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April 14th, 2014

the yoga sutra of patanjali book coverThe Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, A Biography

$24.95 hardcover. Release/ship date, May 25.  Autographed copies, $25 post paid, from WhiteLotus.

Professor David Gordon White is a board member of White Lotus Foundation and professor of religious studies and Sanskrit at UCSB.

Ganga’s cover endorsement: Contemporary yoga teachers and gurus have mistakenly made the Sutras into the ubiquitous foundation of all yoga practice, stretching and extrapolating them into a complete manual for living. Now the man behind the curtain is exposed as, once again, Professor White mines the truth from hearsay and stands contemporary yoga beliefs on their head. This remarkable, colorful, and engaging book will rattle a lot of cages and hopefully enlighten the enlighteners. I highly recommend it as required reading for anyone interested in yoga. –Ganga White

Editorial Review: Consisting of fewer than two hundred verses written in an obscure if not impenetrable language and style, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is today extolled by the yoga establishment as a perennial classic and guide to yoga practice. As David Gordon White demonstrates in this groundbreaking study, both of these assumptions are incorrect. Virtually forgotten in India for hundreds of years and maligned when it was first discovered in the West, the Yoga Sutra has been elevated to its present iconic status–and translated into more than forty languages–only in the course of the past forty years.


White retraces the strange and circuitous journey of this confounding work from its ancient origins down through its heyday in the seventh through eleventh centuries, its gradual fall into obscurity, and its modern resurgence since the nineteenth century. First introduced to the West by the British Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke, the Yoga Sutra was revived largely in Europe and America, and predominantly in English. White brings to life the improbable cast of characters whose interpretations–and misappropriations–of the Yoga Sutra led to its revered place in popular culture today. Tracing the remarkable trajectory of this enigmatic work, White’s exhaustively researched book also demonstrates why the yoga of India’s past bears little resemblance to the yoga practiced today.

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March 5th, 2014

During all the Olympics buzz, the call started arising once again to get yoga included as a sport. Some people practice and teach yoga like it’s a sport they are aiming to win at. Of course, sports are wonderful and there’s nothing wrong with winners. But yoga is a rare arena in which it’s possible for everyone to win. We don’t have just one winner. And who would win? Who is the best? The one able to gracefully do the most complex contortions and strength moves? Would these positions be good long term for the body? The “best” are those yogis who use yoga practices in the most effective, efficient way to serve their well being for decades, for a lifetime. How do you measure that in a contest? This sensitivity and awareness in yoga is something each individual must learn to measure for themselves each moment of practice–rather than assign it to judge’s opinion.

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October 8th, 2013

Yoga, A Brief History of an Idea

This is a very informative introduction to the origins and history of Yoga by the esteemed and respected scholar at the University of California, Dr. David Gordon White. We are also honored that Dr. White is a dear friend and Trustee of White Lotus Foundation. This introduction is from the 2011 Princeton book, YOGA IN PRACTICE, edited by Dr. White and is used here with his permission. The difference between the pop idealized history of Yoga and the academic perspective will be surprising, if not shocking, to those who have not yet seen that Yoga is evolutionary–always changing, expanding and growing. Though written for scholars with many citations and Sanskrit words, it should still be a valuable read to the interested Yoga student. –Ganga White

NOTE: This document file lost the footnotes and some of the grammar in the extraction from a PDF. It was edited as much as possible, but please excuse any errors. The full original is available here:



Yoga, A Brief History of an Idea   by David Gordon White, PhD

Over the past decades, Yoga has become part of the Zeitgeist of affluent western societies, drawing housewives and hipsters, New Agers and the old aged, and body culture and corporate culture into a multibillion dollar synergy. Like every Indian cultural artifact that it has embraced, the West views Indian Yoga as an ancient, unchanging tradition, based on revelations received by the Vedic sages who, seated in the lotus pose, were the Indian forerunners of the flat-tummied Yoga babes who grace the covers of such glossy periodicals as the Yoga Journal and Yoga International .

In the United States in particular, Yoga has become a commodity. Statistics show that about 16 million americans practice Yoga every year. For most peo ple, this means going to a Yoga center with Yoga mats, Yoga clothes, and Yoga accessories, and practicing in groups under the guidance of a Yoga teacher or trainer. Here, Yoga practice comprises a regimen of postures (āsanas)—some times held for long periods of time, sometimes executed in rapid sequence— often together with techniques of breath control (prānāyāma). Yoga entrepreneurs have branded their own styles of practice, from Bikram’s superheated workout rooms to studios that have begun offering “doga,” practicing Yoga together with one’s dog. They have opened franchises, invented logos, pack aged their practice regimens under Sanskrit names, and marketed a lifestyle that fuses Yoga with leisure travel, healing spas, and seminars on eastern spirituality. “Yoga celebrities” have become a part of our vocabulary, and with celebrity has come the usual entourage of publicists, business managers, and lawyers. Yoga is mainstream. arguably India’s greatest cultural export, Yoga has morphed into a mass culture phenomenon.

Many Yoga celebrities, as well as a strong percentage of less celebrated Yoga teachers, combine their training with teachings on healing, spirituality, medi tation, and India’s ancient Yoga traditions, the Sanskrit language Yoga Sūtra (YS) in particular. Here, they are following the lead of the earliest Yoga entrepreneurs, the Indian gurus who brought the gospel of Yoga to western shores in the wake of Swami Vivekananda’s storied successes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But what were India’s ancient Yoga traditions, and what relationship do they have to the modern postural Yoga (Singleton 2010) that people are practicing across the world today? in fact, the Yoga that is taught and practiced today has very little in common with the Yoga of the YS and other ancient Yoga treatises. Nearly all of our popular assumptions about Yoga theory date from the past 150 years, and very few modern day practices date from before the twelfth century. This is not the first time that people have “reinvented” Yoga in their own image. as the contributions to this volume demonstrate, this is a process that has been ongoing for at least two thousand years. Every group in every age has created its own version and vision of Yoga. one reason this has been possible is that its semantic field—the range of meanings of the term “Yoga”—is so broad and the concept of Yoga so malleable, that it has been possible to morph it into nearly any practice or process one chooses.

When seeking to define a tradition, it is useful to begin by defining one’s terms. It is here that problems arise. “Yoga” has a wider range of meanings than nearly any other word in the entire Sanskrit lexicon. The act of yoking an animal, as well as the yoke itself, is called Yoga. In astronomy, a conjunction of planets or stars, as well as a constellation, is called Yoga. When one mixes together various substances, that, too, can be called Yoga. The word Yoga has also been employed to denote a device, a recipe, a method, a strategy, a charm, an incantation, fraud, a trick, an endeavor, a combination, union, an arrangement, zeal, care, diligence, industriousness, discipline, use, application, contact, a sum total, and the Work of alchemists. But this is by no means an exhaustive list.

So, for example, the ninth century Netra Tantra, a Hindu scripture from Kashmir, describes what it calls subtle Yoga and transcendent Yoga. Subtle Yoga is nothing more or less than a body of techniques for entering into and taking over other people’s bodies. as for transcendental Yoga, this is a process that involves superhuman female predators, called yoginīs, who eat people! By eating people, this text says, the yoginīs consume the sins of the body that would otherwise bind them to suffering rebirth, and so allow for the “union” (Yoga) of their purified souls with the supreme god Śiva, a union that is tantamount to salvation (White 2009: 162–63). in this ninth century source, there is no discussion whatsoever of postures or breath control, the prime markers of Yoga as we know it today. More troubling still, the third to fourth century ce YS and Bhagavad Gītā (BHG), the two most widely cited textual sources for “classical Yoga,” virtually ignore postures and breath control, each devoting a total of fewer than ten verses to these practices. They are far more concerned with the issue of human salvation, realized through the theory and practice of meditation (dhyāna) in the YS [Larson] and through concentration on the god Krsna in the BHG [Malinar].


Clearly something is missing here. There is a gap between the ancient, “classical” Yoga tradition and Yoga as we know it. in order to understand the disconnect between then and now, we would do well to go back to the earliest uses of the term Yoga, which are found in texts far more ancient than the YS or BHG. Here i am referring to India’s earliest scriptures, the Vedas. in the circa fifteenth century BCE Rg Veda, Yoga meant, before all else, the yoke one placed on a draft animal—a bullock or warhorse—to yoke it to a plow or chariot. The resemblance of these terms is not fortuitous: the Sanskrit “Yoga” is a cognate of the English “yoke,” because Sanskrit and English both belong to the Indo-European language family (which is why the Sanskrit mātr resembles the English “mother,” sveda looks like “sweat,” udara—“belly” in Sanskrit—looks like “udder,” and so forth). In the same scripture, we see the term’s meaning expanded through metonymy, with “Yoga” being applied to the entire conveyance or “rig” of a war chariot: to the yoke itself, the team of horses or bullocks, and the chariot itself with its many straps and harnesses. and, because such chariots were only hitched up (yukta) in times of war, an important Vedic usage of the term Yoga was “wartime,” in contrast to ksema, “peacetime.”

