Concetration and Trance: Key Elements of the Yogic Experience of Wellbeing

By Adriana Maldonado

This text is an edited (brief) version of my dissertation for the MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS University in London. © Adriana Maldonado, N8 Yoga 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Adriana Maldonado with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Introduction. 0
















Different techniques of concentration in yoga can lead to experiences of trance. These experiences, understood as Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs) prove beneficial for wellbeing. This text will explain why this is the case.

What is trance? What are the techniques used to enter trance states within the history of yoga? What techniques of concentration were and are taught by popular teachers and Gurus of Yoga? How could we define the experience of wellbeing after a yoga practice? And are people experiencing trance states in a contemporary studio setting? I explore the answers to all these questions and argue that concentration or Attentional Control -as is commonly used in psychology- whether on external factors and related to perception, or on internal factors -visualization, thoughts, or other mental processes- and on the path of yoga meditation, has remained a constant feature of yoga – from its first definitions as a set of techniques and practices to attain liberation, through to our modern day understanding of yoga to support mental and physical health.

In recent years, several research studies have demonstrated that yoga promotes wellbeing[1]. National Health institutions such as the NHS in the UK use yoga as complementary treatment in healthcare, and scholars, teachers and practitioners seem to agree that yoga has a transformative nature that can support wellbeing. But descriptions and propositions of yoga practices remain diverse – from the beginning of its history to modern day. Particularly, Modern Postural Yoga (MPY[2]) in itself, is a spectrum of propositions that can range from very physical-athletic to relaxing nearly static practices. Nevertheless, mind work through concentration, such as fixation on certain places in the body -e.g., gazing in between the eyebrows- and focus on breath, have been constants in nearly all propositions.

Concentration leads to absorption; this is understood as a state of trance or Altered State of Consciousness (ASC). Meditation and the state of flow are states of trance or ASCs -all these concepts will be discussed below I will demonstrate that while there are differences between absorption in deep states of meditation in seated postures, and absorption induced by āsana and vinyāsa, both are trance experiences and prove beneficial for wellbeing.



Attentional Control (AC) or concentration[3] refers to our ability to choose where we direct our attention and what we ignore. AC is initially driven by stimuli, but as the practitioner acquires more experience it can shift to a goal-directed concentration as distracters disappear. Research demonstrates that AC improves with regular practice; this involves the processes of learning and memory.

According to Tart (2000), attention and awareness conform the ‘major energy of the mind’; he describes this energy as our ability to do work or to make something happen, a ‘psychological energy.’ AC as energy is at the heart of yoga practices, for example concentration on breath awareness and on different parts of the body or on objects of meditation such as mantras, physical sensations, images, and gazing points.

In the context of yoga history and philosophy, the mind must be kept focused without distractions to advance towards the goal of yoga that has to do with understanding the nature of the Self. AC techniques are usually involved whether this goal is related to achieving Samādhī, described as a state of trance in the path of salvation, or to support wellbeing in a modern context.


The Cambridge dictionary defines trance as ‘a temporary mental condition in which someone is not completely conscious of and/or not in control of himself or herself.’ Castillo (1995) notes that trance is a ‘human behaviour’ that can be induced by focusing attention and that is present in all cultures and manifested in different ways. It usually involves processes that bring a person from her ‘everyday consciousness’ into a different mental state and then back to their normal but somehow ‘changed by the experience’ (Harrington 2016).

The study of trance is surrounded by controversy and confusion as it was typically related to shamanism, spirit possession, and often considered a pathology. Although this is true, these are all trance experiences and trance could be a sign of a pathology,

The ability of experiencing trance or Altered States of Consciousness[4] (ASC) is universal but may be shaped by the context and what induces that trance. Trance can be induced by practicing sports, performing music, dancing, or any activity that requires concentration; in addition, external awareness can continue in light trances, occurring alongside ‘ordinary consciousness’ (Inglis 1990).

Trance plays a role in most religions; and it is related to mystic or ecstatic experiences. Tart (2000) argues these ‘mystic experiences have formed the underpinnings of all great religious systems.’

Experiences of ecstatic trance, as Inglis (1990) argues, often give a sensation of ‘the oneness of everything’, people afterwards feel transformed and connected to nature and their surroundings, or as in the above example connected to God.

Many religious traditions, including yoga traditions, had as a goal the cultivation of trance with a view to attaining ecstasy (Inglis 1990). This involves focusing on an object of concentration in a process of emptying the mind except the perception of the object in question (Inglis 1990).

Trance states, as pointed out by Connolly (2014) can be light or deep; and they differ in their orientation, they can be internally focused or externally focused. They can be self-induced, group-induced as part of a collective practice, or induced by another person, for example as in hypnosis. In addition, the environment and atmosphere during practice can induce the sense of calmness, as well as practicing in a social context; as Nevrin (in Singleton and Byrne 2008) argues, practicing in a group can ‘unload the burden of individuality’; in a group, the practitioner could experience the sense of belonging to something larger transcending his own self (Malbon 1999).

Persuading the mind is relevant to access concentration, as well as regular practice and faith, belief or confidence in the practice.

The Yogic Experience is a state of trance, light or deep, and as Connolly (2014) points out has to do with displacing or inhibiting conscious mind processes. The method used to induce this trance affects the experience of trance (Connolly 2014), and the experience of trance states, usually has the effect of feeling ‘joyful’ (Tart 2000).


Because Yoga texts are countless, covering a long history of more than twenty centuries, I will focus on only a few that in my mind are a good example of the sources where many concepts, techniques and principles of yoga were originally presented. I briefly mention the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, the Bhagavadgītā, and a bit more in depth the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and a couple of haṭhayoga treatises.

According to Mallinson and Singleton (2017) the below excerpt of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad is the ‘earliest known definition of yoga’, dated to the 3rd century BCE. Here we find a clear example of the importance of mind control as a root of yoga.

When the five perceptions are stilled

Together with the mind,

And not even reason bestirs itself;

They call it the highest state.

When senses are firmly reined in,

That is Yoga, so people think.

From distractions a man is then free,

For Yoga is the coming-into-being,

As well as the ceasing-to-be.

Kaṭha Upaniṣad 6:10-11 (Olivelle, 1996:246).

