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.
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.
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).
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
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: book, book review, poetry, south india, tamil siddhas, yoga history ⇔ No Comments
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
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: alchemy, bandha, book, book review, david gordon white, medieval yoga, pranayama, yoga, yoga locks ⇔ No Comments
If you’re like me, you’re starting to get presents ready for Christmas. Even though I personally don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, I love how it brings people together and gives me an opportunity to think about what people I care about might like as a present.
I love giving and getting books as presents because, chosen wisely, they can open a new world, spark new ideas, and maybe, just maybe, teach you something new. If you have a yogi or yogini in your life who loves to read, here are some books I’d suggest for them.
Books for the history buff yogi/yogini
David Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis led me to read his two previous books on the history and pre-history of medieval practices of yoga, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India and Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts.
What I like and relate to in his research is that he focuses on practitioners of yoga. He doesn’t analyze texts about yoga or that have influenced yoga teachers. Rather, he looks at how yoga was practiced and understood by the people who practiced yoga and the people who came into contact with yogis. Yes, the yogis he writes about are mostly men. But the story he weaves about sinister yogis who steal people’s bodies is utterly compelling, even though this is an academic book complete with enough endnotes to make its own little book.
Most compelling for me as a yoga teacher is his analysis of the different meanings of the word yoga in different textual contexts and time periods. Yes, yoga as a word and concept has existed for billions of years–but it has not always meant the physical poses we practice in contemporary yoga classes. Otherwise, how could yogis have been sinister?
Skipping from medieval India to the twentieth-century, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice argues for the influence of Western bodybuilding and gymnastics on the development of the physical postural yoga classes we have today. Since Singleton’s research focuses on Krishnamacharya, whose students later founded Ashtanga yoga and Iyengar yoga styles, he doesn’t address all the different yoga styles currently practiced today. But for anyone interested in the roots of contemporary yoga, read this to find out more. Globalization has been happening for a long while longer than we thought.
And for those who read German, Mathias Tietke’s Yoga im Nationalsozialismus: Konzepte, Kontraste, Konsequenzen addresses the history of yoga in the 1930s in Germany. I haven’t read it yet, but from the reviews and my personal conversations with him, the book seems a vital cautionary tale. Even for those who don’t have a connection to Germany, his book addresses how the ideas of karma and discipline may be abused. These two ideas may not have anything to do with yoga but is a part of the context from which it can be taught.
For the philosophically minded
Let me just let Sakyong Mipham speak through his own words from Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies For Modern Life:
Contemplating worldly gain and loss reveals that we spend part of our life trying to get it together, and the other part watching it fall apart. As soon as we have time-“I have a whole hour free”-we are losing it. As soon as we make a friend, we’re losing him. As soon as we have fame, it becomes tinged with notoriety. As soon as we have wealth, we’re losing it. Looking for something new to gain helps us forget to look but a few seconds back at the last thing that we lost. Fabricating this chain of desire is how we keep ourselves in samsara [the cycle of desire and suffering]. We are using instability to try to make stability. We’re investing in hope and fear, banking on denial of a simple truth: all the pleasure the world can offer eventually turns to pain. Everything we gain is subject to loss. Why do we put all that effort into gain when, in the end, we are going to lose it?
Or something practical, for those of you who are action-oriented:
When we want to pin the blame on somebody – even ourselves – the most creative thing we can do is wish that person happiness instead.
All the things you know that are true in your heart but have yet to really sit down and experience for yourself are in this book.
For the Yogi or Yogini who wants to eat healthier
Getting someone a book with the word ‘diet’ in the title might be asking for trouble, but Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Diet: Eat Your Veggies, Ignite Your Spark, and Live Like You Mean It! is different. It’s about feeling good and living well & sustainably rather than losing weight. She tells her awesome story of how she kicked cancer through lifestyle and eating changes. And she’s a lot of fun! Who else do you know would describe her cancer as a ‘shit pickle’? So if you know anyone who wants to make changes in what they eat, this book is a fun way to learn from someone who’s healed herself through diet changes.
For the DIY gift-giver
If you want to give a present that you make yourself, print out one of the free e-books on my Resources page. To save trees, print two pages to one sheet of paper as well as on the front and back sides of the sheet. Customize the cover with a drawing or design.
Any books on your wishlist this year that you think other yogis might like? Tell me in the comments below!
PS: And to be fully upfront, I do get a percentage of the sale from Amazon should you buy any of the books through my links.
Category: Active Hands Yoga ⇔ Tags: book, gifts, yoga, yoga history, yogi, yogini ⇔ No Comments