pranayama

Introduction to Tantra: Part 2, The History of Tantra

The History of Tantra

Tantra as a designated practice arose within India in the first few centuries of the common era. It prospered into the medieval period when Yoga started to become dominated more by the practices of Haṭha Yoga, which will be explained next.

The precise arrival of Tantra is difficult to fully know since much of the practice remained secret to non-initiates throughout its entire history. It may have existed much earlier and threads of it or its prototypes can be seen earlier. It is clear that Tantra represented the emergence of a kind of respect for the folk and indigenous practices of the rural and village people in India. Its roots are in practices which are incredibly ancient, but which would have been considered primitive or savage by the dominant priestly hierarchies. The golden age of Tantra in India thus reflects a time where the authority and power of these priestly classes were being challenged.

This can even be seen in some of the names and stories of the most famous Siddhas, or accomplished Tantric adepts.

Matsyendranātha is said to be the founder of the Kaula lineage, one of the lineages that remained the most distant from the Vedic authorities. He was said to be a fisherman who was swallowed by a fish one day. The fish brought him to the bottom of the ocean where he heard Śiva and Devī (The Goddess, a name for Śakti) explaining the details of Tantric Yoga. He used this knowledge to survive inside the belly of the fish until he returned to land and perfected his Yoga and taught disciples. His name means “Fisherman Lord.” He had many disciples, which included householders and renunciates.

His most famous and renowned disciple was Gorakṣanātha. Matsyendra was traveling through a village and a woman approached him, telling him she had been unable to conceive a child. She asked if he would provide her with a blessing that would allow her to do so. He handed her a seed and told her to plant it and went on his way. She thought he must have been fooling her and so threw the seed away into a heap of cow dung. When Matsyendra returned some time later and inquired after her son, she told him what she had done. He went to the dung heap and pulled out a perfectedly healthy baby boy and told her that if she didn’t want him, he would take him to be his disciple. He became Gorakṣanātha, whose name means “Cowherder Lord.” Gorakṣa is generally said to have been a renunciate and to have primarily taught to other renunciates.

Fishermen and cowherders were among the lower castes within Indian society and so these names can be seen as a way of mocking the rigid caste system of the Vedic priests. The tantric masters were regarded with suspicion at first, but when their attainments had been clearly demonstrated, they became highly respected within mainstream society and even acknowledged by the existing authorities.

During the golden age of Tantra within Indian society, many even enjoyed royal patronage. This allowed for the writing of many Sanskrit texts which recorded their beliefs, practices, and history. Most of the written record of Tantra comes from these kind of texts, though much more was probably known and practiced without being written down or disseminated publicly.

Tantra thus emerges as a distinct phenomenon and disappears back into the background, but its foggy beginnings and far-reaching influences allow it to merge to some degree with the more universal stream of practitioners across the world who have sought and cultivated the energy and awareness of Supreme Reality. There is only one Reality, even if it has been expressed and worked with in varying ways in different times and places. Tantra can thus claim some heirship with any who have rejected conventional modes in favor of a more direct and refined experience of that Reality.

The Doṣas & Āyurveda

One of the components of Āyurvedic medicine is the concept of Doṣa. A Doṣa is a physiological principle that operates in our organism. Traditionally within Āyurveda, there are three Doṣas: Vāta, the airy principle of movement, Pitta, the fiery principle of transformation, and Kapha, the earthy principle of substance.

Every person has all three acting within themselves, but different people’s physiologies tend to emphasize some of these processes over others. If these principles are acting in a balanced and harmonious way then we are healthy, but if one or more of them begins to overstep its bounds then we will be on the path towards disease.

How do we recognize these Doṣas? Āyurveda explains that each Doṣa has specific qualities, called guṇas in Sanskrit, that it expresses. They are described in great detail at times, but the Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam, one of the primary texts of Āyurveda, gives a nice succinct summation in Chapter 1:

तत्र रूक्षो लघु शीतः खरः सूक्ष्मश्चलोऽनिलः |

पित्तं सस्नेहतीक्ष्णोष्णं लघु विस्रं सरं द्रवम् ||

स्निग्धः सीतो गुरु्मन्दः श्लक्ष्णो मृत्स्नः स्थिरः कफः |

Tatra rūkṣo laghuḥ śītaḥ kharaḥ sūkṣmaś calo’nilaḥ |

Pittaṃ sasneha tīkṣṇoṣṇaṃ laghu visraṃ saraṃ dravam ||

Snigdhaḥ śīto gurur mandaḥ ślakṣṇo mṛtsnaḥ sthiraḥ kaphaḥ |

-          Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam, Sūtrasthāna, Chapter 1, Verse 11

It explains that the qualities of Vāta are: Dry, Light, Cold, Rough, Subtle, and Mobile.

The qualities of Pitta are: Oily, Sharp, Hot, Light, ‘fleshy-smelling’, spreading, and liquid.

The qualities of Kapha are: Oily, Cold, Heavy, ‘clay-like’, and stable.

How we see or interpret these qualities is part of the subtlety and assessment practices of Āyurveda.

Which qualities seem to predominate in ourselves? How do they affect our health and our lives in positive or negative ways? Which qualities are predominating in the foods that we eat? These are the kinds of questions that we would look to in Āyurveda.

Types of Samādhi

Samādhi

Samādhi  is the state of Yogic Absorption which is the culmination of the practice of Yoga. In the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali it is seen as analogous with the state of Yoga itself. It is a state of meditation where the mind is free of fluctuation[1] to the point of seeming devoid even of its own nature[2]. This can seem like a rather difficult thing to grasp, but Patañjali spends quite a few verses detailing the distinctions between different types of Samādhi. Aside from being able to document them properly if they do arise, they are useful to understand to gain insights into deeper aspects of how our minds function and how this functioning can be “hacked” in order to foster our spiritual development, achieve liberation, or even unlock the abilities of the mind to comprehend and influence the world around us.

Following the lead from Patañjali, we can say that there are 8 types of Samādhi. They are:

1.      SavitarkaConceptual gross level of awareness

2.      NirvitarkaNon-conceptual gross level of awareness

3.      SavicāraConceptual subtle level of awareness

4.      NirvicāraNon-conceptual subtle level of awareness

5.      Sānanda Bliss level of awareness

6.      SāsmitaPure I-sense level of awareness

7.      Asaṃprajñāta/Nirbīja“Seedless” or Completely absent of Fluctuations/Vṛttis

8.      Dharmamegha – “Cloud Raining Virtue”

There are two main subtypes of Samādhi. They are Saṃprajñāta and Asaṃprajñāta.

