An intro to Kundalini Yoga

The word Kundalini is a familiar one to all students of Yoga, as it is well known as the power, in the form of a coiled serpent, residing in Muladhara Chakra, the first of the seven Chakras, the other six being Svadhishthana, Manipuraka, Anahata, Visuddha, Ajna and Sahasrara, in order.

All Sadhanas in the form of Japa, meditation, Kirtan and prayer as well as all development of virtues, and observance of austerities like truth, non-violence and continence are at best calculated only to awaken this serpent-power and make it to pass through all the succeeding Chakras beginning from Svadhishthana to Sahasrara, the latter otherwise called as the thousand-petalled lotus, the seat of Sadasiva or the Parabrahman or the Absolute separated from whom the Kundalini or the Shakti lies at the Muladhara, and to unite with whom the Kundalini passes through all the Chakras, as explained above, conferring liberation on the aspirant who assiduously practises Yoga or the technique of uniting her with her Lord and gets success also in his effort.

In worldly-minded people, given to enjoyment of sensual and sexual pleasures, this Kundalini power is sleeping because of the absence of any stimulus in the form of spiritual practices, as the power generated through such practices alone awakens that serpent-power, and not any other power derived through the possession of worldly riches and affluence. When the aspirant seriously practises all the disciplines as enjoined in the Shastras, and as instructed by the preceptor, in whom the Kundalini would have already been awakened and reached its abode or Sadasiva, acquiring which blessed achievement alone a person becomes entitled to act as a Guru or spiritual preceptor, guiding and helping others also to achieve the same end, the veils or layers enmeshing Kundalini begin to be cleared and finally are torn asunder and the serpent-power is pushed or driven, as it were upwards.

Supersensual visions appear before the mental eye of the aspirant, new worlds with indescribable wonders and charms unfold themselves before the Yogi, planes after planes reveal their existence and grandeur to the practitioner and the Yogi gets divine knowledge, power and bliss, in increasing degrees, when Kundalini passes through Chakra after Chakra, making them to bloom in all their glory which before the touch of Kundalini, do not give out their powers, emanating their divine light and fragrance and reveal the divine secrets and phenomena, which lie concealed from the eyes of worldly-minded people who would refuse to believe of their existence even.

When the Kundalini ascends one Chakra or Yogic centre, the Yogi also ascends one step or rung upward in the Yogic ladder; one more page, the next page, he reads in the divine book; the more the Kundalini travels upwards, the Yogi also advances towards the goal or spiritual perfection in relation to it. When the Kundalini reaches the sixth centre or the Ajna Chakra, the Yogi gets the vision of Personal God or Saguna Brahman, and when the serpent-power reaches the last, the top centre, or Sahasrara Chakra, or the Thousand-petalled lotus, the Yogi loses his individuality in the ocean of Sat-Chit-Ananda or the Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute and becomes one with the Lord or Supreme Soul. He is no longer an ordinary man, not even a simple Yogi, but a fully illumined sage, having conquered the eternal and unlimited divine kingdom, a hero having won the battle against illusion, a Mukta or liberated one having crossed the ocean of ignorance or the transmigratory existence, and a superman having the authority and capacity to save the other struggling souls of the relative world. Scriptures hail him most, in the maximum possible glorifying way, and his achievement. Celestial beings envy him, not excluding the Trinity even, viz., Brahma, Vishnu and Siva.

Kundalini And Tantrik Sadhana

Kundalini Yoga actually belongs to Tantrik Sadhana, which gives a detailed description about this serpent-power and the Chakras, as mentioned above. Mother Divine, the active aspect of the Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute, resides in the body of men and women in the form of Kundalini, and the entire Tantrik Sadhana aims at awakening Her, and making Her to unite with the Lord, Sadasiva, in the Sahasrara, as described in the beginning in detail. Methods adopted to achieve this end in Tantrik Sadhana are Japa of the name of the Mother, prayer and various rituals.

Kundalini And Hatha Yoga

Hatha Yoga also builds up its philosophy around this Kundalini and the methods adopted in it are different from Tantrik Sadhana. Hatha Yoga seeks to awaken this Kundalini through the discipline of the physical body, purification of Nadis and controlling the Prana. Through a number of physical poses called Yoga Asanas it tones up the entire nervous system, and brings it under the conscious control of the Yogi, through Bandhas and Mudras it controls the Prana, regulates its movements and even blocks and seals it without allowing it to move, through Kriyas it purifies the inner organs of physical body and, finally, through Pranayama it brings the mind itself under the control of the Yogi. Kundalini is made to go upwards towards Sahasrara through these combined methods.

