Summary of Research on Yoga – N. Sjoman
published by Abhinav, New Delhi, 1996 & 1999.
My first book, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, looks at the tradition of yoga from the point of view of the contemporary hatha yoga tradition. I am a participant in the tradition and my primary question about contemporary yoga, which has an almost total concentration on asanas, was, “where did all these asanas come from?” Early on, I made a distinction between the academic tradition and the practice tradition.
I was particularly interested in the Krishnamacariar, Iyengar school. This early school of reformist yoga that has spread over the entire world and become the foundation of most contemporary yoga practice, originated under the auspices of the Mysore Palace. I was able to draw on original material on this tradition.
In the above text, I published a translation of the section on asanas from the Sritattvanidhi (approximately mid 1800’s) which contains 121 asanas and illustrations from a manuscript contained at the Sarasvati Bhandar private library of His Highness, Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wadiyar, and the Mysore Oriental Institute. This was the only textual basis for an expanded ‘asana tradition’.
I tried to trace asanas from various texts, contemporary and historical, in order to try to find some kind of specific asana tradition through the names of asanas. This particular part of the work was superseded by the publication of the Encyclopedia of Traditional Asanas by the Lonavla Yoga Institute in 2006.
Since I am trained in Sanskrit Traditional Schools, the Pathasalas and private tuition, as a pandit would be trained; I had access to original texts and commentaries and was able to examine the philosophical issues in their own terms. I discussed those issues in the introduction to the text expressing doubts about the Yogasutram tradition which I refer to as the academic tradition.
I carried these queries further with two articles in the Journal of the Bombay Asiatic Society, one examining a specific sutra that must have been appropriated and translated differently by Vyasa and another, suggesting a possible explanation for the problems in the adoption of a dualistic philosophical basis for the Yogasutram. Both of these articles identify the historical rewriting of material, specific and general.
An interesting direction was taken up on this by I. Tandon, a student of vipassana. He examined the Yogasutram section on meditation, the samadhipada, and related it to Buddhist meditation techniques. This important work made more sense of those sutras than the Sanskrit commentators have been able to do and illustrates how much the actual meditation techniques outlined there are indebted to Buddhism. This was in line with my own research reclaiming the actual meanings and implications of specific sutras.
Gudrun Buhnemann in her recent publication, Eighty-four Asanas in Yoga:A Survey of Traditions, has been able to introduce a number of asana traditions, all of which are part of the history of contemporary yoga. Her work is one of the very few serious contributions in this area. It is interesting to consider the prevalence of 'meditation asanas' in the paintings of the manuscript of the Jogapradipika, the line drawings from Nepal, the Natha drawings from Nepal and the illustrations from the Mahamandir in Jodhpur. It indicates that the Mysore Sritattvanidhi exposition of asanas, which are primarily asanas that indicate movement, might be the very source of modern yoga as we know it.
My conclusion was that the yoga tradition as we know it to day is a revivalist tradition that draws on Western exercise systems, the Indian wrestler tradition, military exercises of the day (note that western exercise systems and Wushu as well all have militaristic origins. Yoga was the only exercise system free of those origins until the advent of modern yoga. Note specifically the introduction of the non traditional standing asanas. The Yogasutram comments directly on performance.) and yoga. The primary inspiration behind the synthesis that makes modern yoga was His Highness, Nalavadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar, who wanted to draw on the best of all things for his own subjects. However the tradition goes back farther as indicated by the Sritattvanidhi. Further, I suggested that the Yogasutram is not part of the yoga practice tradition but has been given a dominant place under the influence of academia who are not part of the practice tradition. At the same time, I posited that there was a specific kind of movement in yoga and that this should be the determinant of the asana. Neither the historical origin of the asana nor the configuration are the determinant. Those considerations belong to a symbol based knowledge system.
This book was upsetting for many people. Yoga students thought, perhaps naively, that they were getting the pure unadulterated tradition. My book purposely avoided drawing conclusions. I put much of the material in the book in the form of notes and allowed people to draw their own conclusions – or so I thought. In spite of that, I was labeled as a “yoga buster” and was attacked repeatedly for the book. Others have found the book important.
2. Yoga Touchstone
published by Black Lotus Books, Inc., 2005.
Having taught yoga all around the world for years, and having realized the importance of the quotation in the commentary on the sutras to the effect that yoga is known from yoga, I brought out the second book as a book based on practice, specifically, practice oriented to asanas, the basis of contemporary yoga.
First of all, I found it necessary to discard the paradigm of the body as known through western knowledge systems, which looks at it in discrete parts functioning through mechanics, in favour of an understanding of the body as a repository of fluid energy patterns. These ideas were familiar in traditional schools in Asia and have been coming to the west through various body work disciplines and ideas.
Through this understanding, and through specific problems in working with yoga, I was able to interpret the sutras of Patanjali on asanas in a specific sense as opposed to the general sense they have been interpreted in for the last 2000 years by both Indian and Western commentators. This is connected with the idea of a specific kind of yoga movement referred to earlier. There are two sets of muscles that operate in all movement. They are the balance muscles and the movement muscles. When this is understood clearly, the terms in Patanjali’s sutra, and the meaning, become clear and pertinent. It helps us to understand how profound those sutras are when they can be interpreted according to actual practice.
I also examined the Yogasutram ideas on samadhi, presented as a practice or goal. The discussion of the meaning of this idea, somehow, for me, shifts the ideas of yoga itself into a different space. The discussion relates this concept both to art and consciousness and is directly connected with the ideas of movement presented. Samadhi thus becomes relevant again.
