Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Season's Greetings

Wishing our friends, followers, and celebrated patrons many moments of freedom and bliss in the coming year. May you continue to benefit from the gift of Yoga in both practice and study. 
Season's Greetings! 
With love from The Luminescent

Angels bring food to an Ascetic, ca 1735.
Nurpur Court, Pahari School, Himachal Pradesh.
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Friday, 22 December 2017

A Culture of Silence: Satyananda Yoga

By Dr Josna Pankhania and Jacqueline Hargreaves
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Joris Hoefnagel (Flemish / Hungarian, 1542 - 1600) and Georg Bocskay (Hungarian, died 1575)
Caterpillar, Pear, Tulip, and Purple Snail, 1561 - 1562;
Illumination added 1591 - 1596,
Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 16.6 × 12.4 cm (6 9/16 × 4 7/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recently investigated the period in the 1970s and 1980s when shocking levels of abuse were deeply entrenched in the Satyananda Yoga ashram at Mangrove Mountain (Australia). Case Study 21 of the Royal Commission provided a critical cultural analysis of the practices and values held by Satyananda Yoga that served to foster, as well as mask, the abuse. The Commission concluded that Swami Satyananda Saraswati (b. 1923, d. 2009), the founding guru, had overarching authority at the Mangrove Mountain ashram (and its centres) in his role as head of Satyananda Yoga worldwide.

The Mangrove Mountain ashram, renamed the Academy of Yoga Science, has recently engaged in a reparation process, which reached a ‘Settlement Agreement’ that has resulted in the payment of compensation to the survivors of child sexual abuse at this ashram. However, multiple philosophical, ideological and pedagogical matters, which were highlighted by the Royal Commission as systemic at an institutional level, remain unresolved. The current head of Satyananda Yoga, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati (b. 1960), has yet to engage in the evaluation of practices that were deemed problematic and unsafe. This article aims to highlight the potential risks that remain within the Satyananda Yoga institution as a result of this leadership silence.


The guru-disciple pedagogy, which is inherent in many schools of yoga in India, has proven to be a vulnerable juncture in the transmission of transnational yoga. Although there are many individual gurus that have made formative contributions to the practice of contemporary yoga worldwide, few organisations that support such a teaching model have managed to navigate the power dynamics without scandal and abuse.

The word guru is a widely used honorific title within Indian religious traditions that generally refers to a master or an accomplished teacher. As the name guru is given to those considered accomplished, the nature of the guru’s knowledge is often worshipped as divine. The many kinds of guru “differ according to the rites or scriptures in which they are experts, and then indicate the characteristics, qualities and abilities that they must possess” (Brunner, Oberhammer & Padoux 2004, 192).

Within Satyananda Yoga, the guru–disciple relationship is established through a formal initiation (dīkṣā). The initiation process described by the Sanskrit term dīkṣā, became a defining feature of early tantric Śaivism as a transformative liberation rite that took the form of ritual (most often through mantras), where an initiate realises his innate state of omniscience through the grace of the guru (eds. Goodall & Rastelli 2013, 169). However, within contemporary guru lineages, such as Satyananada Yoga, dīkṣā is widely regarded as a qualificatory rite for a renunciate lifestyle, particularly amongst those who embrace bhakti (devotion) as a means of liberation. 

Initiates who accept complete renunciation (pūrṇasannyāsa) in the Satyananda order, receive an initiatory name (dīkṣānāman) of saraswatī, which denotes their spiritual lineage, and also adopt the title swāmī, ‘master of the self’ (Persson 2000). Many pūrṇasannyāsins officially change their registered family name to ‘Saraswati’.

Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), the disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, was one of the first gurus to initiate both men and women of the West as sannyāsins in the late 19th century (Ellwood 1987). The initiation of Westerners became widespread in the 1960s and 1970s when various Indian teachers—such as Swami Satyananda, Swami Vishnudevananda and Swami Chidananda, all disciples of Swami Sivananda—began to travel internationally and attract relatively large numbers of followers (Saraswati, Y. 1995).

Within his evolving paramparā (lineage), Satyananda developed the concept of karmasannyāsa, which denotes a renunciate with householder duties (Saraswati, Y. 1995). This enabled both Eastern and Western ‘householders’, many of whom were women, who had worldly obligations to fulfil, to pursue a spiritual path without renouncing family life. These karmasannyāsins received the title of sannyāsi, rather than that of swāmī. Only those who were deemed suited for a life devoted exclusively to spiritual pursuits were initiated to the higher order of pūrṇasannyāsa.

