ISSUE #004 - Jul 31, 2018

Yoga In Transformation

David Gordon White

A vibrant and highly creative segment of global society—identifiable by their distinc- tive beliefs, behavior, clothing, and language—modern-day practitioners of yoga may be said to consti- tute a subculture, “an identifiable subgroup within a society or group of people, especially one char- acterized by beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger group.”1 It may be argued that the ancient and medieval practitioners of yoga also constituted a subculture. In the modern case, the larger group comprises the mainstream cultures of an increasingly globalized urban society. In the ancient and medieval case, the larger group was, for the most part, the mainstream culture of South Asia.

What do these two yoga subcultures have in common? Most modern yoga practitioners tend to assume that, apart from clothing styles, modern accessories, or adaptations (yoga with dogs, laughter yoga) on the original Indian template, very little has changed. Most believe that the peren- nial elements of yoga practice—its spiritual foundations; postural practice; the goals of a healthy mind and body; and yoga as a means to self-transformation, harmonizing with nature, and discovering the transcendent within—remained the same in India through the millennia before their introduction to the West. In fact, yoga grew out of several often unrelated South Asian traditions that were combined over the centuries into a small number of unified traditions. Over the past 120 years, these traditions have been adapted by both Indian and Western culture brokers into the many yoga “brands” familiar to modern practitioners: Raja Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Anusara Yoga, and so forth. In other words, the complex of transformative practices that we know as yoga today is itself the product of some four thousand years of transformation.

Early Developments

According to a commonly held assumption, the earliest evidence we have for yoga is a clay seal from the Indus River Valley archaeological site of Mohenjo-Daro, dated to the latter portion of the third mil- lennium BCE. What one sees on the seal is a “yogi” seated in a cross-legged posture (fig. 1); however, since we find ancient images of figures in identical postures from such far-flung places as Scandinavia and the Near East, we cannot assume that any of them were intended to represent yoga practitioners. Furthermore, in the earliest literary references to yoga, found in the circa fifteenth-century BCE Rig Veda, the word yoga did not denote either meditation or the seated posture, but rather a war chariot, comprising the wheeled vehicle, the team of horses pulling it, and the yoke that held the two together. (The Sanskrit word yoga is linguistically related to the English yoke.) According to ancient Indian warrior traditions, as attested in early strata of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata (circa 200 BCE–100 CE), a hero who died fighting on the battlefield would be borne up to heaven and transformed into a god when he pierced the sun on a vehicle called a “yoga.”2

Later strata of the Mahabharata (circa 200–400 CE) record another, more familiar, use of the term yoga, which developed in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain circles during the latter half of the first millennium BCE. During this period, wandering ascetics developed a system of practices for controlling the body and breath as a means for stabilizing the mind (figs. 2 and 3). While these practices were referred to as “meditation” in early Buddhist and Jain sources,3 the Hindu Kathaka Upanishad, a scrip- ture dating from about the third century BCE, describes them within the context of a set of teachings on yoga. In these teachings, the link between meditation as a means for reining in the mind and the “yoga” of the ancient chariot warrior is a clear one. We read that the disciplined practitioner who has “yoked” the “horses” and “chariot” of his body and senses with the “reins” of his mind rises up to the world of the supreme god Vishnu.4

Three other points made in the Kathaka laid the groundwork for much of what came to constitute yoga in the centuries that followed. First, its teaching on yoga introduced a subtle physiol- ogy, calling the body a “fort with eleven gates” and evoking the soul or Self as a “person the size of a thumb” who, dwelling inside, is worshiped by all the gods.5 This and other Upanishads also introduced the breath channels (nadis) that would become so fundamental to the transformative practices of the medieval tradition of hatha yoga. Second, the Kathaka identified the individual Self with the Universal Self (brahman): this non-dualist metaphysics would be taken up in several later yoga traditions, begin- ning with those revealed by the supreme god Krishna in the 200–400 CE Bhagavad Gita, a late por- tion of the Mahabharata.6 Finally, the Kathaka introduced the hierarchy of mind-body constituents—the senses, mind, intellect, and so forth—that comprise the foundational categories of the dualist samkhya, the metaphysical system grounding the circa 325 CE Yoga Sutras (YS).7

Fig. 1 (left) “Yogi” seal. Indus civilization, ca. 2600– 1900 BCE. National Museum of India Fig. 2 (center) Seated Buddha. Afghanistan or Pakistan, Gandhara, probably Hadda, 1st century–320. Cleveland Museum of Art Fig. 3 (right) Head of a Rishi. India, Mathura, 2nd century. Cleveland Museum of Art