The first 6 types of Samādhi listed above are all types of Saṃprajñāta Samādhi.

Asaṃprajñāta Samādhi is a deeper state than Saṃprajñāta.

The final type of Samādhi, Dharmamegha Samādhi, is beyond even Asaṃprajñāta Samādhi.

 

Saṃprajñāta Samādhi

Saṃprajñāta Samādhi is Samādhi “with Discernment,” also called Samādhi “with Seed” (Sabīja Samādhi). This is when Samādhi is achieved through one-pointed focus on an object. It is considered to be “with Discernment” because it is accompanied by a kind of accurate knowing that provides us with wisdom. When we focus our mind in a still way onto a single object, then we are able to ascertain deeper truths about that object. The development of this discernment is said to proceed gradually, in stages.[3]

It is said to be “with seed” for two different reasons. The first is that it requires an object, a kind of thought pattern, or vṛtti, to coalesce around. Vyāsa also calls this an ālambana, or “support,” for the mind. So, it could be said that it requires a “seed” to “grow.”

It can also be understand that it is “with seed” in that it still produces new karmic impressions. Likely these will be beneficial impressions, but they still keep us on the ongoing wheel of karma. It is also notable that the creation of certain beneficial karmas is usually seen as a necessary precondition to eventually escaping the wheel. Sometimes this is likened to using soap to clean clothing. The soap is necessary to remove the dirt, but then the clothes still have a residue on them. They need to be rinsed after that to lose the residue of the soap itself.

There are different types of Saṃprajñāta Samādhi depending on how the mind perceives the object that it is focused on. These proceed into subtler and subtler aspects of how our mind can perceive objects. They are:

1.      Vitarka – Gross level awareness

2.      Vicāra – Subtle level of awareness

3.      Ānanda – The bliss level of awareness

4.      Asmita – The pure I-sense level of awareness.

This is further subdivided depending on whether the frame of mind is “conceptual” when it is perceiving. Conceptual awareness refers to when there is still the intermixing of the object with its name and meaning as well as the knowledge and imagination of the practitioner. “Non-conceptual” awareness is defined as when the memory is purified until the mind seems empty of its own nature and the object alone is shining forth.

A gross level of awareness refers to the physical aspects of reality. Samādhi with a gross level of awareness that is conceptual is called Savitarka and when it is non-conceptual, as understood above, it is called Nirvitarka.

The subtle level of awareness refers to the underpinnings of the physical reality that we experience. Here we can look to Sāṃkhya Philosophy for guidance. The most apparent aspect of subtle reality is the Tanmātras, the germs of sensory perception that allow us to encounter physical objects. These are Sound, Touch, Form, Taste, and Smell[4]. We might want to notice here that, according to this system, “subtle reality” begins with the phenomenological. It is not some distant otherworldly thing, but, being tied to the senses, is something closer to how we actually encounter objects within our awareness. Subtle reality would extend from there to the operations of the qualities of Nature[5]. It can become progressively more subtle to include the inner Intelligence[6] and the possible subtlety extends all the way to primordial unmanifest Nature itself[7].

Similar to gross level awareness, subtle level awareness can be conceptual or non-conceptual. This is referred to as Savicāra and Nirvicāra respectively.

When Samādhi is achieved with a subtle level of awareness that is non-conceptual, that is with a memory that is purified until the mind seems empty of its own nature and the object alone is shining forth, then the pure Self is able to be glimpsed. Achieving this Nirvicāra Samādhi is thus considered to be an important stage of development. It brings about Wisdom, knowledge that is “filled with truth.”[8] This special kind of knowledge is totally different from that which can be gained by reasoning or study and the seeds that it plants bring about impressions that wipe out all other impressions.

When even these impressions left by wisdom stop then all impressions come to an end and this is the state of seedless Samādhi.

 

Ānanda & Asmitā

Ānanda and Asmitā Samādhi are never directly explained in the Sūtras. Even Vyāsa’s commentary is curiously silent on them. Vyāsa merely explains that Ānanda Samādhi is free from Vitarka and Vicāra and that Asmitā Samādhi is free even from Ānanda. He says that even in those states, however, the mind is still focused on an object.

Hariharānanda, in his commentary, states that Ānanda Samādhi begins out of the feeling of tranquility and well-being that arises from non-conceptual forms of Samādhi (Nirvitarka and Nirvicāra). He calls it a kind of Sattvic happiness and says that it has the special quality of reducing attachment to external objects of the senses because we feel our happiness radiating from within.

Asmitā Samādhi is the Samādhi that arises when the mind starts to focus on the experiencer rather than the experience. So, the “I” who is experiencing the bliss of Ānanda Samādhi becomes reflected within the mind. Because this “I” is just the experiencer, it is free even from the experience itself. Hariharānanda is quick to note that though this experience is beyond even Ānanda, or bliss, that does not imply that there is a lack of bliss in this state. This is why there is no “Nirānanda” state of Samādhi.

Why would Samādhi on the I-sense still be considered an object-based Samādhi if the I-sense is not the object but the experiencer of the object? This could be understood in two ways. First of all, the I-sense is not actually the “I” or the Self, it is merely the inner Intelligence, or Buddhi, operating within us. The second reason is that though the experiencer has become the focus of this Samādhi, achieving this state still depends upon an object that is being experienced.

 

Asaṃprajñāta Samādhi

This type of Samādhi is entirely free of an object and so is free even from this discernment or accurate knowing. It is cultivated by a determination to be beyond all thought. In that state, only the latent “impressions” which are the underlying cause of thoughts remain and it is these impressions, when they become activated, that would take the person back out of this kind of Samādhi and back into the ordinary state of a fluctuating mind.

It is also called “seedless” Samādhi. We must take care to be aware that, though this form of Samādhi has no object, it is entirely different from “zoning out” or being asleep because the awareness itself is still fully clear and present even if there are no thoughts.

