YogaVidhi Update

My Fellow Scholars, Seekers & Practioners,

I recently released the first of a four-part article series on the ancient roots and evolution of Surya Namaskara as the fundamental practice of the dynamic, Asana-based style of Yoga. This includes Vinyasa or Vinyasa Flow, practiced by millions worldwide today. I have spent many years mining Tantric texts for evidence around the roots of postural yoga. What I have found is beyond some claims that Surya Namaskara as it is called today, was largely innovated in the 20th century. Here, I clarify my immediate and overall objectives regarding my research, recent claims, publications and forthcoming works.

This article series shall be elaborated on in larger book project that I am currently trying to crowd fund through Indiegogo. The goal of this book project is to detail the ancient practices in a manner accessible to the lot of academics and practitioners.

The first part of the article series was released on November 26, 2016. Parts II-IV are coming in 2017.

Part I. “Sūrya Namaskāra: Ancient Practice or Modern Invention? Controversy, Textual Evidence.”

Part II. ‘Danda Practice’ Case Study of Surya Namaskāra as an Ancient Yoga Practice

Part III. The Omission of Surya Namaskāra in the Post-Tantric Hathayoga Corpus

Part IV. The Revival of Surya Namaskāra by Krishnamacharya and his List of Source Texts

Part I is written as a preview piece in which I attempt to define the controversy over the ancient roots of Surya Namaskāra. Parts II-IV contain passages from referenced Tantric sources which, I believe, will begin to corroborate the antiquity of Surya Namaskāra in its classical form, as an ancient practice of Yoga. My intent of this initial piece is to bring light to the controversy over whether or not Surya Namaskāra and Vinyāsa-based Yoga have ancient roots. I juxtaposed some of the statements made by Western scholars to the claims made on the International Day of Yoga, to those of some Indian organizers and leaders proclaiming the antiquity of this Yoga. I’ve no vested interest in who is right, nor do I believe one side is wholly in the right and the other in the wrong. I have no interest in the politics of the IDY organizers. I am sensitive to the political concerns and will continue to seek input from the community as to the best ways to disseminate this information amidst such relevant concerns.

My focus on Surya Namaskāra in Part I is correlated to the IDY for two reasons. The first is that, for the 2016 IDY event, a special focus was put on the practice of Surya Namaskāra as the foundational practice of postural yoga by its promoters. The Indian teacher ‘Sadhguru,’ for example, offered free, online instruction in Surya Namaskāra practice to a record number of people on the day of the event. The second and central reason is the presentation of the commemorative Surya Namaskāra stamp series, featuring a version of Surya Namaskāra comprised of 12 postures and known today as the ‘Classic Form’ of the practice.

The culminating moment of Part I is the section entitled “The Search for the ‘Classic’ form of Surya Namaskāra: What are we looking for?”

The ‘classic’ form, as it is known and practiced today, is defined by all or most of the following characteristics:

  1. The series nearly always consists of twelve consecutive poses, representing the 12 respective months of the solar year. These poses are led, respectively, by a series (vinyāsa) of solar seed mantras (HRĀṂ, HRĪṂ, HRŪṂ, HRAIṂ, HRAUṂ, HRAḤ) engaged first in the downward trajectory of postures, and again for the ascending trajectory.
  2. The 12-part sequence usually climaxes with the ‘8 body part’ prostration (ashtanga namaskāra/pranama) as the 6th pose
  3. The poses in the sequence are generically known as ‘daṇḍas’

Thus, Part I ends with the following questions:

“Is there any sign in ancient texts of the ‘classic’ mantra-led Namaskara sequence, as commonly taught by Pratinidhi, Krishnamacharya, the Bihar school, and portrayed by Mujumdar in his 1950 Encyclopedia? If so, is it considered a Yoga practice, as claimed by Krishnamacharya and the Bihar School? Are its postures ever referred to as dandas in ancient sources, namely or a series of ‘bending’ poses made by the body, as suggested by Ramaswami’s epithet of ‘Danda Samarpanam,’ and as claimed by Mujumdar and others? Does it contain a core, pivotal pose wherein ‘eight body parts’ come to touch the earth (Ashtanga Namaskara)? Is this sequence led by a series of seed mantras, particularly the six ‘solar’ seed mantras, as commonly taught today?”

