History of Yoga – Part 5

Body still as a deodar cedar.  Mind lucid as a winter moon.  Senses tranquil as a summer sky.  This is Yoga. – Kushal Magar

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The contrast between my impressions of yoga as I had experienced its practice in the West and the unexpected introduction delivered to me by Kushal Magar in the very mountains from which it had anciently arisen [see Limitless Sky, Part Four], had left me puzzled and intrigued.  It was a disparity that, upon return home to Britain, my vigorous curiosity determined to resolve.

However, I had not anticipated the challenge of finding any critical study of yoga beyond the standard hagiographies, celebrity endorsements and blatant trust-me-I’m-a-swami self-promotions.  Such books only compounded the impression that yoga in the West has been reduced to a well-marketed fitness regime, exoticised by a smear of largely meaningless pseudo-philosophy.  In addition, the plethora of illustrations of smiley girls in designer leotards served only to propagate the deceit that skinniness, acrobatic bendiness and shiny hair demonstrate some advanced ‘spiritual’ state to which we are all encouraged to aspire.

It was particularly striking that little reference to anything reminiscent of the Tradition was to be found in these widely circulated volumes, even though Kushal had impressed on me that Shaiva Tantra and Hatha Yoga were indivisible.  Indeed, as I was to find, almost all unadapted Shaiva tantric texts contain instructions in yogic practice, although continuing academic prejudice ensures that the vast majority of these works remains inaccessible.  [The seventeenth-century Gheranda Samhita is but one textbook of traditional yogic practice of India’s north-east that is widely translated and rarely differs from instructions contained in the original tantric texts.]

I decided, therefore, that the first challenge of this new course of investigation was to trace the process of change that had divided yoga so far from its tantric origins that their interdependence had almost been forgotten; a modification that had transformed the predominantly male yogic path from a tool of self-expansion taught only under the careful guidance of a dedicated teacher and without exchange of money, to the assemblage of spongy mats in church halls, gymnasia and near-saunas that had become such a multi-million-dollar, female-dominated, international industry.

[Part Six follows soon]

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

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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

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.

Kangra

“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.

Pashupathinath

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.”

Garakhasana

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.

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Shivratri

Today is the festival of Shivratri, when Shiva is honoured as the principal symbol of all that is benevolent and Unlimited Consciousness – the innate disposition towards order in the universe.

SHIVA

In some regions of the Hindu world, Shivratri celebrates Shiva’s first lovemaking with Parvati.  The festival is therefore spent feasting, honouring the linga – symbol of universal order, consciousness without limitation – and playing traditional games with kauri shells, which represent the yoni – symbol of the forces of creation and dissolution inherent in every aspect of existence.

Shivratri normally involves a cleansing of body and mind with a 24-hour fast, ritual bathing and mantras to quieten the thoughts.  Bhang is then usually drunk using dedicatory mantras and seven hand mudras, to heighten the senses whilst in a meditative state.  (Bhang is a drink of cannabis stirred into milk with honey, ground almonds, cashews or pistachios, rosewater and such spices as cloves, ginger, cinnamon and cardamom.)

Keepers of the mountain Shaiva Tantra Tradition often then spend the night meditating on their partner, for as Tagore wrote, it is in those we love that we touch “that great truth which comprehends the whole universe.”

And the purpose of all of this?  To free ourselves from tamas: dullness or ‘unconsciousness’ in body-mind – the apathy and limited perception that prevents us from living and loving fully, fearlessly, joyfully and wisely, without detriment to ourselves or others.

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You can read much more about the mountain Tradition from which these concepts and symbols come in Limitless Sky.

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History of Yoga – Part 3

Whatever you set your mind upon you will ultimately become.Matsyendranath

Matsyendranath

MATSYENDRANATH

Kushal Magar was settling a metal pot of water onto the fire when it occurred to me there were two names he had not yet explained.

Jhankri-dajoo, didn’t you say that Hatha Yoga has something to do with Matty-somebody and Gorey-someone else?”

“Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath,” he replied with a smile.  “Both keepers of the Tradition, one the teacher of the other.  It was they who formulated the practises of Hatha Yoga into the system we still employ.  The older, Matsyendranath, lived a thousand years ago and wrote some of the earliest words in the Bengali language – songs that describe the experience of an expansion of consciousness.”