The Vedic reading of Yoga as one’s war chariot or rig came to be incorporated into the warrior ideology of ancient India. in the Mahābhārata, India’s 200 BCE–400 ce “national epic,” we read the earliest narrative accounts of the battlefield apotheosis of heroic chariot warriors. This was, like the Greek Iliad, an epic of battle, and so it was appropriate that the glorification of a warrior who died fighting his enemies be showcased here. What is interesting, for the purposes of the history of the term Yoga, is that in these narratives, the warrior who knew he was about to die was said to become Yogayukta, literally “yoked to Yoga,” with “Yoga” once again meaning a chariot. This time, however, it was not the warrior’s own chariot that carried him up to the highest heaven, reserved for gods and heroes alone. rather, it was a celestial “Yoga,” a divine chariot, that carried him upward in a burst of light to and through the sun, and on to the heaven of gods and heroes.

Warriors were not the sole individuals of the Vedic age to have chariots called “Yogas.” The gods, too, were said to shuttle across heaven, and between earth and heaven on Yogas. Furthermore, the Vedic priests who sang the Vedic hymns related their practice to the Yoga of the warrior aristocracy who were their patrons. in their hymns, they describe themselves as “yoking” their minds to poetic inspiration and so journeying—if only with their mind’s eye or cognitive apparatus—across the metaphorical distance that separated the world of the gods from the words of their hymns. a striking image of their poetic journeys is found in a verse from a late Vedic hymn, in which the poet priests describe themselves as “hitched up” (yukta) and standing on their chariot shafts as they sally forth on a vision quest across the universe.

The earliest extant systematic account of Yoga and a bridge from the earlier Vedic uses of the term is found in the Hindu Kathaka Upanishads (Ku), a scripture dating from about the third century BCE. Here, the god of Death reveals what is termed the “entire Yoga regimen” to a young ascetic named Naciketas. in the course of his teaching, Death compares the relationship between the self, body, intellect, and so forth to the relationship between a rider, his chariot, charioteer, etc. (Ku 3.3–9), a comparison which approximates that made in Plato’s Phaedrus. Three elements of this text set the agenda for much of what constitutes Yoga in the centuries that follow. First, it introduces a sort of yogic physiology, calling the body a “fort with eleven gates” and evoking “a person the size of a thumb” who, dwelling within, is worshiped by all the gods (Ku 4.12; 5.1, 3). Second, it identifies the individual person within with the universal Person (purusa) or absolute being (Brahman), asserting that this is what sustains life (Ku 5.5, 8–10). Third, it describes the hierarchy of mind body constituents—the senses, mind, intellect, etc.—that comprise the foundational categories of Sāmkhya philosophy, whose metaphysical system grounds the Yoga of the YS, BHG, and other texts and schools (Ku 3.10–11; 6.7–8). Because these categories were hierarchically ordered, the realization of higher states of consciousness was, in this early context, tantamount to an ascension through levels of outer space, and so we also find in this and other early Upanishads the concept of Yoga as a technique for “inner” and “outer” ascent. These same sources also introduce the use of acoustic spells or formulas (mantras), the most prominent among these being the syllable oM, the acoustic form of the supreme Brahman. in the following centuries, mantras would become progressively incorporated into yogic theory and practice, in the medieval Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Tantras, as well as the Yoga Upanishads.

Following this circa third century BCE watershed, textual references to Yoga multiply rapidly in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist sources, reaching a critical mass some seven hundred to one thousand years later. it is during this initial burst that most of the perennial principles of Yoga theory—as well as many elements of Yoga practice—were originally formulated. toward the latter end of this period, one sees the emergence of the earliest Yoga systems, in the YS; the third to fourth century scriptures of the Buddhist Yogācāra school and fourth to fifth century Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa; and the Yogadrstisamuccaya of the eighth century Jain author Haribhadra. although the YS may be slightly later than the Yogācāra canon, this tightly ordered series of aphorisms is so remarkable and comprehensive for its time that it is often referred to as “classical Yoga.” it is also known as Pātañjala Yoga (“Patañjalian Yoga”), in recognition of its putative compiler, Patañjali.

The Yogācāra (“Yoga Practice”) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism was the earliest Buddhist tradition to employ the term Yoga to denote its philosophical system. also known as Vijñānavāda (“Doctrine of consciousness”), Yogācāra offered a systematic analysis of perception and consciousness together with a set of meditative disciplines designed to eliminate the cognitive errors that prevented liberation from suffering existence. Yogācāra’s eight stage meditative practice itself was not termed Yoga, however, but rather “calmness” (śamatha) or “insight” (vipaśyanā) meditation (Cleary 1995). The Yogācāra analysis of consciousness has many points in common with the more or less coeval YS, and there can be no doubt that crosspollination occurred across religious boundaries in matters of Yoga (La Vallée Poussin, 1936–1937). The Yogavāsistha (“Vasistha’s teachings on Yoga”)—a circa tenth century Hindu work from Kashmir that combined analytical and practical teachings on “Yoga” with vivid mythological accounts illustrative of its analysis of consciousness [chapple]—takes positions similar to those of Yogācāra concerning errors of perception and the human inability to distinguish between our interpretations of the world and the world itself.

The Jains were the last of the major Indian religious groups to employ the term Yoga to imply anything remotely resembling “classical” formulations of Yoga theory and practice. The earliest Jain uses of the term, found in umāsvāti’s fourth to fifth century Tattvārthasūtra (6.1–2), the earliest extant systematic work of Jain philosophy, defined Yoga as “activity of the body, speech, and mind.” as such, Yoga was, in early Jain parlance, actually an impediment to liberation. Here, Yoga could only be overcome through its opposite, ayoga (“non-yoga,” inaction)—that is, through meditation (jhāna; dhyāna), asceticism, and other practices of purification that undo the effects of earlier activity. The earliest systematic Jain work on Yoga, Haribhadra’s circa 750 ce Yogadrstisamuccaya, was strongly influenced by the YS, yet nonetheless retained much of umāsvāti’s terminology, even as it referred to observance of the path as yogācāra (Qvarnström 2003: 131–33).

This is not to say that between the fourth century BCE and the second to fourth century ce, neither the Buddhists nor the Jains were engaging in practices that we might today identify as Yoga. to the contrary, early Buddhist sources like the Majjhima Nikāya—the “Middle length Sayings” attributed to the Buddha himself—are replete with references to self-mortification and meditation as practiced by the Jains, which the Buddha condemned and contrasted to his own set of four meditations (Bronkhorst 1993: 1–5, 19–24). in the Anguttara Nikāya (“gradual Sayings”), another set of teachings attributed to the Buddha, one finds descriptions of jhāyins (“meditators,” “experientialists”) that closely resemble early Hindu descriptions of practitioners of Yoga (eliade 2009: 174–75). Their ascetic practices—never termed Yoga in these early sources—were likely innovated within the various itinerant śramana groups that circulated in the eastern gangetic basin in the latter half of the first millennium BCE.

Even as the term Yoga began to appear with increasing frequency between 300 BCE and 400 ce, its meaning was far from fixed. it is only in later centuries that a relatively systematic Yoga nomenclature became established among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. By the beginning of the fifth century, however, the core principles of Yoga were more or less in place, with most of what followed being variations on that original core. Here, we would do well to outline these principles, which have persisted through time and across traditions for some two thousand years. They may be summarized as follows:

1. Yoga as an analysis of perception and cognition. Yoga is an analysis of the dysfunctional nature of everyday perception and cognition, which lies at the root of suffering, the existential conundrum whose solution is the goal of Indian philosophy. once one comprehends the cause(s) of the problem, one can solve it through philosophical analysis combined with meditative practice.

At bottom, India’s many Yoga traditions are soteriologies, doctrines of salvation, concerning the attainment of release from suffering existence and the cycle of rebirths (samsāra). The problem of suffering existence and the allied doctrine of cyclic rebirth emerges about five centuries before the beginning of the common era, in the early Upanishads as well as the original teachings of the Jain founder Mahāvīra and the Buddhist founder Gautama Buddha. The same teachings that posit the problem of suffering existence also offer a solution to the problem, which may be summarized by the word “gnosis” (jñāna or prajñā in Sanskrit; paññā in Pali). as such, these are also to be counted among the earliest Indian epistemologies, philosophical theories of what constitutes authentic knowledge. gnosis—transcendent, immediate, nonconventional knowledge of ultimate reality, of the reality behind appearances—is the key to salvation in all of these early soteriologies, as well as in India’s major philosophical schools, many of which developed in the centuries around the beginning of the common era. as such, these are gnoseologies, theories of salvation through knowledge, in which to know the truth (i.e., that in spite of appearances, one is, in fact, not trapped in suffering existence) is to realize it in fact. The classic example of such a transformation is that of the Buddha: by realizing the Four noble truths, he became the “awakened” or “enlightened” one (Buddha), and so was liberated from future rebirths, realizing the extinction of suffering (nibbāna; nirvāna) at the end of his life.