Kundalini And Raja Yoga

But Raja Yoga mentions nothing about this Kundalini, but propounds a still subtle, higher path, philosophical and rational, and asks the aspirant to control the mind, to withdraw all the senses and to plunge in meditation. Unlike Hatha Yoga which is mechanical and mystical, Raja Yoga teaches a technique with eight limbs, appealing to the heart and intellect of aspirants. It advocates moral and ethical development through its Yama and Niyama, helps the intellectual and cultural development through Svadhyaya or study of holy Scriptures, satisfies the emotional and devotional aspect of human nature by enjoining to surrender oneself to the will of the Creator, has an element of mysticism by including Pranayama also as one of the eight limbs and finally, prepares the aspirant for unbroken meditation on the Absolute through a penultimate step of concentration. Neither in philosophy nor in its prescription of methods of Raja Yoga mentions about Kundalini, but sets the human mind and Chitta as its targets to be destroyed as they alone make the individual soul to forget its real nature and brings on it birth and death and all the woes of phenomenal existence.

Kundalini And Vedanta

But when we come to Vedanta, there is no question about Kundalini or any type of mystical and mechanical methods. It is all enquiry and philosophical speculation. According to Vedanta the only thing to be destroyed is ignorance about one’s real nature, and this ignorance cannot be destroyed either by study, or by Pranayama, or by work, or by any amount of physical twisting and torturing, but only by knowing one’s real nature, which is Sat-Chit-Ananda or Existence-Knowledge-Bliss. Man is divine, free and one with the Supreme Spirit always, which he forgets and identifies himself with matter, which itself is an illusory appearance and a superimposition on the spirit. Liberation is freedom from ignorance and the aspirant is advised to constantly dissociate himself from all limitations and identify himself with the all-pervading, non-dual, blissful, peaceful, homogeneous spirit or Brahman. When meditation becomes intensified, in the ocean of Existence or rather the individuality is blotted or blown out completely. Just as a drop of water let on a frying pan is immediately sucked and vanishes from cognition, the individual consciousness is sucked in by the Universal Consciousness and is absorbed in it. According to Vedanta there cannot be real liberation in a state of multiplicity, and the state of complete Oneness is the goal to be aspired for, towards which alone the entire creation is slowly moving on.

 

 

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Yoga : Origin, Principles, Practice and Types

Yoga is a family of ancient spiritual practices that originated in India, where it remains a vibrant living tradition and is seen as a means to enlightenment. Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Raja Yoga are considered the four main yogas, but there are many other types. In other parts of the world where yoga is popular, notably the United States, yoga has become associated with the asanas (postures) of Hatha Yoga, which are popular as fitness exercises. Yoga as a means to enlightenment is central to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, and has influenced other religious and spiritual practices throughout the world. Important Hindu texts establishing the basis for yoga include the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

 

Yoga practice and intention

Modern yoga practice often includes traditional elements inherited from Hinduism, such as moral and ethical principles, postures designed to keep the body fit, spiritual philosophy, instruction by a guru, chanting of mantras (sacred syllables), quietening the breath, and stilling the mind through meditation. These elements are sometimes adapted to meet the needs of non­Hindu practitioners. Proponents of yoga see daily practice as beneficial in itself, leading to improved health, emotional well­being, mental clarity, and joy in living. (Some skeptics question these claims.) Yoga adepts progress toward the experience of samadhi, an advanced state of meditation where there is absorption in inner ecstasy.

The goals of yoga are expressed differently in different traditions. In theistic Hinduism, yoga may be seen as a set of practices intended to bring people closer to God ­ to help them achieve union with God. In Buddhism, which does not postulate a creator­type God, yoga may help people deepen their wisdom, compassion, and insight. In Western nations, where there is a strong emphasis on individualism, yoga practice may be an extension of the search for meaning in self, and integration of the different aspects of being. The terms Self­Realization and God­Realization are used interchangeably in Hindu yoga, with the underlying belief that the true nature of self, revealed through the practice of yoga, is of the same nature as God.

