Primary conceptions of the yogic body in medieval tantric yoga and modern yoga

I wrote the following text as part of the MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS University. I hope you enjoy it and please send your comments to: adriana.n8yoga@gmail.com

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The origin of the concept of the Yogic Body

The Yogic Body refers to the ‘subtle anatomy of the practitioner’s body’ (Samuel 2008:271). The concept of ‘subtle body’ developed mainly in Asian cultures, particularly Indic and Chinese since before the Common Era and referred to a bodily system placed in ‘an intermediate level (or series of levels)’, between mind (’spirit, consciousness’) and matter (Samuel and Johnston 2013:1).The earliest terms suggesting concepts of a subtle body, are found in some Vedic texts before the Common Era, for example the Atharva Veda mentions the flow of winds and concepts of prana around the body (see Ewing’s 1901:280). Samuel (Samuel and Johnston 2013:33) points out that the first mention of the concept of kosas and the existence of a central channelin the Taittiriya Upanisad (fourth or fifth century BCE), was the ‘first major appearance of subtle body concepts within the Indic textual tradition’.

The Taittiriya Upanisad describes the kosa as five different layers or ‘sheaths’ of self from the physical material body (anna-maya) to deeper inner layers: the layer of breath or prana-maya, the body of mind or mano-maya, the body of intellect or vijnana-maya, and the body of blissor ananda-maya  (Samuel -Samuel and Johnston 2013:33).

Samuel (Samuel and Johnston 2013:34) argues that the Vedic texts found these concerns as ‘obstacles to the achievement of union with Brahman’, therefore they had a negative connotation. This is not the case with Tantra where the subtle body was of great importance in the development of ritual practices by ‘offering potentiality for yogic practices leading to spiritual transformation.’ (Samuel -Samuel and Johnston 2013:34).

The Yogic Body in medieval tantric yoga

In the early tantric context, we fundamentally refer to esoteric practices. White (2012:15) argues, that these are far from modern yogic practices and closer to ’black magic and sorcery’. It is later around the eighth to nineth centuries that the practices regarding the subtle body are shaped in concrete ideas (Samuel and Johnston 2013). The conception of the yogic body in tantra served as a base for later development of practices and yogic techniques (Mallison and Singleton 2017:172). Around the tenth to eleventh century, and particularly in the development of hathayoga (Mallison and Singleton 2017), the yogic body takes a different dimension with the specification of a complete subtle body system.

Medieval India saw a big development and complexity on the yogic body among the different religious currents. Flood (2006:23) argues that speaking of the body is speaking also about temporality, tradition, and culture. In this context, the tantric yogic body reflects the different understandings, current of thought, sects, religions, and all different contexts where it was invented, created, or experienced. In addition, the different traditions presented different yogic bodies (Mallison and Singleton 2017:172).

It is important here to remark that the tantric yogic body is also an expression of devotion as one of the most important characteristics of tantra is precisely the element of devotion to the different deities (Flood 2006). ‘Divinising’ or ‘empowering’ the body was also an important characteristic of tantrism among the different traditions (Flood 2006:11).

The spectrum of elements, believes, practices and understandings of the yogic body in the tantric period has not yet been studied in depth; but represents an important influence on later practices, particularly on hathayoga after the 15th century (Mallison and Singleton 2017).

The yogic body and sex in tantra

Although the ‘use of sex is not found in all Tantric traditions (Padoux in Harper and Brown 2002:20), the yogic body is related to some sexual practices during the tantric period, ‘intercourse, real or imagined…used as a way to stimulate the flow of substances along and within the body’ (Samuel 2008:271). For Padoux (in Harper and Brown 2002:20), a characteristic of tantrism is precisely to use things that are forbidden, such as sex and the consumption of sexual fluids, to transgress norms and ‘to participate in the dark, chaotic, undisciplined, and very powerful forces that are normally repressed and kept outside the pure, orderly, circumscribed world of the Brahmin.’

