Performing the Yogasutra: Towards a Methodology for Studying Recitation in Modern Hatha Yoga

“In the following I will explore various methodological approaches to studying recitation and chant, with particular focus on recitation of the Yogasutra in the context of modern yoga and the schools often grouped under the heading of Viniyoga. Viniyoga are the teachings and practices primarily associated with the South Indian Brahmin Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) and his son T.K.V. Desikachar (b. 1938). Although the epithet has lately been abandoned by Desikachar it is still in use by many of his students. For our purposes, suffice it to say that I take “Viniyoga” to be an appropriate name for a family of schools descending from Krishnamacharya and Desikachar, which are growing rapidly in popularity. It is one of the styles of modern yoga in which the use of the Yogasutra (YS) is of central importance, being employed as a constant reference for practices and various forms of intellectual guidance. In Viniyoga, the YS is recited using techniques of Vedic chant common in the South Indian environment, which considerably elevates the status of the YS vis-à-vis the Vedas.(1) The historical background to this has to do with Krishnamacharya’s and Desikachar’s own affiliation with Sri Vaisnavism. Traditionally, this form av devotionalism (the lineage being traced to Nathamuni, claimed ancestor by Krishnamacharya, via Ramanuja to Vedantadesika) has neither regarded YS as being of central importance, nor has it engaged with practices typically associated as a whole with the YS, i.e. Patañjali’s “Ashtanga Yoga”, or eightfold practice. On many accounts, then, are we witnessing innovation, both in terms of the role played by reciting YS (using Vedic chanting techniques), as well as the way in which the devotionalism of Sri Vaisnavism (i.e. bhakti-yoga) is coupled with an unprecedented emphasis on practicing Ashtanga Yoga (Nevrin 2005), and then as influenced by the developments of Hatha Yoga, i.e. extended use of postures (asana) and breath control (pranayama). Also, the use of chant and recitation is apparently becoming more and more common in contemporary religious settings, and thus a theoretical and methodological framework would perhaps prove useful to other contexts and studies than my own…”

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Categories: Modern Yoga, Yoga
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Author: Klas Nevrin

About Sunday morning

Sunday Morning Contemplation is informed by Eastern and Western contemplative traditions. The first, lectio divina has its origins in 6th century Europe. It unfolds in four steps or stages: reading (lectio), reflecting (meditatio), responding (oratio), and silent abiding (contemplatio). Our Eastern inspiration come from the Indian Upanishads (800-200 BCE), where contemplative practice consists of three steps or stages: listening (śravana), reflecting (manana), and meditating (nididhyāsana or dhyāna). Our contemplative practice on Sundays embraces both approaches, and each contemplation will be based on a reading from either tradition.

The texts and teachers I have chosen played a significant role in my life and I believe have much to offer. I will read presellected texts, slowly, with pauses between verses or quotes. The readings will be accompanied by soothing background music. To lessen distraction, I suggest participants close their eyes and listen. However, the screen will display the text so that people can choose to read along or mute the sound and read on their own. If there is time remaining after the contemplative period, participants can choose to either leave or stay for a short discussion.

As a preface to the reading, I will provide a 10-15 minute introduction to the text. When relevant, I’ll review facts about the author/teacher’s life. I will also present a brief explanation of the terms and language encountered in the reading.

Finally, when the contemplation is over, all texts read will be available online to read and/or download at any time on the website.

What I mean by
The Symbolic Life

This website makes liberal use of classical Indian visual art and refers mostly to traditional Indian texts (for example, the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras) in the courses, seminars, and discussions on offer. However, I am not presenting lessons in Hinduism; in fact, teaching mainstream Hinduism is neither my area of interest nor expertise. Rather, my interest in Yoga and Tantra is grounded in the concrete situation in which we find ourselves, in the places where we arrive and from which we depart. Beginning in the here and now, we will explore the underlying meaning of the symbols, stories, images, philosophies, and techniques found in Indian philosophical texts and practice, in light of our world and our current circumstance. We will excavate the meaning of the aphorisms and teaching stories; the symbolic figures of gods, people, and nature; and the sometimes terse, sometimes poetic, philosophy of the texts. Thus, in referring to the Symbolic Life of Yoga and Tantra, I mean not just the symbols themselves, but the rich explication of life that the symbols represent.

Our lived, concrete situation is wonderfully captured in the Sanskrit word loka, whose ancient meaning is “the world.”  The root meaning of both the Sanskrit loka and the English locate (and local, locale, and location) is identical. In the ancient Indian mind, the world is where we are located, in our current circumstance. Thus, the meaning of the symbols of Yoga and Tantra can occur only in the now, in the places where we find ourselves, and not in any imagined ancient and/or foreign world.

To emphasize our place of origin and return, I use the terms “archetypal” and “symbolic” quite frequently. Archetypal meaning is associated with the universal and collective aspects of human experience—what we intimately share with all others regardless of culture or era or epoch—while symbolic language forms a bridge between the realms of the universal with the culturally specific and local. Symbols are the scaffolding upon which human beings build a world and imbue it with meaning.

Think for a moment of pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, hatred and love, and greed and generosity—universal experiences that ancient Indian thinkers called the dvandva-s. This Sanskrit term is a combination of two words, or rather, one word spoken twice: the word dva (meaning the same as the English “two”) duplicated. Dvandva is commonly translated as “the pair of opposites” or literally “the two-twos” (dvadva). The ancients who coined this compact symbol gave voice to an archetypal human experience that can be further unpacked to reveal deep insights into the human condition. Once we gain an understanding of the various symbols of Yoga and Tantra, we can further excavate their meaning and the archetypes they convey, and thus gain access to, in a practical and meaningful way, the vision of life experienced by the sages. These insights are available to us and are still relevant today, as are the resilient and adaptable techniques and forms of practice that can help us lead richer and more fulfilling lives