It is usually assumed that this form of Samādhi generally only happens after the development of high levels of Wisdom arising from the experience of states of Saṃprajñāta Samādhi. Without this, the kind of supreme non-attachment towards all thoughts would not be possible, or at the very least, would only be the result of a kind of ignorance and so not lead towards liberation.

 

Dharmamegha Samādhi – The Cloud Raining Virtue

There is a further designation of Samādhi that refers to a kind of liberated state that an individual can reach while embodied. This happens when even the complete omniscience that can come from the full development of discernment is no longer compelling or interesting to the individual. This type of Samādhi is called Dharmamegha because it is likened to a cloud that rains virtue, or Dharma. From this Samādhi all afflictions[9] and karmas end. The Knowledge included in the experience of Dharmamegha Samādhi possesses such a magnitude that everything else that can possibly be known seems minor.

With the rising of this Samādhi, the qualities of Nature have served their purpose and their constant transformations end. The state of Liberation is achieved and the Self abides fully in its own nature.

 

References

For the Divisions of Saṃprajñāta Samādhi, see Chapter I, Verses 17, 42-51

For Asaṃprajñāta Samādhi, see Chapter I, Verse 18

For Dharmamegha Samādhi, see Chapter IV, Verses 29-34


[1] See Chapter I, Verse 2

[2] See Chapter III, Verse 3

[3] See also Chapter III, Verses 5 & 6

[4] Śabda, Sparśa, Rūpa, Rasa, Gandha

[5] The Guṇas of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas

[6] Called Buddhi and in the Yoga Sūtras often referred to as Liṅga, or “mark,” because it is the first instance of manifestation.

[7] Called Prakṛti. In the Yoga Sūtras, it is sometimes referred to as Aliṅga, “without mark,” because of it pre-exists manifestation.

[8]Ṛtambharā,” See Chapter I, Verses 48-50

[9] Kleśas

Yantra

Yantras are sacred geometric diagrams that are used in tantric practice. They could be seen as the visual equivalent of Mantras. They are used in rituals and also just as objects of meditation and contemplation. Different deities or powers will have different Yantras and every Yantra will have distinguishing features. However, there are some basic components of all Yantras that can be identified and understood.

Generally, Yantras can be understood as maps of the progression from subtle unmanifest essence into concrete manifest reality. The center of the Yantra represents the unmanifest and the very outside is the final culmination into manifestation. Yantras may be worked with by starting from the center and proceeding out, mirroring the process of creation, or they may be worked with by starting on the outside and working inward, tracing a path of return to source through dissolution.

At the center of the Yantra, there is a dot that represents the unmanifest essence that is called the Bindu. It is analogous to the pure puruṣa/prakṛti avyakta” principle of Sāṃkhya.

Outside of the Bindu, there are interlocking triangles or occasionally other pointed shapes that represent the creative forces. They are the underlying laws that allow for manifestation to take place. They are analogous to the buddhi or mahat level of the Sāṃkhya cosmology. Generally, upward pointing triangles are considered “masculine.” They orient energy from the individual into the Cosmic. They can thus be seen as dissolving. The downward pointing triangles are “feminine” and they orient energy from the Cosmic down into the individual. They are creating. The exact interplay between the two will depend on the individual Yantra. Some Yantras emphasize the masculine component and some the feminine and these components might overlap and interact differently depending on the arrangement.

Outside of the triangles will be a circle, which represents a unity or the infinity of possibilities that exist in this still potential form.

Petals emanate from the circle out in all directions and these are the first manifestations of subtle reality. They are often identified with the senses and other subtle elements of mind. So, this connects to the lower aspects of the Antaḥ Kāraṇa and to the Tanmātras. Depending on the individual Yantra, the number or exact arrangement of petals might vary.

Finally, the outside square of the Yantra is called the Bhūpura. It connects to the elements, the Bhūtas, and our final concrete manifest reality. The cardinal directions, which place us on this Earth are located in the four gates that are on each side of the Bhūpura. These are the access points to enter into the Yantra.

Pranayama

“This life is empty breath.

If I can hear one clear truth,

I’ll be fortunate.” – Lalla

 

“If you live on the breath,

You won’t be tortured

By hunger and thirst.” – Lalla

 

Prāṇāyāma

Prāṇāyāma is introduced as a discrete practice in the 49th verse of the second chapter of the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Patañjali begins by pointing out that some āsana work must precede praṇāyāma practice, so that we have a stable and comfortable foundation in our physical body. This does not mean that’s necessary to perform any elaborate acrobatics, but just the ability to maintain a basic posture with the back straight.

In our comfortable and stable posture, we can begin to practice prāṇāyāma by extending and regulating the inhale and exhale. The breath is through the nose and the qualities that we are aiming for are slowness, relaxation, evenness, and smoothness. Gradually, we can extend the breath in this way and extend the pauses between breaths.

Yogic breath practices imply that there is some concentration of mind as well. The breath itself is seen as a cause for the concentration of the mind, so the act of each inhale and exhale bring the mind back to our focus and object of meditation. This should be done first with inhales and exhales, ensuring that the breath meets the criteria above and that some basic focus can be maintained, then we can begin to practice in the stops of the breath as well. The retention of breath should be seen as a close holding of the mind on the object as well.

“The object of concentration should be present in the mind during each act of inhalation and exhalation, or the inhalation and exhalation are to be looked upon as the predisposing causes bringing the thought of the object of concentration; thus union between the breath and the object of concentration has to be practised. When this becomes habitual, then the suspension of the movement (of breath) has to be practised. During this practice, the mind has also to be kept fixed on the object of concentration. That is, suspension of breath and the mind’s fixation on the object of concentration should be made as a single effort. Or the idea has to be entertained that by the suspension of breath the object of meditation itself has been held tightly in mental embrace. This form of suspension of movement of the mind, as long as the suspension of breath is maintained, indicates one real Prāṇāyāma.” – Swami Hariharananda, The Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali 258-259

When retention of breath is practiced after the exhale, it is called an external hold. When it is practiced after the inhale, it is called an internal hold. It can also be practiced at any point within the cycle of breath and this is called a stationary hold.

Holds can be measured by their location, time, and number. The aim is to make the breath long and subtle.