In all of these systems, the necessary condition for gnosis is the disengagement of one’s cognitive apparatus from sense impressions and base matter (including the matter of the body). an important distinguishing characteristic of all Indian philosophical systems is the concept that the mind or mental capacity (manas, citta) is part of the body: it is the “sixth sense,” which, located in the heart, is tethered to the senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, and smelling, as well as their associated bodily organs. What this means is that Indian philosophy rejects the mind body distinction. in doing so, however, it does embrace another distinction. This is the distinction between the mind body complex on the one hand, and a higher cognitive apparatus—called buddhi (“intellect”), antahkarana, vijñāna (both translatable as “consciousness”), etc.—on the other. in these early sources, the term Yoga is often used to designate the theory and practice of disengaging the higher cognitive apparatus from the thrall of matter, the body, and the senses (including mind). Yoga is a regimen or discipline that trains the cognitive apparatus to perceive clearly, which leads to true cognition, which in turn leads to salvation, release from suffering existence. Yoga is not the sole term for this type of training, however. in early Buddhist and Jain scriptures as well as many early Hindu sources, the term dhyāna (jhāna in the Pali of early Buddhist teachings, jhāna in the Jain ardhamagadhi vernacular), most commonly translated as “meditation,” is far more frequently employed. So it is that Hindu sources like the BHG and YS, as well as a number of Buddhist Mahāyāna works, frequently use Yoga, dhyāna, and bhāvanā (“cultivation,” “contemplation”) more or less synonymously, while early Jain and Buddhist texts employ the term dhyāna in its various spellings exclusively. Both the YS and the noble eightfold Path of Buddhism also employ the term samādhi (“concentration”) for the culminating stage of meditation (Sarbacker 2005: 16–21). at this stage, all objects have been removed from consciousness, which thereafter continues to exist in isolation (kaivalyam), forever liberated from all entanglements. Kaivalyam is also employed in Jain soteriology for the final state of the fully purified liberated soul.

The BHG, the philosophical charter of “mainstream” Hindu theism, uses the term Yoga in the broad sense of “discipline” or “path,” and teaches that the paths of gnosis (jñāna Yoga) and action (karma Yoga) are inferior to the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga) to an all powerful and benevolent supreme being. However, here as well, it is the constant training of the cognitive faculties—to meditatively concentrate on god in order to accurately perceive Him as the source of all being and knowledge—that brings about salvation. in this teaching, revealed by none other than the supreme being Krsna himself, the devotee whose disciplined meditation is focused on god alone is often referred to as a yogin. The BHG is possibly the first but by no means the last teaching to use the term Yoga preceded by an adjective or modifier (karma, jñāna, bhakti), thereby acknowledging—but also creating—a variety of Yogas.

2. Yoga as the raising and expansion of consciousness. Through analytical inquiry and meditative practice, the lower organs or apparatus of human cognition are suppressed, allowing for higher, less obstructed levels of perception and cognition to prevail. Here, consciousness raising on a cognitive level is seen to be simultaneous with the “physical” rise of the consciousness or self through ever higher levels or realms of cosmic space. Reaching the level of consciousness of a god, for example, is tantamount to rising to that deity’s cosmological level, to the atmospheric or heavenly world it inhabits. This is a concept that likely flowed from the experience of the Vedic poets, who, by “yoking” their minds to poetic inspiration, were empowered to journey to the farthest reaches of the universe. The physical rise of the dying Yoga yukta chariot warrior to the highest cosmic plane may have also contributed to the formulation of this idea.

Another development of this concept is the notion that the expansion of consciousness is tantamount to the expansion of the self to the point that one’s body or self becomes coextensive with the entire universe. The 289th chapter of the twelfth book of the Mahābhārata concludes with a description of just such an expansion of a yogi’s self [Fitzgerald], and one finds a similar description in the Jain umāsvāti’s fourth to fifth century Praśamaratiprakarana. Several Mahāyāna Buddhist sources contain accounts of enlightened beings whose “constructed bodies” (nirmānakāya) expand to fill the universe; and the BHG’s description of the god Krsna’s universal body (viśvarūpa), through which he displays his “masterful Yoga,” is of the same order (White 2009: 167–97).

Also in this regard, it should be noted that attention to the breath is a feature of the theory and practice of meditation from the earliest times. Mindfulness of one’s breathing is introduced in such early sources as the Majjhima Nikāya as a fundamental element of Theravāda Buddhist meditation. in early Hindu sources as well, controlling and stilling the breath is a prime technique for calming the mind and turning it inward, away from the distractions of sensory perception. Ātman, the term for the “self” or “soul” in the classical Upanishads and later works, is etymologically linked to the Sanskrit verb *an, “breathe,” and it is via breath channels leading up from the heart—channels that merge with the rays of the sun—that the self leaves the body at death to merge with the absolute (Brahman) at the summit of the universe. These descriptions of the breath channels also lie at the origin of yogic or “subtle” body physiology, which would become fleshed out in great detail in India’s medieval Tantric scriptures. in these and later works, the breath propelled self ’s rise through the levels of the universe would become completely internalized, with the spinal column doubling as the universal axis mundi and the practitioner’s own cranial vault becoming the place of the Brahman and locus of immortality.

3. Yoga as a path to omniscience. Once it was established that true perception or true cognition enables a self’s enhanced or enlightened consciousness to rise or expand to reach and penetrate distant regions of space—to see and know things as they truly are beyond the illusory limitations imposed by a deluded mind and sense perceptions—there were no limits to the places to which consciousness could go. These “places” included past and future time, locations distant and hidden, and even places invisible to view. This insight became the foundation for theorizing the type of extrasensory perception known as yogi perception (yogipratyaksa), which is in many Indian epistemological systems the highest of the “true cognitions” (pramānas), in other words, the supreme and most irrefutable of all possible sources of knowledge. For the Nyāya Vaiśesika school, the earliest Hindu philosophical school to fully analyze this basis for transcendent knowledge, yogi perception is what permitted the Vedic seers (rishis) to apprehend, in a single panoptical act of perception, the entirety of the Vedic revelation, which was tantamount to viewing the entire universe simultaneously, in all its parts. For the Buddhists, it was this that provided the Buddha and other enlightened beings with the “Buddha eye” or “divine eye,” which permitted them to see the true nature of reality. For the early seventh century Mādhyamika philosopher candrakīrti, yogi perception afforded direct and profound insight into his school’s highest truth, that is, into the emptiness (śunyatā) of things and concepts, as well as relationships between things and concepts (MacDonald 2009: 133–46). Yogi perception remained the subject of lively debate among Hindu and Buddhist philosophers well into the medieval period.

It was a widely held precept among ascetic traditions that extrasensory insight into the ultimate nature of reality, a sort of omniscience, could be attained through meditative practice. Here, there were two schools of thought concerning the attainment of such insight. The Jains and a number of Hindu and Buddhist schools asserted that the soul, self, or mind was luminous by nature and innately possessed of perfect perception and insight, and that the path to liberation simply comprised the realization of one’s innate qualities and capacities. others, including Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda Buddhists, maintained that the path of asceticism and the practice of meditation were necessary to purge cognition of its inborn defilements, and that only once this difficult work had been completed could yogi perception and omniscience arise (Franco 2009, `–5). in the former case, meditation was the means to realizing the divine within, one’s innate Buddha nature, to see the universe as Self, and so forth. In the latter, the resulting extrasensory insight allowed the ontologically imperfect practitioner to clearly see and truly know a god or Buddha that nonetheless remained Wholly other. Through such knowledge one could, in the parlance of many of the dualist Hindu Tantric schools, “become a god in order to worship god”—but one could never become god, which is what the nondualist schools maintained.

