The Shamanic Roots of Yoga

♫ music ♫ Yoga is more popular than ever, but what is being taught and practiced in many of the commercial studios and yoga festivals around the world bears little resemblance to the rich tradition that has its roots in the ancient culture of India When most people think of the more ancient and spiritual aspects of yoga, the colourful Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Hanuman, and Kali may first come to mind

But the roots of yoga go much deeper, back to a time when people worshiped the elements of nature — the sun, moon, fire, earth, air and water — a shamanic culture in which rishis, literally, “those who see”, communed with the elemental gods and nature spirits through elaborate rituals and use of the entheogenic plant brew known as Soma ♫ music ♫ The first evidence of ancient yoga dates back to the pre-Vedic Indus Valley civilization, dated between 3300–1300 BC At the Harappa archaeological site in modern day Pakistan, numerous small figures in yogic postures were discovered, evidence that some form of physical yoga was being practiced at least 4,000 years ago Other artifacts from the Indus Valley civilization offer clues to a connection between yoga and shamanism This example, known as the Pashupati seal, depicts a shamanic figure with 3 faces and buffalo horns, clearly seated in a yogic posture and surrounded by various animals and undeciphered symbols

Some scholars believe this figure to be a prototype of the Hindu god Shiva, who is considered the first yogi and lord of animals The concept of shapeshifting is common throughout most shamanic traditions The shaman accesses the power of various animals by assuming their form in costume or in vision ♫ music ♫ The element of shapeshifting is evident even in the yoga practiced today, with postures like downward-facing dog, scorpion and cobra forming a significant part of the modern postural yoga lexicon Another artifact from the Indus Valley depicts the Pashupati yogi-shaman figure, kneeling before what is perhaps the earliest depiction of the plant spirit Soma

♫ music ♫ The Rig Veda, the oldest Sanskrit text dating to at least 2,500 BC, describe the rishis — dreadlocked mystics who drink the legendary entheogenic plant brew Soma for healing, spiritual revelation and communion with the gods In the Rig Veda, Soma is the word used for the plant, the brew and the plant spirit, a trinity repeated a world away in the South American Amazon, where the word ayahuasca is used simultaneously for a particular vine, the tea made from the vine, and the spirit that is contacted by ingesting it In their Soma-induced revelations, the Vedic rishis received hymns that invoke the forces of nature for healing, insight and guidance, much like the chants of other shamanic traditions These hymns became the source for the yogic mantras, and for the ancient Indian singing tradition of Dhrupad, which bears a striking similarity, in both form and function, to the ikaros of the South American shaman It’s clear that at the time of the Vedic period, the ritual use of Soma was the primary way of experiencing a direct connection to the divine

The term entheogen has been given to psychoactive substances like Soma and ayahuasca that “awaken the divine within” In hatha yoga, which develops after the Vedic period, the breath becomes the entheogen Pranayama, the practice of controlling the breath, often combined with visualizations and mantras, becomes the primary means by which the practitioner purifies themself to achieve health, spiritual transformation and union with god In the development of these practices, the external ritual sacrifices of the early pre-Vedic and Vedic period become the internal alchemical rituals of hatha yoga A clear example of this appears in the Bhagavad Gita, dated around 2,500 years ago in which the god Krishna instructs his disciple Arjuna on yoga

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, considered a seminal yoga text, mentions the use of entheogens as a way to attain mystical knowledge and powers, known as siddhis, but it places far greater emphasis on meditation and the performance of austerities as a way of achieving the same results, suggesting a movement away from the use of plant entheogens in favor of other, more immediately available and perhaps safer methods The attainment of esoteric knowledge and supernatural powers, including astral travel, telepathy, shapeshifting and influence over others, is a common theme throughout all shamanic traditions including hatha yoga Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra, is himself a shamanic figure One origin story tells of the cosmic serpent, Ananta, being born on Earth as the sage Patanjali in order to help ease the suffering of humanity by teaching them yoga Patanjali is called the jungle physician and is depicted as half-man, half-serpent, an image that resonates with the archetype of the shapeshifting healer-mystic found all over the world across the ages