In Yoga Touchstone, I referred to specific phenomena that are experienced by serious students of yoga in the course of their practice. Many of these phenomena are not found in the Yogasutram. I looked further into the history of the sutras and expanded on the serious problem in connecting the yoga tradition with those sutras both in terms of actual practice and in respect of history as well.
I included a chapter on the influences of economics on yoga today and a chapter asking for yoga to be seen as an art. I asked for that on the basis of the recovery of certain word complexes etymologically, the understanding of the specific sutras on asanas, and the actual means of learning yoga. Asanas, in the sense of movement and stillness, are at the basis of contemporary yoga.
I suggested that movement and stillness are at the heart of yoga and are capable of forming a metaphysical basis for yoga. Indeed, the Sanskrit word for movement is karma and that is what is primarily affected in a spiritual discipline that moves to stillness. The resonances of that should enable insight. Yogavasistaramayana 3.1.17 states directly that jagat, the moving world is brahma; 3.65.13 states that karma only is the body. Yoga Touchstone is about awareness through yoga practice; it is a book about consciousness, empowered consciousness. It expands contemporary yoga into a spiritual discipline within the parameters of its practice.
The book is supplemented with pictures of asanas that set a standard in contemporary yoga and may be read visually to support the meanings drawn in the text itself. The photographs point to something else as well. The singular attention to asanas in contemporary yoga suggests an independence in asanas. These photographs put asanas back into a different context, into a much older tradition - it speaks of them in a cultural context as part of everything.
3. Dead Birds: The Commentary on Yoga Touchstone
published by Black Lotus Books, Inc., 2007.
This book has come about from a study of the tantric and saiva sources of yoga. These schools were able to explain or elaborate on concepts such as creativity, grace and desire and especially, the empowerment of consciousness, that came from practice referred to in Yoga Touchstone, and absent, in many cases, in the traditional texts. Hence, the commentary.
I was able to reclaim some sort of history of the yoga school that I now feel is more important than that given us by academia. In brief, when the muslim invasions came, the saivite schools were wiped out. They had anti-social behaviours at the root of their sadhanas that were provocative, often sexually provocative, that brought them into direct conflict with the muslim invaders. In further reaction, the vaishnavas, attempting to take on a new orthodoxy, pushed them even further afield as right-wing movements do. This is specifically spoken of in Abhinavagupta and Appayya Dikshita. Saiva temples, texts, temples, practices and icons were destroyed and appropriated. The upshot of this was the end of the yogi-pandit tradition. It has resulted in the demise of an old tradition and the reconstruction of a yoga tradition that is socially acceptable. One can look back over the history of yoga and fill in numerous other gaps with this understanding.
On the other hand, it is possible, through this material, to move the sutras on asanas to another level and thus to unite them with ideas of samadhi developed from the previous text. It is possible to see the yoga tradition as a full fledged spiritual discipline. The ideas of samadhi itself are examined in more detail and contrasted with ideas suggested in ayurveda and the tantric texts. This material substantiates the exploration of consciousness started in the previous book. The saivites and tantrikas, at their best, seriously worked these ideas to an important refinement. They were the yoga tradition.
This book substantiates many of the ideas that arose from practice from the yogi-pandit tradition. It allows us to see beyond the limitations of the standard text material and to identify important experiences in practice. Many of these are talked about today and taught in a symbolic complex rather than realized from practice. In this way, they have become worn and meaningless, part of the ‘taught’ or general knowledge complex and, once conceptualized in the symbolic learning complex, impossible to understand from any other point of view. Thus, this book amounts to a reconstruction of the history of yoga from practice substantiated from the last historical practice tradition. It gives us a perspective on the philosophical developments that have been swamped by both idealism and materialism.
This book contains reference material and a bibliography.
I had originally thought that the puranic and buddhist complex of ideas were the source material for much of the history of yoga. I have found that it is much older than this, superseding the Yogasutram itself which is much later than 200 BC. The yoga tradition goes back into concepts mythical and textual, from the veda and beyond that and came to a full flowering in the saiva tradition of a thousand years ago. It flowered and died. In India, traditions die, but remain in a skeletal form until some great soul takes birth and revitalizes them again.
The book contains numerous quotations from untranslated and little known Sanskrit texts that are directly relevant to the yoga tradition and are indicative of a sophistication and learning that is lacking today. It points forward to specific historical material links such as the Dikshitars, the meeting between Allama Prabhu and Goraksanatha documented in Sunya Sampadane which should allow us to reconstruct a richer history of yoga.
Aside from the historical viewpoint, unless we know who we are and where we have come from, we are not going to know where we are going.
This book is supplemented with a DVD showing the practice of moving asanas. The kind of movement referred to in the text that is a spiritual discipline and its counterpart, stillness, are observable there.
Regarding methodology, my understanding of yoga has come from yoga itself. It is stated in the traditional texts that yoga is known from yoga. We read texts for understanding in an entirely different manner. What we understand is ‘about’ things. We do not necessarily have the direct experience that confirms the meaning of the text in our own personal terms. But this is the aim of all Indian metaphysical scholastics. Textual understanding is produced from symbol complexes that have no relation to reality. They can merely point a particular way. At best, they reveal only our conceptualization pattern. Indian thought recognizes that the process of perception and conception and consciousness itself are all necessary parts of objective reality. They consider that the direct experience of all of these alone has value and that the symbolic understanding, oriented only towards objectivity, merely points the way to that. Indeed, Jayaratha, in his commentary, quoted …tattvajnasya trnam sastram.