4. Yoga as a technique for entering into other bodies, generating multiple bodies, and the attainment of other supernatural accomplishments. The classical Indian understanding of everyday perception (pratyaksa) was similar to that of the ancient Greeks. in both systems, the site at which visual perception occurs is not the surface of the retina or the junction of the optic nerve with the brain’s visual nuclei, but rather the contours of the perceived object. This means, for example, that when i am viewing a tree, a ray of perception emitted from my eye “conforms” to the surface of the tree. The ray brings the image of the tree back to my eye, which communicates it to my mind, which in turn communicates it to my inner self or consciousness. in the case of yogi perception, the practice of Yoga enhances this process (in some cases, establishing an unmedi ated connection between consciousness and the perceived object), such that the viewer not only sees things as they truly are, but is also able to directly see through the surface of things into their innermost being. For non-Buddhists, this applies, most importantly, to the perception of one’s own inner self as well as the selves or souls of others. From here, it is but a short step to conceiving of the viewer possessed of the power of yogi perception—texts often call him a yogi—as possessing the power to physically penetrate, with his enhanced cognitive apparatus, into other people’s bodies (White 2009: 122–66). This is the theory underlying the Tantric practice of “subtle Yoga” described at the beginning of this introduction. But in fact, the earliest references in all of Indian literature to individuals explicitly called yogis are Mahābhārata tales of Hindu and Buddhist hermits who take over other people’s bodies in just this way; and it is noteworthy that when yogis enter into other people’s bodies, they are said to do so through rays emanating from their eyes. The epic also asserts that a yogi so empowered can take over several thousand bodies simultaneously, and “walk the earth with all of them.” Buddhist sources describe the same phenomenon with the important difference that the enlightened being creates multiple bodies rather than taking over those belonging to other creatures. This is a notion already elaborated in an early Buddhist work, the Sāmaññaphalasutta, a teaching contained in the Dīghanikāya (the “Longer Say ings” of the Buddha), according to which a monk who has completed the four Buddhist meditations gains, among other things, the power to self multiply. Several of the key terms found in this text reappear, with specific reference to Yoga and yogis, in the 100 BCE–200 CE Indian medical classic, the Caraka Samhitā [Wujastyk].

The ability to enter into and control the bodies of other creatures is but one of the supernatural powers (iddhis in Pali; siddhis or vibhūtis in Sanskrit) that arise from the power of extrasensory perception (abhiññā in Pali; abhijñā in Sanskrit). others include the power of flight, clairaudience, telepathy, invisibility, and the recollection of past lives—precisely the sorts of powers that the yogis of Indian legend have been said to possess.

Here, it is helpful to introduce the difference between “yogi practice” and “Yoga practice,” which has been implicit to South Asian thought and practice since the beginning of the common era, the period in which the terms “yogi” and “yogi perception” first appeared in the Indian scriptural record. on the one hand, there is “Yoga practice,” which essentially denotes a program of mind training and meditation issuing in the realization of enlightenment, liberation, or isolation from the world of suffering existence. Yoga practice is the practical application of the theoretical precepts of the various yogic soteriologies, epistemologies, and gnoseologies presented in analytical works like the YS and the teachings of the various Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophical schools. Yogi practice, on the other hand, concerns the supernatural powers that empower yogis to take over other creatures’ bodies and so forth. nearly every one of the earliest narrative descriptions of yogis and their practices underscore the axiom that the penetration of other bodies is the sine qua non of Yoga.

The cleavage between these two more or less incompatible bodies of theory and practice can be traced back to early Buddhist sources, which speak of a rivalry between meditating “experimentalists” (jhāyins) and “speculatives” (DhammaYogas). in medieval Tantra, the same division obtained, this time be tween practitioners whose meditative practice led to gnosis and identity with the divine on the one hand, and on the other, practitioners—referred to as yogis or sādhakas—whose goal was this worldly supernatural power in one’s now invulnerable, ageless, and adamantine human body. The gulf between Yoga practice and yogi practice never ceased to widen over the centuries, such that, by the time of the British raj, India’s hordes of yogis were considered by India’s elites to be little more than common criminals, with their fraudulent practices—utterly at odds with the “true” science of Yoga, which, taught in the YS, was practiced by none—save perhaps for a handful of isolated hermits living high in the Himalayas (oman 1908: 3–30).

These four sets of concepts and practices form the core and foundational vocabulary of nearly every Yoga tradition, school, or system, with all that follow the fourth to seventh century watershed—of the YS and various foundational Buddhist and Jain works on meditation and yogi perception—simply variations and expansions on this common core.


The Tantras are pivotal works in the history of Yoga, inasmuch as they carry forward both the Yoga and yogi practices and the gnoseological theory of ear lier traditions while introducing important innovations in theory and practice. on the theoretical side, these medieval scriptures and commentarial traditions promulgate a new variation on the preexisting Yoga soteriology. no longer is the practitioner’s ultimate goal liberation from suffering existence, but rather self-deification: one becomes the deity that has been one’s object of meditation. in a universe that is nothing other than the flow of divine consciousness, rais ing one’s consciousness to the level of god consciousness—that is, attaining a god’seye view that sees the universe as internal to one’s own transcendent Self—is tantamount to becoming divine. A primary means to this end is the detailed visualization of the deity with which one will ultimately identify: his or her form, face(s), color, attributes, entourage, and so on. So, for example, in the Yoga of the Hindu Pāñcarātra sect, a practitioner’s meditation on successive emanations of the god Visnu culminates in his realization of the state of “consisting in god” (rastelli 2009: 299–317). The Tantric Buddhist cognate to this is “deity Yoga” (devaYoga), whereby the practitioner meditatively assumes the attributes and creates the environment (i.e., the Buddha world) of the Buddha deity he or she is about to become.

In fact, the term Yoga has a wide variety of connotations in the Tantras. it can simply mean “practice” or “discipline” in a very broad sense, covering all of the means at one’s disposal to realize one’s goals. it can also refer to the goal itself: “conjunction,” “union,” or identity with divine consciousness. indeed, the Mālinīvijayottara Tantra, an important ninth century ŚāktaŚaiva Tantra, uses the term Yoga to denote its entire soteriological system (Vasudeva 2004). in Buddhist Tantra—whose canonical teachings are divided into the exoteric Yoga Tantras and the increasingly esoteric Higher Yoga Tantras, Supreme Yoga Tantras, unexcelled (or unsurpassed) Yoga Tantras, and Yoginī tan tras—Yoga has the dual sense of both the means and ends of practice. Yoga can also have the more particular, limited sense of a program of meditation or visualization, as opposed to ritual (kriyā) or Gnostic (jñāna) practice. However, these categories of practice often bleed into one another. Finally, there are specific types of yogic discipline, such as the Netra Tantra’s transcendent and subtle Yogas, already discussed.

IndoTibetan Buddhist Tantra—and with it, Buddhist Tantric Yoga—developed in lockstep with Hindu Tantra, with a hierarchy of revelations rang ing from earlier, exoteric systems of practice to the sex and death laden im agery of later esoteric pantheons, in which horrific skull wielding Buddhas were surrounded by the same yoginīs as their Hindu counterparts, the Bhaira vas of the esoteric Hindu Tantras. In the Buddhist unexcelled Yoga Tantras, “six limbed Yoga” comprised the visualization practices that facilitated the realization of one’s innate identity with the deity [Wallace]. But rather than simply being a means to an end in these traditions, Yoga was also primarily an end in itself: Yoga was “union” or identity with the celestial Buddha named Vajrasattva—the “Diamond essence (of enlightenment),” that is, one’s Bud dha nature. However, the same Tantras of the Diamond Path (Vajrayāna) also implied that the innate nature of that union rendered the conventional practices undertaken for its realization ultimately irrelevant [Dalton].

Here, one can speak of two principal styles of Tantric Yoga, which coincide with their respective metaphysics. The former, which recurs in the earliest Tantric traditions, involves exoteric practices: visualization, generally pure ritual offerings, worship, and the use of mantras. The dualist metaphysics of these traditions maintains that there is an ontological difference between god and creature, which can gradually be overcome through concerted effort and practice. The latter, esoteric, traditions develop out of the former even as they reject much of exoteric theory and practice. in these systems, esoteric practice, involving the real or symbolic consumption of forbidden substances and sexual transactions with forbidden partners, is the fast track to self-deification. However, given the nondualist metaphysics of esoteric Tantra, which main tains that all creatures are innately divine or enlightened, such practices are considered ultimately unnecessary. a number of Tantric scriptures and commentaries underscore the complementarity of the exoteric and esoteric ap proaches, urging that the yogi’s central task is to balance the two: this is the position taken, for example, by the Buddhist Mahāsiddha Saraha in his analysis of the doctrines and practices of the Yoginī Tantras [ Jackson].
In the exoteric Tantras, visualization, ritual offerings, worship, and the use of mantras were the means to the gradual realization of one’s identity with the absolute. in later, esoteric traditions, however, the expansion of consciousness to a divine level was instantaneously triggered through the consumption of forbidden substances: semen, menstrual blood, feces, urine, human flesh, and the like. Menstrual or uterine blood, which was considered to be the most powerful among these forbidden substances, could be accessed through sexual relations with female Tantric consorts. Variously called yoginīs, dākinīs, or dūtīs, these were ideally low caste human women who were considered to be possessed by, or embodiments of, Tantric goddesses. in the case of the yoginīs, these were the same goddesses as those that ate their victims in the practice of “transcendent Yoga.” Whether by consuming the sexual emissions of these forbidden women or through the bliss of sexual orgasm with them, Tantric yogis could “blow their minds” and realize a breakthrough into transcendent levels of consciousness. once again, yogic consciousness raising doubled with the physical rise of the yogi’s body through space, in this case in the embrace of the yoginī or dākinī who, as an embodied goddess, was possessed of the power of flight. it was for this reason that the medieval yoginī temples were roofless: they were the yoginīs’ landing fields and launching pads (White 2003: 7–13, 204–18).