Similarly, in the Bhagavadgītā, part of the Mahābhārata dated to the 3rd century CE yoga is very much the bringing of the mind into focus:


when one directs the mind

to a single point,

actions of the senses

and thoughts controlled,

sitting oneself on the seat,

one should join to yoga

in order to purify

the self.


One is firm


holding in balance

the head, neck and body,

looking at the tip

of one’s own nose,

not looking in any direction.

Bhagavadgītā, 6.12-13 (Patton 2008:73)

The above verses suggest a process of concentration through AC techniques, e.g. gazing points, to induce a meditative trance. The verses that follow the above (see Patton 2008) explain that yoga is also about bringing concentration to all aspects of life, allowing the practitioner to experience joy.

Along the history of yoga, focusing on the space between the eyebrows to access concentration, seems the most used AC technique from early CE to current contemporary practices.


Dated circa the 4th century CE (Mallinson and Singleton 2017), the Pātañjalayogaśāstra is understood as the Yoga Sūtra (YS) of Patañjali and Vyāsa’s commentary, known as the Yogabhāṣya.

Patañjali’s system is a progressive path involving concentration and breath work to bypass the ‘turnings of thought’ entirely by restraining bodily actions and stabilising the mind (White 2014). The ultimate goal is the end of suffering, liberation or the realisation of the Self.

Yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ

‘Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.’

Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali I.2(translated by Bryant 2009:10)

Edwin Bryant (2009) argues that if the term yoga here in the above sūtra is to mean ‘yoke’ this ‘entails yoking the mind on an object of concentration without deviation’.Bryant translates cittavṛtti as ‘changing states of the mind’ while Feuerstein (1989:26) translates it as ‘fluctuations of consciousness’. Feuerstein may be touching on the transition from a normal state of consciousness to an ASC through AC techniques, the accessing to a trance state.

AC is presented by Patañjali as Dhāraṇā: ‘the binding of consciousness to a [single] spot’ (Feurstein 1979). Feurstein argues that one-pointedness or Ekāgratā ‘is the underlying process of the technique of concentration.’ This technique allows the practitioner to attain a state of trance.

This yogic trance experience is described as sāttvic, ‘free from pain and luminous’, and ‘free from rajas and tamas’ that are the sources of pain and obscuration (Bryant 2009).

The heavy use of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in modern discourses of yoga may be linked to later 20th century promoters of the practice such as Kṛṣṇamācārya, whose work I explore later in this text.


Fixation, visualisation and breath control are all AC techniques that lead to absorption or trance and are key for the Gheraṇḍasaṁhitā and for the Vivekamārtaṇḍa. The texts describe complex techniques to bring the practitioner’s mind into focus and access states of yogic trance, both in seated meditation and while performing āsana, prāṇāyāma, and mudrā.  The teaching of the Gheraṇḍasaṁhitā, as of many other yoga texts, is that the deeper the state of trance through the fixation of the mind, the closer the practitioner is to achieving the goal of yoga, i.e., Samādhī.

In chapter 2 (see Mallinson 2004) there is the description of siddhāsana (seated posture): ‘remain motionless with the sense organs restrained while staring between the eyebrows.’ This is similar to the description of Śāmbhavī mudrā, mentioned in chapter 3,which is a goal-oriented meditation, ‘seeing the bindu that consists of Brahman’, and which also involves the gazing point in between the eyebrows. Bindu, although can have different meanings, can refer to a point on the body (Mallinson 2007).

Another method described to induce trance through fixation is the ‘five dhāraṇā’. These are fixations of ‘breath and mind’ (Mallinson 2004), on the different elements and on different areas of the body, as per indicated in the text, for two hours each. Feuerstein (2008:396) points out that these concentration practices are included in the chapter of mudrās. This, he argues, demonstrates ‘the close relationship that exists in Yoga between physical practice and mental focus’.

Similarly, in the Vivekamārtaṇḍa there is extensive description of breathing, gazing practices and specific concentrations or fixations such as focusing on cakras to induce absorption:

(160) Absorption is when the mind and the self of the yogi become one like salt mixing with water.

(162) Absorption is when the individual self and the supreme self become one, and all conceptions are destroyed.

(163) For in this teaching the activity of the mind in the sense organs is a different process. When the vital principle has attained non-duality, there are neither mind nor sense organs.

(164) The yogi in absorption perceives neither smell, nor taste, nor form, nor touch, nor sound, nor self, nor someone else.

(165) The yogi in absorption knows neither cold nor heat, neither sorrow nor pleasure, neither honour nor dishonour.

(166) The yogi in absorption is not troubled by death, nor bound by karma, nor troubled by disease.

(Mallinson, 2021:34)

Absorption is the goal of the practices and is in these states of trance that the yogi achieves the goal of yoga, the experience of oneness and the ability of not being affected by external stimuli (related to not feeling ‘cold or heat’).

In addition, there is an indication of AC techniques while performing postures:

(118) With his face upwards and his tongue inserted into the aperture [above the palate] the yogi should visualise [the nectar] which has been forcefully obtained from Prāṇa and dripped from the sixteen-petalled lotus †to the head†, [and his tongue] as the supreme Śakti. The yogi who drinks the stream of liquid from the surging digits of the moon becomes free from faults, with a body as supple as a lotus-stalk and lives a long time.

In the above verse Mallinson (2021) believes that the yogi is in a shoulder stand pose (called viparīta-karaṇī mudrā). This could be evidence of advanced practice of inverted postures, while concentrating the mind visualising a desired process. The process of ‘drinking the nectar obtained from prāṇa’ could represent a steady focus, a trance state that results in the benefits mentioned -free from faults, supple and that lives a long life.


Key MPY influencers set the foundations of practices since the early 20th century. Understanding their perspectives is therefore essential to understanding the current role of AC (and its importance in supporting wellbeing).

I start here with Kṛṣṇamācārya and continue with his disciples Iyengar and Jois. I will also consider Scaravelli, herself a student of Iyengar and Desikachar (Kṛṣṇamācārya’s son), as she is an example of radical new conceptions to the practice of yoga in the West. 

All these teachers speak of the importance of concentration, emphasise the need for regular practice, breath work, and speak of an element of either devotion or belief in the practices.


A.G. Mohan (2010), a disciple of Kṛṣṇamācārya (1888–1989) and author of the book Kṛṣṇamācārya,  attributes some of yoga’s worldwide popularity to him. White (2014) goes further stating that ‘no person on the planet has had a greater impact on contemporary yoga practice.’