Location

Location can refer simply to the depth of breath that is practiced, but it is usually take to mean where the sensation of breath is felt during the course of the breath cycle. Swami Hariharananda  recommends a pattern where we bring the sensation to the entire body during the inhale, felt especially on the skin, palms of hands, and soles of feet, and then to bring the sensation inward to the central channel or heart space during the exhale. He says this brings a sense of ease to the body.

The breath can also be inhaled into the belly and then exhaled out to a foot in front of the nose. This technique is taught in the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra and is often taught by Dr. Lad.

Hariharananda argues that location can also be observed as a way of increasing subtlety of breath by imagining that the range of the exhale is shorter and shorter to the point where a fine cotton wool placed in front of the nose would not be disturbed.

Time

Time refers to how long the breath is suspended. This can be observed by counting. Certain ratios can be adopted such as a count of four for the inhale and four for the exhale. We can also include the holds and count four for the inhale, four for the internal hold, four for the exhale, and four for the exhale hold. When the count is even in this way, it is called a samavṛtti prāṇāyāma, or even timing. If we practice with a more complex ratio, such as four for the inhale, sixteen for the internal hold, eight for the exhale, and eight for the external hold, then this is called viṣamavṛtti, or uneven timing. The length of the count can be extended and longer holds can be maintained, but the practice should always feel relaxed and easy to perform.

Rather than simply counting, it is especially effective to use a mantra for keeping track of the time of the breath cycle. For example, the mantra could be internal recited twice during the inhale and twice during the exhale to maintain a simple samavṛtti prāṇāyāma. This practice allows the mind to become fixed in the flow of sound, facilitating both concentration and the rhythmic timing.

Number

Number refers to how many breath cycles are practiced. One could simply count, one could roughly keep track by practicing over a set period of time, or one could use a japa mālā to count repetitions of mantras or breaths.

Gradually through practice, the breath becomes slower and less perceptible, quieter and smoother.

Sometimes we use more complex and specific breath patterns for prāṇāyāma, such as alternating nostrils, but the practice can also be quite simple as well. With specific breath practices, sometimes internal engagements, called bandhas, or locks, must be employed to practice correctly. These can allow the suspensions of breath to be held for much longer. This is the means employed by Haṭha Yoga, the more “forceful” type of Yoga, where the stilling of prāṇa is used to still the mind. The softer forms of Yoga instead employ the gradually stilling of mind as a means of allowing the breath to become more still. Swami Hariharananda explains this by saying that focus and devotion bring about an intensity of joy that we get a strong desire to hold it as if in embrace and this will cause the breath to become more still on its own accord.

“Through practice of devotion to God and Dhāraṇā of the Sāttvika type, the intensity of joy that is felt in the innermost being, gives rise to a strong desire to hold it as if by an embrace of the heart, which producing a Sāttvika form of contraction of the nerve-centres may stop the activities of the Prāṇa. Just as in the process of Haṭha-Yoga the impulse of contraction is externally produced, in this process it is internally induced.” – Swami Hariharananda, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali p.262

Through whichever means, as the breath becomes almost imperceptible, it seems to disappear on its own. Here we can enter a fourth type of retention that is said to transcend internal and external.

In higher states of meditation, we can start to feel that even the movement of the breath is a disturbance to our concentration. When everything is quiet in our mind, the breath can start to sound like the loudest thing around. So, progressively making it subtler until it starts to almost disappear would be useful for that depth of mental stability.

This special fourth kind of prāṇāyāma can also be interpreted to mean that the movement of life force, or prāṇa, in the body can now be extended to subtler realms and not merely cycled inside and out of the body. The projection and absorption of this energy starts to make ordinary distinctions between outer and inner lose some of their import.

Through this kind of prāṇāyāma, the veil over inner light is thinned and the mind becomes fit for concentration.

Vyasa argues that there is no tapas superior to prāṇāyāma. It removes impurities and makes the light of knowledge shine. He says that the karmas which cause ignorance and prevent clarity of discernment dwindle away due to the practice of prāṇāyāma. This limb can be seen as an elaboration on the breath meditation that was mentioned in the first chapter.

“Book Knowledge” v. “Yogic Knowledge”

जातिलक्षणदेशैरन्यतानवच्छेदात् तुल्ययोस्ततः प्रतिपत्तिः || ५३ ||

Jāti-lakṣaṇa-deśair anyatā’navacchedāt tulyayos tataḥ pratipattiḥ III:53

“From this, one gains the ability to discern between two identical things that are not distinguishable by their outward characteristics.”

Patanjali and Vyasa argue throughout the Sutras that although knowledge of facts and knowledge gained from books can be useful, it is limited in that it can only tell you about the characteristics of categories of things. It can never tell you about the actual particularities of individual objects. So, you can learn that mammals have fur and breastfeed their young, you can even learn what distinguishes different *kinds* of mammals from each other, but this type of knowledge will never allow you to *fully* understand any unique individual instance of a mammal.

The claims to “powers” that are presented in the Yoga Sutras are neither mere peripheral things to gloss over (there are in fact a lot of Sutras devoted to speaking about them) nor are they meant to be ways of achieving worldly ends. Instead, they are guide posts that are meant to show that we have deeply understood and integrated a Yogic concept.

So, Patanjali’s claim that, through meditative practice, one gains the ability to discern between two identical objects, indicates that the Yogi has, at this point, transcended ordinary “book knowledge.” He or she is able to actually perceive things as they are and not merely as examples of a certain category or type. What were once just different examples of a kind of object are now seen in their full individuality.

This is illustrated creatively in the story of Gorakh’s rescue of Matsyendranath, where Gorakh produces 108 clones of Queen Mainakini and Matsyendra’s son Minanath. Gorakh asks the Queen to choose her real son and, when she is unable to do so, he says, “If you’re not able to recognize your own son, how can you call him yours?” (Munoz, Adrian. Matsyendra’s “Golden Legend”)

The 10 Mudras of Hatha Yoga

Mudra can be translated as gesture or a seal or stamp. It is a way of holding and channeling prāṇa. We can see another kind of alchemical metaphor in it as the container that allows the transformative process to happen.

Many people think of hand gestures when they think of mudras, but this is only one kind of mudra. Hand mudras are called hasta mudras, the word hasta meaning hand. Just like how we can gesture with our hands in conversation, but can also gesture with other parts of our body or with our entire body, so other types of mudras exist. In fact, none of the mudras of the Pradīpikā are hasta mudras.