Matsyendranath?  I was certain I had heard the name before.

“He is remembered for accepting students from all religions and so-called ‘castes’ for initiation into the Tradition, just as we still do today.  He is therefore honoured both by Buddhists as one of their saints, an embodiment of Compassion, and by Hindus as the principal tantric guardian of Nepal.”

This was all entirely new to me.

“He is also said to have been the first to bring rice plants to the mountain kingdom of my ancestors – a grain that symbolises for us tip-top health, prosperity and life’s essential creative force.  As you have already seen, rice and the Tradition are both so valued here that we use the former in every puja to honour the latter and thereby the memory of the great shaiva tantrika Matsyendranath.”

I had certainly noted this extensive use of rice in both common domestic rituals and Kushal’s jhankri rites.  Until now, I had unthinkingly accepted this as nothing more than ‘offerings’ of food.

“Of course, with our love of telling stories, Matsyendranath is also associated with all manner of legends,” Kushal continued, selecting cardamom pods and cinnamon bark to add to his pot.  “He’s said to have changed water into gold and crystal, for example.  To have fed 25,000 hungry mouths from a single grain of rice – and even to have raised the dead.  All tales full of meaningful symbols, of course, once you look beneath the fantasy.”

“I was raised on remarkably similar myths,” I replied, thinking back to the years of Bible miracles retold in Sunday School Fuzzy Felts.

“But have you ever heard of a man being swallowed by a giant fish?” he said.  “And then surviving to tell the tale?”

I smiled – but did not like to spoil his manifest delight.

“Well, here we tell how Matsyendranath was once eaten whole by such a creature – hence his name, meaning Lord of the Fish.  From within its belly he then overheard Shiva teaching the Tradition to his beloved, Parvati, on the seashore of Chandradvipa, the Island of the Moon, in the Bay of Bengal – symbol of that heightened state of awareness we call ‘going by daylight’.”

SHIVA & PARVATI

SHIVA teaches PARVATI

Kashal paused to cut slices from the knobble of ginger root he kept buried in a pocket.

“Of course, this all seems like madness until you know that the fish is our symbol of the prosperity and happiness found by living honestly, wisely and with self-discipline.  The fish is also our symbol of the restless, sensual world – material reality, the essential force of Nature – with which keepers of the Tradition are ever mindful to engage.”

I finally understood why the Indian God of Love, Kama, is traditionally described as bearing a banner emblazoned with a fish.

“The fish is also our symbol for shurko shakti, the Energy of the Hero, the Valiant, the Brave.  By this, we mean those who have gained the wisdom to defeat their inner ‘demons’ of anger, fear, jealousy, apathy, self-doubt, the desire for revenge, and so forth.  It is shurko shakti that we mindfully nurture through yogic practices you too will learn one day.”

I looked up in eager anticipation.

“As for Matsyendranath, the story goes that he was eventually delivered from the discomforts of his fish – but only after twelve long years.  This is a metaphor, of course, for his being ‘reborn’ through the knowledge acquired during the usual twelve years of progressive initiations into the Tradition.  He then wandered up to Assam, where he lived on a mountain and shared the teachings he had learnt.  He thereby spread the wisdom of the Tradition not only through our hills, but across Bengal, Nepal and Kashmir.”

Kushal paused again to let me catch up with my note-taking.

“He is also credited as the author of the Kaula Jñana Nirnaya, the Narration of Tantric Knowledge, which was written down on palm leaves and is now revered both by shaiva tantrikas in India and Nepal, and bauddhakaula Buddhists in Tibet.  There is even a posture of Hatha Yoga named after him, Matsyendrasana, which we employ with certain other practises to affect dormancy – ‘unconsciousness’, if you like – in the body-mind.”

Matsyendrasana

The preliminary form of Matsyendrasana

“Of course,” I exclaimed, “that’s where I’ve heard his name before!”

“And yet,” Kushal Magar added, “whilst an asana has been named in his honour, it was Matsyendranath who also impressed that the more ascetic practices of Hatha Yoga – the demanding postures that benefit little more than the ego, and even the mudras and bandhas – should all ultimately be released in preference for Sahaja – literally our natural state, our true, undistorted disposition – the path of self-respecting ease and mindful pleasure …”

[Part Four follows soon]

You’ll find much more of Kushal Magar and his understanding of ‘going by daylight’ and ‘mindful pleasure’ in Limitless Sky.