Birch and Singleton (2019:4) argue that Kṛṣṇamācārya may have taken inspiration on the Hathabhyāsapaddhati, a text that describes physical postures placed in sequences.

According to Birch and Singleton (2019:55), the Hathabhyāsapaddhati did not consider philosophical aspects, and only lightly referred to gazing points.  This potentially means that Kṛṣṇamācārya could have been responsible of creating a yoga that brought together a very physical practice, AC techniques, and the use of breath while moving (vinyāsa); all characteristic of MPY. Techniques of AC while in āsana such as dṛṣṭi and breath control; were largely inspired, as we can see in his Yoga Makaranda (1938), by the yoga philosophy of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and Haṭhayoga treatises.

White (2014) points out that Kṛṣṇamācārya’s biographies heavily focus on his ‘mastery of the philosophy of the Yoga Sūtra.’ It was evident that he had the intention to fit Patañjali’s eight limbs of yoga within his methods of āsana, vinyāsa and prāṇāyāma.

Perhaps Kṛṣṇamācārya’s intention was to make his proposal more authentic and ancient, but overall, his focus was on the body through a very physical practice.

Birch and Singleton (2019:57) argue that Kṛṣṇamācārya’s Vinyāsa method, may have also been derived from Indian wrestling traditions and that the yoga he taught ‘was composite, syncretic and constantly evolving’ (2019:63).

There may have been other figures that influenced him -and his students-, such as Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi (1868–1951) (see Goldberg 2016) who is said to have promoted and ‘re-invented’ (Alter 2000:83) Sūrya Namaskāra (Sun Salutations) in the 1920s.

Kṛṣṇamācārya remains clear with the ancient goal of Patañjali’s yoga: to bring concentration and stillness to the mind. According to Mohan (2010:31) Kṛṣṇamācārya often said: ‘No mental control, no yoga!’.

Here there is an example of his instructions linking Vinyāsa, breath, and gazing points:

‘Make sure that the navel rests between the hands and do pūraka kumbhaka. Try to push the chest as far forward as possible, lift the face up and keep gazing at the tip of the nose. Make the effort to practise until it becomes possible to remain in this posture for fifteen minutes.’

Excerpt of the instruction of Urdvhamukhasvanāsana (Upward facing dog).

 Kṛṣṇamācārya (1938:65)

In the above Kṛṣṇamācārya describes how a movement is accompanied by a specific way of breathing, a gaze to a point, and suggesting the need of regular practice to become skilful. The complexity of performance requires high levels of concentration in order to remain in posture for longer periods of time.

Referring to sirsana and sarvangāsana (headstand and shoulder stand):

‘It is said with much authority that if these two āsanas are practised regularly and properly, the practitioner will experience the awakening and rise of kundalini. Due to this, they will experience the blessings of Īśvara and will be swallowed in the sea of eternal bliss.’

Kṛṣṇamācārya (1938:146)

We could understand by the above description an ecstatic experience, characteristic of a form of religious trance.

Kṛṣṇamācārya was the teacher of B.K.S Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois who, amongst others, became responsible for spreading this mainly physical form of yoga across the world.


BKS Iyengar

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar (1966) follows Kṛṣṇamācārya’s teachings where the conquest of the Self is heavily dependent on bodily health:

The ‘body is the prime instrument of attainment…physical health is important for mental development…When the body is sick or the nervous system is affected, the mind becomes restless or dull and inert and concentration or meditation become impossible.’’ (Iyengar, 1966).

In Yoga Vṛkṣa he (1988) explores the idea of developing an ability to spread awareness of the whole body as ‘integration of the body, mind and soul’, calling this ‘meditation’ as the practitioner works on āsana. He makes contrast of this with a limited concentration on the posture or an area of the body; this performance he says in not meditation.

In addition, Iyengar (1966) teaches that a state of absorption can be achieved while doing āsana. Āsana is a ‘self-contained object of meditation’ that allows the practitioner to achieve Samādhī (see Bryant 2009).

Iyengar’s intention was to make āsana spiritual and to induce similar meditative trances as in seated meditations. Erich Schiffmann (1996), renown American teacher, describes his experience learning with Iyengar: ‘the whole point of all this physical, hard work -and it was very physical and very demanding- was to get into a deep meditative state. And for me, it worked.’  



In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois (1999) declares that his method of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga brings the mind ‘one-pointed’; and that āsana should be practiced to improve health, to destroy illnesses, and as a ‘remedy for mental illness’.

He highlights the importance of keeping ‘faith in, and showing devotion to, the yogic limbs and the Guru’ for the practice to be effective. For him ‘faith’, can be also understood as a state of mind, the mind focuses on believing and acceptance. Furthermore, he suggests that through Vinyāsa practices such as Sūrya Namaskāra the practitioner can experience happiness and contentment.

Jois’ Aṣṭāṅga Yoga system follows Patañjali’s philosophy, but he emphasises the practice of āsana and vinyāsa as taught by his own teacher Kṛṣṇamācārya. Jois’ system involves sets of sequences of movements and postures using breath and gazing points. The addition of gazing points during the practices, according to Jois Yoga (2013) ‘facilitates dhyāna (meditation)’ but regular practice over time is needed to have results. As the practitioner becomes more skilful, he/she can progress in the sequences; these are repetitive and with time, as the practitioner has learned the sequences by heart, he/she enters of a state of light trance easily.



Vanda Scaravelli was highly influential in the development of MPY. She promoted AC techniques based on physical sensations, changes in the body, and on keeping the mind in the present moment. These are characteristics of MPY: using stimuli-perception as the focal point to maintain concentration. She was taught by Iyengar and Desikachar, among other teachers, but created her own style focused on the spine and alignment. She was perhaps the first to include ‘fun’ as an aspect to the practice of yoga:

‘Why are we doing yoga?…We do it for the fun of it. To twist, stretch, and move around, is pleasant and enjoyable, a body holiday.’

Vanda Scaravelli (1991).

The above notion is a notable departure from the spiritual goals of salvation. Nevertheless, Scaravelli talks about spirituality and transformation through the practice of physical yoga.

‘We have to be completely present and attentive in our minds without any distractions’ (1991).