In many Tantras, such as the eighth century ce Matangapārameśvarāgama of the Hindu Śaivasiddhānta school, this visionary ascent became actualized in the practitioner’s rise through the levels of the universe until, arriving at the highest void, the supreme deity Sadāśiva conferred his own divine rank upon him (Sanderson 2006: 205–6). it is in such a context—of a graded hierarchy of stages or states of consciousness, with corresponding deities, mantras, and cosmological levels—that the Tantras innovated the construct known as the “subtle body” or “yogic body.” Here, the practitioner’s body became identified with the entire universe, such that all of the processes and transformations occurring to his body in the world were now described as occurring to a world inside his body. While the breath channels (nādīs) of yogic practice had al ready been discussed in the classical Upanishads, it was not until such Tantric works as the eighth century Buddhist Hevajra Tantra and Caryāgıti that a hierarchy of inner energy centers—variously called cakras (“circles,”“wheels”), padmas (“lotuses”), or pīthas (“mounds”)—were introduced. These early Buddhist sources only mention four such centers aligned along the spinal column, but in the centuries that follow, Hindu Tantras such as the Kubjikāmata and Kaulajñānanirnaya would expand that number to five, six, seven, eight, and more. The so called classical hierarchy of seven cakras—ranging from the mūladhara at the level of the anus to the sahasrāra in the cranial vault, replete with color coding, fixed numbers of petals linked to the names of yoginīs, the graphemes and phonemes of the Sanskrit alphabet—was a still later develop ment. So too was the introduction of the kundalinī, the female Serpent energy coiled at the base of the yogic body, whose awakening and rapid rise effects the practitioner’s inner transformation (White 2003: 220–34).

Given the wide range of applications of the term Yoga in the Tantras, the semantic field of the term “yogi” is relatively circumscribed. Yogis who forcefully take over the bodies of other creatures are the villains of countless medieval accounts, including the tenth to eleventhcentury Kashmirian Kathāsaritsgara (“ocean of rivers of Story,” which contains the famous Vetālapañcavimśati—the”twenty-five tales of the Zombie”) and the Yogavāsistha. in the seventh century farce entitled Bhagavadajjukīya, the “tale of the Saint courtesan,” a yogi who briefly occupies the body of a dead prostitute is cast as a comic figure. Well into the twentieth century, the term yogi continued to be used nearly exclusively to refer to a Tantric practitioner who opted for this worldly self-aggrandizement over disembodied liberation. Tantric yogis specialize in esoteric practices, often carried out in cremation grounds, practices that often verge on black magic and sorcery. once again, this was, overwhelmingly, the primary sense of the term “yogi” in premodern Indic traditions: nowhere prior to the seventeenth century do we find it applied to persons seated in fixed postures, regulating their breath or entering into medi tative states.


A new regimen of Yoga called the “Yoga of forceful exertion” rapidly emerges as a comprehensive system in the tenth to eleventh century, as evidenced in works like the Yogavāsistha and the original Goraksa Śataka (“Hundred Verses of Goraksa”) [Mallinson]. While the famous cakras, nādīs, and kundalinī pre date its advent, Hatha Yoga is entirely innovative in its depiction of the yogic body as a pneumatic, but also a hydraulic and a thermodynamic system. The practice of breath control becomes particularly refined in the Hatha yogic texts, with elaborate instructions provided concerning the calibrated regulation of the breaths. in certain sources, the duration of time during which the breath is held is of primary importance, with lengthened periods of breath stoppage corresponding to expanded levels of supernatural power. This science of the breath had a number of offshoots, including a form of divination based on the movements of the breath within and outside of the body, an esoteric tradition that found its way into medieval Tibetan and Persian [Ernst] sources.

In a novel variation on the theme of consciousness raisingasinternal ascent, Hatha Yoga also represents the yogic body as a sealed hydraulic system within which vital fluids may be channeled upward as they are refined into nectar through the heat of asceticism. Here, the semen of the practitioner, lying inert in the coiled body of the serpentine kundalinī in the lower abdomen, becomes heated through the bellows effect of prānāyāma, the repeated inflation and deflation of the peripheral breath channels. The awakened kundalinī suddenly straightens and enters into the susumnā, the medial chan nel that runs the length of the spinal column up to the cranial vault. Propelled by the yogi’s heated breaths, the hissing kundalinī serpent shoots upward, piercing each of the cakras as she rises. With the penetration of each succeeding cakra, vast amounts of heat are released, such that the semen contained in the kundalinī’s body becomes gradually transmuted. This body of theory and practice was quickly adopted in both Jain and Buddhist Tantric works. In the Buddhist case, the cognate of the kundalinī was the fiery avadhūtī or candālī (“outcaste woman”), whose union with the male principle in the cranial vault caused the fluid “thought of enlightenment” (bodhicitta) to flood the practitioner’s body.

The cakras of the yogic body are identified in Hatha Yogic sources not only as so many internalized cremation grounds—both the favorite haunts of the medieval Tantric yogis, and those sites on which a burning fire releases the self from the body before hurling it skyward—but also as “circles” of dancing, howling, high flying yoginīs whose flight is fueled, precisely, by their ingestion of male semen. When the kundalinī reaches the end of her rise and bursts into the cranial vault, the semen that she has been carrying has been transformed into the nectar of immortality, which the yogi then drinks internally from the bowl of his own skull. With it, he becomes an immortal, invulnerable, being possessed of supernatural powers, a god on earth.

Without a doubt, Hatha Yoga both synthesizes and internalizes many of the elements of earlier Yoga systems: meditative ascent, upward mobility via the flight of the yoginī (now replaced by the kundalinī), and a number of esoteric Tantric practices. it is also probable that the thermodynamic transformations internal to Hindu alchemy, the essential texts of which predate the Hatha Yoga canon by at least a century, also provided a set of theoretical models for the new system (White 1996).

With respect to modernday postural Yoga, Hatha Yoga’s greatest legacy is tobe found in the combination of fixed postures (āsanas), breath control tech niques (prānāyāma), locks (bandhas), and seals (mudrās) that comprise its practical side. These are the practices that isolate the inner yogic body from the outside, such that it becomes a hermetically sealed system within which air and fluids can be drawn upward, against their normal downward flow. These techniques are described in increasing detail between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, the period of the flowering of the Hatha Yoga corpus. in later centuries, a canonical number of eighty-four āsanas would be reached (Bühnemann 2007).

Often, the practice system of Hatha Yoga is referred to as “sixlimbed” Yoga, as a means of distinguishing it from the “eight limbed” practice of the YS. What the two systems generally share in common with one another—as well as with the Yoga systems of the late classical Upanishads, the later Yoga Upanisads, and every Buddhist Yoga system—are posture, breath control, and the three levels of meditative concentration leading to samādhi. in the YS, these six practices are preceded by behavioral restraints and purificatory ritual observances (yama and niyama). The Jain Yoga systems of both the eighth century Haribhadra and the tenth to thirteenthcentury Digambara Jain monk Rāmasena are also eight limbed [Dundas]. By the time of the fifteenth century ce Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā (also known as the Hathapradīpikā) of Svātmarāman, this distinction had become codified under a different set of terms: Hatha Yoga, which comprised the practices leading to liberation in the body (jīvanmukti) was made to be the inferior stepsister of rāja Yoga, the meditative techniques that culminate in the cessation of suffering through disembodied liberation (videhamukti). These categories could, however, be subverted, as a remarkable albeit idiosyncratic eighteenth century Tantric document makes abundantly clear [Vasudeva].

Here, it should be noted that prior to the end of the first millennium ce, detailed descriptions of āsanas were nowhere to be found in the Indian textual record. in the light of this, any claim that sculpted images of cross legged figures—including those represented on the famous clay seals from third millennium BCE indus Valley archeological sites—represent yogic postures are speculative at best (White 2009: 48–59).


All of the earliest Sanskrit language works on Hatha Yoga are attributed to Gorakhnāth, the twelfth to thirteenth century founder of the religious order known as the nāth Yogīs, Nāth Siddhas, or simply, the yogis. The Nāth Yogīs were and remain the sole South Asian order to self-identify as yogis, which makes perfect sense given their explicit agenda of bodily immortality, invulnerability, and the attainment of supernatural powers. While little is known of the life of this founder and innovator, Gorakhnāth’s prestige was such that an important number of seminal Hatha Yoga, many of which postdated the historical Gorakhnāth by several centuries, named him as their author in order to lend them a cachet of authenticity. in addition to these Sanskrit language guides to the practice of Hatha Yoga, Gorakhnāth and several of his disciples were also the putative authors of a rich treasury of mystic poetry, written in the vernacular language of twelfth to fourteenth century northwest India. These poems contain particularly vivid descriptions of the yogic body, identifying its inner landscapes with the principal mountains, river systems, and other land forms of the Indian subcontinent as well as with the imagined worlds of medieval Indic cosmology. This legacy would be carried forward in the later Yoga Upanishads as well as in the mystic poetry of the late medieval Tantric revival of the eastern region of Bengal [Hayes]. it also survives in popular traditions of rural north India, where the esoteric teachings of yogi gurus of yore con tinue to be sung by modern day yogi bards in all night village gatherings [gold and gold].