The other main types of mudras are kāya mudras, or full body gestures, and mano mudras, or mental gestures. Generally speaking, kāya mudras are the purview of Haṭha Yoga and its more physical orientation, while mano mudras are practiced within Rāja Yoga. The 3rd Chapter of the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā deals with the kāya mudras and the 4th Chapter, which discusses Rāja Yoga, deals with the mano mudras. Khecarī mudra, already spoken of as being the most important, has both physical and mental methods of practice. So, it is mentioned in both chapters.

The number 10 seems to have symbolic significance for the mudras as lists of mudras are almost always in groups of 10. Just as with the 6 cleansing acts or the 8 prāṇāyāmas, the number can seem a bit forced since there is some overlap between different mudras and one of them[1] has three very different variations with different names.

The 10 Haṭha Yoga Mudras are:

1.       Mahāmudra – The Great Mudra

2.       Mahābandha – The Great Lock

3.       Mahāvedha – The Great Piercer

4.       Khecarī Mudra – The Sky roaming Mudra

5.       Uḍḍiyāna Bandha – The Abdominal Lock or The Upward Flying Lock

6.       Mūla Bandha – The Pelvic Lock or the Root Lock

7.       Jālandhara Bandha – The Throat Lock or the Water Holding Lock

8.       Viparīta Karaṇī Mudra – The Reversing Action Mudra

9.       Vajrolī Mudra – The Diamond Mudra

10.   Śakti Cālana Mudra – The Śakti Churning Mudra

These Mudras are said to have been learned from Lord Śiva Himself and prevent aging and death as well as granting all of the eight classic yogic siddhis, powers or attainments. Because they contain layers of subtlety and are incredibly valuable when unlocked, they should be kept secret just like jewels. One should not speak about them in the same way that one does not speak openly about the experiences with one’s intimate romantic partners.

Before leading into the discussion of each mudra, it might be nice to compare this list with a different list that is found within Śrī Vidyā Tantra. Within Tantra, mudras are rarely physical practices and instead refer to subtle energetic shifts. They do have corresponding hand gestures (hasta mudras) that go along with them, but it is clear from their names that they have deeper meanings that relate to alchemical symbolism. These 10 mudras are:

1.       Saṅkṣoba – Agitation

2.       Vidrava – Liquefaction

3.       Ākarṣa – Attraction/Extraction

4.       Vaśaṃkara – Subjugation

5.       Unmāda – Intoxication

6.       Aṅkuśa – Repulsion

7.       Khecara – Skyroaming

8.       Bīja – Seed

9.       Yoni – Womb

10.   Trikhaṇḍa – Three Containers/Portions

Together, they tell the esoteric story of the stages of practice within a metaphor of cooking or distilling. The agitation is the cooking and stirring of the materials, which then causes them to soften and liquefy. From this, we can extract out the essence and capture it. This essence, just like distilled spirits, is intoxicating. This divine intoxication repels us from the mundane state of things and launches us into the “sky” or inner realms. Within this we become the seed of new creation inside the womb. The three “containers” refer to the divisions of the “Knower,” the “Knowledge,” and the “Knowing” or subject, object, and verb, the divisions which allow for phenomenal existence. Note that in this list Khecarī (Khecara here) is still included,  further cementing its preeminent importance.

Even when it comes to the more physical kāya mudras of Haṭha Yoga, there are still gross and subtle levels to their practice. The outward physical posture or activity is just a way of signaling some kind of energetic shift. If this shift is understood on its own terms, then sometimes it can be effected without taking the outer form of the mudra. This is how one progresses towards Rāja Yoga. The practitioner is thus encouraged to try to “look under” the mudra and see the essence behind what is merely apparent about it.


[1] Vajrolī mudra, which includes Sahajolī and Amarolī mudras as well.

Deity Work

Tantra often involves working with specific deities or conceptions of divine powers. However, tantric practice is different than worship in a traditional sense. A tantric practitioner may also worship deities in a more ordinary sense, but just also engages in tantric practice as well. In many ways, self-divinization is the key to Tantra. Tantra is about finding the divinity within. So, they say, “To worship God, you must become God.” The aim of tantric deity work then is not so much to worship a deity, but to invoke their attitude, energy, and power into oneself.

“The Tantra contains nothing like idolatry or ‘worship of the doll’ which we, taking the cue from the Christian missionaries, nowadays call it. This truth, the author, Arthur Avalon, has made very clear in the introduction to his translation. The Tantra repeatedly says that one is to adore the Deity by becoming a Deity (Devatā) himself.” – Sir John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta, p. 19

“In tantric worship, which is generally referred to as sādhanā,or spiritual exercise,the aspirant seeks to achieve an awakened or enlightened state of consciousness through techniques that are physical, mental, ritualistic, and spiritual at the same time. A central theme in tantric sādhanā is the identification of the macrocosm with the microcosm, which is represented by the human organism, specifically by the sādhaka, the practitioner or adept. Through meditation techniques, rituals, images, mantras, yantras, and maṇḍalas (schematic diagrams), the adept systematically identifies parts, aspects, or dimensions of himself or herself with parts, aspects, or dimensions of the cosmos. The deities are thought of as aspects of the cosmos that correspond to aspects of the human organism—mental, physical, or both. The aim of tantric sādhanā is to establish identity with the deity worshiped, to appropriate that deity, or to awaken that deity within onself, and then to offer it pūjā, which in effect means worshipping the divinity within oneself. Or, conversely, one worships the deity residing within the hope of awakening in oneself the reality that it represents.” – Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine, David Kinsley

Deities may be visualized in their anthropomorphic forms, but they are understood as ultimately consisting of kinds of conscious forces. Working with a deity can be a way of raising and cultivating the One Energy of Śakti within oneself or may be a way of bringing some of the specific qualities of certain conscious forces more into one’s life or space.

A Tantric practitioner may work with many deities or only a few. Different lineages will have their own pantheons of possibilities and may even have specific procedures for when, how, and why each deity may be invoked. Some examples may be: Gaṇeśa, Kālī, Durgā, Śiva, Rudra, Bhairava, Lalitā, Mātaṅgī, Vārāhī, Tārā and the deities of the various planets.