‘Do not let your mind wander during your practice, but instead be completely there…, focusing your attention on one single action, where body and brain meet at the same point at the same time.’ (1991)

She (1991) emphasises that ‘attention is energy and produces energy when we use it. It is like the battery in a car that recharges itself.’ In her view the practice of physical yoga and breath will bring the individual ‘back to that blessed state of receptivity from which we can start to learn’ (1991:86).

Her ideas help understand how yoga changed to a series of techniques to support wellbeing.


A western individual who sought to understand and found himself immersed in the world of Yoga, more precisely Haṭhayoga, was Theos Bernard (1950). In his book Hatha Yoga: the report of a personal experience, he describes the different practices he learned from his Indian gurus and how these were ‘directed toward the single aim of stilling the mind’ (Bernard, 1950:13). He states in his introduction: ‘There is not a single āsana that is not intended directly or indirectly to quiet the mind’ (Bernard 1950:21).

Sjoman (1999:46) gave to Bernard’s written experience paramount historical importance to understand a yoga system in practice. Āsana is described as instrument not only to calm the mind but also to build up ‘will power or determination’.

The following is Bernard’s (1950) description of a different and deeper meditative state while in sirsāsana:

‘One of the most tiring problems I encountered when building up to the higher time standards was what to do with my mind. The moment I began to feel the slightest fatigue, my mind began to wander. At this point my teacher instructed me to select a spot on a level with my eyes, when standing on my head and direct the attention of my mind to it. Shortly this became a habit, and my mind adapted itself without the least awareness of the passage of time; in fact, I was eventually able to remain on my head for an hour and longer with no more knowledge of time than when I was sleep.’

The attentional technique of gazing towards a specific point is used here to induce the experience of trance (‘no awareness of the passage of time’), and there is also an indication of recurrent practice (‘habit’) as Bernard masters his headstand practice. The effect of ‘timelessness’ appears characteristic of the experience of trance (see Tart 2000). In Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) similar instructions and effects happen as practitioners perform certain postures.

AC techniques in MPY are related largely to bodily sensations, perhaps inspired by previously discussed teachers such as Scaravelli. In contemporary yoga we need, as Nevrin (in Singleton and Byrne 2008) argues, to take into account ‘bodily experience’ particularly if we want to understand the effects of the practice.

Bodily experience and effort are precisely what Shiva Rea, arguably one of the most important influencers of the modern yoga movement called Vinyasa Flow, uses to induce trance states. A type of moving meditation called ‘Prāṇa Flow’ that, according to her, can bring ‘transformation of the body as a vehicle of divine expression’ (Rea 2014).  She uses very dynamic movements based on Sun Salutations; she writes: ‘This is a kind of movement alchemy designed to awaken and transform the mover to realize the source of their meditation.’ A mind process where the practitioner diverts his/her mind from all other thought and fixates his/her mind, in this case on the action of movement to the point he/she experiences an ASC similar to a meditative trance.



A moment of full attentional absorption while practicing yoga can be considered a trance experience (Connolly 2014). In the context of MPY, this fits with the concept develop by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called Flow. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) seems to have found another name for an ASC; but his way of describing the experience of Flow has been adopted by those speaking about an ASC induced by an activity such as sports or MPY.

Presenting his theory of flow, psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (1990) seems to speak of yoga: ‘Everything we experience – joy or pain, interest or boredom – is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like’. While does not refer specifically to a yoga practice, he recognises that Eastern religions provide a guide ‘in how to achieve control over consciousness’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1990:103) and dedicates a section in his book Flow to the practice and philosophy of Yoga:

‘The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact, it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

Csikszentmihalyi (1990) suggests that individuals benefit from having a goal in order to bring ‘order in consciousness’; as his/her attention fully turns to that specific task, he/she will ‘forget everything else’ in a state of absorption.

This is similar to meditation and also can be fitted to a practitioner’s experience of MPY, where conditioned patterns of perception and behaviour are eradicated (Connolly 2014).

The musician Sting (in Gannon and Life 2002), a practitioner of Jivamukti Yoga, describes what seems a description of flow while practicing sirsāsana on a plane:

‘I feel the vibrations of the engines through the floor from my head up to my feet. It sounds like OM to the power of six thousand horses. I’m vibrating with it upside down with an inverted smile on my face. This is truly flying.


I have now been practicing yoga six days a week for ten years. And I believe that yoga has provided me with energy and focus that I would not have possessed otherwise…Yoga practice has become inextricably bound to every aspect of my life.’

Sting describes a trance experience and the positive effects of yoga on his life. Accounts as the above are easily found among many practitioners of MPY. As yoga travelled the world, meditation, philosophy, and prāṇāyāma became less important for certain groups. Singleton (2010) argues, that in the West yoga is now a synonymous of āsana. But āsana can also be transformative and bring steadiness of mind through flow experiences.

Bhavanarao, Kṛṣṇamācārya and later teachers’ recipe of combining a physical and AC practice has allowed practitioners to change their relationship with experiences by accessing ASC’s, even if they are light as moments of flow. These processes can effectively support the practitioners’ wellbeing.

Csikszentmihalyi (1990:2) argues that individuals can change their ‘inner’ experience ‘to determine the quality of their lives’, which he relates to being close to happiness, or at least moments of happiness.


This paper was an analysis of AC techniques as a common denominator within yoga practices throughout its history, as the inducer of ASC (from light trance to deep meditation), and yogic experiences of wellbeing. The practices themselves are varied and have evolved in time as they have been appropriated by different traditions and key figures and as I have demonstrated they involve techniques while on seated meditation or while on movement.

There were a few important marks in the yogic history of AC:

Pre-medieval: Suggestions of attentional techniques to keep the mind focused to induce meditative trance as a synonym of yoga as per in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad and Bhagavadgītā. No mention of movement, just suggestion of seated postures.

In Patañjali’s eight limb system the aim is to master the mind through the elimination of perception through concentration and breath control. No mention of movement, again just suggestions of seated postures.

Medieval: More complex goal-oriented Haṭhayoga attentional techniques to induce trance and meditative states as for example the five dhāraṇā. Here AC techniques are also introduced while on āsana such as gazing points, visualization, and breath control.

Modern: Goal-oriented attentional techniques inspired by the YS and Haṭhayoga treatises areincorporated in the practice of physical postural yoga since early 20th century. I have identified Kṛṣṇamācārya as a key figure for this incorporation.

