult to obtain is the guru who, like the sun, illuminates everything. Many are the gurus well versed in the Veda, the Śastras, and so forth. Difficult to find is the guru who has mastered the supreme Truth (paratattva).
12.108 Many are the gurus who despoil their disciples of their wealth. Difficult to find, O Goddess, is the guru who destroys the sufferings of the disciple. Many on earth are [the gurus] who follow the rules of caste and stage of life (varnaśramadharma) and who know the kula practice (kulacara), but the guru whose mind is free of all discursive thought is not easy to find.
12.130 Having found a holy guru endowed with all the proper qualities, one who destroys all doubts and bestows knowledge, O Goddess, one should not stay with another one. If, however, one happens to have a guru who has no real knowledge and who causes doubts, no harm would be incurred by leaving him. Indeed, as the bee eager for honey flies from flower to flower, so the disciple eager for knowledge goes from master to master.
(tr. André Padoux)
3.49 The supreme mantra that bestows the grace of the Auspicious One (Śrī) is the foundation of the highest path (urdhvāmnāya). He who knows this as our supreme form is himself Śiva. This mantra is performed, O beloved, with each exhalation [which makes the sound ham] and inhalation [which makes the sound sa] of breath, repeated by all breathing beings, from Śiva all the way down to the worms.
15.113 One should perform the recitation of the mantra by fixing oneself on it, with life breath coursing through it, setting it within one’s consciousness, and making the deep connections that form the meaning of its syllables.
16.116 One who knows the mantra of supreme grace is liberated whether he dwells in a place of true pilgrimage, or a place without means to ford across the world, or even in the midst of the ocean of worldliness — there is no doubt about it.
(tr. Douglas Brooks)
Misconduct by teachers has become so common in modern spiritual communities that the very concept of the guru, the human teacher that should be venerated, can feel tainted. In addition, the Western ideals of democracy and equality can also seem to undercut tantric descriptions of this kind of idealized teacher.
Do you think modern spiritual practice still has a place for this kind of deep veneration of teachers?
What might be the necessary conditions for this kind of practice, and the deep surrender to another person’s authority that it implies, to be safe and effective?
[One challenging but very traditional response to this question would be whether “safe” is even the right thing to be looking for in a teacher of radical nondual liberation of the kind some tantric traditions describe.]
Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, 1400 CE
3.111 Grip her tail and wake the sleeping serpent. The shakti stirs and surges upwards. Inhale through the sun. Grip using paridhana. Make the still serpent below move every day for an hour and a half, morning and evening. The kanda [Bulb] is said to be twelve fingers above the anus, four fingers wide, soft, white, and like a folded cloth. Hold the feet firmly near the ankles with the hands while in Vajrasana and press the kanda. After making the kundalini move, the yogi should stay in Vajrasana and immediately do Bhastrika to quickly awaken the kundalini.
4.31 The laya of the yogis—inhalation and exhalation ceased, grasping of objects destroyed, inactive, unchanging—is supreme. … They say “laya, laya.” What is the nature of laya? Laya is forgetting objects because vasanas [desires associated with imagination] don’t recur. … The breath, staying in the left and right nadis, goes into the middle. The Khecarimudra lives in that place, without a doubt. … Shiva’s place is between the brows. There the mind dissolves. That state is known as turya. There, time is not. … The breath of one practicing this way day and night in the path of breath is dissolved. Then the mind also dissolves. Drench the body with nectar from the head to the soles of the feet. One will definitely get a great body, and great strength and heroism. Center the mind in the shakti and the shakti in the mind. Observe the mind with the mind, then concentrate on the highest state. Center the self in space and space in the self. Make everything space, then don’t think of anything. …
The entire universe is just a creation of thought. The play of the mind is just a creation of thought. Abandon the mind which is only thought. Take refuge in the changeless, O Rama and surely find peace. As camphor in fire, like salt in water, so the mind immersed in Reality dissolves. The knowable, the known, and knowledge—all are said to be the mind. When knowledge and the knowable are lost, there is no [duality]. All this, whether mobile or immobile, is a presentation of the mind. Duality is not obtained from the mind’s state of unmani. The mind dissolves from abandoning knowable things. After the mind is dissolved, kaivalya remains. Thus are the paths to samadhi, consisting of the various sorts of methods told by the great, ancient teachers following their own correct experience. Salutations to you, Sushumna, kundalini, nectar born of the moon, manonmani, great power in the form of consciousness.
