Category Archives: One Percent Theory

The Fire Altar and the Fire of Practice

Most Ashtanga practitioners learn eventually that in its early days Ashtanga consisted of four series:

  • Primary Series
  • Second Series
  • Advanced A
  • Advanced B

Primary and Second Series were almost the same as they are now. The Advanced A and B series were each quite long, requiring at least two hours each to complete. Apparently at some point in the 1970’s Patabhi Jois created the third through Sixth Series that we know today by subdividing Advanced A and B and adding a few new postures. Some of Jois’ earliest Western students still know and practice the original Advanced A and B series: David Swenson and a few of his friends made a rather inspiring video recoding of their practice.

I think it was in the little book Elements of Yoga by Godfrey Devereux — I’m not sure because I lost my copy some years ago and the book is now out of print — that I read a very interesting account of the original four series of Ashtanga Yoga. Devereux drew a parallel between the the series and the Upanishadic “sheaths” or layers (Sanskrit: kośa) of the human person. The Sheaths, which are mentioned in several places in the Upanishads, are:

  • annamayakośa, the “Sheath consisting of food” is the “outermost” layer: it consists of the material body. Godfrey said that the purpose of the Primary series was to purify the annamaykośa and to integrate it into the next sheath.
  • prāṇamayakośa, the “Sheath consisting of [subtle] breath” is the second layer: it consists of the subtle or energetic body — prāṇa that flows through various channels. Godfrey said that the purpose of Second series is to purify the subtle body and to integrate it into the next layer.
  • manomayakośa, the Sheath consisting of manas mind, is the third layer: it consists of the “lower” mind — the part of us that processes sense-input, for example, without much in the way of conscious deliberation or direction on our part. Godfrey said that Advanced A purifies the mind-layer and to integrates it into the next layer. Given that Advanced A contains many of intricate arm balances of today’s Third Series, I always though the association made good intuitive sense!
  • vijñānamayakośa, the Sheath consisting of vijñāna,is the fourth layer. vijñāna is derived from the verbal root jñā, “to know”, and the verbal prefix vi that indicates separation or the drawing apart of things. Thus it comes to mean such things as “discernment”, “apprehension”, “investigation” and “understanding.” One might also call it “perception”, but if so it should be understood as a more deliberative and reflective activity than the perceptual activity of the machine-like manas. Godfrey said that advanced A was intended to purify this understanding-layer, and to integrate it into the layer beneath.
  • ānandamayakośa, the sheath consisting of ānanda, “bliss”, is the fifth and innermost layer. According to Godfrey the purification of the bliss-body is accomplished not through asanas but through the practice of higher limbs of Yoga, such as meditation. Upon purification the bliss-body, along with all the other layers of the human person which have been integrated into it, resolves into that which underlies everything — brahman, the Root of All.

Now I stress that I’m not entirely sure that the above correspondences are to be found in the works of Godfrey Devereux, and if they are from Devereux I have no idea where he got them from: perhaps from BNS Iyengar, his Ashtanga teacher, or perhaps he came up with them on his own. Be that as it may, I have always found the connections intriguing — not because I have a literal belief in the five Sheaths, but because in my own experience the first few series of Ashtanga do appear, in my own practice over the years, to have addressed — I would not go so far as to say “purified” — roughly the parts of myself that answer to the first few sheaths. (I can’t speak to the correspondence between the understanding-layer and Advanced B, simply because i haven’t made it to very many of the asanas in that series; also, after years of meditation I am unable to report anything like a resolution of myself into Brahman!)

But another reason for my ongoing fascination with Series/Sheath correspondence comes from a study of the the Upanishadic passages in which the Sheaths are discussed, and from reading contemporary scholars of Vedic/Upanishadic lore.

Come along with me and have a look at the first few sections of the brahmavallī Chapter of the Taittariya Upanishad, where the five sheaths are discussed: perhaps you too will be intrigued.