Given their reputed supernatural powers, the Tantric yogis of medieval ad venture and fantasy literature were often cast as rivals to princes and kings whose thrones and harems they tried to usurp. in the case of the Nāth Yogīs, these relationships were real and documented, with members of their order celebrated in a number of kingdoms across northern and western India for having brought down tyrants and raised untested princes to the throne. These feats are also chronicled in late medieval nāth Yogī hagiographies and legend cycles, which feature princes who abandon the royal life to take initiation with illustrious gurus, and yogis who use their remarkable supernatural powers for the benefit (or to the detriment) of kings. all of the great Mughal emperors had interactions with the Nāth Yogīs, including Aurangzeb, who appealed to a yogi abbot for an alchemical aphrodisiac; Shāhalamii, whose fall from power was foretold by a naked yogi; and the illustrious Akbar, whose fascination and political savvy brought him into contact with Nāth Yogīs on several occasions [Pinch].

While it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction in the case of the Nāth Yogīs, there can be no doubt but that they were powerful figures who provoked powerful reactions on the part of the humble and mighty alike. at the height of their power between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, they appeared frequently in the writings of north Indian poet saints (sants) like Kabīr and Guru Nānak, who generally castigated them for their arrogance and obsession with worldly power. The Nāth Yogīs were among the first religious orders to militarize into fighting units, a practice that became so commonplace that by the eighteenth century the north Indian military labor market was dominated by “yogi” warriors who numbered in the hundreds of thousands (Pinch 2006)! it was not until the late eighteenth century, when the British quashed the so called Sannyasi and Fakir rebellion in Bengal, that the widespread phenomenon of the yogi warrior began to disappear from the Indian subcontinent.
Like the Sufi fakirs with whom they were often associated, the yogis were widely considered by India’s rural peasantry to be superhuman allies who could protect them from the supernatural entities responsible for disease, famine, misfortune, and death. Yet, the same yogis have long been dreaded and feared for the havoc they are capable of wreaking on persons weaker than themselves. even to the present day in rural India and Nepal, parents will scold naughty children by threatening them that “the yogi will come and take them away.” There may be a historical basis to this threat: well into the modern period, poverty stricken villagers sold their children into the yogi orders as an acceptable alternative to death by starvation.


The Yoga Upanishads [ruff] are a collection of twenty-one medieval Indian reinterpretations of the so called classical Upanishads, that is, works like the Kāthaka Upanishads, quoted earlier. Their content is devoted to metaphysical correspondences between the universal macrocosm and bodily microcosm, meditation, mantra, and techniques of yogic practice. While it is the case that their content is quite entirely derivative of Tantric and nāth Yogī traditions, their originality lies in their Vedānta style nondualist metaphysics (Bouy 1994). The earliest works of this corpus, devoted to meditation upon mantras— especially OM, the acoustic essence of the absolute Brahman—were compiled in north India some time between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, south Indian brahmins greatly expanded these works—folding into them a wealth of data from the Hindu tan tras as well as the Hatha Yoga traditions of the nāth Yogīs, including the Kundalinī, the yogic āsanas, and the internal geography of the yogic body. So it is that many of the Yoga Upanishads exist both in short “northern” and longer “southern” versions. Far to the north, in Nepal, one finds the same influences and philosophical orientations in the Vairāgyāmvara, a work on Yoga com posed by the eighteenth century founder of the Josmanī sect. in some respects, its author Śaśidhara’s political and social activism anticipated the agendas of the nineteenth century Indian founders of modern Yoga [timilsina].


In Calcutta, colonial India’s most important center of intellectual life, the late nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new “holy man” style among leaders of the Indian reform and independence movement. a prime catalyst for this shift was the 1882 publication of Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s powerful and controversial Bengali novel Ānandamath (Lipner 2005), which drew par allels between the Sannyasi and Fakir rebellion and the cause of Indian inde pendence. in the years and decades that followed, numerous (mainly Bengali) reformers shed their Westernstyle clothing to put on the saffron robes of Indian holy men. These included, most notably, Swami Vivekananda, the indian founder of “modern Yoga” (De Michelis 2004: 91–180); and Sri Aurobindo, who was jailed by the British for plotting a sannyāsī revolt against the empire but who devoted the latter part of his life to Yoga, founding his famous āśram in Pondicherry in 1926. While the other leading Yoga gurus of the first half of the twentieth century had no reform or political agenda, they left their mark by carrying the gospel of modern Yoga to the West. These include Paramahamsa Yogananda, the author of the perennial bestselling 1946 publication, Autobiography of a Yogi; Sivananda, who was for a short time the guru of the pioneering Yoga scholar and historian of religions Mircea Eliade; Kuvalayananda, who focused on the modern scientific and medical benefits of Yoga practice (alter 2004: 73–108); Hariharanandaaranya, the founder of the Kapila Matha [Jacobsen]; and Krishnamacharya [Singleton, narasimhan, and Jayashree], the guru of the three Hatha Yoga masters most responsible for popularizing postural Yoga throughout the world in the late twentieth century.

Vivekananda’s rehabilitation of what he termed “Rāja Yoga” is exemplary, for its motives, its influences, and its content. a shrewd culture broker seeking a way to turn his countrymen away from practices he termed “kitchen religion,” Vivekananda seized upon the symbolic power of Yoga as a genuinely Indian, yet nonsectarian, type of applied philosophy that could be wielded as a “unifying sign of the Indian nation . . . not only for national consumption but for consumption by the entire world” (Van der Veer 2001: 73–74). For Vivekananda, rāja Yoga, or “classical Yoga,” was the science of Yoga taught in theYoga Sūtra, a notion he took from none other than the Theosophist Madame Blavatsky, who had a strong Indian following in the late nineteenth century. Following his success in introducing rāja Yoga to western audiences at the 1892 World Parliament of religions at chicago, Vivekananda remained in the united States for much of the next decade (he died in 1902), lecturing and writing on the YS. His quite idiosyncratic interpretations of this work were

Highly congenial to the religiosity of the period, which found expression in India mainly through the rationalist spirituality of neo-Vedanta. So it was that Vivekananda defined Rāja Yoga as the supreme contemplative path to self realization, in which the self so realized was the supreme self, the absolute Brahman or godself within.

While Vivekananda’s influence on present day understandings of Yoga theory is incalculable, his disdain for the means and ends of Hatha Yoga practice were such that that form of Yoga—the principal traditional source of modern postural Yoga—was slow to be embraced by the modern world. it should be noted here that within India, the tradition of Hatha Yoga had been all but lost, and that it was not until the publication of a number of editions of late Hatha Yoga texts, by the Theosophical Society and others, that interest in it was re kindled. indeed, none other than the great Krishnamacharya himself went to Tibet in search of true practitioners of a tradition he considered lost in India (Kadetsky 2004: 76–79). one of the earliest American practitioners to study Yoga under Indian teachers and later attempt to market the teachings of Hatha Yoga in the West, Theos Bernard died in Tibet in the 1930s while searching there for the yogic “grail” [Hackett].

Whatever Krishnamacharya found in his journey to Tibet, the Yoga that he taught in his role of “Yoga master” of the Mysore Palace was an eclectic amalgam of Hatha Yoga techniques, British military calisthenics, and the regional gymnastic and wrestling traditions of Southwestern India (Sjoman 1996). Beginning in the 1950s, his three leading disciples—B. K. S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikacar—would introduce their own variations on his techniques and so define the postural Yoga that has swept Europe, the united States, and much of the rest of the world. The direct and indirect disciples of these three innovators form the vanguard of Yoga teachers on the contemporary scene. The impact of these innovators of Yoga, with their eclectic blend of training in postures with teachings from the YS, also had the secondary effect of catalyzing a reform within the Śvetambara Jain community, opening the door to the emergence of a universalistic and missionary Yoga based Jainism in the united Kingdom in particular [Qvarnström and Birch].

In the course of the past thirty years, Yoga has been transformed more than at any time since the advent of Hatha Yoga in the tenth to eleventh centuries (Syman 2010). The theoretical pairing of Yoga with mind expanding drugs, the practice of “cakra adjustment,” the use of crystals: these are but a few of the entirely original improvisations on a four thousand year old theme, which have been invented outside of India during the past decades. Aware of this appropriation of what it rightly considers to be its own cultural legacy, Indians have begun to take steps to safeguard their Yoga traditions. in 2001,

The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) was founded in India as a tool for preventing foreign entrepreneurs from appropriating and patenting Indian traditions as their own intellectual properties. Spurred by the 2004 granting of a U.S. patent on a sequence of twenty-six āsanas to the Indian american Yoga celebrity Bikram Chaudhury, the TKDL has turned its attention to Yoga. In the light of the history outlined in this introduction, the TKDL has a vast range of theories and practices to protect.