The ultimate goal of yoga is the attainment of liberation (Moksha) from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). Yoga entails mastery over the body, mind, and emotional self, and transcendence of desire. It is said to lead gradually to knowledge of the true nature of reality. The Yogi reaches an enlightened state where there is a cessation of thought and an experience of blissful union. This union may be of the individual soul (Atman) with the supreme Reality (Brahman), as in Vedanta philosophy; or with a specific god or goddess, as in theistic forms of Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism. Enlightenment may also be described as extinction of the limited ego, and direct and lasting perception of the non­dual nature of the universe. For the average person still far from enlightenment, yoga can be a way of increasing one’s love for God, or cultivating compassion and insight. While the history of yoga strongly connects it with Hinduism, proponents claim that yoga is not a religion itself, but contains practical steps which can benefit people of all religions, as well as those who do not consider themselves religious.

The word “yoga”

The word “yoga” – from the Sanskrit root yuj (“to yoke”) – is generally translated as “union of the individual atma (loosely translated to mean soul) with Paramatma, the universal soul.” This may be understood as union with the Divine by integration of body, mind, and spirit. Thus, in essence, one who attempts yoga may loosely be referred to as a yogi or in Sanskrit, a yogin (masculine) or yogini (feminine). These designations are actually intended for advanced practitioners , who have already made considerable progress along the path, towards yoga.(Ajit,2005)

 

Diversity of yoga

Over the long history of yoga, different schools have emerged, and there are numerous examples of subdivisions and synthesis. It is common to speak of each form of yoga as a “path” to enlightenment. Thus, yoga may include love and devotion (as in Bhakti Yoga), selfless work (as in Karma Yoga), knowledge and discernment (as in Jnana Yoga), or an eight­limbed system of disciplines emphasizing meditation (as in Raja Yoga). These practices occupy a continuum from the religious to the scientific. They need not be mutually exclusive. (A person who follows the path of selfless work might also cultivate some knowledge and devotion.) Some people (particularly in Western cultures) pursue yoga as exercise divorced from spiritual practice.

Other types of yoga include Mantra Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Integral Yoga, Nitya Yoga, Maha Yoga, Purna Yoga, Anahata Yoga, Tantra Yoga, Tibetan Yoga, Yin Yoga etc. It’s often helpful to check the teacher and lineage to be sure how these terms are being used. Another name for Raja Yoga (“royal yoga”) is Ashtanga Yoga (“eightlimbed yoga”), but this should not be confused with the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, which is a specific style of Hatha Yoga practice.

Yoga and religion

In the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain traditions, the spiritual goals of yoga are seen as inseparable from the religions of which yoga forms a part. Some yogis make a subtle distinction between religion and yoga, seeing religion as more concerned with culture, values, beliefs and rituals; and yoga as more concerned with Self­Realization, i.e., direct perception of the ultimate truth. In this sense, religion and yoga are complementary. Sri Ramakrishna likened religion to the husk, and direct experience to the kernel. Both are needed, “but if one wants to get at the kernel itself, he must remove the husk of the grain.”

Some forms of yoga come replete with a rich iconography, while others are more austere and minimalist. Hindu practitioners of yoga are proud of their religious traditions, while non­Hindu practitioners claim that yoga may be practiced sincerely by those who have not accepted the Hindu religion. While the yoga tradition remains rooted in India, the fact that some modern yogis like Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda came to the West suggests that they saw hope the yoga tradition could also flourish there. Critics of yoga as practiced in the West charge that it is sometimes watered down, corrupted, or cut off from its spiritual roots (e.g. the popular view that yoga is primarily physical exercises).

If yoga is one of India’s great gifts to the world, the widespread acceptance of that gift ­ with the concomitant diversity ­ is sometimes incomprehensible to traditional Hindu practitioners of yoga. Yet the sheer number of people practicing yoga outside India suggests the need to define yoga both by its historical roots and its modern adaptations.

 

Common themes

Common to most forms of yoga is the practice of concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana). Dharana, according to Patanjali’s definition, is the “binding of consciousness to a single point.” The awareness is concentrated on a fine point of sensation (such as that of the breath entering and leaving the nostrils). Sustained single-pointed concentration gradually leads to meditation (dhyana), in which the inner faculties are able to expand and merge with something vast. Meditators sometimes report feelings of peace, joy, and oneness.