As the rate of initiation to the Satyananda Yoga order grew in parallel with its transnational expansion in the late 20th century, it became impractical for the guru to offer dīkṣā ceremonies individually. As a result, rather than an intimate ceremonial ritual that involved the guru whispering the initiatory mantra in the ear of an initiate (and the initiate performing a circumambulation of the guru and prostration at his feet), the process evolved and it became possible for dīkṣā to be taken en masse with up to one hundred or more individuals initiated at a time (Pankhania 2008). This type of mass initiation took place in various countries when the guru was visiting and continues to be offered in India today. There are also a few cases whereby the guru sent a personal mantra in an envelope by post across the world for initiation (Pankhania 2008).

The Royal Commission heard that the commitment of Satyananda Yoga disciples to their guru was often described in terms of surrender, submission, obedience and devotion (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 11). It was clearly recorded in evidence that “the devotion to the guru–disciple relationship that was required in the practice of Satyananda Yoga at the Mangrove ashram ultimately culminated in a complete and unquestioning trust by both adults and children alike” (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 54).  The report goes on to explain that initiation at a young age into a belief system which requires a person to devote themselves to a guru and give up their name, personal property and connection with mainstream community results in a loss of identity and, at the same time, creates a sense of belonging (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 53). 

Satyananda Yoga’s complex doctrine and initiation pathways focus on the individual’s personal development through their ability to offer devotion and service to the guru. At the same time, the initiate is expected to seek guidance from the guru when attempting to cultivate higher discernment. The guru is honoured as one who has the ability to lift an aspirant's veil of ignorance and is “the force which leads […] to enlightenment” (Saraswati, S. N. 1987-89). With such a strong emphasis on spiritual development, how does the Satyananda Yoga community make sense of the testimonies of the survivors of child sexual abuse and the conclusions of the Royal Commission?


Little guidance or leadership has been forthcoming from the international head of Satyananda Yoga, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, in relation to the censorious conclusions of the Royal Commission and the incidents at Mangrove Mountain ashram. Disciples at Mangrove Mountain wrote to the principal institution in India (the Bihar School of Yoga) regarding the alleged abuse by Swami Akhandananda (head of Mangrove Mountain ashram at the time of the abuse). Their letter was met with a simple acknowledgment of receipt.1 No support was offered nor any redress for the victims.2

The Royal Commission concluded that “when those responsible for management of the Bihar School of Yoga first heard about the Royal Commission’s investigation of the sexual abuse of children by Akhandananda, their primary concern was to minimise the risk of damaging the reputation of Satyananda yoga.” (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 86). The initial response was to distance the Bihar School of Yoga from its association with Australian institutions, including the removal of support for the use of the name ‘Satyananda’ and the renouncing of all of its ties. However, after the close of evidence, the Bihar School of Yoga revised its position and acknowledged support for the work of the Royal Commission. It was noted that the Bihar School “restricted its statement and subsequent closing submission to reference allegations made against Akhandananda and Shishy [(second in charge at the ashram)] and did not refer to alleged conduct of Satyananda” (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 86).

In an environment where the leaders of this institution portray the founder, Satyananda, as a god and where special prayers are offered to commemorate his merging with Brahman (the absolute) at death, it is near impossible for disciples to consider any testimony of sexual abuse against him posthumously. As such, cognitive dissonance is well entrenched within the culture of this institution.

Without proper leadership, teachers and senior swamis of Satyananda Yoga worldwide have been left to their own devices to traverse the difficult, and often complex, path forward. Personal loyalties, allegiances and commitment to branch institutions have been influential factors in forging an individual’s response. In some cases, decades of a disciple’s life as well as significant portions of their personal wealth have been offered to the guru and the institution. As such, there is deep personal investment in ensuring the survival of the institution. For indeed, how can one’s objectivity be maintained when one has surrendered both one’s name and identity?


Internationally, the resounding message within Satyananda Yoga is that the entire organisation now has effective child protection policies in place and that vulnerable groups are protected. The Royal Commission acknowledged that Mangrove Mountain has implemented policies and procedures for child protection as well as a ‘Grievance Policy’ (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 73). However, the Commission also heard that there are “deficiencies around training and implementation of child protection policies” (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 75). The hearing accepted “that the ashram is in the process of improving its training for both senior staff and the broader ashram community.” However, these measures have not necessarily been implemented in Satyananda Yoga centres around the world.