The passage begins with a description of the outermost Sheath:

sa vā eṣa puruṣo ‘nnarasamayaḥ । tasyedameva śiraḥ । ayam dakṣiṇaḥ pakṣaḥ । ayamuttaraḥ pakṣaḥ ।
ayamātmā । idam puccham pratiṣṭā ॥

My translation (checked against that of Patrick Olivelle, The Early Upanishads: Annotated Text and Translation, Oxford University Press 1998) is as follows:

  • sa vā eṣa puruṣo ‘nnarasamayaḥ: “This here person is made of the essence of food.”
  • tasyedameva śiraḥ: “This is his head.” (Olivelle says that in the Upanishads the speaker, by way of explanation, would have pointed at his own body parts.)
  • ayam dakṣiṇaḥ pakṣaḥ: “This [is] the right side.” dakṣiṇaḥ pakṣaḥ is literally “southern wing” — the speaker would have been facing East, the standard position of one engaged in Vedic ritual.
  • ayamuttaraḥ pakṣaḥ: “This is the left side.” (uttaraḥ pakṣaḥ, is “northern wing”.)
  • ayamātmā: “This is his torso.” (Olivelle translates of ātman, “self” as “torso”.)
  • idam puccham pratiṣṭā: “This is [his] bottom [puccha, “tail”, [his] foundation.” (puccha, “tail”, is rendered here as “bottom.”)

The use of bird-terminolgy is curious, but we’ll get to that later. For now let’s just summarize the other four sheaths. Each successive sheath is said to be “different from, and lying within”, the previous sheath, and it “suffuses” the previous sheath completely. Furthermore, it is sad that “since he has the appearance of a man”, each layer assumes a “man-like appearance”, having the same five bird-like parts. The five sheaths, with their parts, are as follows:

Sheath Head Right Wing Left Wing Torso Tail
Material This head Right Side Left Side Torso Bottom
Energetic Out-
Inter-Breath In-Breath The Aether Earth
Mind Yajur Veda Rig Veda Sama Veda Ritual Instruction Atharva Veda Hymns
Understanding   Faith The Correct The True The Ritual Performance The Festival
Bliss Pleasure Delight Thrill Bliss Brahman

If you would like to read a full passage — it’s worthwhile, as the description each layer is capped by a numinous verse– you could consult this link: head to the Brahmavalli Chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad, roughly sections 2 through 6. Caveat: There is no indication that the site has permission to reproduce the entire Olivelle text!

The delineation of the five sheaths is typical of many Upanishadic passages, in that it attempts to forge connections between three different spheres of human experience:

  • the Cosmic Sphere, represented here by the Aether and the Earth, and perhaps by some other elements;
  • the Personal Sphere, represented here by the breaths, Faith and perhaps some other elements;
  • the Ritual Sphere, represented here by the four Vedas, ritual instruction, performance, the Festival (and possibly Faith, as traditionally understood to be accompanied by a strong intent toward sacrificial action)

In the Upanishadic Age the making of such esoteric connections helped practitioners experience Vedic ritual as deeply meaningful: salvific for the universe as well as for the individual person. In addition, the disposition to connect the ritual and personal spheres may have both explained and further enabled the move away from external Vedic sacrifice and toward asceticism and contemplation, since these latter practices could now be justified as interiorizations of the old rituals, producing their own inner Heat (tapas) as powerful and effective as any altar fire. In fact the drive to forge these connections is so pervasive that scholars now believe that in the Upanishadic texts the very term upaniṣad refers to an esoteric connection between a pair of elements from two distinct Spheres.

But the connections made in the the passage under study seem a bit ragged, and it does not help to try to understand them in terms of a connection between the Sheaths of the Personal Sphere and the series of an Ashtanga practice. That latter connection, after all, was made by Ashtangis in recent decades, not by Upanishadic sages. In order to make sense of the upaniṣads in our Taittariya passage, we have to think about that curious bird-imagery.