Ayurvedic Nutrition

Ayurvedic Nutrition as Subject Oriented Nutrition

 

Ayurvedic Nutrition is a radically different approach than that of Western Nutrition. I like to call it Subject Oriented Nutrition because in Ayurveda our main focus is how we experience the food we consume and what information we're able to derive from that experience. What our experience can tell us, what the five senses can tell us.

 

This is why one of our first units for understanding food will be TASTE. It sometimes seems strange to those used to Western Nutrition because they think that just because a food tastes a certain way that doesn't mean it has certain nutrients, etc.

 

Nowadays in general, we tend to view our bodies at best as stumbling blocks and perhaps even as enemies. We assume that if something tastes good it must be unhealthy and that healthy food will taste bad by necessity.

 

However, I believe we should have a bit more respect for our bodies. We actually have quite developed instruments for determine how a food will affect us. The Intelligence in the process of Evolution has provided us with a sensory apparatus that gives us a lot of information about our world and even our food.

 

First Look at the Tastes

 

Let's look at what information we can get from food on just the level of tastes. The classic Ayurvedic tastes are Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent (Spicy), Bitter, and Astringent. Though we will go over how Ayurveda talks about each of these tastes, I like to start by pointing out what information on a scientific level they are providing us with.

 

We can detect the presence of carbohydrates, important for our caloric intake, from the Sweet taste.

 

We can tell the pH of a food within a certain range through the Sour and Bitter tastes. If you don't remember or you've never learned Chemistry, pH is the ratio of Hydrogen ions (positive) to Hydroxide ions (negative). Our body needs to maintain  certain pH's in different organs and tissues in order for them to function properly.

 

We can detect the presence of a specific ionic compound: NaCl, salt. This compound is necessary for the proper transportation of water across the cell membrane and is so vital to our systems that we have developed taste receptors just for it! Despite being present at most tables nowadays, it is also reasonably rare in nature and so it was doubly important to detect.

 

What are we detecting when we taste something as spicy or pungent? I think this one is particularly interesting because it relieves how we all are at least a little masochistic. Pungency is detecting through our tongues pain receptors. That means that these receptors respond to spiciness the same way they'd respond to something actually being too hot in temperature. So, it makes perfect sense that we call spicy food "hot."

 

Astringency is a little different because it is not a "taste" per say, but a feeling in the mouth. Here we are detecting whether something is absorbing water. If it does, it makes our mouth feel dry and we call it "astringent."

 

Refinement of Awareness

 

So, getting back to this idea of oriented our eating from our own experience, even when we talk about unhealthy foods that "taste good", that is not the entirety of our experience of that food. For example, excess of sweet treats might "taste good" at first, but we also experience sleepiness, sluggishness, and maybe even congestion.

 

Coming at Nutrition from a Subject Oriented point of view thus isn't just a simple "Do what feels good!" We have to refine our awareness and use mindfulness to keenly observe what *actually* feels good beyond just the immediate effect.

 

The Purpose of Subject Oriented Nutrition

 

One side effect of some of the aspects of Modern Life is that we often find ourselves disconnected or alienated from our environment, our community, and even our own selves.

 

We see this disconnect in the way we approach food. Many people can much more easily recognize a food by its packaging rather than its origins on a farm. Children in school are unable to identify different vegetables, but they can distinguish between the boxes of dozens of different breakfast cereals (all of which probably contain the same ingredients!).

 

We even see this when we start to think of a food as a mathematical entity: a certain number of calories, a certain number of grams of protein, a certain amount of Vitamin A, etc. This is the strategy of Western Nutrition.

 

Obviously, it *is* useful to be able to talk about the "Nutritional Value" of food in this way, but I believe our scales have shifted so far to that side and that we are at a point where that approach needs to be balanced or it only increases our alienation from our lived experience.

 

We could do with a readjustment towards seeing food as it is in front of us. Towards understanding food by how we experience it on a sensory level.

 

Here I refer everyone to the great Michael Pollan. I think it was Dr. Svoboda who pointed out that, without studying Ayurveda or ever using the word, Michael Pollan has popularized what is essentially an Ayurvedic perspective and has done much to bring our popular consciousness back in line with embodiment.

 

Michael Pollan's famous advice on what to eat, which I will endorse as the simplest Ayurvedic Nutritional advice we can give, is:

 

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

 

This advice, like a Sanskrit sutra, contains within only a few words a wealth of wisdom. So, like one would do with a Sanskrit sutra, let's break it down:

 

Eat Food.

 

Eat food means two things. It means eat food instead of eating calories, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc. It means think of your food as *food* and not as a mathematical entity.

 

Eat food also means eat food instead of "edible food-like substances." Our grocery stores are full of so much processed and crafted food and almost none of it is health promoting. Some more good advice that can serve as a corollary to this is to shop from the sides of the supermarket not the center. In the sides you will find a diversity of foods: vegetables, fruits, eggs, dairy, even meats. In the central aisles you will find a diversity of boxes with mostly the same 4 ingredients: wheat, corn, soy, sugar. Even just from the perspective of having a diverse diet, this is a disaster!

 

Michael Pollan often explains this one by saying, "Eat something your grandmother would recognize as food." I don't know how old any of you are, but unfortunately we're getting to the point where for many we'll have to say "your great grandmother." It was the WWII generation that saw the drastic increase in processed foods and so many of the people of that generation fell hook-line-and-sinker for those flashy new products.

 

I could also add that our grandparents (or great grandparents) were probably culturally more isolated. One more positive byproduct of our globalized world is that we have access to lovely recipes around the world. So, even though my great grandparents might never agree to eat a curry, I can still enjoy them. So, perhaps we can amend "eat something your grandmother would recognize as food" to "eat something *someone's* grandmother would recognize as food."

 

Not too much.

 

Put simply, don't over-consume. Eating too much exhausts our digestive energy (a topic we will return to). It also shows a lack of respect for our environment. The production of food requires labor and resources. If you over-consume you are not showing respect for that sacrifice (a topic we will also return to).

 

Mostly Plants.