Hetty Johnston, the Executive Chair of Bravehearts Foundation (Australia’s leading organisation working in the field of child sexual assault prevention, which has been assisting the Royal Commission) explains that: 
[W]e have seen internationally, within many religious institutions, most publicly the Catholic and Anglican churches, [that] the presence of ‘policies’ and ‘protocols’ are ineffective if the organisational culture is one of denial and protection of those within.3
She continues by explaining that:
When organisations are not acting in a transparent manner, when decision making and complaint processes are closed and not open to scrutiny, we have seen nothing but failures in their responses to victims of child sexual assault. Organisations that are not openly transparent both attract individuals who are willing to harm children and young people, and make any child or young person that comes into contact with them vulnerable to harm and a lifetime of damage.
In this letter sent by Johnston to the British Wheel of Yoga, she stated that:
[Bravehearts] share concerns that the pervading culture within SY [Satyananda Yoga] is not one of transparency and accountability in relation to child protection issues within the organisation.
The above letter by Johnston prompted the British Wheel of Yoga to suspend their current endorsement of the Satyananda Yoga lineage within the United Kingdom until further action is taken by its leaders.4

At one of the hearings of the Royal Commission, a senior swami recalls suggesting that “[…] the girls were very provocative” (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 37). The response from the Commission was that this swami did not appear to understand that, as a person with seniority and authority, she was implicitly condoning Akhandananda’s actions by suggesting that he, in effect, had “succumbed to the temptation of flirting girls” (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 37). The Commission concluded that this swami’s response was inappropriate and evidenced an apparent lack of understanding of how to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 38). This lack of understanding and ability to respond appropriately is still apparent in the marketing and communication material of Satyananda Yoga institutions, such as the Rocklyn Yoga Ashram (Victoria, Australia), which states:
During the 1980s there was a hierarchical leadership structure controlled by Swami Akhandananda resulting in mismanagement in disseminating the traditional values and wisdom of yoga.  It wasn’t just that he abused his position of power, and the children in his care, it was that he took unbridled authority and demanded total trust. This allowed the establishment of a culture contrary to the principles and purpose of yoga. 
Subsequently, in the 1990s, Satyananda Yoga in Australia underwent a complete restructuring to remove the remnants of a culture that did not realize or achieve its highest potential. Such authoritarian teachers no longer exist in Australia. 
In the last twenty (20) years, yoga teachers and sannyasins have worked collaboratively together on taking responsibility and shared authority in decision making, setting rigorous standards including teacher training and ethics, and in establishing training programs to meet standards.5
By focusing purely on the abuse perpetrated by Akhandananda, the statement attempts to limit the extent of the findings to a single individual. No mention is made of the Royal Commission’s conclusion that Satyananda had overarching authority; no mention is made of the cultural and systemic issues identified that enabled abuse to occur; and the testimonies against others within Satyananda Yoga, who were accused of abuse, have been ignored.

The testimonies of the victims allege a history of abuse at ashrams both in Australia and India over a sustained period of time. The abuse occurred while the guru and the ashram promoted celibacy and taught the strict ethical principles of yoga. The Royal Commission heard from one disciple that soon after her 17th birthday, Satyananda engaged in sexual relations with her on a regular basis for six years until 1982 (Australia, Royal Commission 2014b, 11) and that it was “often aggressive, violent sex” (Australia, Royal Commission 2014c, 20). Furthermore, the Commission heard that Satyananda’s successor commenced a sexual relationship with this same disciple, which lasted until she returned to Australia in 1984 (Australia, Royal Commission 2014d, 110-111). The Commission also heard from another disciple that Satyananda had sex with her in both Australia and India. In her statement, she recalls that she was made to drink Satyananda’s urine as a ‘traditional yogic’ form of contraception (Australia, Royal Commission 2014e, 19-20).

In the submission by the Bihar School of Yoga to the Royal Commission, these serious allegations against Satyananda were deemed “out of scope” and “untested” (Bihar School of Yoga 2014, Subm.1021:006:0007, 17a-d). The Bihar School submission states that these victim’s claims “are allegations raised after the death of Satyananda and therefore [the school was] unable to answer them appropriately” (Bihar School of Yoga 2014, Subm.1021:006:0007, 17b).

Satyananda framed his system of Yoga around the ethical and moral precepts (yamas and niyamas) of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra. This system includes the principles of ahiṃsā (defined by Satyananda  as ‘non-violence in attitude and action’) and satya (‘truthfulness’) (Satyananda 1976). How is it then possible for disciples of Satyananda Yoga to reconcile the behaviour of their guru with these moral precepts? On the one hand, he is seen as a celibate and ethical being and, on the other, he is an accused sex offender. Faced with this psychologically challenging dilemma, many initiates have acted to devalue the testimonies of survivors.6 The loyal disciples, who consider their guru to be spiritually enlightened, dismiss the survivors’ testimonies in ways that attack the character of the victim and then reframe the narrative to support the innocence and purity of the guru. This newly constructed narrative reduces the personal stress caused by the cognitive dissonance. As Festinger (1957) wrote, “[i]f more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.” 

