Hi, I’m Bettina. What I'm working on : Forget to slouch. Relaxing is freedom. Choose life.

Articles tagged “book review”

Reading Notes from The Poets of the Powers by Kamil V. Zvelebil

Brihadeeshwarar Temple, Thanjavur, India

I’ve been diving deep into yoga history by reading. One book I recently read, The Poets of the Powers: Magic, Freedom, and Renewal by Kamil V. Zvelebel, has translations of Tamil Siddha poetry. It’s a thin volume, only 144 pages with footnotes included, so it was a good introduction to this group of yoga practitioners I had only heard of in passing before.

Tamil is one of the languages in South India and refers also to the culture of the people who speak the language. The Tamil Siddha school of thought is a branch of tantric yoga, with a distinct character of social radicalism and an emphasis on magical powers. A distinction of tantric yoga is the belief that liberation is possible in your human body and not just at death, which lead to technique of yoga to ensure a healthy body. The body is the seat of the experience of liberation. If your body was weak, in pain, or unbalanced, how could you experience bliss or become liberated?

What is the sign of absolute and true liberation?

The physical body aglow with the Fire of Immortality.

(Uroma risi nanam 12) p. 58

Even though Zvelebel says that the first Tamil Siddha poet was active between the seventh and eleventh centuries, it would be a mistake to think Tamil Siddhas were only active in medieval India. Zvelebel claims that the Siddha doctrines are still a vital undercurrent in modern-day South India albeit hidden from public view.

Shiva Linga with Garland of Flowers

Written in an intentionally enigmatic language, where words embody multiple meanings, the Tamil Siddha poems can be mystical or vulgar and direct. For example, Civavakkiyar who was writing immediately before the tenth century wrote (p. 87):

Why, you fool,

do you utter mantras,

murmuring them, whispering,

going around the fixed stone

as if it were God,

putting garlands of flowers around it?

Will the fixed stone speak–

as if the Lord were within?

Will the cooking vessel,

or the wooden ladle,

know the taste of curry?

The misogynist language in some of the Siddha poems really bothered me. All of the poets translated in the book were men, and women, specifically the bodies of women, were temptations for them.

WARNING WARNING: Easily offended sensibilities, please stop reading now.

Loving Couple (Mithuna) Indian Sculpture

Pattinattar wrote (pp. 99-100):

Their mouth smells of flesh.

Their hairy mess is smelly.

The pus in the blackened eyes smells

and their limbs stink of their discharge.

The chasm of the vulva stinks.

Should my mind be attached

to these women

who smell of their


In the Appendix Zvelebil shares health tips from his Siddha informant in Madras in 1968 (pp. 126-127):

Hints regarding the physical and mental health


1. Eat only if hungry.

2. Never eat when tired; never eat when emotionally upset.

3. Chew your food thoroughly, well mixed with saliva.

4. Between meals, eat only fresh fruit, or fresh fruit juices.

5. Add to your daily diet great quantities of mor, i.e. yoghurt or buttermilk.

6. Always eat fresh fruits and raw vegetables, if possible.


7. Try to sleep at least eight hours daily. The best sleep is before midnight. Sleep with your window open, naked, head toward the North, the feet slightly raise.


8. Take frequent sun-baths; however, do not get too much sun at one stretch.


9. Breath deeply, rhythmically, slowly, regularly and relaxedly. Be conscious of the speed and rhythm of your breath.


10. Walk at least two hours daily.


11. Regular and frequent sexual intercourse is beneficial. However, be master, not slave of your sex-life. Oral-genital sex is not harmful; on the contrary, it is often desirable. Visualize yourself as the creative Siva, and your partner as your (i.e. Siva’s) sakti, energy. Let her lie on you, and drink your sperm; let you suck her discharge of pleasure (curatanir).

Mental attitudes

12. Never give up. Never be idle. Try to maintain always a cheerful and positive attitude. There is no harm in satisfying a desire, when the satisfaction destroys it. Do not suppress forcibly any desire. Liberation is always here and now with you. If you cannot believe in god, it does not matter. Believe in yourself, in your own existence. Find out the source from which you came.

Conclusion : The Poets of the Powers: Magic, Freedom, and Renewal is a strange little book that serves as a good introduction to the Tamil Siddhas. It’s definitely not Yoga Journal. Pick it up and connect to the roots of one subset of yoga before it became what it is today.

If you have read The Poets of the Powers, what do you think of it? Or what do my reading notes make you think? Let me know in the comment section below.

Photo credits, from top to bottom: swamysk, Natesh Ramasamy, wallyg

Notes from David Gordon White’s Alchemical Body

Alchemical Body for Yoga

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.



Photo from folktalefibers