 

Ayurveda often gets billed as vegetarian in orientation. This does not have to be the case. Ayurveda accepts vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike and even sometimes prescribes the medicinal use of meat (for those who are not ethical opposed). However, whether a person is vegetarian or omnivorous, in order to be healthy their diet should still consist *mostly* of plants. With some constitutional exceptions, most of us should eat a diet that consists in a large part of vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and other goodies of the plant kingdom. If we decide to have some meat on the side of that or we decide to abstain, that's still well and good.

 

Food & Emotions

 

When we start to attend to our experience of the food we're eating, we will quickly notice that our responses and cravings are not just merely physical. In Ayurveda, we acknowledge that food also has an emotional component.

 

Sometimes, what we desire is not the food per say, but instead the food as a surrogate for a certain kind of emotional nourishment. This explains why we might overeat or undereat or have cravings or aversions that aren't due to physical needs.

 

A mindful approach to food can then start to parse out when we actually have hunger for a food itself and when we have a hunger for something less tangible. The easiest example is that, in Ayurveda, we associate the Sweet Taste with Love. So, often a person will over-consume Sweets because what they really want is to feel loved. Cultivating good relationships and even developing a healthy sense of Self-Love is thus critical for overcoming this craving.

 

Digestion as a General Metaphor in Ayurveda

 

People often say, "You are what you eat." In Ayurveda, we say, "You are not so much what you eat as what you actually *digest*."

 

When you have started to develop a good understanding of your experience of food, you will also naturally start to develop an understanding of your own appetite. You will notice wen you feel full, when you can longer put something to proper use. When you can't "digest" any more.

 

This becomes a larger metaphor in Ayurveda, where we discuss not just digestion of food, but also digestion of experience or information.

 

Everything we experience is only so much "raw data" (note the term here) until we can digest it into information. Hopefully, we can digest that information into Knowledge, and, if we're *really* lucky, we can even digest that knowledge into Wisdom.

 

And so, we must not only feed ourselves right (physically and mentally), but also work to foster and caretake our ability to digest.

 

In Ayurveda, we use the metaphor of AGNI or FIRE to talk about this. Ayurvedic students and practitioners are thus always going on about our "agni." "Oh, my agni is feeling a little taxed today." "Wow, my agni was so strong today that I almost bite my co-worker's head off when he tried to talk to me when I was on my way to lunch." etc.

 

Just like making a campfire, you can put fuel on a fire that will help it grow, or you can put things on it which will put it out. If the fire is strong, it may be able to take a heavy log, but if it is not, it might require some kindling.

 

Building a healthy fire takes care and patience and time.

 

 

The Ritual of Eating

 

For our final topic here I'll try to be brief. Basically, Ayurveda will also emphasize not just "what we eat," but also "how we eat."

 

There is some good advice that I have given in your manual to help with this, but one thing I'd like to discuss a bit further is the idea of Gratitude.

 

Gratitude is essential for maintaining strong agni.

 

Gratitude not only orients us towards our food like the spiritual equivalent of our mouths watering, it also causes us to prioritize other people and our environment as well as ourselves.

 

If we have true gratitude for the food that is placed in front of us, then we won't over eat or eat things which are very unhealthy. We will realize that sacrifice and labor has gone into everything we eat and that, to a certain extent, everything we eat is coming at the expense of someone else. Even if we are vegetarian, we must still kill or harm plants to eat.

 

Gratitude is what transforms that process from one of taking to a cycle and a circle. We give as we take. Food that we eat is sacrificing itself to become our bodies and even our consciousness. In our own individual ways, we should all live lives that are worthy of that sacrifice!

Types of Suffering

परिणामतापसंस्कारदुःखैर्गुणवृत्तिविरोध‌ाच्च दुःखमेवसर्वंविवेकिनः ||१५||

Pariṇāma tāpa saṃskāra duḥkhair guṇa vṛtti virodhāc ca duḥkham eva sarvaṃ vivekinaḥ II:15

“For the wise, everything is suffering because of the suffering that comes from change, pain, tendencies (saṃskāras), as well as the suffering of a mind that is constantly fluctuating due to the conflicting qualities of nature.”

There are two things that are being explained in this Sutra. On the one hand, Patanjali is outlining for us the different kinds of suffering that we can experience, which are increasingly subtle. They are:

1.         Pariṇāma – Change – The suffering caused by the fact that everything changes and nothing ever lasts.

2.         Tāpa – Pain – The direct suffering of physical pain.

3.         Saṃskāra – Tendencies – The suffering of being at the whim of our habits and tendencies

4.         Citta Vṛtti Virodha – Conflicting mental fluctuations – The suffering that comes from the inherent way in which a changing mind is always quarreling with itself.

Many of these types of suffering can be mitigated in life. We can cultivate an attitude of non-attachment and thus experience less disturbance when things change. We can regularly practice yoga āsanas in order to help reduce pain and discomfort in our body. We can do self-work in order to make sure that our habits and tendencies are less destructive or unconscious.

The controversial second part of the point that Patanjali is making here though is that, even if we do all of this, we are still at the best of the changing, quarreling, and conflicting nature of reality itself. This means that no matter what, even the most refined pleasure is still intermixed with some suffering.

I think whether we ultimately accept or reject the world (it could be arguing that Patanjali is taking a more “world-rejecting” point of view here, but it could also be argued that we don’t have to), this is something that is good to contemplate deeply on. All of the philosophies of India try to answer the question of how we can bring about an end to suffering. It may be desirable now to strive for worldly goals, such as righteousness, prosperity, and pleasure, but even these will prove to be limiting to us eventually. This is why we also have the concept of moksa, or liberation, our final freedom from even the subtlest forms of suffering.

Samarasa

There are many words that are used to describe Liberation in Indian Philosophy. One word that is favored within Tantra is Samarasa. The word Sama means equal or balanced and the word Rasa has a host of meanings, many of which are richly used within Tantra and also Āyurveda. It can be summed up as meaning “taste” or “essence.” Samarasa then refers to the state of experiencing everything as being of one essence. It is a state where one tastes the world in a balanced and ultimately undifferentiated way. It is when the awareness rests in a state of pure Śiva and Śakti.

It is the culmination of Tantric Yoga, the ability to see oneself in the world and the world within oneself, both in perfect harmony. In the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, it is said to be a synonym for samādhi, a state of perfect equilibrium where the individual soul exists in union with the Cosmic Reality.