In an end-note, Olivelle provides the relevant clue: “the description of a man in this and the subsequent paragraphs relates also to the fire-altar built to resemble a bird with extended wings.” Indeed a reader in Upanishadic times would have instantly recognized the passage as describing the agnicayana, the Fire Altar that played a central role in much Vedic ritual and which was the focus of extensive esoteric speculation in the Brahamanas. This Fire Altar consisted of five layers of over 10,000 bricks, each layer in the shape of an eagle complete with head, wings, torso and and tail. The head of the Fire Altar always faced East, so the Southern Wing would literally have been on its right side and the Northern Wing on its left. Hence expression such as “this here person” in our passage may be understood not only as referring to the human speaker but also referring to a literal Fire Altar to which the speaker is pointing. Thus the passage suggests a coherent connection between the Personal Sphere (the five Sheaths) and the Ritual Sphere (the five layers of the Fire Altar).

But the reader in ancient times would also have been familiar with other connections, adumbrated in earlier texts such as the Shatapatha Brahmana, between the Ritual Sphere in the form of the Fire Altar and the Cosmic Sphere. The detailed prescriptions for the building of the Fire altar inevitably call to mind a creation myth from the Rig Veda, in which the world comes into being from the dismemberment of an Original Person. Indeed, when Prajapati — the creator deity of Vedic lore — made the world, he was “exhausted” (vyāśramsata, literally “fallen apart” into multiplicity), and lived on as five separate “bodies”: hair, skin, flesh, bone and marrow. The five layers of the fire altar are connected to the five pieces of Prajapati, so that in assembling the Fire Altar the sacrificer is restoring Prajapati to wholeness, and — since, as the text discusses at considerable length, the sacrificer integrates himself into the Altar — saving himself, too.

So when taken in combination the various Fire Altar texts set forth an elaborate set of connections by which we may understand that participation in the ritual of Fire Altar unites “all of the worlds” — Personal, Ritual and Cosmic — in a single coherent action that restores and heals — in all Spheres and on all levels. The modern connection — the modern “upaniṣad”, you might say — between Ashtanga practice and the five Sheaths in essence identifies Ashtanga practice as a new Fire Altar, albeit an interior one. This identification resonates, I think, with the inchoate sense that many practitioners have of the Practice as rejuvenating in a way that addresses the whole person and that seems also to extend beyond the individual to the healing of the world at large. In Upanishadic parlance (where veneration, upāsana, of X as Y expresses one’s knowledge of the esoteric connection between the two of them) we might say that “one should venerate the fiery Ashtanga Practice as the Fire Altar itself.”

I do not mean to imply that that simply because the modern Sheath/Series upaniṣad resonates deeply in one’s personal experience that it thereby must have been handed down from ancient times though a lineage, nor less that it proves some real connection between a private practice and the healing of the world, especially if such a practice never ensues in direct acts of service and justice. Modern scholarship suggests that connections in the form of views and practices that pass down essentially unchanged through unbroken lineages are not likely to be met with. And we have no reason to believe that a deep feeling of connection generates a real connection ipso facto. No, the connection here arises from reflection upon one’s own lived experience of spiritual practice, and is enhanced by an attempt to encounter the old texts on their own terms as much as possible: it consists in the discovery that we are not alone in our longings. We come to our practice out of a deeply-rooted desire for restoration and wholeness, and hopefully also a desire to include the world in our own healing through a total commitment of ourselves to our practice. To discover that others living in a much earlier time and operating out of very different world views nevertheless had similar longings is the perhaps the deepest upaniṣad of them all, and to realize such a connection is to greatly expand one’s understanding of what it means to be human.

The Fire Altar practice — in the sense of an integration and restoration of the Personal and Cosmic Spheres in a coherent Ritual act — can be thought of as an archetype, and as such we can expect to find manifestations of it not only in ancient times but also here and now. To recognize, appreciate and emulate these other manifestations will further deepen our “upanishadic” connection with the human family.

In light of this would be very worthwhile at some point to think about non-violent civil disobedience in the tradition of social activists such as Mohatma Gandhi — as particularly compelling modern manifestations of Fire Altar Practice. If we were to reflect on the iconic acts of civil disobedience in the past century — Gandhi’s Salt March, the march to Selma, Plowshares Actionsfor nuclear disarmament, etc. — then I think we would be able to identify the Fire Altar elements of ritual action, personal sacrificial commitment on the part of the activist, and a connection between the action and the healing of the world at large that is experienced by the activist as essential to her own healing and liberation. Gandhi himself was said to be a great karmayogin — it may well be that the social activists are some of the greatest yogis of our day.