As an initiated Satyananda Yoga teacher and member of an online Satyananda Yoga teachers’ closed Facebook group, one of the authors (JP) of this article has attempted to openly discuss the ethical, moral, philosophical and pedagogical implications of Case Study 21. Instead of engaging with the issues, the Satyananda Yoga teachers and administrators have engaged in argumentum ad hominem. The teachers have refused to discuss the power dynamics within the guru–disciple relationship and the implications this has on their role as teachers of yoga in the broader community. By silencing the voice of dissent and focusing only on the positive aspects of Satyananda Yoga, this community is creating an alternative narrative to the findings of the Royal Commission. The cultural and philosophical dynamics that allowed the abuse remain unchallenged and, as such, the allegations against those who perpetrated abuse have been ignored.

Commissioner Justice Jennifer Coate during the opening address at the Royal Commission's
Public Hearing into the Satyananda Yoga Ashram in 2014.
Photograph by AAPImage.


On the 25th January 2017, within nine months of the report issued by the Royal Commission, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in the Republic of India, for his distinguished service to the country.7 The award was issued on the Republic Day of India by the President, Pranab Mukherjee with the approval of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.8 The timing of this award strongly suggests that the Indian government has attempted to exonerate the Bihar School of Yoga and maintain the integrity of its reputation in good light. Now, as a celebrated leader and contributor to contemporary yoga education both within India and internationally, how will Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati use this honoured position to overcome the systemic issues that have plagued Satyananda Yoga?

To date, the Indian leaders of the Satyananda Yoga have continued to plead ignorance of the extent and serious nature of the abuse. Their refusal to accept responsibility shows contempt for those concerned and affected, whether as a primary victim or as a devoted disciple. Justin Whitaker of the organisation called An Olive Branch, which seeks to mediate conflict resolution and assist those affected by abuse in Buddhist communities (sanghas), writes:
When abuse does happen, it is up to the community to move forward in a healthy manner, which includes ensuring that all concerns are heard and addressed, that the removal of the teacher is considered, and that means of amends are discussed. Additionally, issues of secrecy should be discussed, education on the misuse of power provided, along with support and training for new leaders (Whitaker 2017).
Rev. Kyoki Roberts, who is in the same organisation, contends that:
Prevention is the best medicine and should include board and clergy training. Every board must establish and adhere to an ethics statement and grievance procedure. If you are a board member, you have a fiduciary responsibility to protect all who come to your center! Do not wait! (Whitaker 2017). 
Following the recent ‘Settlement Agreement’ reached between the survivors and the Academy of Yoga Science (‘Satyananda Yoga’), a statement from the Director addressed to Satyananda Yoga teachers (in Australia) was published stating that:
We are pleased to be able to close the chapter on a particularly difficult period in the history of our organisation.9
An elected member of the ethics committee for the Satyananda Yoga Teachers' Association Inc. (SYTA), the professional association of yoga teachers, responded by stating that SYTA is an entirely separate organisation from both the Yoga Academy (i.e., the Academy of Yoga Science) and Satyananda Ashram, and that it believes: 
[I]t is not appropriate for SYTA to become involved in these things [i.e., matters related to the Royal Commission].10
While the culture of silence and denial prevails at the highest level of the Satyananda Yoga community and the problem of cognitive dissonance persists, significant questions about the psychological safety of people within this yoga movement must be raised. Many survivors (primary victims) have expressed that they continue to experience complex trauma as a result of the way in which the community leaders have responded to the outcomes of the Royal Commission. Also, secondary victims remain at risk within an unreformed institution. Secondary victims are those who are experiencing vicarious trauma or sense of betrayal as a result of witnessing their guru's neglect of his ‘sacred duty’ towards the most vulnerable in his lineage.

Satyananda Yoga is an international yoga movement and its leaders have a mandate to take yoga from “shore to shore and from door to door” (Australia, Royal Commission 2014a, 3). Until each of the risks are systematically addressed through a worldwide restructuring of Satyananda Yoga, both in its values and its practices, the institution must be viewed as unfit to protect those exposed to its teaching and culture.


1 The contents of this letter was read at a community consultation held at the Mangrove Mountain ashram on 21 November, 2015. This event was facilitated by Terry O’Connell, Director of Real Justice Australia and attended by one of the authors (JP).

2 This statement was communicated to Satyananda Yoga teachers (affiliates of the Academy of Yoga Science, Australia) via an email from the Director of Education, Satyananda Yoga Academy, dated 16 November, 2016. It was also noted by the Royal Commission that “there was no evidence of any expression of support by the Bihar School for the survivors of sexual abuse prior to the public hearing” (Australia, Royal Commission 2016, 86).

3 The following three citations are taken from a formal letter of correspondence between Hetty Johnston, Executive Chair of Bravehearts Foundation and Rebecca Morris of the British Wheel of Yoga. (Letter dated 19 June, 2017.)

4 In email correspondence with one of the authors (JP) of this article, Rebecca Morris, Safeguarding and Diversity Manager of the British Wheel of Yoga, stated that: “We have made the decision that we will no longer accredit Satyananda Yoga UK and they have now been placed in the suspended category.” (Email dated 17 July, 2017.)