Iyengar becomes a promoter of similar to Kṛṣṇamācārya’s yoga practices that spread to the West. The goals of yoga are increasingly focused on wellbeing and have therapeutic value. There is emphasis on physical sensations and on the present moment, gazing points and breath control, in addition to rhythmic and repetitive movement. I used Vanda Scaravelli as an example of an influencer of new techniques within MPY. The techniques no longer involve the suppression of perception but instead perception becomes the object of concentration; AC techniques infuse physical practice and induce a state of trance or flow.

After Vanda Scaravelli and other teachers of the time there is a proliferation of yoga practices in the west that combine ancient and modern practices. If there is trust in the practices, regular practice and use of breath, generally the effect is an ASC, trance or flow experience.

In the practice of MPY, there are a few elements that could help the induction of trance, group practice for example, atmosphere, and keeping the practices challenging to engage students and to keep steady concentration. Finally, another aspect that remains important from the beginning of Yoga as a set of techniques to induce trance is the use of breath. Breath is what connects mind and body, where they ‘unite’ (Wilber 1993:236).

My research demonstrates there are a few determinants needed in the practice of yoga to experience mind and body benefits from AC and trance states. Among these, the most important are: a. the belief or trust that the practices are beneficial, which may or may not be related to faith or devotion; b. constancy and discipline to practice regularly and develop skills to maintain concentration; and c. breath work enhances the effect of āsana practices and helps bringing the individual’s mind into focus.

It is clear that more research is needed to identify and classify AC techniques within yoga practice and history and to determine what forms of ASC are induced and the effects on practitioners. The understanding of the development of these techniques and their therapeutic value I argue can become key for future generations of yoga teachers and practitioners, and also could inform scholarship. As Shearer (2020:5) points out, the effects of yoga are usually an ‘extra’ that each individual discovers on their own, if the techniques were classified and introduced to yoga classes I believe practitioners would be able to access ASCs in an easier way, aware that this would be beneficial for them. In addition, this could help to trace the evolution of the practices and understanding of Yoga in contemporary times. It provides another lens through which to classify different branches of Yoga and indeed a frame to study it.



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[1] See for example Flaherty (2020) that presents several research studies on yoga benefits.

[2] Using Elizabeth De Michelis (2014) terminology.

[3] ‘Attentional Control’ is broadly used as a synonym of Concentration in Psychology.

[4] Scholars such as Tart (2000) discuss Altered States of Consciousness without using the word trance. In this paper I use the terms mostly as synonyms, although it would be appropriate to mention that there are a few ASCs that are not trance states such as for example sleeping.

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:

All rights reserved – copying the text or a part of the text as your own is plagiarism.

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).  


A summary of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika

By Adriana Maldonado, May 2017

Swami Satyananda Saraswati describes the main objective of hatha yoga in the Introduction of The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) (Muktibodhananda 1998) as:  “to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, mind and energy.” He continues describing that if this balance is achieved, the central force, sushumna nadi, can be awakened and that supposes to allow human consciousness to evolve.

B.K.S. Iyengar (Ulrich Rieker 1992) mentions that Hatha Yoga, in the context of the HYP, is an ‘integrated science leading towards spiritual evolution.’

13086696_1782324728668019_8203698570161547763_oIn hatha yoga, ha means prana or the sun and tha, the mind or the moon; hatha meaning the union of the pranic and mental forces, a duality that exists in everything (Muktibodhananda 1998). In the context of the HYP, and as explained by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Hatha Yoga is the collection of practises that prepares oneself for meditation. Meditation has the purpose of purifying the mind, but before being able to do this, according to the HYP, the first action is to work the body, calm the mind and balance the flow of energy or prana through asana and pranayama, and purify the whole body with the shatkarmas: the stomach, intestines, nervous system and other systems.


Chapter 1 – Asana

Chapter one, before introducing Asana, Swatmarama describes the principles, restraints on behaviour, yamas, and observances, niyamas, as well as dietary rules for yoga practitioners. The very first verse has been translated in different ways by different translators and commentators, sometimes very differently, as is the case for other verses later in the text, and probably for many other Sanskrit texts. However, there is something in common: Shiva or Sri Adinath, as in Muktibodhananda’s case, is evoked and the affirmation of hatha yoga as the path to raja yoga, the highest state of yoga. The following verses introduce the idea of hatha yoga as being learnt from gurus or ‘siddhas’ to students. Later it is said that the hatha yogi over time would develop siddhis, or powers, and that she or he will have to keep these secret in order to succeed in his/her path to raja yoga, it is also said that they would have to practise alone, secluded from society. The student was able to learn the practises; then remove him or herself from society to work towards achieving liberation, and in the way he/she may have developed these siddhis, but it is not clear when he or she will become a guru to other students. Then, the yamas are presented as rules of conduct: non-violence, truth, non-stealing, continence, forgiveness, endurance, compassion, humility, moderate diet and cleanliness. It is worth noticing that there are ten and not only five as Patanjali describes them. There are also ten niyamas, as the observances: penance (austerity), contentment, belief (faith) in the Supreme, charity, worship of God, listening to the recitations of sacred scriptures, modesty, a discerning intellect, japa (mantra repetition) and sacrifice. Muktibodhananda mentions that both the yamas and niyamas are not much mentioned in the HYP because these are prerequisites before commencing hatha yoga, and that one can practise them after, “when the mind has become stable”, although she also writes that Swatmarama does not stress their importance.

Then, asana is presented as the first part of Hatha Yoga. The purpose of asana, according to the HYP, is to control the body and by doing this, the mind is controlled too. When an individual practises asana, her or his prana flows freely, develops steadiness and has less chances of developing illnesses (Muktibodhananda 1998). Muktibodhananda mentions that by prana flowing freely, the body will become supple; the person will be able to remove toxins from his or her system and will be able to feel relaxed.