The person who permanently resides in this state while still embodied is called an Avadhūta, or someone who has shaken off all worldly concerns. Since an Avadhūta has no need of any kind of convention or ordinary worldly involvement, they are sometimes known to behave in strange and inscrutable ways. To encounter such a being is considered to be an enormous blessing, no matter how they may appear.

The Avadhūta Gītā is a Sanskrit text which sings the praise of the Avadhūta and describes the state of resting in Samarasa:

Nirmūla-mūla-rahito hi sadodito’haṃ nirdhūma-dhūma-rahito hi sadodito’ham |

Nirdīpa-dīpa-rahito hi sadodito’haṃ jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham || III:3 ||

"With fuel and without fuel, I am always burning; with smoke and without smoke, I am always glowing; with flame and without flame, I am always shining; I am immortality in knowledge (the knowledge of immortality), I am equality in essence (samarasa), I am like the sky."

Durbodha bodha-gahano na bhavāmi tāta durlakṣya lakṣya-gahano na bhavāmi tāta |

Āsanna-rūpa-gahano na bhavāmi tāta jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham || III:8 ||

"I am neither too mysterious nor too difficult to understand; neither too mysterious nor too difficult to contemplate; I am not mysterious, for I live so near; I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky."

Niṣpāpa-pāpa-dahano hi hutāśano’haṃ Nirdharma-dharma-dahano hi hutāśano’ham |

Nirbandha-bandha-dahano hi hutāśano’haṃ jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham || III:10 ||

"I am fire that burns religion and irreligion, I am fire that burns merit and sin, I am fire that burns bondage and privilege; I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky."

Niṣkarma-karma paramaṃ satataṃ karomi nissaṅga-saṅga-rahitaṃ paramaṃ vinodam |

Nirdeha-deha-rahitaṃ satataṃ vinodaṃ jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham || III:26 ||

"I always work as though the greatest work is no work, I always honour my body as though it exists and does not exist; my greatest sport is to renounce my renouncement; I am knowledge of immortality, I am essence of equanimity, I am like the sky."

Nirjīva-jīva-rahitaṃ satataṃ vibhāti nirbīja-bīja-rahitaṃ satataṃ vibhāti |

Nirvāṇa-bandha-rahitaṃ satataṃ vibhāti jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham|| III:31 ||

"Constantly shining free from life and death, constantly shining free from seed and seedlessness, constantly shining free from bondage or liberation, I am the knowledge of immortality, I am the essence of equanimity (samarasa), I am the highest sky."

Dhyātā n ate hi hṛdaye na ca te samādhir dhyānaṃ na te hi hṛdaye na bahiḥ pradeśaḥ |

Dhyeyaṃ na ceti hṛdaye na hi vastu-kālo jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham|| III:41 ||

"Within you there is no one to meditate, no Samādhi yet to be attained. There is no inner meditation, no outer meditation; no object of meditation, no joy of meditation. I am knowledge of immortality, I am essence of equanimity. I am like the sky."

Muñca muñca hi saṃsāraṃ tyāgaṃ muñca hi sarvathā |

Tyāgātyāga-viṣaṃ śuddham amṛtaṃ sahajaṃ dhruvam || III:46 ||

"Give up, give up worldly illusion. Give up renunciation altogether. Cleanse the poison of both renunciation and indulgence and the nectar/immortality of spontaneity remains."

In his Twilight Yoga treatise, Mahendranath says that Samarasa is one of the four key words of the Nāth way of life. The others are Sama or balance, which we have already discussed, Sahaja or spontaneity, and Svecchācāra or doing one’s own true will.

Sama

सम – Sama

Yogathaḥ Kuru Karmāṇi Saṅgaṃ Tyaktvā Dhanaṃjaya |

Siddhyasiddhyoḥ Samo Bhūtvā Samatvaṃ Yoga Ucyate || II:48

“Fixed in Yoga, perform your actions having abandoned attachment and being indifferent to either success or failure. It is said that evenness of mind is Yoga.”

Generally, if you ask someone who knows a thing or two what Yoga is, they will usually refer to Patañjali and say, “Yoga is the stopping of the fluctuations of the mind.” This is a very good definition and there are good reasons why it is the standard. However, there are other possible classical definitions to which we can also refer. Definitions of Yoga as “union” of microcosm and macrocosm abound and can be another excellent way to frame the process or state. The Bhagavad Gītā has a few of its own definitions. One is the line quoted above, that Yoga is “samatvam” the quality of being “sama.” The word “sama” comes from the same root as our English word “same” and so we could define this to indicate that Yoga means “sameness” or “evenness” in a particular sense. The word can be more distinctly defined as “balance.”

Sama” is a word that also makes a notable appearance in Āyurveda, particularly in Suśruta’s definition of Health:

Sama Doṣāḥ Samāgniśca Samadhātu Mala Kriyāḥ |

“Balanced physiological processes (doshas), balanced digestion (agni – fire), balanced tissues (dhatus), balanced action of elimination (mala kriya).”

Here the word is repeated enough to indicate that Suśruta regards balance as the key to health of the individual.

Proper balance is important for health and probably useful in any context, but in the above verse from the Gītā, Lord Kṛṣṇa specifies that the balance of Yoga is an attitude of sameness towards the successes and failures of one’s own actions. Can we do what is right without a need for external validation? Can we take a success or even a compliment without letting it inflate our ego? Can we learn from a failure or even an insult with deflating into defensiveness? Are we afraid to act because we are too worried that we might fail? Can we begin to see clearly without our perceptions being muddled by our attachments and aversions?

The Yogi aims to retain balance in all things, not merely to be thrown about by the varying circumstances that are encountered. The guidance for our actions should be our internal sense of what is truly right at that moment, rather than merely what is popular, easy, or will give us what we want. So, practicing balance and equipoise is essential.

We even see this in the physical practice of Yogāsana, where balance in a physical sense is required in almost any posture. We practice balance directly when we stand on one leg in Vṛkṣāsana, or tree pose, and we can even see balance in the simple but poised posture of someone sitting tall in their meditation seat.

Mahendranath in the first of his Twilight Yoga trilogy wrote that Sama is one of the key words that “express the essence” the Nath Yogi’s approach to life. The other three are Samarasa – Equanimity, Sahaja – Naturalness, and Svecchacara – the Path of one’s True Will.