5 Rocklyn Yoga Ashram, Victoria. “Rocklyn Ashram: Explores the Past & What the Future Holds.” Retrieved from: https://www.yogavic.org.au/extras/rocklyn-ashram-explores-the-past---what-the-future-holds. Accessed on: 25 October, 2017.

The survivors, who’s testimonies have been devalued and challenged, have chosen to make public their ongoing trauma through the Facebook group: “Satyananda Yoga – Reveal the Truth: Shining a Light on sexual abuse in Satyananda Ashrams.” Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/groups/sy.reavealthetruth/. Accessed on: 25 October, 2017.

7 The official award listing is published by the Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs (Public Section). Padma Awards Directory (1954-2017). Retrieved from: http://mha.nic.in/sites/upload_files/mha/files/Year_Wise_main_25042017.pdf. Accessed on: 26 October 2017.

8 The President’s Secretariat Notification (No. 42-Pres/2017) was issued in New Delhi on the 30 March, 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.padmaawards.gov.in/Padma2017.aspx. Accessed on: 26 October 2017.

9 In written communication from the Director, Academy of Yoga Science addressed to Satyananda Yoga teachers (affiliates of Academy of Yoga Science, Australia), dated 13 October 2017.

10 Retrieved from personal correspondence between Sanatan Saraswati and the Dayasagar Saraswati (Ethics Committee Member, SYTA) published on the Facebook group: “Satyananda Yoga – Reveal the Truth: Shining a Light on sexual abuse in Satyananda Ashrams.” Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/groups/sy.reavealthetruth/. Accessed on: 21 October, 2017 at 09:21.


Australia, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 2014a. “Public Hearing - Case Study No. 21. Opening Remarks.” Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from: http://childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/bc75afe3-4a12-41be-983d-f9db256f6260/case-study-21,-december-2014,-sydney. Accessed on: 20 November, 2016. 

Australia, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 2014b. “Public Hearing - Case Study No. 21. Transcript (Day 104).” Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from: http://childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/bc75afe3-4a12-41be-983d-f9db256f6260/case-study-21,-december-2014,-sydney. Accessed on: 20 November, 2016. 

Australia, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 2014c. “Public Hearing - Case Study No. 21. Transcript (Day 106).” Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from: http://childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/bc75afe3-4a12-41be-983d-f9db256f6260/case-study-21,-december-2014,-sydney. Accessed on: 20 November, 2016. 

Australia, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 2014d. “Public Hearing - Case Study No. 21. Transcript (Day 105).” Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from: http://childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/bc75afe3-4a12-41be-983d-f9db256f6260/case-study-21,-december-2014,-sydney. Accessed on: 20 November, 2016. 

Australia, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 2014e. “Public Hearing - Case Study No. 21. Transcript (Day 108).” Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from: http://childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/bc75afe3-4a12-41be-983d-f9db256f6260/case-study-21,-december-2014,-sydney. Accessed on: 20 November, 2016.

Australia, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 2016. Report of Case Study No. 21. The response of the Satyananda Yoga Ashram at Mangrove Mountain to allegations of child sexual abuse by the ashram’s former spiritual leader in the 1970s and 1980s (April 2016). Issued before Presiding Member Justice Jennifer Coate and Commissioner Prof. Helen Milroy. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from: http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/ getattachment/8c968a34-f97a-4136-af86-b992f119f7cc/Report-of-Case-Study-No-21. Accessed on: 20 November, 2016.

Bihar School of Yoga. 2014. Case Study 21 Public Inquiry into the response of Satyananda Yoga Ashram to allegations of Child Sexual Abuse by the Ashram's former spiritual leader in the 1970s and 1980s. Written Submissions in reply on behalf of the Bihar School of Yoga. Subm.1021:006:0007. Retrieved from: http://childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/downloadfile.ashx?guid=23e80e3e-61bd-4ffe-894e-751e856d251a&type=transcriptpdf&filename=Submissions-on-behalf-of-Bihar-School-of-Yoga&fileextension=pdf. Accessed on: 25 October, 2017.

Brunner, H., Oberhammer, G., and Padoux, A. 2004. Tāntrikābhidhānakośa II: A Dictionary of Technical Terms from Hindu Tantric Literature. Wien (Vienna): Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Ellwood, R. S. (Ed.). 1987. Eastern spirituality in America: Selected writings. Mahwah: Paulist Press. 

Festinger, L. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

Goodall, D. and Rastelli, M. (Eds.). 2013. Tāntrikābhidhānakakośa III: A Dictionary of Technical Terms from Hindu Tantric Literature. Wien (Vienna): Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Pankhania, J. 2008. Encountering Satyananda Yoga in Australia and India : reflections of a complex, postcolonial, gendered subject. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of  Western Sydney.

