Notes from David Gordon White’s Alchemical Body
Lately I’ve been reading books about the history of medieval and pre-medieval religion in India written by Professor David Gordon White. If you’ve ever wondered what the “5,000”-year-old history of yoga is about, read his books. He traces the usage of the word “yoga” from the earliest instance in texts up to medieval times.
Yoga was not always about being bendy or even calming your mind. For certain hatha yogis in medieval India, it was about becoming god-like or god’s equal while in your own body–whether through alchemical means or through hatha yoga practices we would recognize today as breath work / pranayama and physical postures / asanas.
Rather than a book review, I present here a few notes from his Alchemical Body that might be pertinent to our yoga practice today–because no one I know is going to get some cinnabar and try to turn base metals into gold these days. (And if you are, please do let me know how you’re making gold in the comments below.)
First off, White explains the functions of the three locks / bandhas in a way I hadn’t heard before:
1. Mula bandha / root lock draws apana vayu up through the medial channel.
2. Uddiyana bandha / ‘lock of the upward-flying [bird]’ : the emptying of the lungs and the contraction of the lungs and diaphragm into the upper thorax causes prana to fly up through the medial channel into the cranial vault.
3. Jalandhara bandha / ‘lock of the net bearer’ seals your head off from your torso by constricting the network of nadis in your throat and arrests the downward flow of nectar from your cranial vault.
If so, then that would explain why mula and uddiyana locks / bandhas are almost always taught first. If you have no nectar in your head, there is no point in preventing the nectar from flowing out.
White also says : “Steady breath leads to steady mind leads to steady semen leads to steady body,” in which the steadiness of the body comes last rather than first. Usually hatha yoga says that steady body leads to steady mind, but it goes both ways.
Furthermore, White elucidated why fire and heat are big symbols in yoga :
The yogic fire kindled at subtle body’s base burns up the fire of time, which is death (kulagni), via the filling of the shusumna channel. Yogic fire is sacrifice internalized : the inner fire of tapas fueled offerings of one’s vital breaths in an inner sacrifice.
So when you sacrificed your breaths internally, you were prolonging your life.
The following pranayama technique is said to give you mastery over disease and death. Need I say that you practice the following at your own risk?
1. First draw your subtle breath / prana in through your left nostril and into the lunar channel
2. Retain this breath as long as possible
3. Exhale through your right nostril via the solar channel
4. Inhale right and continue alternate nostril breathing
5. Continue to pump outer nadis like bellows: at one retention, the pressure will open the medial channel and empty the peripheral ones–which then become ‘swooned’.
Breath retention is the dangerous part as is the bellows breath, so you can get the milder version by just doing alternate nostril breathing without the breath retention.
And lastly, speaking of Siddhas, the perfected ones, White says that they embodied “carefree playfulness” — the Siddhas “always seem to be at play–playing with words, playing with other people’s minds, playing games with the world” (p.349). The phenomenal world is a field of play.
What do you think of White’s interpretation of hatha yoga? Do you want to transform your body into gold when you practice yoga or is this all just crazy talk?
As always, comments are always welcome and encouraged.
BettinaPhoto from folktalefibers