(Svātmārāma, tr. Brian Dana Akers)
The heart of early Haṭha Yoga is working to channel and control sexual energy. For men, this means not ejaculating, but channeling the fluid/energy upward using prāṇāyama and bandha. It’s unclear what it means for women, since with the exception of a few vague verses, the sexual practices are presented almost entirely to men only.
How do you relate to the sexual aspect of Haṭha Yoga?
If you sense that prāṇāyama for the early practitioners was mostly about channeling sexual energy, does that change how you engage with it as an aspect of modern practice?
The state of laya (dissolution), is presented in the text as the culmination of practice. As in many of the earlier descriptions of yoga, laya is described as a thought-free meditative state, but in the Haṭha traditions, attained through much more active practices than just meditative focus.
Can you feel a connection between the more active or energetic practices that you do and the quieting of thoughts?
Does it feel like prāṇāyama practice could lead to this kind of deep dissolving for you?
If not, what do you think might be in the way?
Yoga Makaranda, 1934
Our ancients, the great rishis, followers of their sanatana dharma from the beginning of time, became experts in yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, stopped all external movements of the mind, and through the path of raja yoga attained a high state of happiness in this world and beyond. And they continue until this day to experience this. But during ancient times, all were skilled yoga practitioners and therefore had good health and strength, were blessed with a long life and were able to serve society. But just as due to bad association one acquires wrong gunas, nowadays due to bad influences people have slipped from the path of sanatana dharma and yoga and are perpetually sick, age quickly, have a short life-span, have become precocious and, shamefully, lead a selfish life. …
Whoever wishes to do yoga has the right to do it. Yet whoever it is, it is very important that they should only learn all the aspects and practise it under the guidance of a proper guru. …
For example, everybody knows that pure cow’s milk gives good health and happiness. Yet if it is poured in a cup made of pig’s skin or dog’s skin, it turns into poison and becomes harmful. Similarly if you teach the pure divine nectar of yoga to ruffians and cheats, it will only cause disaster. … As a result of many people teaching yogabhyasa in this [inappropriate/incorrect] fashion, many leave the path of yoga saying that they do not see the benefits in yogabhyasa and fall into the traps of various diseases. They do not exercise the body properly and spend money unnecessarily. … In spite of this terrible situation, some young men and women collect some yoga texts from here and there and eagerly begin to practise in either a correct or incorrect way. For these people, god will reveal the secrets of yoga without fail. The modern age belongs to the youth. Let the god of yoga bless them to have good health, long life and body strength. …
In modern times, many types of strange phenomena are occurring. Among these, using the skill of discernment to examine the good and the bad, the time has come to carefully choose only the good. … If one wants to develop such a skill, it is essential to have complete physical strength, strength of mind, and similarly one needs to conquer each of the five aspects [“good health, longevity, happiness, strong mind and strong body”] mentioned earlier. The secret of the five aspects is what we call yoga. …
For such achievements in yoga, we do not need to send our country’s money elsewhere to procure any items. Whatever money we get, there is plenty of place in our country to store it. The foreigners have stolen all the skills and knowledge and treasures of mother India, either right in front of us or in a hidden way. They pretend that they have discovered all this by themselves, bundle it together, and then bring it back here as though doing us a favour and in exchange take all the money and things we have saved up for our family’s welfare. After some time passes, they will try and do the same thing with yogavidya. We can clearly state that the blame for this is that while we have read the books required for the knowledge of yoga to shine, we have not understood or studied the concepts or brought them into our experience. If we still sleep and keep our eyes closed, then the foreigners will become our gurus in yogavidya.
(Śri T. Krishnamacharya, tr. Lakshmi & Nandini Ranganathan)
Part of what we see in this writing of Krishnamacharya’s is an attempt to warn against the loss of an aspect of Indian heritage through colonial contact and cultural appropriation. Do you think his warning was appropriate, or has come true?
One of the deepest implications of seeing yoga as always affected by the cultures it moves within is that it removes ideas about its being eternal and unchanging, as well as pure and apolitical. We often don’t consciously hold onto these ideas, but unconsciously they can be the basis for our faith in what we’re doing, in our teachers, and in ourselves in a deep way. Behind much of the cultural intensity of recent decades is the crumbling of old myths that were the basis of identity and social order, myths and ideologies that supported the great demons of patriarchy, sexism, racism, and all the rest.
If yoga is a complicated cultural activity like everything else, subject to all the same shadows and confusions as everything else, how do you know what aspect of it to engage with?
How do you trust something that isn’t actually ancient and pure, but a thread of constantly evolving improvisation?
If you found this material supportive and informative, you may consider exploring the full course: Intro to the History of Yoga: Philosophy, Practice, Transformation.