White (2012:14-15) gives to these sexual practices a darker sense: yogis engaging forcefully with women particularly from lower castes or prostitutes to ‘consume’ their forbidden substances, i.e. ’semen, menstrual blood, feces, urine, human flesh, and the like.’ According to White (2012:14-16) either by sexual orgasm or consuming these substances, the yogi would ‘breakthrough levels of consciousness’ and achieve supernatural powers. Samuel (Samuel and Johnston 2013:41) argues that the use of these substances was motivated by ‘their value as being polluting, dangerous and so magically potent.’

White (2012:16) describes the believe adopted by Jains and Buddhists that ‘the semen of the practitioner, lying inert in the coiled body of the serpentine kundalini in the lower abdomen, becomes heated through the bellows effect of pranayama’, the awakened kundalini would then climb the central susumna channel, piercing on its way all the different cakras releasing the heath and trans-mutating kundalini´s body. White (2012:16) also describes some rituals around these believes, like dancing yoginis drinking male semen, that then would be transformed ‘into the nectar of immortality, which the yogi then drinks internally from the bowl of his own skull.’

All these descriptions and practices developed taking different shapes later, moving in some cases away from the use of sex, and particularly during the development of hathayoga. Visualization, meditation, and other practices were developed.

The Yogic body and the cosmos

The yogic body was also related to the cosmos (Flood 2006, White 2012, Mallison and Singleton 2017). For Flood (2006:21), ‘the tantric body is a metaphor that maps the cosmos’ and ‘is a lived body that performs that mapping’; as Mallison and Singleton (2017:171) put it ‘a microcosm of the macrocosmic universe’ that had affected practitioners´ lives in an existential way.

Hathayoga and the subtle body

In the development of hathayoga, particularly dating around the fifteenth century onwards with texts such as the Hathayogapradipika (HYP) and the Siva Samhita (SS), one of the main elements of practice is pranayama and its function to clean and balance the subtle body (Singleton 2010). Singleton (2010:29) argues that it is not only pranayama but nearly all practices in hathayoga that aim to purify and balance the nadis.

The ‘subtle physiology of the body’ (Samuel 2008:271), or as Mallison and Singleton (2017:171) call it: a ‘network of psychophysical centres’, is composed by nadis or channels where different substances (Samuel 2008), ‘airs’, and ‘vital forces’ travel through, such as ‘vayus’, ‘bindu’ and ‘Kundalini’ (Mallison and Singleton 2017:171). These channels cross at different intersections called the cakras.

The yogic practices that developed, having early roots, starting around the 8th century CE among Saiva and Buddhist milieus, where supposed to encourage a constant flow of these substances -through the channels- and to dissolve ‘knots’ that could block them (Samuel 2008:271); the substances then would flow through a central channel -through the spine. The practices were either visualized in meditation on the different elements of the subtle body or were physical manipulations, these would lead to achieve ‘special powers’  (vibhuti, siddhi) or even to find liberation (moksa or nirvana) (Mallison and Singleton 2017:171). White (2012:9) relates the flow through the channels as breath that travels from the heart; when death arrives, this breath leaves the body ‘to merge with the absolute (brahman) at the summit of the universe’. The notion of breath flowing as energy through the channels is important for the modern notion of the yogic body to be described later: breath as prana, the live force.

The Hathapradipika or more commonly called HYP (Hatha Yoga Pradipika) is arguably one the most significant texts in the development of modern postural yoga. It touches elements of the yogic body in its different chapters: asana, pranayama, mudra and samadhi. The text is a compilation of practices and techniques found in earlier texts and includes both Tantric and Vedantic material.

‘This Matsyendrasana stimulates the appetite. It is a weapon which destroys a multitude of deadly diseases. Regular practice awakens the kundalini and firms the moon in men.’

Verse 27 Chapter One: Asanas, Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Svatmarama translated by Akers 2002: 12)

To pragmatise the teachings of the HPY, see the above verse that indicates that by practicing Matsyendrasana posture kundalini will awaken, also notice ‘moon’ as example of the cosmology in the yogic body. In Chapter two, ‘Pranayama’, we find: ‘Therefore always do pranayama with a sattvic mind so that impurities in the Sushumna nadi attain purity.’ (translation by Akers 2002:34) And: ‘If prana is inhaled through the Ida and retained, it should be exhaled through the other. If the breath is inhaled though the Pingala and retained, it should be exhaled though the left. The nadis of yogis who regularly practice in this manner of sun and moon become pure after three months.’ (translation by Akers 2002:35)  In the same way in chapter three, ‘Mudra’, different practices are describe to promote the flow of prana, balance the yogic body cosmology, to awaken kundalini, and also some sexual related practices are described, like Vajroli the preservation of semen and the consumption of urine, called Amaroli.