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History of Yoga – Part 2

He who realises the truth of the body can then come to realise the truth of the universe. – Rat Nas Tantra

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Hatha Yoga originally incorporated neither postures nor any distinctive breathing patterns,” Kushal Magar revealed to my surprise.  “It was originally a system employed only by initiated Shaivas and constituted nothing more than cleansing techniques to restore balance to the body-mind.  Some of these survive in what we call kriyas – internal and external cleansing practices that include gaja-karani vomition, jala neti sinus purging, and shankha-pashala enemas.”

I flinched at the idea that he might be preparing to feed me herbal emetics in the tight confines of this cave, before poking something ‘cleansing’ up my nose and bottom.

“However, as competence in Hatha Yoga has long been considered necessary for all keepers of the Tradition, over time other practical methods of Shaiva Tantra were incorporated.  The result was the six principal techniques that we know today, used to restore and then maintain fluidity, stability and well-being in the body-mind.”

“And they are?” I asked, drawing out my notepad and pencil.  This history was not at all as I had imagined.

“Well, we always begin with the guiding principles of the yamas and niyamas to resolve the conflicts between our inner self and our outer life, that we might develop relationships that are not detrimental to ourselves or others.”

I felt sure I could spend a lifetime ‘resolving’ just that one alone.

“Then come physical postures, called asana.  Breathing practices, called pranayama. Focussing recitation, called mantra japa.  And re-sensitising hand positions called hasta mudra.”

He paused to let me catch up with my note-taking.

“And all this that we may learn to fully apply the sixth technique: pratyahara – a ‘gathering towards oneself’ – to lessen our ordinary habit of identifying who and what we are merely through appearance, intellect and senses.  This in turn leads to the spontaneous stages of meditation, which have their own terms.”

“But for what purpose?” I asked.

“That we might live and love jhalaa-jhal, ‘ablaze with light’, as we say – engaging with life, with ourselves and each other, more honestly and intimately, more fully, freely, joyfully and wisely.”

He paused to watch as I struggled to equate the yoga classes I had tried at home with the results he was now professing.

“Consider the term Hatha itself: the first syllable, Ha, is the bija or ‘vibration’ we associate with Shiva, symbol of unlimited, unconditioned consciousness.”

I looked to the sidur-tipped linga in its lamp-lit niche and puzzled that this omnipresent image of the ithyphallic mountain deity, considered to represent both the universe within and without, was in some as yet unfathomable way intrinsically connected to a Shoulder Stand and Lotus Position.

“The second syllable, Tha, is our bija for the removal of ignorance of our true nature – the self-knowledge that frees us to live and love without our ordinary fears or self-limiting restrictions – that we might, as we like to say here, ‘make the stars to brighten, the moon to swell’.”

I jotted his words down – yet knew I did not yet really understand meaning.

“You see, here in the foothills of the Himalaya where it originated, Hatha Yoga is understood as the practical, experimental form of Shaiva Tantra Darshana,” he explained, “the ‘correct knowledge’ of the Tradition.”

I nodded cautiously.

“And all this, remember,” he added, “that we might explore ever deeper self-knowledge and self-mastery – and thereby render ourselves of greater benefit to others and the world through which we move.”

This promise seemed so remarkable for even the canniest combination of Alternate Nostril Breathing, Tree Pose or a Seated Twist that I looked back at him in dismay.  And found myself doubting that it could possibly be true.

[Part Three follows soon]

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You’ll find much more of Kushal Magar and his mountain Tradition, with a complete explanation of the yamas and niyamas as practised in those hills, in Limitless Sky.

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History of Yoga – Part 1

Yoga refers to all the practices of our Tradition that enable us to engage more intimately with ourselves, each other and our world.  And this that we might know greater joy and learn wisdom. — Kushal Magar

My years of learning with the Nepalese jhankri Kushal Magar in the foothills of the Bengal Himalaya offered very much more than could be presented within the confines of a book like Limitless Sky.  

In addition, for commercial reasons the original text submitted to the publisher had to be cut by a third. Over the coming weeks, I shall therefore share a more of Kushal’s teachings as sequential blogs, beginning with his introduction to the history of yoga, which led to my own research.