It is said that there are about 840,000 asanas, “as many as forms of life”, as said by B.K.S. Iyengar in the foreword of the HYP (Ulrich Rieker 1992) and Muktibodhananda (Muktibodhananda 1998); although there are no ancient texts that talk about more than thirty-two asanas, in the case of the Gheranda Samhita and eleven in the Yoga Sutras, commented by Vyasa. Iyengar argues that asanas are not just physical exercises but “they have biochemical, psycho-physiological and psycho-spiritual effects” (Ulrich Rieker 1992), he continues presenting the idea of asanas as diffusers of the pranic energy to bring the whole body in harmony, as they improve blood circulation, balance the hormone system, stimulate the nervous system and eliminate toxins, as some examples of their benefits: “physical, mental, and spiritual health and harmony are attained” (Idem). Swatmarama presents fifteen, as the most essential ones in the HYP, and these are: swastikasana, gomukhasana, veerasana, koormasana, kukkutasana, uttankoormasana, dhanurasana, matsyendrasana, paschimottanasana, mayurasana, shavasana, siddhasana, padmasana, simhasana, and bhadrasana.


The chapter continues with recommendations of foods that are to be eaten by yogis, these include: whole grains, wheat, rice, barley, milk, ghee, brown sugar, sugar candy, honey, dry ginger, patola fruit, five vegetables, mung and pulses, and pure water.

There is then emphasis on practice and the chapter ends mentioning that asanas, and other practices of hatha yoga must be kept until raja yoga is attained.


Chapter 2 – Shatkarma and Pranayama

Pranayama is practised once that the body has been regulated by asana and a moderate diet has been introduced. Muktibodhananda defines pranayama as “the process by which the internal pranic store is increased. Pranayama is comprised of the words prana and ayama, which mean ‘pranic capacity or length, it is not merely breath control, but a technique through which the quantity of prana in the body is activated to a higher frequency.”

Verse 6 is chapter 2 says that “…pranayama should be done daily with a sattwic state of mind so that the impurities are driven out of sushuma nadi and purification occurs.” A sattwic mind refers to a steady mind. The practices are to be carefully practised and “all diseases will be eradicated”; these practices include: Nadi Shodhana, Ujjayi, Surya Bhedana, Sitali, Sitkari, Bhastrika, and Bhramari (see  Pranayama in the context of the HYP for a more detailed presentation on Pranayama).


When pranayama becomes difficult and there are impurities in the body, there are processes of purification that can be done. The practices for these purifications are called shatkarmas, described in chapter two of the HYP. They include:

  • There are fours neti practices: jala neti, passing warm saline water through the nose, sutra neti, passing a soft thread through the nose, ghrita neti, passing clarified butter though the nose and dugdha neti, passing milk through the nose.
  • dhauti (cleansing of the eyes, ears, tongue, forehead, oesophagus, stomach, rectum and anus). Dhauti is a series of practices divided in four parts: Antar dhauti (internal), danta dhauti (teeth), hrid dhauti (cardiac) and moola shodhana (rectal cleaning).
    • Antar dhauti is divided into four practices: vatsara dhauti, expelling air through the anus, varisara dhauti, evacuating a large quantity of water through the bowels, vahnisara dhauti, rapid expansion and contraction of the abdomen, bahiskrita dhauti, washing the rectum in the hands.
    • Hrid dhauti is divided into three practices: danda dhauti, inserting a soft banana stem into the stomach, vastra dhauti, swallowing a long thin strip of cloth, vaman dhauti, vomiting the contents of the stomach.
    • Moola shodhana could be performed by inserting a turmeric root or the middle finger into the anus
  • Basti: there are two practices; jala basti and sthala basti. The first one consists of sucking water into the intestine through the anus and then expelling it, and sthala basti sucking air into the large intestine.
  • kapalbhati, that has three practices: vatkrama kapalbhati, similar to bhastrika pranayama, vytkrama kaplbhati, sucking water in through the nose and expelling it through the mouth, sheetkrama kapalnhati, sucking water in through the nose.
  • trataka is gazing steadily at a point of concentration. It has two practices: antar, meaning internal, concentrating on an object or symbol with the eyes closed, and bahir trataka, concentration on the object with the eyes opened.
  • and nauli. It is the practice of isolating and contracting the muscles of the rectus abdominis. When the contractions are to the right it is called dakshina nauli and to the left it is vama nauli, in the middle madhyama nauli.

Chapter two finishes mentioning that perfection of hatha yoga is achieved when the energy channels or nadis are purified, when the body and the mind are in harmony. Muktibodhananda presents here the idea of kundalini shakti passing through the central nadi, sushumna, passing through the different chakras, having mastered the practises, the person acquires the siddhis. When kundalini passes sahasrara chakra, perfection is attained, “and when it is redirected down to mooladhara, every virtue descends upon the yogi. That is dharma megha samadhi.”

Chapter 3 – Mudra and Bandha

Mudra means seal and bandha lock. B.K.S. Iyengar argues that by locking and sealing the many ‘apertures or outlets’ of the human system, “the divine energy known as kundalini is awakened and finds its union with purusa in the sahasrara chakra.” (Ulrich Rieker 1992). According to Mr. Iyengar, this is the essence of part three of the HYP, “the union of the divine force with the divine Self”.

Ulrich (1992) also affirms that mudra awakens kundalini, but this would only happen after considering all the former practices previously described in chapter one and two. Mudras are body positions that have the goal of channelling the energy produced by asana and pranayama “into the various systems and arouse particular states of mind.” (Muktibodhananda 1998). According to Muktibodhananda, they help awaken the chackras and arouse kundalini shakti. You can also “invoke specific qualities of Shakti or Devi and can become overwhelmed by that power.”

Ten mudras are mentioned by Swatmarama in the HYP: maha mudra, the great attitude, maha bandha, the great lock, maha vedha mudra, the great piercing attitude, khecari mudra, the attitude odd willing in supreme consciousness, uddiyana bandha, the abdominal retraction lock, moola bandha, perineum or cervix retraction lock, jalandhara bandha, throat lock, viparita karani, the attitude of reversing, vajroli, contraction of the urogenital muscles and shakti chalana mudra, the attitude of moving or circulating the energy. It is worth noticing that the three bandhas are included here. Muktibodhananda explains that originally in the ancient texts bandhas were considered mudras; but later when the system of Hatha Yoga was defined from the Tantric texts and practices, mudras and bandhas were separated. She also points out that now the combination of the three bandhas performed together, maha bandha, becomes a mudra.

Wikipedia defines Bandha’ as a bond or arrest, a term for the “body locks” in Hatha Yoga, treated under the heading of mudra. Specific bandhas are: Mula Bandha, contraction of the perineum, Uddiyana bandha, contraction of the abdomen into the rib cage, Jalandhara Bandha, tucking the chin close to the chest, and Maha Bandha, combining all three of the above bandhas (Wikipedia 2017).