As we can see its Tantric influence is evident, keeping its cosmology and also, but in a lesser way, some sexual related practices and the consumption of substances such as urine.

Nadis, cakras, Kundalini, vayus and prana

The ancient dominant model of the yogic body, particularly during the tantric period, was the existence of multiples nadis (most commonly 72,000) with a central channel called the susumna nadi, and ida and pingala nadis on the sides (Mallison and Singleton 2017:173). Ida and pingala are associated with male and female, the moon and the sun, semen and blood. There are also intersection points or ‘inner energy centers’ called cakras (“circles” or “wheels”) also called padmas (lotuses) or pithas (mounds)(White 2012:14).

Around the 8th century the conception of the cakras existence started in Buddhist traditions (White 2012). There were initially four cakras, but later in Hindu Tantras different numbers developed. In medieval India there was much more development of the cakras ‘with varying number of petals, specific letters of the alphabet and colours, located along the central axis of the body’ (Flood 2006:159)  Much later in modern contexts it was widely accepted that there were six or seven cakras and the notion of Kundalini going up the spine for ‘inner transformation’ was also mainstream (White 2012:15). The set of seven cakras[1] are muladhara (base or anal cakra), svadhisthana (at the genitals), manipura (at the navel), anahata (at the heart), visuddha (at the throat) and ajña (between the eyebrows); the seventh sahasrara, when included, is at the crown of the head.

What flows through the channels varies from tradition to tradition, but it is commonly found that what flows are winds (vayus) (Mallison and Singleton 2017:173). These winds are also called prana and, although different numbers and names can be found in different texts, a common description is five winds called prana, apana, vyana, samana and udana. In the yogic context[2], these winds are found firstly in the Patanjalayogasastra (Mallison and Singleton 2017:173).

The Modern Yogic Body

“The human body is a miniature universe in itself. Hatha is composed of the syllables ha and tha which mean the sun and the moon respectively. The solar and lunar energy is said to flow through the two main nadis, Pingala and Ida, which start from the right and the left nostrils respectively and move down to the base of the spine. Pingala is the nadi of the sun, while Ida is the nadi of the moon. In between them is the Susumna, the nadi of fire. As stated earlier, Susumna Nadi is the main channel for the flow of nervous energy, and it is situated inside the meru-danda or spinal column. Pingala and Ida intersect each other and also Susumna at various places. These junctions are called Chakras or wheels and regulate the body mechanism as fly-wheels regulate an engine.”

B.K.S. Iyengar (1979:439).

One of the most important influencers of modern yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar in his book Light on Yoga, defines the yogic body as a microcosmos composed by nadis, cakras and kundalini. These are all elements that have been mentioned before, having roots mainly in Tantra, and that also reflect a modern understanding of the yogic body.

When we speak of modern yoga, scholars such as Singleton (2010:3) refer more to a ‘transnational’ yoga; yoga that has move outside India and developed away from soteriological roots. In a similar way, perhaps it could be more asserted to speak about a ‘transnational modern yogic body’; a yogic body that has been fed by multiples roots and traditions from India and beyond and spiced-up with Western esoterism.

This transnational modern understanding of the yogic body, in terms of a system of nadis, cakras, kundalini, kosas; remains similar to the medieval yoga of, for example the hathapradipika. Nevertheless, there are many fundamental differences. I have identified and argue that the most important is the removal of the main goal of attainment of enlightenment and the shift from acquiring superpowers or siddhis to improving general physical, mental and spiritual wellness.

In modern Yoga, for example, the cakras have become an important esoteric concept that developed particularly in the West as part of the New Age movement (Flood 2006). Commonly they refer to ‘centres of power within the body and specifically arranged along the central axis of the trunk’ (Flood 2006:157).