The Yoga Sutras and Allied Traditions

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali was a pivotal compilation of all of these prior yoga and meditation tradi- tions, which it framed within the broader context of a unified and rigorous metaphysics. As was the case in nearly every other Indian religious and philosophical system, the underlying purpose of the YS’s metaphysics was to resolve the problem of suffering existence. And, like most of those other systems, the YS viewed the mind as both the crux and the potential solution to that problem. Because the mind is attached and addicted to the Ego-Self and the material, death-laden body with which it identifies, it is blind to the Self’s true identity, which is immortal and unfettered. However, if the mind can be unteth- ered from the body and the senses, and made to turn inward, toward the luminous Self, it can be freed from its dysfunctional habits. The principal means to this end is meditation, and the YS’s program of meditation tracks closely with those found in earlier Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu works.

While most of the YS is a disquisition on the nature of the universe and the Self, the workings of the mind, and the way to salvation, it also contains practical and “supernatural” components that mirror contemporary developments in both Buddhism and Jainism and anticipate later yoga sys- tems. Here, Patanjali’s presentation of eightfold (ashtanga) yoga may be contrasted with an alternative set of practices known as sixfold (shadanga) yoga.8 Both systems have five components in common: the progressive stages of breath control (pranayama), withdrawing the senses (pratyahara), meditation (dharana), fixing the mind (dhyana), and perfect contemplation (samadhi). What distinguishes the two is the insertion of seated postures (asana) in the YS, in the place of rational inquiry (tarka) or recollection (anusmrti) in the sixfold system. In addition, the YS foregrounds this group of six with two bodies of ethical practice: the inner and outer restraints (yama and niyama). These two may have been inspired by Jain monastic vows from an earlier time; furthermore, early Jain works also present the way to liber- ation as an ascending path of ever-deepening meditative states.9

Nearly the entirety of the YS’s third book is devoted to the so-called “supernatural pow- ers” (vibhuti) acquired through the practice of yoga. These include the power to know past lives, to read people’s minds, to enter into other creatures’ bodies, and to fly.10 According to the YS’s metaphysics, they are entirely natural abilities, inherent in a practitioner whose mental functions have expanded beyond the limits of the physical body. Identical accounts of these sorts of powers are found in early Buddhist and later Hindu literature, which also correlate consciousness-raising on a cognitive level to an actual visionary ascent through ever-expanding realms of cosmic space.11 Other Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain sources also refer to the ability of yogic practitioners to imitate the powers of gods and Bud- dhas, whose cosmic bodies fill the entire universe (see cat. 10a).12

Fig. 4 Yogin with Six Chakras. India, Himachal Pradesh, Kangra, late 18th century. National Museum of India

Tantric Yoga and Hatha Yoga

Two centuries after the YS, a new current of religious thought emerged in Buddhist and Hindu circles in South Asia. Scriptures called the Tantras identified self-deification and supernatural power as the goals of religious life, employing “yoga” as an overarching term for the entire range of Tantric practice.13 One means to achieve this end was through a transformative process in which male practitioners tapped into and appropriated the boundless energy of the divine feminine (fig. 4 and page 36).

According to several Tantric scriptures, this inner energy was concentrated in the sexual fluids of women who embodied the creative power of the great Goddess. They were known as Yoginis, Female Messengers (Dutis), Mothers, Great Seals (Mahamudras), or simply Goddesses.14 In initiation and other Tantric rites, the principal sacraments—often consumed by practitioners in nocturnal, cremation-ground rituals—were alco- hol, meat, and the sexual fluids produced through ritualized sex.15 Over time, these ritual practices were internalized, with the Tantric practitioner’s female consorts becoming the god- desses of his subtle body.16 In Hindu works, these multiple Tantric goddesses coalesced into a serpentine energy most often called Kundalini (She who is coiled).17 Practitioners gradually innovated the body of techniques known as hatha yoga18: through a combi- nation of fixed postures, breath control, locks (bandhas), and seals (mudras), the hatha yogi transformed his body into a hermetically sealed system within which breath, energy, and fluids were stabilized and forced upward through the central channel of the subtle yogic body. Linking this to all earlier forms of yogic practice was its final outcome: supernatural powers, including the power of flight and bodily immortality.