As he said to me in introduction all those years ago, “Today I introduce you to our Hatha Yoga of Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath … so here begins the mastery of your body-mind.”

Kushal's scarlet temple

I

All knowledge is in the body, all gods are in the body … for it is self-knowledge that is the cause of happiness and liberation for mankind— Jñanasankalini Tantra

I had limited knowledge of yoga.

All I knew for certain was that the term described an ancient, predominantly masculine Indian tradition of physical positions, breathing and meditative techniques.  I had also learnt that all yoga is Hatha Yoga, irrespective of whether it has then been repackaged as Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram, and so forth, for twentieth-century consumption.

I had attempted a preliminary investigation for myself over the years, turning to books that presented the same, standard Vedantic orthodoxy, even when crammed with glossy pictures of skinny, bendy, celebrity practitioners.  I had also attempted to explore yoga practically by attending a variety of classes filled with either chatty cake-bakers or an intimidating set of competitive, circus-worthy gymnasts.  Neither option had convinced me it was a physical regime I would ever wish to adopt, unless it was to increase my social circle or decrease my middle.

In the company of Kushal Magar, however, I was willing to put aside my preconceptions.  My first question was, therefore, straightforward: “Jhankri-dajoo, what exactly is the point of yoga?”

Kushal Magar touched first his heart, then mine to mark new teaching.

Hatha Yoga describes a system of practical skills refined by generations of our ancestors that can lead to liberating insight,” he began.  “Skills that enable us to challenge and change the dualistic viewpoint through which most of us limit ourselves all our lives long. And this, of course, that we might live and love more effectively, justly and joyfully.”

“Dualistic viewpoint?”

“All those ordinary judgements and assumptions – good and bad, right and wrong, ugly and beautiful, divine and mortal, sacred and profane – which separate what is in truth a unified whole.”

It was an ‘ordinary’ perspective with which I was entirely familiar.  Every moment of my life seemed qualified by some petty judgement of either aesthetics or hypocritical moralising.  Yet another example of that interminable self-interested viewpoint from which I knew I now wished to free myself.

“To disengage from such habitual discriminations takes effort,” he continued.  “In fact, such is the physical, mental and moral force that must be expended in the retraining of the body-mind to this end that Hatha is traditionally referred to as ‘Violent Yoga’.”

The idea seemed incongruous when applied to the church-hall stretch-and-relax with which I had become familiar back home.

“But of course the effort of Hatha Yoga is not found in merely working your muscles or in the pursuit of some sort of meditative introversion.  Rather, it is in the focusing of all the practitioner’s will and energy to free themselves from their detrimental habits, their assumed limitations.  And this to enable them to be more beneficially active in a world with which they are more meaningfully and deeply connected.”

[Part Two to follow soon]

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You’ll find much more of Kushal Magar and his mountain Tradition in Limitless Sky.

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Tihar

Did you know that in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas the wonderfully life-affirming, week-long festival of Tihar has just been celebrated?

It’s a personal favourite and runs as follows:

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Day 1 – ‘Dhan Teras’, when the sheer abundance of life is celebrated through the mythology and imagery of either Kubera or Laxmi.

Kubera

Day 2 – ‘Kaag Tihar’, when crows are fed before eating, as a reminder that wisdom is accessible in everything and at all times, even in the seemingly common and ordinary.

Day 3 – ‘Kukur Tihar’, when even scavenging dogs have garlands thrown around their necks in gratitude for their protection and companionship, as a reminder that our usual judgements of good and bad, beautiful and ugly are cultural impositions and not a reality.

Day 4 – ‘Gai Tihar’ (called ‘Diwali’ on the Plains), when lamps are lit, houses repainted and cleaned. In the morning, cows are honoured for their milk, maternal instinct and gentle natures. In the evening, the imagery and mythology of Kali is used to teach that we all have the potential to ‘blast’ free our self-limiting perceptions through the progressive, enlightening expansion of consciousness.

Forest goddess

Day 5 – ‘Goru Tihar’, when oxen are honoured in gratitude for their labour, especially in tilling the fields for food. It is also the day for ‘Maha Puja’, when we honour and respect ourselves.

Maha puja

Day 6 – ‘Bhai Tihar’, when vows of devotion and life-long support are shared between siblings.

You might like to read more about the fascinating culture of these foothills in

In the Shadow of Crows and Limitless Sky

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