Hammer (2004:91) gives a description of healing practices, to cure physical, mental or spiritual illnesses, that are used in modernity using the chakra (the anglicised word for cakra) system. The belief is that chakras are vortexes of energy that can get obstructed or blocked but that can be ‘balanced’ or remedied in different ritual ways. ‘Healers’ will lay their hands on the area -of the different blocked chakra/s-, will apply ‘coloured substances or lights’, use gems or treat with massage or scented oils (Hammer 2004:91) (nowadays called aromatherapy). According to Hammer most of these methods, if not all, have a very short history, some beginning in the 1980s. The methods or practices, including here yoga asana to ‘balance the chakras’ have somehow been disconnected from its Indian roots and have become a New Age phenomenon in secular and Western contexts.    

Hammer (2004:97) touches an important element in this context: ‘the construction of tradition’, in this case, of esoteric tradition. Modern esoteric writers and practitioners took an ancient tradition, disconnected it from its roots -although from personal experience, they did and still do call it ancient-, and developed different rituals, therapies and practices to heal physical, mental and spiritual ‘illnesses’. A clear example is the different practices that were promoted by the Theosophist group from end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, some involving energy channels and flow of prana, and other elements to described the subtle body renamed by some theosophist as the ‘etheric body’. The fact that practices have ancient roots can arguably make them more acceptable, trustable and attractive. 

The main goal has been removed

Samuel (Samuel and Johnston 2013:44) argues that the main shift, from Tantric and medieval Yoga to Modern understandings of the subtle body, has been the elimination ‘of the tradition on the attainment of enlightenment.’ Having left this soteriological goal, the practices around the modern yogic body are mainly therapeutic with the intention to cure mental, physical, and spiritual imbalances or illnesses.

In this context, as De Michelis (2008:24) suggests, ‘modern forms of yoga’ have gone through a process of ‘secularization’. Some of these practices, such as yoga asana and meditation on the chakras, are considered ‘spiritual but not religious’ and can be used to treat imbalances or illnesses. Secularisation is one of the reasons that Yoga has become so popular in the modern world (Carrette and King 2005).

Another difference from medieval and tantric to modern yogic body practices, is the shift from practicing to achieve superpowers or siddhis, as aims of Hathayoga, to achieve good health and general wellness as aims of Modern Yoga. Considering the later, the practices can be related to reduce stress, improve physical and mental health, or deal with pain or illnesses. As an example, the internet is full of sites selling therapies for Cancer such as ‘acupuncture, chakras and Cancer treatment’, ‘Chakras, body energy and Cancer’; or to reduce anxiety and stress: ‘Balanced Chakras reduce anxiety’ or ‘3 chakra healing exercises to reduce stress’. The examples are infinite and as De Michelis (2008:25) argues, ‘the ways in which yoga practitioners and theorists have approached issues of health, healing and therapy (whether psychosomatic or metaphysical) haver been significantly shaped by changing needs, circumstances, and conditions.’ Here it would be opportune to cite Flood (2006:23) again who argues that speaking of the body is speaking also about temporality, tradition and culture.

Another element, that must be considered in the modern context of Yoga, is the commodification of practices, in this case referring to Yogic Body practices. From the selling of chakra bracelets, gems, yoga retreats to balance the chakras to quizzes online to determine your chakra disbalance, the yogic body has, as other many yogic and meditative practices have, been subject to neoliberalism and their pursue to control and manipulate the physical, mental and spiritual needs of people to create wealth for Capitalism. Carrette and King (2005) make a very important argument: ‘spirituality is a big business’ (Carrette and King 2005:1). Carrette and King (2005:119) suggest that: ‘…it is clear that the metaphysical, institutional and societal dimensions of ancient yoga traditions are largely lost in the translation and popularization of yoga in the West.’ The practices have become, according to Carrette and King (2005:120), another ‘method for pacifying and accommodating individuals to the world in which they find themselves.’ This point is not to disparage all yogic body practices in the modern context, many can be considered authentic and make huge differences in people’s lives, nevertheless it would be naive not to consider their possible commodification in a neoliberal world.


[1] See Samuel -Samuel and Johnston 2013:40.

[2] In the Atharva Veda the movement of breath prana, apana, and vyana are described,but there is no evidence of techniques or yogic practices(see Ewing 1901:280).  

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