History of Yoga – Part 4

He who truly experiences yoga sees himself in all beings and all beings in himself.  He thereby truly perceives that in truth there is perfect unity in all diversities. – Gorakhnath


“So what of Matsyendranath’s student, Gorakhnath?” I asked, eager for more mountain tales.

“Another honoured teacher,” Kushal Magar explained. “But one said to have been born of a cow.  More mountain madness, you might think, until you know the cow is our symbol for material reality.  Gorakhnath’s name therefore literally means He who Protects the Cow, as he taught us ways to tend to both external Nature and internal mind.”

I loved his legends, always recounted with a knowing twinkle in his eye to acknowledge the whimsy of their imagery, yet without ever undermining the deeper truths that they embodied.  If my childhood tellers of Gardens and Serpents, Floods and Arks had been less fundamentalist in their narration, I too may have afforded them more patience.

“Gorakhnath is also remembered for being a very beautiful man – even more beautiful, it was said, than any royal courtesan in all of India.”

I had long admired the exquisite imagery of Kangra Painting courtesans in the energetic embrace of their princely lovers.  I now imagined that these sensual gymnastics must have rivalled the great Gorakhnath in his own yogic flexibility, even as he outshone them all with his legendary good looks.


“In fact, we tell of a time when his teacher, Matsyendranath, slipped into the royal harem of King Trivikrama to explore his capacity for Kama – the expansion of consciousness through fulfilment of sensual pleasure.  However, when days became weeks and Matsyendranath still did not reappear, Gorakhnath had to make the most of his beauty by dressing as a courtesan and joining the palace zenana, to remind his teacher he still had students awaiting his insights and instruction.”

These old yogins were evidently up for far more fun than had been suggested by the prim rows of spongy mats and the earnest body-consciousness I had too often encountered in yoga classes in the West.

“Still today, Gorakhnath is venerated in these hills by the burning of ritual fires, whilst the entire Gurkha tribe likes to claim direct descent from him,” Kushal Magar revealed to my continuing surprise.

“And did you know he not only wrote the very first pages on the physical practice of Hatha Yoga, but is attributed with being the first author of any prose in Hindi?”

“So what’s his text called?” I asked.

“Oh, that was lost long ago,” he said with a shrug.  “But the teachings it once contained continue in these hills, as do the Gorakhnathis – or Nath-babas, as we call them – whose path he founded.  Ever heard of them?”

I had.  In fact, I had once passed an entire afternoon with a cheery trio of this sect in the shadows of the great tantric temple complex of Pashupatinath, outside Kathmandu.  Upon our farewells to Kushal Magar the previous year, my cousin Samuel and I had decided to endure the hot, slow bus-drive to the border to do battle with a megalomaniac bureaucrat for my visa.  We had then endured the night-long journey to the friendly, overbuilt and polluted capital of Nepal, where we had stayed with a favourite aunt and uncle who had taken their retirement amongst the ancient temples of Patan.

Our excursion to the gilded pinnacles and bell-strung pagodas of Pashupatinath commenced at dawn, where on a hill above the press of priests and pilgrims I first set eyes upon a group of naked Nath-babas.  So extraordinary was their appearance that I let decorum slip and stared.  In response, they cheerfully beckoned for us to join them in their silent, smiling survey of the madding melee down below.


And thus I had sat, relishing my own dismay, amidst air thick with incense, mantras, funerary soot and the percussive pop of skulls, beside new companions with unkempt hair, earlobe-extending earrings and foreheads whitened with cremation ash.  New companions with slender, dark necks hung with horn whistles, brass rings and necklaces of white pebbles strung on hair cords to show they had once made a pilgrimage to offer coconuts at the Chandra Gup mud volcanoes.

Samuel and I had shared with them our picnic breakfast of puri aloo dum and sweet bananas.  In return, they explained that theirs was a path dedicated to freedom from social restraint, the rejection of a merely secular identity, whether they chose to live as a wandering sadhu or a conscientious bank clerk.

They told us they employed Shiva in his ‘fierce’ form of Bhairava as their focus for meditation.  That Siddhartha Gautama, the Supreme Buddha, had been an initiate of their tradition.  That their teachers communicate with every form of life, whether banyan tree or pepper-vine, elephant or mongoose.  And that when they die their corpses were not cremated, but buried sitting in an upright yogic posture, their graves marked only by a solitary linga – phallic symbol of consciousness devoid of limitation.Pashupatinath 3 And yet perhaps most remarkable of all was the revelation that the followers of Gorakhnath’s sect gather each year in Himachal Pradesh in a cave dedicated to Kali, where the igneous rock is licked with blue flames, before which these Nath-babas perform rites upon one another using nothing but their tongues.

Kushal Magar pressed into my hand a steaming metal beaker of ginger tea, its blend of sweet spices and creamy milk drawing me from my memories of the startling intimacies of bendy baba Doctor Doolittles and back into the sooty shadows of our cave.

“So now you see,” he declared, “all modern styles of yoga are based – some more loosely than others – on the tradition that Gorakhnath passed onto his Nath-babas.  And in honour of this fact, a yoga posture is named after him – gorakshasana – which we still employ with certain breath retentions to dispel inertia, to ease feelings of anxiety and despair – and in the training of men to withhold emission, even at the peak of their arousal.”


At this he raised his beaker to his lips, whilst I kept my eyes upon him, unsure that I could have possibly understood what I thought he had just said.

[Part Five follows soon]

You’ll find much more of Kushal Magar and the refreshingly gentle, practical mountain Tradition he teaches in Limitless Sky.

jacket image high res

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