The focus of meditation may differ from school to school, e.g. meditation on one of the chakras, such as the heart center (anahata) or the third eye (ajna); or meditation on a particular deity, such as Krishna; or on a quality like peace. Non­dualist schools such as Advaita Vedanta may stress meditation on the Supreme with no form or qualities (Nirguna Brahman). This resembles Buddhist meditation on the Void.

Another common element is the spiritual teacher (guru in Sanskrit; lama in Tibetan). While emphasized to varying degrees by all schools of yoga, in some the guru is seen as an embodiment of the Divine. The guru guides the student (shishya or chela) through yogic discipline from the beginning. Thus, the novice yoga student is to find and devote himself to a satguru (true teacher). Traditionally, knowledge of yoga­­ as well as permission to practice it or teach it­­ has been passed down through initiatory chains of gurus and their students. This is called guruparampara.

The yoga tradition is one of practical experience, but also incorporates texts which explain the techniques and philosophy of yoga. Many gurus write on the subject, either providing modern translations and elucidations of classical texts, or explaining how their particular teachings should be followed. A guru may also found an ashram or order of monks; these comprise the institutions of yoga. The yoga tradition has also been a fertile source of inspiration for poetry, music, dance, and art.

When students associate with a particular teacher, school, ashram or order, this naturally creates yoga communities where there are shared practices. Chanting of mantras such as Aum, singing of spiritual songs, and studying sacred texts are all common themes. The importance of any one element may differ from school to school, or student to student. Differences do not always reflect disagreement, but rather a multitude of approaches meant to serve students of differing needs, background and temperament.

The yogi is sometimes portrayed as going beyond rules based morality. This does not mean that a yogi will act in an immoral fashion, but rather that he or she will act with direct knowledge of the supreme Reality. In some legends, a yogi­­ having amassed merit through spiritual practice­­ may then cause mischief even to the gods. Some yogis in history have been naked ascetics ­­such as Swami Trailanga, who greatly vexed the occupying British in 19th century Benares by wandering about in a state of innocence.

 

Origins

Images of a meditating yogi from the Indus Valley Civilization are thought to be 6 to 7 thousand years old. The earliest written accounts of yoga appear in the Rig Veda, which began to be codified between 1500 and 1200 BC. It is difficult to establish the date of yoga from this as the Rig Veda was orally transmitted for at least a millennium. The first Yoga text dates to around the 2nd century BC by Patanjali, and prescribes adherence to “eight limbs” (the sum of which constitute “Ashtanga Yoga”) to quiet one’s mind and merge with the infinite.

The first full description of the principles and goals of yoga are found in the Upanisads, thought to have been composed between the eighth and fourth centuries BC. The Upanisads are also called Vedanta since they constitute the end or conclusion of the Vedas (the traditional body of spiritual wisdom). In the Upanisads, the older practises of offering sacrifices and ceremonies to appease external gods gives way instead to a new understanding that man can, by means of an inner sacrifice, become one with the Supreme Being (referred to as Brahman or Mahatman) ­­ through moral culture, restraint and training of the mind.


Hindu yoga

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita famously distinguishes several types of “yoga”, corresponding to the duties of different nature of people. Capturing the essence and at the same time going into detail about the various Yogas and their philosophies, it constantly refers to itself as such, the “Scripture of Yoga” (see the final verses of each chapter). The book is thought to have been written some time between the 5th and the 2nd century BC. In it, Krishna describes the following yogas:

1. Karma yoga, the yoga of “action” in the world.

2. Jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge and intellectual endeavor.

3. Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion to a deity (for example, to Krishna).

Patanjali

Perhaps the classic description of yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which form the basis not only of the darshana called “yoga”­­one of six such “orthodox” (i.e. Vedaaccepting) schools of Hindu philosophy­­but also of the practice of yoga in most ashrams (to the extent these can be distinguished). The school (dharshana) of Indian philosophy known as “yoga” is primarily Upanishadic with roots in Samkhya, and some scholars see some influence from Buddhism. The Yoga philosophy fully believes in the epistemology of the Samkhya school, as well as its concept of the individual spirits (Purusha) and the Nature (Prakriti)— but differs from Samkhya’s atheism.

Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras presents the goal of yoga as ‘the cessation of mental fluctuations’ (cittavrtti nirodha), an achievement which gives rise to the possibility of stable meditation and thus deeper states of absorption (dhyana or samadhi). This requires considerable restraint (yama) and self­discipline (niyama; see below for Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga)). Patanjali’s yoga is sometimes called Raja Yoga (Skt: “Royal yoga”) or “Ashtanga Yoga” (“Eight­Limbed Yoga”), in order to distinguish it from Hatha yoga. It is held as authoritative by all schools. Patanjali is also known for writing commentaries (Mahabhashya) on the Sutras of the great Sanskrit grammarian Panini. In fact, Panini, Patanjali and Katyayana are regarded are the highest authority not only in Sanskrit but also in the whole of Linguistics.

Patanjali’s text sets forth eight “limbs” of yoga practice. Interestingly, only one of them involves physical postures (and these mainly involve seated positions). The eight are:

1. Yama (The five “abstentions”): violence, lying, theft, (illicit­) sex, and possessions

2. Niyama (The five “observances”): purity, contentment, austerities, study, and surrender to God

3. Asana: This term literally means “seat,” and originally referred mainly to seated positions. With the rise of Hatha yoga, it came to be used of these yoga “postures” as well.

4. Pranayama: Control of prana or vital breath

5. Pratyahara (“Abstraction”): “that by which the senses do not come into contact with their objects and, as it were, follow the nature of the mind.” — Vyasa

6. Dharana (“Concentration”): Fixing the attention on a single object

7. Dhyana (“Meditation”)

8. Samadhi: Super­conscious state or trance (state of liberation)

 

God in Yoga philosophy

The philosophy of Yoga also presented certain arguments for the existence of God (Ishvara, lit., the Supreme Lord):

  • The Vedas are regarded as evidence. The Vedas and their commentaries, the Upanishads mention and describe God —hence God exists.
  • Continuity: people and things have various degrees of differences among themselves. Some people are foolish, some are wise. Hence there ought to be some Being who has the highest level of knowledge among all—who is omniscient. That Being is God
  • Cosmic Evolution, leading to this universe, occurs because of the contact between Purusha (spirit) and Prakriti (Nature). Purusha is static, and Prakriti is unconscious. Hence there can be no contact between these two things of opposite characteristics, unless God— the omniscient Being—brings about this contact.
  • Meditation upon God is regarded as the best means of attaining Liberation. If meditation on such a Being helps in liberation, and all obstacles are removed, then the object of the meditation must have a real existence. Ishvara is regarded as a special Purusha, who is beyond sorrow and Karma laws. He is one, perfect, infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and eternal. He is beyond the three qualities of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. He is different from an ordinary liberated spirit, because the latter were bound once, whereas

Ishvara was never bound. He is kind and merciful. He is the father of the demigods (the various Devas) and of the sages (rishis), as well as their guru; He is the author of the Vedas. Yoga system is perhaps the first philosophy in the world to give arguments for monotheism. Yoga says that Ishvara can be only one and unique. If many Gods are assumed:

  • Let’s say if they are two Gods. If God #1 gives a certain quality (say white color) to a thing and God #2 gives another (say black color) to the same thing, this would be mutually contradictory. On the other hand, if God #1’s choice reigns supreme, God #2 would fail to remain as God
  • Let’s say that the Gods work in as a committee to do certain tasks one by one. Then while one God is doing his work, the existence of the other Gods would be superfluous and unnecessary.

 

Hatha yoga

Over the last century the term yoga has come to be especially associated with the postures (Sanskrit asanas) of hatha yoga (“Forced Yoga”). Hatha yoga has gained wide popularity outside of India and traditional yoga­practicing religions, and the postures are sometimes presented as entirely secular or non­spiritual in nature.

Traditional Hatha Yoga is a complete yogic path, including moral disciplines, physical exercises (e.g., postures and breath control), and meditation, and encompasses far more than the yoga of postures and exercises practiced in the West as physical culture. The seminal work on Hatha Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written by Swami Svatmarama.

Hatha Yoga was invented to provide a form of physical purification and training that would prepare aspirants for the higher training that is called Raja Yoga (see above). This is still true today. Despite this, many in the West practice ‘Hatha yoga’ solely for the perceived health benefits it provides, and not as a path to enlightenment.

Natya yoga

The guide to Natya (Dance) Yoga was written by Bharata Muni. Sage Narada along with Gandharvas were the first to practise Natya Yoga, which comprise all the four main yoga’s. Natya Yoga was practised by the medieval devadasis, and is currently taught in a few orthodox schools of Bharatanatyam and Odissi.