The website Eclectic Energies (2017) gives a simple definition to mudras as “positions of the body that have some kind of influence on the energies of the body, or your mood.” Nowadays, in an occidental context and yoga centres around the world, mudras are mostly performed with the hands and fingers are held in some position, but the whole body may be part of the mudra as well, like in Veeparita Karani. During meditation mudras are widely used. While sitting in a crossed leg position, the hands can be performing a mudra, such as chin mudra, joining the index finger and the thumb.

However, the HYP mentions different and more complex mudras, a not necessarily widely performed by western yoga contexts, among them there is Khechari mudra, turning the tongue backwards into the cavity of the cranium and turning the eyes inwards towards the eyebrow centre. This mudra implies “the gradual cutting of the frenum and elongation of the tongue” (Muktibodhananda 1998). Swatmarama mentions that this mudra will free the person from disease, death, old age, etc. Muktibodhananda explains that by touching the eyebrow centre internally, the ajna chakra would be stimulated, as well as the pineal gland. The gland stimulation, according to Muktibodhananda will have a positive effect of the general wellbeing of the person.

Another mudra mentioned by the HYP, but quite widely practised in yoga in the west, is Veeparita Karani, the reversing process where the navel region is above the palate. It implies raising the legs and supporting the back with the hands. Some people practise it against the wall, bringing the legs up and relaxing the body.


I haven’t included chapter four in this article: Samadhi. I will leave this for a future blog post.

Thanks for reading me!



By Adriana Maldonado, May 2017

hyp imagePranayama has been translated as the “extension of prana (breath or life force)” (Wikipedia 2017) or “breath control”. In the yogic tradition both definitions are used, the first as a subtle description and the second as the practical and systematic description. Etymologically, pranayama is composed by two words in Sanskrit, prana, meaning life force, and ayama, meaning to restrain or control the prana or to extend.

B.K.S. Iyengar cites Swatmarama: “When the breath wanders the mind is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still.” This is verse 2 of chapter 2 and it presents the reason why pranayama is practised in hatha yoga. And in the context of the HYP, pranayama is a series of practices that have the goal of regulating the prana or energy flow in the body. There are five prana vayus, currents of energy or pranic air functions in the body: apana, prana, samana, udana and vyana. When these five vayus function in harmony, they bring health and vitality to the body and mind (Anderson, Yoga International, 2017). They are associated with different parts of the body and have different functions: Prana vayu is associated with the chest and head and governs intake, inspiration, propulsion, forward momentum. Apana vayu is related to the pelvis and governs elimination, downward and outward movement. Samana vayu is around the navel and governs assimilation, discernment, inner absorption and consolidation. Udana vayu is associated with the throat and governs growth, speech, expression, ascension and upward movement. And finally vyana vayu is related to the whole body, governs circulation on all levels, expansiveness, and pervasiveness (See Idem).Diagramma-chakra-kundalini

And these currents of energy or pranic flow travel through the nadis in the body. According to the yogic tradition, there are thousands and thousands of nadis or channels where energy flows through the body. To be able to practice pranayama in an efficient way, the nadis have to be purified. The vayus do not enter a nadi if it is full of impurities; this is the main message in verse 4 of chapter 2. The most important nadis are: ida, pingala and the sushumna nadis; this later being the central channel, runs from the bottom of the spine to the crown of the head, passing through each of the seven chakras (Bailey, Yoga Journal, 2007). Sushumna is the chanel “which kundalini shakti (the latent serpent power) –and the higher spititual consciousness it can fuel – rises up from its origin at the muladhara (root) chakra…to the sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head. In subtle body terms, the sushumna nadi is the path to enlightenment” (Idem). The ida and pingala nadis spiral around the sushumna nadi, like the DNA. They meet at the ajna chakra. Ida and Pingala represent the duality in everything, ida the moon, pingala the sun, the feminine and the masculine, white and red; the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The idea is also to keep both balanced to avoid dominance from ida or pingala, dominance of one of them may result in changes in personality and health.ColouredChakraswithDescriptions

In this context, the chakras are the centres of storing energy or prana. Chakras are “a circling motion or wheel” (Muktibodhananda, 1998). The chakras from base of the spine to crown of the head are: Muladhara, Swadhisthana, Manipura, Anahata, Vishuddhi, Ajna, Bindu, and Sahasrara. They all influence different parts of the body and are related to different functions, colours, animals and the bodily senses.

The pranayama practices

In order to practise pranayama, the mind needs to be in a sattwic state, meaning that the mind should be steady and not moving from thought to thought.

The first practice described by the HYP is Nadi Shodhana. This is the alternate nostril breathing, which is said to activate and harmonise ida and pingala nadis, shodhana means ‘to purify’ (Muktibodhananda 1998). The technique is described as sitting in padmasana (or siddhasana according to Muktibodhananda 1998), inhaling through the left nostril, closing the right nostril with the right thumb holding the breath, and then exhaling through the right nostril. Then inhaling through the right nostril, closing the left nostril with the third finger and holding (retention of breath is called kumbhaka) and then exhaling completely though the left nostril. So the inhale is done through the same nostril which exhalation was done. Muktibodhananda explains progressive rations for nadi shodhana: 1:1 (Inhaling –I- and exhaling –E-), 1:2 (I-E), 1:2:2 (I- retaining –kumbhaka- -R-E), 1:4:2 (I-R-E), 1:4:2:3 (I-R-E-Retaining). Muktibodhananda also gives other techniques on the same nadi shodhana. Swatmarama affirms that after three months of practising nadi shodhana all nadis will be purified.1._Pooruck_Pranaiyam_-Puraka_pranayama-._2._Kumbuck_-Kumbhaka-._3._Raichuck_-Recaka-.

If there is excess of mucus or other physical issues making difficult the practise of pranayama, then the shatkarmas come useful (please see above about the shatkarmas).

You could introduce nadi shodhana with a simple ratio in your classes: 1:0:1:0, then 1:1:1:1 and back to 1:0:1:0; it is a fairly accessible practice, easy to explain and present its benefits, and as I’ve seen in other classes, people are quite enthusiastic to practise it.