What to Make of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali? Part I


Carol Horton is surely one of the most incisive and compelling voices on the Internet on topics surrounding yoga and society. I was very happy to discover her blog shortly after it was launched: the blog and its associated Facebook page are a valuable resource for contemporary Western yoga practitioners.

This post is inspired by Horton’s recent blog essay: Reading the Yoga Sutra: Can We Cross the Scholar/Practitioner Divide? The essay takes the form of a review of two books on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra — one by the contemporary Western scholar David Gordon White and the other by the practitioner/teacher Rajmani Tigunait of the Himalayan Institute. Here I intend to focus entirely on Horton’s analysis of White’s book: The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography (2014, Princeton University Press).

The questions Horton’s review raises — about how a person might incorporate, into a living engagement with a spiritual tradition, the results of historical/critical scholarship concerning that tradition — are pertinent ones for Ashtangis.  After all, many of us are quite educated and in touch with the world of scholarship; consequently we harbor a certain attachment to having “correct” views.  On the other hand, the deliverances of the scholars often don’t accord at all well with the narratives about the tradition that our teachers put forward.

I would like to take up these questions myself in subsequent posts. For the present I aim simply to get some clarity on the claims in White’s book that may, upon reflection, disturb Ashtanga practitioners, and to counter some of Horton’s objections to these claims. In a subsequent post I would like to focus on where I think Horton gets it right, and to push a bit further along some of the lines of her thought.

White’s Central Claims

Many indeed are the translations, commentaries and interpretations of the Yoga Sutra, and White’s book does not attempt to add to their number.  Instead, White deals with the history of the interpretation of the Yoga Sutra:

  • in classical Indian times (mostly through traditional Sanskrit commentaries);
  • in the pre-modern Muslim world;
  • at the hands of Western critical scholars since the scholars’ “rediscovery” of the YS in the early 19th century;
  • at the hands of modern spiritual practitioners, both Indian and Western,  in modern times (late 19th century through the present).  (Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya gets a chapter all to himself — yippee!)

White’s primary contention is stated in the Preface:

Over the past forty years or so, a theory has been forged in university departments of history and cultural studies that much of what is thought to be ancient in India was actually invented  — or at best reinvented or recovered from oblivion — during the time of the British Raj.  This of course runs counter to the view most Indians, Indophiles, and renaissance hipsters share that India’s ancient traditions are ageless verities unchanged since their emergence from the ancient mists of time.  When I began this project, I was of the opinion that “classical yoga” — that is, the Yoga philosophy of the Yoga Sutra .. was in fact a tradition extending back though an unbroken line of gurus and disciples, commentators and copyists, to Patanjali himself, the author of the work who lived in the first centuries of the Common Era.  However, the data I have sifted over the past three years have forced me to conclude that this was not the case.

Thus White situates himself within the (fairly recent) tradition of “reinvention” scholarship, which aims to show much of what was thought to be traditional is in fact of quite recent origin.  (A secondary contention of the book, I think, is this: that in pre-modern times the various schools of yoga practice had associated themselves with other texts, leaving the Yoga Sutra to scholars and philosophers, so that the tendency of certain modern yoga schools — to accord to the study of the Yoga Sutra a central role in deepening one’s practice — should be seen as something rather new in yoga.)

Horton’s understanding of White’s primary claim is quite similar. In her post she says:

By my reading …the main point [of Whites’ book] is to prove that the understanding of the YS as a timeless guide to yoga philosophy and practice that’s widely taken-for-granted among practitioners today is factually wrong. The most important reasons [White gives] for this include:

  • Philosophical inconsistency. White emphasizes that Patanjali’s original understanding of yogic philosophy was eclipsed by very different, Vedanta-based interpretations by at least the 16th century. “In a complete reversal of Patanjali’s and Vyasa’s original position,” he explains, “the Ishvara of the Yoga Sutra had come to be equated with the Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita” (49-50).
  • Historical discontinuity. Although the YS “enjoyed the status of a classic” in India during the 7th-12th centuries, it subsequently fell into obscurity (235). Ironically, this only changed when it was “rediscovered” by British Orientalists in the early 1800s. Subsequently, the YS was widely popularized by Vivekananda – who, in turn, further “severed it from its original cultural and historical context” – beginning in the late 19th century (16, 124).