Buddhist yoga

Within the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism yoga likewise holds a central place, though not in the form presented by Patanjali or the Gita. (For example, physical postures are rarely practiced.) An example would be “guru yoga,” the union with the mind of the spiritual teacher which must be done at the beginning of the spiritual path and regularly throughout. In the tantric traditions a number of practices are classified with the name “yoga”, for example, the two of the four general classification of tantras­­”Yoga Tantra” and “Highest Yoga Tantra”.

A system of 108 bodily postures practiced with breath and heart rhythm timing in movement exercises is known as Thrul­Khor or union of moon and sun (channel) prajna energies. The body postures of tibetan ancient yogis are depicted on the walls of the Dalai Lama’s summer temple of Lukhang.

As the whole buddhist lineage transmission of Kagyu school came to Tibet over the Indian Yogis Naropa, Tilopa, Marpa then Milarepa, Gampopa, authentic old buddhist yogic practices have been passed over to students still following these instructions throughout many Kagyu Monasteries and institutes worldwide.

Yogacara (“Yoga Adepts”), which is also known as Cittamatra (“Consciousness Only”) is an important philosophical school within Indo­Tibetan Buddhism.


Yoga and tantra

Yoga is often mentioned in company with Tantra. While the two have deep similarities, most traditions distinguish them from one another.

They are similar in that both amount to families of spiritual texts, practices, and lineages with origins in the Indian subcontinent. (Coincidentally, both have been popularized to some extent in the West, with perhaps a shallower understanding of their nature). It should be noted however that for the most part, we are speaking of different families of texts, lineages, etc.

Their differences are variously expressed. Some Hindu commentators see yoga as a process whereby body consciousness is seen as the root cause of bondage, while Samkhya and Yoga in Hinduism and Buddhism tantra views the body as a means to understanding, rather than as an obstruction. It must be said that in India, tantra often carries quite negative connotations involving sexual misbehavior and black magic. Nevertheless, most forms of tantra follow more mainstream social mores. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is generally classified as a Hindu tantric scripture.

Tantra has roots in the first millennium CE, and incorporates much more of a theistic basis. Almost entirely founded on Shiva and Shakti worship, Hindu tantra visualizes the ultimate Brahman as Param Shiva, manifested through Shiva (the passive, masculine force of Lord Shiva) and Shakti (the active, creative feminine force of his consort, variously known as Ma Kali, Durga, Shakti, Parvati and others). It focuses on the kundalini, a three and a half­coiled ‘snake’ of spiritual energy at the base of the spine that rises through the chakras until union between Shiva and Shakti (also known as samadhi) is achieved. (Some Hindu yoga teachers, however, have adopted these concepts.)

Tantra emphasises mantra (Sanskrit prayers, often to gods, that are repeated), yantra (complex symbols representing gods in various forms through intricate geometric figures), and rituals that range from simple murti (statue representations of deities) or image worship to meditation on a corpse! While tantric texts (see kaularvatantra, mahanirvana tantra) and teachers (e.g. Abhinava Gupta) may seem odd and highly arcane from the point of view of classical yoga, that these incorporate yoga concepts seems clear.

In Tibetan Buddhism, which embraces both, yoga is seen as a synonym for “spiritual practice,” while “tantra” refers to a specific category of texts and practices, etc that are roughly analogous to the Hindu ones described above. (The fact that Hindu “yoga” has these things as well may have escaped the attention of classical Tibetan commentators.) In that spirit other Buddhist traditions, such as Theravada, practice a form of “yoga” but reject “tantra.”

 

 

This has been adapted with modifications under the TGNU Free Documentation License (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) from the Wikipedia article “Yoga” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga)

Mudras, an introduction

Mudra is a term with many meanings. It is used to signify a gesture, a mystic position of the hands, a seal, or even a symbol. However, there are eye positions, body postures, and breathing techniques that are called mudras. These symbolic finger, eye, and body postures can vividly depict certain states or processes of consciousness. Conversely, specific positions can also lead to the states of consciousness that they symbolize. What does this mean in concrete terms? For example, a person who frequently and fervently does the gesture of fearlessness, which can often be seen in the depiction of Indian deities, will also be freed from fearfulness with time. So mudras engage certain areas of the brain and/or soul and exercise a corresponding influence on them. However, mudras are also effective on the physical level. We can effectively engage and influence our body and our mind by bending, crossing, extending, or touching the fingers with other fingers. Isn’t this wonderful? In Hatha Yoga, there are 25 mudras. These also include eye and body positions (asanas) and locks (bandhas). Especially in Kundalini Yoga, the hand mudras are used during the body postures to intensify their effect. In this respect, Kundalini Yoga assumes that every area of the hand forms a reflex zone for an associated part of the body and the brain. In this way, we can consider the hands to be a mirror for our body and our mind.