If the answer is yes – if ancient texts give the following tenets, I argue, we may conclude that at least the so-called ‘Classic’ version of Surya Namaskāra is indeed an ancient one, as proclaimed worldwide on International Yoga Day. To summarize, we are looking for a posture-based practice known by the epithet of ‘Namaskāra’ (or a synonymous term), extant in ancient Tantric texts, one which includes the following *five* defining features:

  1. Twelve postures, based respectively on the twelve months of the solar year;
  2. The epithet of danda (bending pose) referring to the individual postures of the sequence, and/or ‘Dandavat’, an umbrella term for the sequence of flowing danda postures as a whole
  3. Ashtanga Namaskāra, Mujumdar’s ‘eight-body part’ posture, is featured as the pivotal sixth pose; it is engaged upon the ground after a sequence of 5 descending poses, followed by 5 ascending postures ending with the practitioner coming back into a standing position (as exhibited, for example, in the 2016 stamp series)
  4. Six ‘Seed’ Mantras which respectively lead the twelve poses, particularly the following mantras associated with the sun – HRĀM, HRĪM HRŪM, HRAIM, HRAUM, followed by HRAH.
  5. The sequence, comprised of the above features, is proclaimed to be a ‘Yoga’ practice (i.e. an upavasa, or preliminary practice of yoga).

Hence, Part I’s conclusion is that a practice identified as ‘Namaskara’, featuring these core five tenets, is indeed prescribed in innumerable source texts representing some 10 lineages found in three major branches of the medieval Tantric tradition. These lineages include the Saiva-based ‘Path of Mantras’ (Mantramarga), the Goddess-based Kaula Tantras, and those of the Pancaratra, the Vaishnava-based movement of Tantrism to which Krishnamacharya’s lineage belongs. I furthermore preview Part II if this article series by noting that ‘…among the earliest works to detail a postural Namaskāra practice are a group of Tantras belonging to the Saiva Mantramarga, which served as the scriptural authority for a sect known as the Virasaivas (‘Warriors of Śiva’), who flourished (and still flourish today) in parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Kerala, is the Virasaiva Tantras, comprising a corpus which dates to perhaps 1000 A.D., include the Amsuvati, Ajita, Dipta, Karana, Kamika, Makuta, Vathula and Candrajnana Tantras.’

I name the majority of Tantric scriptures and commentarial works (totaling tens of thousands of verses) to be referenced in the next article. I further state that:

"All of these give detailed descriptions of a daily (nitya) Yoga-based postural practice alternately called the Namaskāra Kriya (Physical ‘Rite of Namaskara’), the Namaskāra Vidhi (‘Namaskāra Sequence’), the Pranama Kriya (Physical ‘Rite of Prostration’), or the Pranama Vidhi (‘Prostration Sequence’). In each case, the individual poses comprising the Namaskāra rite are referred to generically as Daṇḍas, whereas the practitioner is called a Daṇḍavat, one who takes on a series of Daṇḍa postures. Each of these Tantras presents a twelve-part sequence of Dandas identical or very similar to the ‘Soorya Namaskar’ outlined by Mujumdar and described as an ‘ancient’ practice in his Encyclopedia, published in 1950, a claim questioned by Singleton, as mentioned."

Most people reading my articles believe my arguments to be true. But I ask any critics to wait until the evidence is presented in the shortly forthcoming articles before coming to any conclusions. As one might imagine, this process entails collating a lot of evidence, which once presented is certainly subject to the much anticipated process of peer review. I have every intention to release this information with references through the upcoming article series starting early in the new year. I understand that some might feel frustrated that all of my sources haven’t been revealed yet, I want to do this in an intelligent manner. Thus, I’m going through the rigorous channels of the academic process, as well as public channels as I also feel a responsibility to my students and community to share previews of some of the information as it is uncovered much like anyone does in anticipation of an upcoming book publication. 

Compassionately yours,

Chris