Horton’s Objections, My Response

Horton finds fault with each of White’s two major reasons for his primary claim: she says: ” … the vast array of historical data White presents doesn’t consistently fit his key claims of philosophical inconsistency and historical discontinuity.” On the matter of philosophical discontinuity, she has this to say:

… White claims that the Vedantic reading of the YS “completely reversed” Patanjali’s original understanding of Ishvara (50). Later, however, White writes that if “Patanjali was a practitioner of Yoga and a devotee of a personal god like Krishna, he may well have been thinking of ‘devotional to God’ [sic] when he employed the term ishvara-pranidhana” (180). Finally, he concludes that “it is unlikely that there will ever be a final word on what Patanjali meant by ishvara-pranidhana” (181).

Needless to say, this is a major problem given that much of the earlier part of the book were devoted to demonstrating that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru beginning with Swami Vivekananda” has “fundamentally misconstrued…the heart of Patanjali’s system.” Again, how did they “fundamentally misconstrue” it? By interpreting Ishvara as “the universal Self of Vedanta,” as opposed “an object of meditation” in service of “the ultimate goal of the isolation of the individual person from universal Matter” in line with the original philosophies of Yoga and Samkhya (47-48). White’s argument undercuts itself: It’s a logical contradiction to state that we can’t know whether Patanjali was “a devotee of a personal God” and that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru…fundamentally misconstrued” his understanding of Ishvara. Both statements can’t be true at the same time. Yet, they are presented as such without qualification or commentary.

I can’t agree, here. White’s argument for philosophical inconsistency over time in YS interpretations is initiated in Chapter Two (Patanjali, the Yoga Sutra and Indian Philosophy) and continued in later chapters (especially the chapters on the Theosophists and on Vivekananda); a focused discussion of the nature of Ishvara is offered in Chapter 10 (Ishvara). A reconsideration of these chapters will suffice to dispel Horton’s objection.

In the Ishavara Chapter White considers several suggestions as to what the term “Ishvara” might have meant to Patanjali — might Ishvara have been some primordial Master of Yoga, or Krishna the Lord of the Bhagavad Gita or some other personal deity? — and concludes that we are not in a position to decide between these suggestions. White is indeed uncertain as to what Ishvara — and, by extension, the term īśvarapraṇidhāna — meant to Patanjali. On the other hand, White has a much higher degree of certainty regarding the nature and purpose of yoga according to Patanjali (or at least , according to Patanjali as understood by Vyasa, the earliest commentator). For Patanjali as a Samkhya dualist, neither the purpose of yoga practice nor the state of yoga could not have been union with Ishvara. The notion of yoga as union with God arises instead from Vedantic schools of philosophy and religious practice, not from Patanjali’s system.

A fair portion of White’s book is devoted to tracing the gradual incorporation of Vedantic conceptions of Yoga into interpretations of the Yoga Sutra. The elements of this incorporation are, very roughly, as follows:

  • Still working within the classical commentarial tradition but now very much under the influence of Vedantic/Puranic traditions, Vijnanabhikshu (16th century) re-interprets the Ishvara as “God, the supreme Self and the creator of all, transcending all”, and in fact as a “twenty-sixth principle, higher even than the multiple Purushas identified as the twenty-fifth and highest principle in classical Samkhya. This assertion … is nowhere present in earlier Yoga Sutra commentary”.
  • Late-classical authors increasingly understand Yoga philosophy in Vedantic terms, no longer taking serious account of Patanjali’s system. As early as the 14th century Vidyaranya, for example, understands Raja Yoga as the “Yoga of Vedanta”, whereas Patanjali’s eight-fold yoga is classified by him as Hatha Yoga. Swatmaraman (15th century) identifies samādhi as the final goal of Patanjali’s eight-fold path, but understands it as the union of the individual with a universal soul. (See Chapter 6, p. 100.)
  • Modern authors such as the Theosophists and Swami Vivekananda seek to re-classify Pantanjali’s system as Raja Yoga (Hatha Yoga having fallen by this time into general disrepute). But when the late-classical “Raja = Vedanta” equation is combined with the new “YS = Raja” equation, the equation “YS = Vedanta” immediately follows, and so Vedantic conceptions of Yoga end up being imposed wholesale on Patanjali’s system (see Chapters 6 and 7), without supporting evidence from the text of the Yoga Sutra.