As I recently meditated on the term mudra, I became particularly aware of the symbol of a lock. A lock always conceals a secret. We frequently use gestures in an unconscious way to seal something; for example, when giving special weight to a decision, or reaching an agreement with another person, or even with cosmic consciousness. In precisely the same way, we may also seal something with our inner forces—we reach an understanding with ourselves. I don’t believe we will ever completely understand the essence of the mudras. The enigmatic touches on the Divine—so each mudra ultimately creates a special connection to cosmic consciousness (or however you prefer to call the Divine). This symbolism, in particular, is the basis of the best-known hand mudra of yoga, the Chin Mudra. The thumb is symbolic of cosmic (divine) and the index finger is symbolic of individual (human) consciousness. The ultimate or primary goal of yoga is the oneness of humanity with cosmic consciousness. With this gesture, the human being expresses this desire, this longing. It is interesting to note that both these fingers belong to the metal element in Chinese Five Element Theory . Metal is the material that is the best conductor—it conducts energy. According to this teaching, the metal element also creates the connection with the cosmic world, and inspiration and intuition dwell in this element. The index finger represents inspiration (energy from the outside) and the thumb stands for intuition (inner energy). In this gesture, intuition and inspiration form a closed unity. The power of the microcosm and the macrocosm are connected and mutually fructify each other. We see that if we dig into the depths of the ancient teachings long enough—or go far enough into the heights—we will find ourselves at the other end again.

Origin of the Mudras

The origin of the mudras is a mystery. Mudras are not only found in Asia, but they are also used throughout the entire world. In their rituals, our European ancestors certainly were familiar with specific gestures, which they used to underline and seal what they thought and wanted to say. During the Christianization of the Nordic peoples, many gestures were initially prohibited, such as invoking the gods with raised arms. Later, these gestures were partially integrated into the Christian teachings. If we observe the various gestures made by a priest, we can perhaps sense how these ancient peoples expressed themselves. But our everyday life is also characterized by gestures, the origins of which hardly anyone knows today: crossing our fingers for someone, clapping our hands as applause, the handshake, holding hands, or “giving someone the finger” to display our low opinion of them.

In India, mudras are an established component of all religious activities. The various mudras and hastas (arm poses) are significant in the depiction of Hindu gods. In addition to body postures and attributes, they also represent the distinguishing characteristics of various deities. The person at prayer sees a special power, capability, and strength of character in these mystical hand poses. The best-known mudras of the major gods Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver), and Shiva (Destroyer) are numbers  jnana and chin mudra (Gesture of consciousness and gesture of knowledge) , atmanjali (Gesture of prayer) , dhyani (Gesture of meditation—of contemplation) , abhaya (Gesture for promising protection) , varada (Gesture of granting wishes or mercy), bhumisparsha mudra (Gesture of enlightenment, or gesture of calling witnesses)

The mudras are just as familiar in Indian dance, where the hands, eyes, and body movements act and/or dance the entire drama without words. Mudra specialist Ingrid Ramm-Bonwitt describes this beautifully, “The hands are the bearers of important symbols, which are still universally understood in the East today. With his or her hands, the Indian dancer expresses the life of the universe. Through its variety of interpretive possibilities, the rich symbolism of the dance’s language of gestures gains a greater significance for the mind than words could express. . . . The spiritual meaning of the mudras found its perfect expression in Indian art. The gestures of the deities depicted in Hindu and Buddhist art . . . symbolize their functions or evoke specific mythological occurrences.”. Mudras are also practiced in Tantric rituals. They play a large role in Buddhism, where six mudras are very familiar in the pictorial depictions of Gautama Buddha. These are very closely related to his teachings and his life. Hatha Yoga also expresses the many states of mind, such as mourning, joy, anger, and serenity, through gestures and body positions. They realize that the reverse also applies—certain gestures can positively influence the psyche. 

(In another article we ‘ll explore and practice some  of the yoga mudras )

 

__information and bibliography : “yoga in your hands” by Gertrud Hirsch __