While there are several possible readings for the word hatha,19 the most plausible is that it denoted the “force” of its practices in effecting the transformation of the body.20 The most important foundational technical works on the subject are attributed to a twelfth-century figure named Goraksha or Gorakhnath. These include Sanskrit-language treatises and a corpus of mystic poetry on yogic experience.21

Fig. 5 King Suraghu Visits Mandavya, folio from the Yoga Vasishta. India, Uttar Pradesh, Allahabad, Mughal dynasty, 1602. Chester Beatty Library


According to tradition, Gorakhnath founded the ascetic order known as the Naths (Lords).22 In his poems, he simply refers to himself and his followers as yogis, and both he and his fellow yogis were the subject of a rich body of legend.

Well before Gorakhnath’s time, several early and important works—including the Bhagavad Gita, Maitri Upanishad, Yoga Sutras, Yoga Vasistha, and a Jain work titled The Bhaktis23—had employed the term yogi to denote the ideal subject or agent of yoga practice. In these works, the yogi was portrayed as a person broadly embodying the virtues of conventional types of yoga practice: med-

Fig. 6 The Goddess Bhairavi Devi with Shiva (detail). Attributed to Payag. India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1630–35. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

itating, renouncing, wandering, and seeking to find God within (fig. 5). This is the image most modern people have of India’s yogis: peaceful, meditative holy men, living in harmony with nature in hermit- ages and caves, and on mountaintops. With the advent of Tantra, however, this idealized image of the yogi was replaced by a darker one, which has persisted down to the present day in rural South Asia.24

In the fantasy and adventure literature of medieval South Asia, the consorts of the Tantric yogis, often called yoginis, were cast as their lovers, with their rites described as wholesale orgies taking place on cremation grounds in the dead of night: “Yogis, drunk with alcohol, fall upon the bosoms of women; the Yoginis, reeling with liquor, fall upon the chests of men.”25 This was, however, a dangerous game, because, as the Tantric texts themselves unambiguously state, persons not empowered by Tan- tric initiations to consort with them generally became “food for the Yoginis.” These yoginis were gener- ally identified with the creatures of the charnel grounds—not human women at all, but carrion-feeding jackals and vultures that devoured the bodies of the dead, whose flesh fueled their powers of flight. Through his initiation, however, the Tantric yogi became transformed into a “second Shiva,”26 who, like  the great god himself, was able to control the hordes of yoginis who formed his macabre entourage.

Fig. 7 Tantric Feast. India, Himachal Pradesh, Nurpur, ca. 1790. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

More than this, he was able to see through their horrific appearances and visualize them as embodiments of Shiva’s divine consort, the lovely and terrible goddess Bhairavi.27 A remarkable 1630 Mughal painting seems to depict just such a transformation (fig. 6). In a cremation ground, a Tantric yogi— whose transformation into a “second Shiva” is indicated by the glow of the crescent moon surrounding his head—is shown pronouncing mantras, represented by the puff of flame emitting from his mouth. Through his mantra, the goddess Bhairavi, who had previously haunted the cremation ground in the form of one of the jackals pictured in the foreground, shows herself to him in her true form, as a rav- ishing, albeit horrific goddess-cum-yogini. Here, the artist has ingeniously adorned Bhairavi’s hair with arrow points to indicate her transformation from a jackal, whose pointed ears they mimic.

Fig. 8. A Royal Ascetic. India, Karnataka, possibly Bijapur, ca. 1660. British Library

Often, Tantric yogis were described as amassing worldly powers at the expense of other people. A prescriptive account of this practice, called “subtle yoga,” is found in the Netra Tantra, a ninth-century Hindu Tantra, whose eleventh-century commentary asserts that a person “becomes a yogi when his activities result in [control over] the movement of every limb of the person [whose body has been] invaded by him.”28 Nothing more or less than a battery of techniques for entering into and taking over other people’s bodies, the theory and practice of subtle yoga fused teachings from the YS with Tantric subtle body constructs. On the one hand, the YS authorized such practices,29 and on the other, the energies and channels of the subtle body made them technically possible. While such pow- ers could be used for good—to initiate and thereby assure the salvation of a Tantric novice—they were most often portrayed as a predatory technique.30

No doubt due to the notoriety of such practices, the Tantric yogi became a stock figure in medieval literature, playing the villainous evil wizard who worked his nefarious designs on kings, princes, and innocent maidens, but was undone in the end by his own evil (fig. 7). Even today, parents in rural South Asia may scold naughty children with the words, “Be good, or the yogi will come and take you away.”