Persson, A. S. 2000. Embodied worlds: Phenomenologies of practice in an Australian yoga community. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Sydney.

Saraswati, Satyananda. 1976. Four chapters on freedom: Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Munger, India: Yoga Publication Trust.

Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda. 1987-89. Satsang with a Paramahams. Retrieved from: http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1992/djuly92/sat492.shtml. Accessed on: 25 October, 2017.

Saraswati, Y. (Ed.). 1995. Past, present and future. Munger, India: Bihar School of Yoga.

Whitaker, Justin. 2017. An Olive Branch: Reaching Out to Those Affected by Abuse in Buddhist Sanghas.  Retrieved from: https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/an-olive-branch-reaching-out-to-those-affected-b. Accessed on: 25 October, 2017.

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YOGANIDRĀ: An understanding of the History and Context.


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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

A Pre-Modern Jain “Light on Yoga”: The Yogapradīpa

Published in The Yoga Bridge, Winter 2018 (Vol. 18, Issue 1): p. 7 - 10

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Five naked Digambara (‘Sky-clad’) Jain Monks Walking
Folio 7 verso from MS Indic Beta 1471.
Watercolour on paper. Image size: 27 x 12 cm.
Wellcome Library, London.

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This piece is an adaption of a co-authored article by Jason Birch and Jacqueline Hargreaves, published on The Luminescent (17 March 2017).

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Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Cult of Durgā

Durgā killing the Buffalo Demon.
Dated 9th-10th century. Made of stone (basalt).
© The Trustees of the British Museum
(Museum No.: 1872,0701.79)

The Indian deity Durgā has been adopted by the modern yoga movement as a symbol of feminism and the embodiment of strength and power. Her heroic myth has found resonance with contemporary practitioners, so much so that it is often the inspiration for self-help guidelines and empowerment retreats. The iconic depiction of Durgā as a victorious warrior upon a lion has come to inspire an āsana in which one is meant to mimic the riding of "a lion into the great victory of [one's] life." This same article in Yoga Journal claims that Durgā may be 'invoked' during a vinyasa flow practice so as to summon "her strength" and "[...] to never doubt your own power, to stand firmly in your truth, and to call forth your fearless heart."

Durgā mounted on her lion fighting the demons.
Undated. Drawing - gouache with oxidised silver.
Wellcome Library no. 27688i

How far are these ideas from the conception of the goddess Durgā in classical India? What are the origins of the cultural narrative of this deity? Where and when did the cult of Durgā arise? What are the scriptural sources and the political significances of this deity?

Dr. Bihani Sarkar (British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow, Christ Church, Oxford) has recently published the first expansive, chronological study of the cult of Durgā. The book, Heroic Shāktism: The Cult of Durgā in Ancient Indian Kingship, provides a thorough study of the ideas and rituals of heroism in India between the 3rd and the 12th centuries CE. 
By assessing the available epigraphic, literary and scriptural sources in Sanskrit, and anthropological studies on politics and ritual, Bihani Sarkar demonstrates that the association between Indian kingship and the cult's belief-systems was an ancient one based on efforts to augment worldly power.
  • First published chronological study of the cult of Durgā
  • Up-to-date, uses recent philological research
  • Includes Sanskrit text and translations of influential works such as the Devīpurāṇa and the Durgābhaktitaraṅgiṇī
  • Wide-ranging sources, including epigraphic, literary and scriptural sources in Sanskrit, and anthropological studies
  • Contains individual case studies of important local goddesses identified with Durgā
  • Contains maps of major cult centres and genealogies of kings

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About the Author

Bihani Sarkar undertook a D.Phil in Sanskrit at Wolfson College under the supervision of Prof. Alexis Sanderson (All Souls). After her doctorate in 2011 she was awarded a Nachwuchsinitiative Postdoctoral Fellowship by Hamburg University, Germany and then a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University in 2014. She has written on the Navarātra and its history, on dualisms in Durgā's conception in classical kāvya and on the interdependence between conceptions in Indian philosophy and aspects of Durgā's mythological depiction in the classical period. She has also written about classical Sanskrit literature, for example, about the ethics of poetic practice in 13th century Gujarat and the interplay between poetic licence and minding narrative conventions in the classical period. She is currently working on the depiction and history of the tragic in classical Sanskrit literature.