By the time of the Medieval Period, the practices of Hatha Yoga have been fully developed and now include postures, breathwork and extensive cleansing practices intended to strengthen and purify the body, forming it into an alchemical vessel for spiritual transformation The texts of hatha yoga describe the body as a microcosm of the universe, home to the five elements of earth, air, fire, water and ether, situated in the energetic centres called chakras In some texts the spinal column is the holy Mount Meru, the centre of the universe, analogous to the Axis Mundi, or the Tree of Life in other mystic traditions that serves as a bridge between earth and the divine realms Even the fabled nectar of immortality, Soma, has now found its way into the body It is said to be produced by the “moon in the head”, continually dripping into the fiery sun in the belly thus shortening the lifespan of the average person

The yogi, however, strives to preserve this nectar by practicing inverted postures and engaging physio-energetic locks in the body, thus ensuring longevity and spiritual liberation Other hatha yoga practices focus on awakening Kundalini, the “serpent power” that lies dormant at the base of the spine, that when awakened catalyzes a process of psycho-spiritual transformation The serpent plays a central role in hatha yoga, and as in other shamanic traditions, it represents transformation and rebirth Following its peak in the Medieval Period, Hatha Yoga falls into a kind of dark age, looked down upon by mainstream authorities and practiced mostly by small groups of outliers living on the edge of conventional society By the time of the 19th century, Hatha Yoga is viewed by many as no more than a cultural curiosity, associated with naked sadhus, fakirs and charlatans

In the early 20th century, T Krishnamacharya, a yoga scholar and practitioner, began revitalizing serious interest in Hatha Yoga through demonstrations and publications sponsored by the king of Mysore in an effort to promote Indian culture ♫ music ♫ He became most well-known outside of India as the teacher of the teachers who brought Hatha Yoga to Europe and America, including BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi, Pattabhi Jois and his own son, TKV Desikachar ♫ music ♫ At the age of 16, Krishnamacharya had a pivotal mystical experience when he fell into a trance and received the content of a long lost yoga text by his ancestor Nathamuni Inspired by this revelation, he later spent 7 years at the base of Mount Kailash learning yoga and healing arts from his guru Ramamohana Brahmachari When his training was complete, his guru told him that he must return to the city, start a family and teach yoga

It’s in this move from ascetic to householder that Krishnamacharya emerges as a model for the modern hatha yogi: a serious practitioner with wife and family, engaged with society He further broke the mold by being one of the first to teach westerners and women, and adapted the hatha yoga practices for modern people with family and work obligations While he is largely responsible for the spread of hatha yoga to the west, much of what Krishnamacharya taught has been lost in translation Like the ancient yogis before him, Krishnamacharya considered the breathing practices most important and the key to hatha yoga’s healing power In his 1934 text, Yoga Makaranda (The Nectar of Yoga), he speaks of the importance of pranayama in accessing the healing potential of yoga and the dangers of ignoring the suggestions of the ancestors

Today, we’re faced with an epidemic of physical, mental and spiritual dis-ease in cities all around the world Modern medicine has yet to offer an effective solution to this problem, and there has been a growing interest in shamanic practices and plant medicines by people seeking alternative, natural forms of healing And while many people have had profound experiences with entheogens like ayahuasca and peyote, the feelings of well-being and deep connection often fade as they return to their regular lives, and leave them once again wanting It’s becoming clear that we must find more sustainable ways to heal ourselves Thanks to teachers like Krishnamacharya who preserved and shared the shamanic technology of hatha yoga, as it was passed down by the ancient jungle doctors and mystics who refined it over generations, there is another way

Modern scientific research is now discovering that the physical and meditative practices of hatha yoga release chemicals produced in the brain that are responsible for feelings of peace, well-being and deep connection This is the Soma that the ancient yogis sang of in their hymns and later learned how to access through the practices of hatha yoga These practices, passed down for generations for the benefit of all people, offer a holistic and integrated way to achieve physical, mental and spiritual healing, to in effect, become one’s own shaman, using only the natural resources of one’s own body, breath and mind