Yoga and Yogis in the Modern World

Prior to the nineteenth century, when European explorers and empire-builders began to learn of yoga’s philosophical depth, most Western writers described the yogis and fakirs they encountered as degen- erates engaging in sexual excesses or as weapon-carrying mercenaries. Indeed, by the eighteenth century, armed “ascetics” formed the great bulk of the north Indian military labor market. A number of generals in these armies styled themselves after Shiva, the Lord of Yogis, such as the royal warrior described in a medieval chronicle:

[A]ppearing like the Lord of Yogis, [he] was armed with a dagger; his ensigns were an axe in his hand and a tall trident, and a leather cloak. With a coil of matted hair on his head, and a musical horn, and ashes of cow dung, he was altogether like Hara [Shiva], the destroyer of all. With a powerful voice he cried and from his odd eye he scattered masses of fire. On his throne he might be seen [sitting] in the midst of his own congregation [of yogis], bearing on his head the moon with the nectar of the immortals.31

A seventeenth-century painting from the Deccan portrays a warrior in just such a guise, wearing the patchwork robe of a yogi (albeit finely tailored here), with the tiger skin and crescent moon halo indi- cating his identity with Shiva (fig. 8). So powerful were these armed ascetics that throughout the final decades of the eighteenth century, the British found themselves pitted against a yogi insurgency that would come to be known as the Sannyasi and Fakir Rebellion.32

For much of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company was also stymied by yogis in its attempts to regulate and control north Indian commerce. Cartels of Hindu ascetics and mer- cenaries exploited their status as “holy men” to transform pilgrimage routes into networks of trade; by the 1780s, yogis had become the dominant money-lenders and property-owners of several north Indian trading hubs. Some translated their economic clout into political dominance. In 1768, power-brokering Nath Yogis were instrumental in the unification of Nepal and the founding of the Gurkha (named after Gorakhnath) dynasty.33 In 1803, Nath Yogis did the same in Jodhpur, in western India, outmaneuvering the British in the process.34

In 1823, the British Orientalist Henry Thomas Colebrooke “discovered” the YS and with it the textual foundation of India’s yoga traditions. Seven decades later, Swami Vivekananda (see cats. 24a-h) introduced yoga to the Western masses as “one of the grandest of sciences,” which had been nearly lost to the world through the machinations of tantric yogis, “who made it a secret [to keep] the powers to themselves.”35

With the separation of Indian yoga from India’s yogis, the doors were thrown open to the brave new world of the modern yoga subculture.