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Monday, 20 November 2017

DHANURĀSANA: Two Versions of Bow Pose

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Fig. 1: Appu Sahib Patumkar performing jogh [āsana]
India (19th century). Painting, gouache on paper.
Image size: 15 x 24 cm

Wellcome Library no. 574888i

This brightly rendered 19th-century Indian painting (fig. 1) is held in the Wellcome Library Collection and is currently on display in the exhibition entitled, Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine. It depicts a man performing a yogic posture (āsana) outdoors on a mat of antelope skin. The catalogue reports the rather cryptic comment, which it calls 'lettering' (possibly on the back of the painting):
Appu [?] Sahib Patumkar [?] performing jogh, awaiting inspiration preparatory to  turning [into a] devotee.
The form of the posture matches the description of an unnamed āsana (no. 51) in the prone (nyubja) section of an 18th-century yoga text called the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. The description of this āsana is as follows:

Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati 51
hastadvayena pādadvayāgre gṛhītvā ekaikaṃ pādāṅguṣṭhaṃ karṇayoḥ spṛśet || 51 || 
Grasping the toes of the feet with both hands, [the yogin] should touch the big toes, one at a time, on the ears. 
Although the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati doesn't provide a name for this āsana, the artists of the Mysore Palace, who skilfully illustrated the chapter on āsana in the Śrītattvanidhi (19th century), borrowed the description from the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati (fig. 2) and named it the bow pose (dhanurāsana).

Fig. 2: Dhanurāsana in the Śrītattvanidhi
Sjoman 1999: 84, pl. 18
Another example of dhanurāsana from the same period occurs in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (18th-century). The posture is described as follows:

Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā 2.18
prasārya pādau bhuvi daṇḍarūpau karau ca pṛṣṭhaṃ dhṛtapādayugmam |
kṛtvā dhanustulyavivartitāṅgaṃ nigadyate vai dhanurāsanaṃ tat || 
Extending the legs on the ground like sticks, as well as the arms, both feet are held from behind and the body is moved like a bow. This is called bow pose.
Seeing that both legs are initially straight on the ground, the above description could be referring to a posture similar in form to the illustration in the Śrītattvanidhi and the Wellcome's painting. A beautifully rendered illustration of dhanurāsana in a manuscript of the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (fig. 3) published in Fakire und Fakirtum im Alten und Modernen Indian (Schmidt 1908: 34, pl. 12) supports this interpretation.

Fig. 3: Dhanurāsana in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā
 1908: 34, pl. 12

However, one wonders whether the word pṛṣṭha ('from behind') in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā’s description is indicating that both feet are held behind the body. If this were the case, one would have to assume that the yogin initially extends both arms and legs while in a prone position, holds the feet from behind (pṛṣṭha) and moves the body like a bow by pulling both feet towards the ears. This interpretation was adopted by Yogi Ghamande in his book entitled Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka (published 1905). He quotes the verse on dhanurāsana in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā and gives the following illustration (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Dhanurāsana in the Yogasopāna-Purvacatuṣka
Ghamande 1905: 64 (
Āsana 34)

This form of dhanurāsana, which is a back-bending shape, is practised by most modern yoga lineages (fig. 5). It was popularised by the widely distributed book Yogāsanas authored by Swāmī Śivānanda, first published in 1934.

Fig. 5: Dhanurāsana in Śivānanda Yoga
Retrieved from the website of International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres.
It is worth noting that the earliest account of dhanurāsana is in the 15th-century Haṭhapradīpikā. 

Haṭhapradīpikā 1.27

pādāṅguṣṭhau tu pāṇibhyāṃ gṛhītvā śravaṇāvadhi |
dhanurākarṣaṇaṃ kuryād dhanurāsanam ucyate || 
Having held the big toes of both feet with both hands, one should pull [them] like a bow as far as the ears. This is called bow pose.

The Sanskrit is ambiguous enough to be understood as either of the above versions of this posture. In his commentary on the Haṭhapradīpikā called the Jyotsnā, Brahmānanda (circa mid-nineteenth century) interpreted it as follows:
gṛhītāṅguṣṭham ekaṃ pāṇiṃ prasāritaṃ kṛtvā gṛhītāṅguṣṭham itaraṃ pāṇiṃ karṇaparyantam ākuñcitaṃ kuryād ity arthaḥ ||
The meaning [of dhanurāsana is as follows:] Having extended one hand by which the big toe is held, one should draw, as far as the ear, the other hand by which the [other] big toe is held.
Brahmānanda's interpretation supports the version which is described in the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati and illustrated in both the Śrītattvanidhi and the Wellcome's painting. Yogi Ghamande (1905: 30) includes this as another version of dhanurāsana and quotes the above verse from the Haṭhapradīpikā (fig. 6). The illustration depicts a slight variation in which the big toe touches the opposite ear.

Both the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā and the Haṭhapradīpikā were important sources in the revival of postural yoga in twentieth-century India. Therefore, it is possible that the ambiguities in their Sanskrit descriptions of dhanurāsana are responsible for the popular (mis)interpretation of this āsana as a back-bending shape in modern yoga.

Fig. 6: Another version of Dhanurāsana in the Yogasopāna-Purvacatuṣka
Ghamande 1905: 30 (Āsana 8)

Thank you to Mark Singleton for providing the images from the Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka.