That’s the “philosophical discontinuity” (to use Horton’s term) for which White argues. Uncertainties over the nature of Ishvara or of iśvarapraṇidhāna don’t really enter into the matter.

Horton also disputes the claim of “historical discontinuity”:

There are similar problems with White’s claim of historical discontinuity. As noted above, White reports that the YS only “enjoyed the status of a classic” during the 7th-12th centuries (235). Earlier, however, he states that its “glory days” lasted up through the 16th century (44). Sixty pages after that, he qualifies this statement by adding that “yoga philosophy had been effectively dropped from the traditional north Indian brahmanic curriculum by no later than the 16th century” (100, emphasis added). Ten pages later, he notes that “there was a Yoga revival” in northwest India during the 17th-18th centuries (111). Yet, the second to last page of the book emphasizes that the YS “improbably, miraculously” recovered “the status of a classic” after “a hiatus of nearly a millennium”! (235). Again, while this claim doesn’t logically correspond to White’s own data, it’s nonetheless stated boldly, without additional clarification.

Here again I believe the objection fails, this time due to a pair of (uncharacteristically careless) mis-readings on Horton’s part:

  • The full text of White’s p. 44 statement about “glory days” is as follows: “The centuries separating Vacaspati Mishra and Bhoja were the Yoga Sutra‘s glory days. This was the period during which Patanjali’s work was most widely quoted and enjoyed its greatest prestige, from Kashmir to Indonesia to Central Asia. But by the sixteenth century, the time of Vijnanabhikshu, the Yoga Sutra‘s last great commentator, things had changed.” Clearly there is no assertion here that the glory days of the YS lasted up through the 16th century: King Bhoja’s commentary on the YS was composed in the 11th century. As a result, White’s later statement that “yoga philosophy had been dropped from the traditional north Indian brahmanic curriculum by no later than the 16th century” is in no sense a “qualification” of his earlier assertion.
  • There was indeed a “Yoga [philosophy] revival” during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was in South India, not in the the northwest. Horton’s confusion on this point may stem from a mis-reading of the following sentence (Chapter 6, p.97): “While there is no record of any association between these monastic institutions and the propagation of the Yoga Sutra in Rajputana, in India’s northwest, there was a Yoga revival in these mileaus in Tamil Nadu, in south India, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” A Yoga revival occurring far to the south could easily have gone unnoticed in northern India: such was the case with other quite active, but isolated, southern intellectual movements, such as the remarkable “Kerala School” of mathematics that flourished from 1400-1550 CE but languished in obscurity until its textual rediscovery at the hands of British scholars — in fact, at the hands of the very same Thomas Colebrooke who brought Patanjali’s YS to the attention of the modern West! At any rate, once we are clear on the location of the Yoga revival we see that its existence has no particular bearing on White’s characterization of the YS’s modern re-ascendancy to the status of a classic as “improbable.”

Preliminary Evaluation

I don’t think that White’s work is entirely free of blemish I think that on one or two occasions White doesn’t quite capture the intent of the authors he quotes. However, in the few cases where I have had the original source at hand and have been able to examine it at length, I get the impression that White is doing the best he can, under the severe constraint of producing a book of moderate length, to summarize the often-quite-involved discussion to which he refers. I have not yet come across any major structural problems of the sort that Carol Horton raises.

Accordingly I think that contemporary Yoga practitioners, especially in contemporary Yoga Schools that accord a central role to the Yoga Sutra, have somewhat more reason than Horton would suppose to consider seriously the implications of White’s research. In a subsequent post I hope to explore these implications a bit.