Other pranayama techniques are described later and the most relevant are:

Ujjayi, is a pranayama that consist in inhaling through the nose, closing the mouth and retaining the inhalation, then exhaling also through the nose. Both inhalation and exhalation produce a sound by slightly contracting the back of the throat, both are deep and long and controlled. This is probably the pranayama that I teach the most, as it is quite simple to perform and in my experience it is very effective. I introduce ratios with retention as in nadi shodhana, without using the hands, with them just resting on the knees or in chin mudra; I also teach it during asana practice to encourage a ‘moving meditation’.

Surya Bhedana, similar to nadi shodhana, this pranayama consists in breathing in through the right nostril (or left as described by Muktibodhananda), retaining the breath, exhaling through the left nostril slowly and keeping the right closed. During retention jalandhara bandha and moola bandha are also performed closing both nostrils, then releasing moola bandha then jalandhara bandha and raising the head. If necessary, Muktibodhananda mentions that a few breaths can be taken in between rounds and suggests practising up to ten rounds.

Seetkari is performed by inhaling in through the mouth, making a hissing sound with the teeth closed. This practice results in a coolness sensation. Sitting in a comfortable sitting position and closing the eyes, keeping the hands on the knees in chin or jnana mudra, practising kaya sthairyam[i] for a couple of minutes, bringing the lower and upper teeth together and separating the lips as much as is comfortable and breathing slowly through the gaps in the teeth. Listening to the sound that the inhalation produces and closing the mouth to exhale slowly through the nose. Muktibodhananda suggests repeating the process up to twenty times. It can also be performed practising retention and jalandhara bandha and moola bandha.

Sheetali, in this pranayama the inhalation is made through the tongue –like a tube-, practising kunbhaka and then exhaling the air though the nostrils. Like seetkari, this pranayama was designed to reduce body temperature. It is also possible to practise it, as in seetkari, while performing jalandhara and moola bandhas during retention.

Bhastrika, the name comes from bhastra, meaning ‘bellows’. Bhastrika pranayama is similar to vatakrama kapalbhati, but here both the inhalation and the exhalation are equal. Sitting comfortably with the eyes closed and the hands on the knees, taking a deep breath in, breathing out quickly and forcefully through the nose and immediately afterwards breathing in with the same force. After ten breaths, with the same force, take a deep breath in and out slowly to finish a round. Muktibodhananda suggests practising three to five rounds.

And Bhramari, the humming bee breath, is a calming pranayama that imitates the sound of a black bee, some other people say the sound of a humming bird. Sitting in a comfortable meditative posture, keeping the eyes closed, “inhaling slowly through the nose, listening to the sound and closing the ears with the index and middle fingers by pressing the middle outer part of the ear ligament into the ear hole. Keep the ears closed and exhale, making a deep soft humming sound.” When you have finished exhaling, bring the hands to the knees and breathe in slowly. Muktibodhananda suggests performing ten to twenty rounds and when finished, keeping the eyes closed listening for any subtle sounds (Muktibodhananda 1998). I think this pranayama is very accessible and simple to perform, I have already introduced this practice in my classes and it has had a good reception. Particularly with my classes with mothers and babies, it had a great calming effect on the babies.



Bryant, Edwin. (2009). Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.U.S.A.: North Point Press.

Muktibodhananda, Swami. (1998). Hatha Yoga Pradipika. India: Bihar School of Yoga.

Ulrich Rieker, Hans. (1992). Hatha Yoga Pradipika. U.K.: The Aquarian Press.

Websites: (accessed on May 2017). (accesses on May 2017). (accesses on May 2017).

Anderson, Sandra. (2013). The five prana vayus chart, Yoga International. (accessed on May 2017).

Bailey, James. (2007). Discover the Ida and Pingala Nadis. (accessed on May 2017).


[i] Kaya sthairyam is a meditative process that starts by concentrating or focussing on our own breath.

Introduction to Yoga

By Adriana Maldonado, 22nd September 2016

The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit “Yuj” that means yoke or bind. Perhaps one of the most simple but most useful definitions of Yoga is found in the second Sutra of the Yoga Sutras, a couple of thousand years old text in Sanskrit, written by Patañjali, considered one of the most important texts about yoga:

“Yoga citta vrtti nirodhah” Having been several times translated and interpreted, a recognised translation comes from Sri Swami Satchidananda:  “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.”, and from T.K.V. Desikachar: “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions”

Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras is a collection of 196 statements that have been a guidebook for yoga as a discipline and philosophy. The sutras outline eight limbs of yoga: the yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). This latter, samadhi, is considered as the goal, liberation or enlightenment.

It is the third limb, asana, which has been the most developed by the western world. Originally, asanas or postures had been designed to purify the body and to provide physical strength in order to be able to meditate for long periods.

Yoga has evolved hugely since Patañjali wrote the Sutras and it has been taken to different paths. New techniques, that involve both the exercise of the body and the mind, have been developed around it. Nowadays Hatha Yoga is considered a type of yoga. Hatha Yoga is that area of yoga that concentrates mainly in the asanas, breathing and meditation. Swami Satyananda Saraswati in an introduction to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions: “In order to purify the mind, it is necessary for the body as a whole to undergo a process of absolute purification. Hatha Yoga is also known as the science of purification…The main objective of Hatha Yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, mind and energy. When this balance is created, the impulses generated give a call of awakening to the central force, sushumna nadi (a channel of energy), which is responsible for the evolution of human consciousness. If Hatha Yoga is not used for this purpose, its true objective is lost.”

And finally, perhaps more immediately helpful for our day to day lives, Cyndi Lee at Yoga Journal writes: “Unlike stretching or fitness, yoga is more than just physical postures…Even within the physical practice, yoga is unique because we connect the movement of the body and the fluctuations of the mind to the rhythm of our breath. Connecting the mind, body, and breath helps us to direct our attention inward. Through this process of inward attention, we learn to recognise our habitual thought patterns without labelling them, judging them, or trying to change them. We become more aware of our experiences from moment to moment. The awareness that we cultivate is what makes yoga a practice, rather than a task or a goal to be completed. Your body will most likely become much more flexible by doing yoga, and so will your mind.”


Starting a yoga practice can really have an incredibly positive effect of people’s lives; like B.K.S. Iyengar says “Yoga is light, which once lit, will never dim. The better you practice, the brighter the flame.”


Adriana Maldonado