Orignal: http://whitelotus.com/articles/history-and-evolution-of-yoga-by-david-g-white-phd.pdf


Copyright © 2011 The Princeton University Press

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March 5th, 2013

From a recent talk by Ganga:

Life is a journey with growth, change, and responsibility–response ability in the sense of refining our ability to respond appropriately. Asana, pranayama and meditation can be wonderful tools we continuously learn to use to tune and rebalance our bodies throughout our journey. This is what I mean by learning to use the techniques of yoga to serve our bodies, rather than using our bodies to attain a particular pose. We don’t necessarily just want to do yoga, but rather learn use yoga. We use it for our well being and to tune, refine, hone, sharpen, balance, relax, energize, and more.

A broader perspective of Yoga includes attuning our bodies and our lives. As we advance in Yoga we become more adept at, and sensitive to, what practices our body, and our life, need to re-balance and re-tune from the stresses and activities of living. Similarly there is no one fixed Yogic lifestyle. We often hear people speaking of how they are living the Yogic lifestyle. While there are certainly general principles, attitudes and intentions, there are myriad expressions of Yogic living in the same way that nature shows herself as diversity. Each person find his or her own unfolding expression and reintegration of Yoga with insight, kindness, sensitivity, intelligence and awareness.   You are your path.

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August 9th, 2012

Cheri Clampett, leader of our Therapeutic Yoga Training, recently posted Ganga’s Yoga Journal article done several years ago. We had several requests to make it more available so here it is on BLOGanga:
To experience a profound opening of the heart, imagine yourself near life’s end.

By Ganga White
On my first trip to India in 1971, a yogi friend took me to the funeral pyres near the river Ganges. He told me that cremation is common in India and that some yogis make a meditation practice of watching the fires and the burning bodies, which he suggested we do.

We sat by the sacred river and watched a body, crackling and charring, disappear into its essence of dust and light. It melted into a film of ash and floated downstream.  As I watched the body burn on a pile of logs, my revulsion slowly began to subside. I felt sadness and joy, ending and beginning. My heart began to soften and open, and I saw deeper into both life and death through the doorway of flames.

My own birth, death, sense of mortality, and the presence and departure of loved ones flashed through my consciousness. I felt the brevity of a lifetime, the importance of relationships, and the potency of moments of clarity.

An extraordinary stillness and beauty filled the evening, as a pink glow appeared against the blue sky, reflecting and bringing attention to the delicate spring grasses lining the hills. Slowly the light, and with it the beauty, faded, and I almost began to mourn its departure, as we do the inevitable loss of things dear. But the moonlight arrived and began to light the skies, trees, and clouds. Beauty began revealing itself, reborn again in new ways.

In Western culture we don’t like to think about death, and we usually push the idea of our own end into the distant future. But death is ever present, all around us—plants, insects, and living things of all kinds, even stars and galaxies, are always dying and being born. Death teaches us that separation is unavoidable and that all things must pass—not just living things but also experiences and relationships. We can either mourn and resist the loss of the past, or we can keep our eyes on the ever-present, constantly changing dance of dissolution and creation that is the true nature of the material realm we live in. Ending is inevitable, as is the birth of the new. Meditation on endings can open our hearts and fill us with love and compassion and teach us about letting go.

Awaken to Your True Nature
Meditation on death can be done by remembering and invoking the loss of loved ones or by being totally present with the sick or dying. It can be done at a funeral, or by simply sitting, breathing quietly, and invoking the reality and presence of death in our lives.

To our Western mindset, the idea of a death meditation practice may seem macabre, even diabolical. We’re conditioned to fear death and mask its reality with beliefs and hopes. But in the East, the death meditation is often seen as a way of awakening us to our ephemeral nature and opening our hearts to love.

The philosophical concept of learning from death goes back millennia in India, at least to the Upanishads, wherein a sacrificed boy, Nachiketas, confronts the god of death and elicits a conversation. The Buddha was isolated in youth from exposure to sickness, old age, and death. When he got older and saw these things for the first time, he was thrust powerfully into the death meditation, which eventually led him to his own awakening.

Modern figures, too, practiced the death meditation. In his youth, the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi witnessed his father’s cremation and, a few years later, lay down and simulated his own death, to which he credited his awakening. The spiritual teacher and philosopher J. Krishnamurti often wrote and spoke of the importance of feeling and looking at our own death, and of letting our contemplation lead us to love and compassion.

Into the Light
About 15 years ago, I telephoned my then- 85 year-old father, who was normally a bit distant and self-absorbed. On this day, I found him unusually open and caring. He asked many questions about how my life was going. Sensing how differently he was behaving, I asked him if anything unusual or important had happened. He said no. Then I asked about his week. He told me that he had visited my mother’s grave at the cemetery and was looking over arrangements for his own burial plot next to hers. I realized that my father had been doing a form of the death meditation and that it had opened his heart.

When we visit a grave, come face-to-face with the dying, or attend the funeral of a loved one, we usually come away with a full heart, more sensitive to others and more caring. These reminders of death can awaken us, help us feel the potency of the moment, and remind us to cherish our life and all our relations.

In 2005 I lost three people close to me—my father, George E. White; my stepmother of 35 years, Doris White; and my student and dear friend, Frank White. Several friends, relatives, students, and I held a fire ceremony at the White Lotus retreat center in Santa Barbara, California, for their passing—three Whites into the light. We sat outside around a raging fire and chanted, offering some of the cremated ashes to the flames. We meditated on the dancing flames and the circle of life from birth to death. We passed a talking stick and shared insights into our own living and dying and into the ways these three beings had enriched our lives.

As each person around the circle spoke, we shared stories about the three individuals we had known, loved, and lost. It struck me that these people had taught each of us different things. The words revealed new facets of someone now gone, but born anew through every person.

You too Shall Pass
Another form of meditation on death involves sitting with an intention to project and experience ourselves in old age, near the end of life. The meditator visualizes him or herself with diminished capacities, such as less energy, mobility, and eyesight, and imagines the other unpleasant qualities of old age.

Why do such a seemingly depressing exercise? Because it is a common folly of youth to feel that such things will never happen to us. In our naiveté, we feel we will overcome the problems of sickness and old age. We will practice yoga, eat properly, and learn to heal ourselves. Fortunately, we can preserve our vitality to a great extent, but all bodies do wear out, age, and ultimately die. This contemplation on death, aging, and loss should not be approached with fear; it is meant to be the seed of something positive and illuminating.

The realization that these things will happen to each one of us offers us a source of wisdom and awareness that can inform our life, infusing it with appreciation, care, attention, and an awareness of life’s preciousness. This meditation helps us avoid becoming numb and mechanical and instills value into the present moment. Although it might seem counterintuitive, meditation on death is meant to awaken us to the miracle and beauty of life and love—here and now.

Reprinted and adapted from Yoga Beyond Belief (North Atlantic)
by Ganga White, White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, California

Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position (or if necessary upright in a chair) in a quiet, darkened place. Place a burning candle at eye level and light some incense, if you choose. Make your breathing slow, smooth, and even. Notice that you must exhale in order to inhale and that inhalation is necessary for exhalation. The breath reminds us of our interconnectedness with the matrix of life. Begin to gaze gently at the candle flame and see its golden light and dark center. Even if the flame doesn’t move, it is still filled with movement and energy. Even this solitary flame is revealing the circle of life and death. The sunlight, earth, and other elements of life stored in the candle, a mixture of cotton and paraffin, are being released back to their essence. See if you can feel the beauty in this process and in the flame. Watch and absorb yourself in the flame for a short time, and then close your eyes.

Begin to contemplate the circle of your own birth, life, and death. Think of yourself in old age looking back on your life. Notice what realizations, feelings, and insights arise. See if you receive any “messages” from your elder self to your present self. Think of possessions, abilities, or loved ones you have lost. Don’t indulge in your beliefs about where they may or may not be. Just try to feel the stark fact that they are gone.


Now contemplate the fact that you too are going to die, while perhaps silently repeating the words “I too will pass.” Feel as best you can, in this moment, that you are gone. If it seems scary to you, go slowly, breathe deeply, and stop if you feel very fearful. Bring your attention to your breath to anchor yourself, and then pick up the meditation again later if you wish to continue. You can think about it or do it nonverbally, being empty and without thoughts. You may enhance this by ringing a bell and feeling that it is the bell signaling your own death. Remain in this state of awareness for a few minutes, letting it permeate your being. End the meditation by chanting Om or ringing the bell. You don’t have to analyze or try to explain what happened. Remember, our conscious minds are only the tip of a huge iceberg.
If you choose, write down any insights, ideas, or communications you would like to share with others. The death meditation can positively affect you on deep layers of being, the benefits undoubtedly revealing themselves in your life.