  1. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “subculture.”
  2. David Gordon White, Sinister Yogis (Chicago: Uni- versity of Chicago Press, 2009), pp. 48–54, 60–61, 67–71.
  3. Johannes Bronkhorst, The Two Traditions of Med- itation in Ancient India (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass 1993), pp. 1–5, 19–24.
  4. Kathaka Upanishad (KU), 3.3–9, in Valerie Roebuck, The Upanisads (London: Penguin Books, 2003).
  5. KU 4.12; 5.1,3
  6. KU 5.5, 8–10; Bhagavad Gītā 4.1–7.30; 10.1–12.20, in The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata, A Bilingual Edition, ed. and trans. J. A. B. Van Buitenen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
  7. KU 3.10–11; 6.7–8. On the date of the Yoga Sutra, see Philipp André Maas, Samadhipada: Das erste Kapitel des Patanjalayogasastra zum ersten Mal kritisch ediert (Aachen, Germany: Shaker Verlag, 2006), pp. xv–xvi.
  8. Patanjali’s discussion of eightfold yoga is found in YS 2.28–3.3. Sixfold yoga is discussed in the Maitri Upanishad (6.18) and other Hindu sources, as well as the Buddhist canon of the “Highest Yoga Tantras.” On this, see Vesna Wallace, “The Six-phased Yoga of the Abbreviated Wheel of Time Tantra (Laghukāla- cakratantra) According to Vajrapāṇi,” in Yoga in Prac- tice, ed. David Gordon White (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 201), pp. 204–22.
  9. On these possible Jain influences, see Christopher Key Chapple, Yoga and the Luminous: Patañjali’s Spiritual Path to Freedom (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008), pp. 96–99.
  10. Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, 3.18,19, 21, 33, 38, 39, in Barbara Stoler Miller, Yoga, Discipline of Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  11. On early Buddhist systems, see Robert Gimello, “Mysticism and Meditation,” in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, ed. Stephen T. Katz (London: Sheldon Press, 1978), pp. 182–86. On later Hindu systems, see White, Sinister Yogis, pp. 99–108.
  12. White, Sinister Yogis, pp. 167–90.
  13. Such was the case in the Buddhist “Yoga Tantras” and “Highest Yoga Tantras” as well as in the Hindu Malinivijayottaratantra, which cast its entire path to salvation as “yoga.” Somadeva Vasudeva, The Yoga of the Malinivijayottaratantra (Pondicherry: Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2004).
  14. For example, in the Hindu Kaulajñānanirṇaya and the Buddhist Caṇḍamahāroṣana and Hevajra Tantras. For discussions, see David Gordon White, Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts (Chi- cago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 106–14; and David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors, vol. 1 (Bos- ton: Shambhala, 1987), pp. 256–64.
  15. Today, this is popularly and reductively known as “Tantric Sex.”
  16. David Gordon White, “Yogini,” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), p. 825.
  17. In Buddhist Tantras, the names Avadhuti and Candali (terms for the “outcaste” women who often served as Tantric consorts) were most commonly used.
  18. David Gordon White, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 184–334.
  19. The term is first encountered in the eighth-cen- tury Buddhist Guhyasamaja Tantra; Birch, “Meaning,” p. 535.
  20. Jason Birch, “The Meaning of haṭha in Early Haṭhayoga,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 131, no. 4 (2011), p. 548.
  21. For a listing of yogic, Tantric, and alchemical works attributed to Gorakhnath, in both Sanskrit and vernacular languages, see White, Alchemical, pp. 140–41. For a detailed discussion of the Goraksasa- taka, see James Mallinson, “The Original Goraksa- sataka,” in Yoga in Practice, ed. David Gordon White (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 257–72.
  22. They are also known as Nath Yogis, or kanphata (“split-eared”) for the distinctive way they wore their signature earrings, through the cartilage of the ear. In Buddhist and Jain sources, these yogis were most often called siddhas (“perfected beings”) or Naths, while Islamic authors identified them as yogis, pirs (“masters”), or fakirs (“poor men”). Ronald Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism. A Social History of the Tantric Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), pp. 173–340; and White, Alchemical Body, pp. 19, 80–81, 84–85, 331–32; Simon Digby, Wonder-Tales of South Asia: Translated from Hindi, Urdu, Nepali and Persian (Jersey: Orient Mono- graphs, 2000), pp. 221–33.
  23. John E. Cort, “When Will I Meet Such a Guru? Images of the Yogī in Digambar Hymns” (unpub- lished paper, Jaina Studies Conference, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, March 2010). Traditionally, the third of the twelve “Bhaktis” in these works is titled the “Yogī Bhakti.” As Cort notes, the dating of “The Bhaktis” is problematic, with the earliest Prakrit-language versions likely predating the sixth century.
  24. In the world of medieval Hindu Tantra, there was a certain division of labor, which distinguished between practitioners whose gnostic medita- tive practice led to identity with the divine, i.e., self-divinization, as opposed to those whose goal was supernatural power in the world. Here, the former were known as jnanis (“knowers”), and the latter yogis. This is not to say that Tantric yogis were uninterested in the jnanis’ transformative knowledge: they simply maintained that it could be attained directly through Tantric initiation, by drinking the “fluid gnosis” of their female consort’s sexual emis- sions. White, Kiss of the Yoginī, pp. 106–14.
  25. Somadeva Vasudeva, “The Transport of the Haṃ- sas: A Śākta Rāsalīlā as Rājayoga in Eighteenth-Cen- tury Benares,” in White, ed., Yoga in Practice, p. 250.
  26. White, Alchemical Body, pp. 312–14.
  27. White, Kiss of the Yoginī, pp. 247–51.
  28. Netra Tantra 20.28–36, with the commentary of Kṣemarāja. For a discussion, see White, Sinister Yogis, pp. 161–64.
  29. YS 3.38: “From loosening the fetters of bondage to the body and from awareness of the body’s fluid- ity, entering into the body of another.”
  30. White, Sinister Yogis, pp. 161–66.
  31. A. F. Rudolf Hoernle, trans., The Prithirāja Rāsau of Chand Bardai, Bibliotheca Indica, n.s., no. 452 (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1881), pp. 49–50.
  32. White, Sinister Yogis, pp. 220–26, and William Pinch, Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires (Cam- bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 82–102.
  33. Véronique Bouillier, “The King and His Yogī: Pṛthivinārāyaṇ Śāh, Bhagavantanāth and the Unifica- tion of Nepal in the Eighteenth Century,” in Gender, Caste and Power in South Asia: Social Status and Mobility in a Transitional Society, ed. John P. Neelsen (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1991), pp. 1–21.
  34. White, Kiss of the Yoginī, pp. 168–69; and Sinister Yogis, pp. 219, 239. See also Debra Diamond, Cath- erine Glynn, et al., Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur (Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2008), pp. 31–49, 141–71, 280–86.
  35. Swami Vivekananda, Raja-Yoga: Conquering the Internal Nature (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1896; rev. ed. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1973), p. 18.

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