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March 24th, 2012

The recent Yoga competition and the push to get Yoga into the Olympics has many yogis up in arms, in a nonviolent way of course…

I was recently interviewed about it on a PBS radio show (link to mp3) with many callers expressing opinions. It is commonly the case that many yogis are upset and voice that the “purity” of Yoga is being compromised by competition—which they assert should never be part of Yoga. Or they assert that competition isn’t “spiritual”, isn’t in accord with the eight limbs, or that it strengthens ego.

Whether or not the eight limbs is the definition of Yoga, or if competition, or ego, can or should be eliminated from the fabric of life could easily be debated. But instead of going there, I’m taking a different tack. Is a Yoga competition really serving our best interests and can proficiency in Yoga practice be measured by judges? It can be argued that national and international competitions will bring greater authenticity, relevance and acceptance to asana practice, but is this the right way to get it? Does Yoga even need it? Here are five reasons championships are probably not the right path:

1. How do you measure who is doing the best Yoga?
When you see someone doing a beautiful or graceful pose, especially if it’s pushing the limits of movement and flexibility, it’s easy to assert they are an advanced student, or they are “very good” at Yoga. But what cannot be measured, or cannot easily be measured, is whether the way they are doing that pose is really good for the long term well being of their body. Is, for example, standing on their hands and putting both feet on their head, or wrapping both legs behind their back (full disclosure: I did these and more for years, back in the day) really the measure of “good” Yoga, and is it serving the long term well being of that body? Are these extreme or performance poses what others should aspire to and emulate in their practice? Are extreme poses good for the lifetime health of the spine, disks, and joints? Much more often than not, the answer is no. Is the person doing the best pretzel poses really the winner?

At White Lotus we assert that advancing in Yoga, developing proficiency in Yoga, is learning how to use the asanas, techniques, and practices to better serve the ones body for a lifetime. Learning to listen to internal feedback, to learn to make subtle energy flow, bone and nerve adjustments, to learn to discern the effects of the poses, and to become adept at self balancing and self healing is truly the essence of advancing in Yoga.

2. Yoga is for every body.
It is said there are hundreds of thousands of asanas. I suggest that is a metaphor showing that Yoga is for any and every body. I’ve seen bedridden and wheel chair confined practitioners doing, or should I say “using”, Yoga beautifully. Sure, certain body types can do many more poses, and super models, men and women, can look gorgeous in poses, but this can miss the essence. Any body, at any age or stage can get great benefit from practice. There is no need to compete.

3. Yoga is not a sport. Yoga is not a performance art.
Yoga isn’t really in the same category as sports, dance, or even gymnastics. There is a large performance component to sports. And of course, a large competitive component. Even dance is expressing a theme, form, or metaphor. Whereas the purpose of Yoga is health, well being, self healing, self transformation, awakening and re-awakening. The “winners” are all those who learn to use the tools of Yoga effectively for themselves.

If the winners in Yoga are the those who can do the most difficult positions and moves of flexibility and strength in a graceful and beautiful manner, then circus acrobats have already won. I’ve seen acrobats, in the Cirque du Soleil for example, do the most unbelievable Yoga-like poses with strength, grace and beauty.

4. There is no perfect pose.
There are endless adjustments, modifications and tunings of asanas. The essential reason for this is not “so someone can do the pose” but rather so the pose can do them. In other words the pose should be adjusted to serve the person instead of adjusting the person to fit into the pose.

5. Everybody wins.
The real beauty of Yoga is that everyone can win. There is competition in nearly every arena of life. We’re constantly conditioned to favor winners and shun losers. But in a class of twenty, or one hundred, Yoga students, who is the winner? Everyone! Everyone can be a winner at the same time in Yoga. This possibility is too rare in life to diminish. And, again, can you even say who is doing the best, most proficient practice? May be the stiff, injured, or elderly person in class is the one using the poses in the most subtle and refined manner.

These competitions may be here to stay, but will competitions and championships bring the right kind of attention and motivation to the art and science that is Yoga?

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January 15th, 2012

Don’t get too bent out of shape by all the recent who hah from the New York Times article about the dangers of Yoga. There may be some dangers in using Yoga to get yourself bent into shape, but that is no great revelation and nothing to fear. I’ve cautioned for many years, and wrote in YBB, asanas are tools, not goals, and they can cut both ways. Is a knife good or bad? Yes!

A couple months ago I had the good fortune of getting an advance copy of Science of Yoga from William Broad. The publication date is in February and the book is much more balanced than his NYT article. I think it’s a great book with valuable insights and contributions. It is not anti Yoga. Broad is and has been a practicing yogi for years. The book points out what he sees, and what he thinks science has shown, are dangers to be avoided. This doesn’t mean everything the book asserts is true but it initiates a much needed inquiry and debate. Broad’s book also validates many of Yoga’s benefits. Very often, when I’ve been interviewed, I am asked the question of where I think Yoga is heading in the future. I usually say that the caterpillar may have no idea of becoming a butterfly. We don’t know how our art and science will bloom as it grows and evolves. Then I add that one thing I can say for sure is that science and medicine will continue to discover benefits as well as problem areas and misapprehensions in Yoga practice and belief. Since Yoga has come west, and around the world, it has cross-pollinated with modern medicine, science, and many other disciplines. It has grown enormously in content and quality—it has evolved. This is welcome–a good thing. Understandably, traditionalists who erroneously believe Yoga was completely developed, elucidated, and perfected in the past are upset.

Yogis concerned with using the tools of Yoga to create a more refined practice will welcome new insights, information and debate. There are asanas known to be detrimental and they should be eliminated as should aggressive and rigid approaches to practice. This may be shocking to true believers, but it good news to those who want to move forward. Broad’s Science of Yoga this year, and Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body from last year, contribute to Yoga’s apocalypse—in the root meaning of the word, the uncovering of truth. I have been and remain a proponent of an evolutionary approach to Yoga.

NYT Article:

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June 25th, 2011

Ganga article in 805 Santa Barbara Magazine

Click photo for complete view

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June 25th, 2011

(Question from Yoga Teacher Training, June, 2011)

Real progress n Yoga starts when you learn to see and feel, for yourself, the actual effects of the various poses. A teacher can tell you what the benefits of a pose are, but when you actually feel it yourself, it is much more effective. It is like the difference between being told what the gears in a car do and learning to use them skillfully yourself and to feel their effects on the road and control of the vehicle. As you progress, or become more effective at using the tools of Yoga, you develop the ability to articulate joints, vertebra, tendons and nerves as you tune into more subtle aspects of what the internal actions of the postures are. You learn how to remove the imbalances created by other activities and to reduce the stress we all accumulate. It’s also important to remember that the essence of yoga is about awareness and consciousness. Real progress is expressed as mental clarity, happiness, and insight into living.

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January 23rd, 2011

The following review was written by Dr. Lorin Roche and was published in the December issue of L.A. Yoga:

Yoga Beyond Belief: Insights to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice by Ganga White.

This book comes with an introduction by Sting, who writes, “This book offers a flexible perspective,” which is definitely something you want in a book on Yoga. Ganga has amazing credentials; he is the only person I know who began studying Yoga with a Zoroastrian high priest, and has been teaching Yoga since 1967, when he opened the original Center for Yoga on Sunset Boulevard in LA.

There was Ganga, teaching right in the heart of the city in the late 1960s and beyond, and does he have stories to tell! Instead of name-dropping, I’ll let you imagine all the great characters he met and the teachers with whom he studied. Let’s just say, if you like reading People magazine while standing in line at the supermarket, that celebrity curious part of your brain will find maha-ananda, much joy. Ganga’s foundation hosted many Yoga teachers on their first visits to Los Angeles, including BKS Iyengar in 1976. That other part of your brain, the one that engages in viveka (discernment), will have a good sweaty class, for Ganga takes on the big dharma issues of our time, such as, “What right do we, as Westerners, to Americanize Yoga? Are we degenerating the purity and authenticity of the teachings? And is there any way to know what was taught and practiced in the past?” Ganga has been in this conversation for longer than most of us have been alive or have heard of Yoga and it’s fascinating to read how his inquiry has progressed.

In the late 1960s, he mentioned in a class one day that he considered Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to be the foundation of Hatha Yoga. A few days later, a Swami called Ganga and angrily informed him that Patanjali was not at all an advocate of physical Yoga – Patanjali’s mention of asana and pranayama (posture and breathing) only referred to sitting quietly and stilling the breath for meditation; spending time and energy to cultivate the body leads to attachment, body consciousness and will detract one from the true spiritual path. Whew. Order the book from www.whitelotus.org/books_dvds.html and Ganga will sign it and mail it.

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