Ghamande, Yogi. 1905. Yogasopāna-Pūrvacatuṣka. Bombay: Janardan Mahadev Gurjar, Niranayasagar Press.

Śivānanda, Swāmī. 1993. Yoga Asanas. Sivanandanagar, India: Devine Life Society.

Schmidt, Richard. 1908. Fakire und Fakirtum im alten und modernen Indian: Yoga-Lehre und Yoga-Praxis nach den indischen Originalquellen dargestellt. Berlin: Hermann Barsdorf.

Sjoman, Norman E. and Kṛṣṇarāja Vaḍeyara. 1999. The Yoga tradition of the Mysore Palace. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

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Friday, 6 October 2017

The Āsana That Produces Tapas (and Misunderstandings!)

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Haṭhayoga texts rarely mention tapas (asceticism). When they do, they usually define it as fasting or, in the case of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, 'doing one's own religious duty' (svadharmācaraṇa). The techniques of self-mortification that have made Indian ascetics famous, such as standing on one leg for twelve years, lying on a bed of nails and sitting amidst cow dung fires, were not incorporated into systems of Haṭhayoga and some texts, such as the Haṭhapradīpikā, explicitly reject any practice that afflicts the body (kāyakleśa).

However, an eighteenth-century yoga text named the Jogapradīpyakā, which was inspired by Pātañjalayoga and the Haṭhapradīpikā, is somewhat of an exception insofar as it describes a posture that is an act of asceticism (tapas), according to its name tapakār āsan. This work, which does not call its yoga haṭhayoga, is written in Braj Bhāṣā, an old form of Hindī, and was probably composed in Rājasthān. It describes tapakār āsan as follows:
First, one should set up a frame [for a swing]. Let a rope hang in the middle of it. Take the rope in between both arms and place the right shoulder on it. One should extend both legs in the direction of the sky and hold the whole body in the middle of the rope. One [rope] is at the back [of the body] and one at the front. One should keep the two ropes this way; grasp the rope with the two feet [in such a way that] the shoulder and hands remain on the rope. Then, take both hands behind and fix [them] in the following clever way; grasp the wrist of the right hand by the left hand [and vice versa1]. Do not touch the hands with the body. Fix the gaze just on the trikuṭī (i.e., confluence of three nāḍīs at the middle of the brows). He who is in a body should practise this āsana. [If he does that,] O Jayatarāma, the body of this man becomes pure.2
It seems that the yogin has his body turned upside down (i.e., legs pointing towards the sky), as in the Haṭhayogic mudrā called viparītakaraṇī. However, in tapakār āsan, the yogin places his right shoulder on a piece of hanging rope to launch himself into the inverted position. He then secures his body upside down by holding the rope with his feet.

Interestingly, the beginning of the description of tapakār āsan refers to a frame (hiṇḍolan), from the centre of which the rope is suspended. Unfortunately, the text gives no details and one might wonder how such a frame was constructed. A photo of an 'Urdhamukhi' ('one whose face is downwards') was reproduced in John Campell Oman's The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India (1905: 46).3 This practice appears to be very similar to tapakār āsan because it includes the use of a frame and a rope hanging from its centre.

'An Urdhamukhi Sadhu'
Oman 1905: 46.

Tapakār āsan is depicted in an undated illustrated manuscript (perhaps, late eighteenth or early nineteenth-century) that colourfully represents the āsanas and mudrās of the Jogapradīpyakā. This manuscript is held in the British Library (Add. 24099) and its illustrations of eighty-four āsanas have been published by Gudrun Bühnemann (2007). In this work, the artist depicts the yogin in tapakār āsan suspended from a tree branch, which is another plausible way of executing this practice.

Tapakār āsan of the Jogapradīpyakā
Bühnemann 2007: 51.

It is clear that tapakār āsan is not viparītakaraṇī in the Jogapradīpyakā. The practice of viparītakaraṇī (viparitikaran in Braj) is taught in the section on mudrā(verses 561-71) and it resembles the shoulderstand of modern yoga in which the yogin's head and shoulders remain on the ground, while the legs are lifted into the air.

Another illustrated āsana manual called the Yogāsanamālā includes most of the āsanas found in the Jogapradīpyakā and was probably composed in Rājasthān in the eighteenth-century. Therefore, one would expect to find tapakār āsan depicted in it. However, there is no clear representation of this āsana in the Yogāsanamālā. Instead, one finds towards the end of the text a posture called tipakār āsan, which appears to be a corruption of tapakār āsan. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how the illustration, which seems to represent the side splits, might be related to the description of tapakār āsan in the Jogapradīpyakā, because it does not resemble an inversion in any way nor are ropes or a frame included.

Tipakār āsan of the Yogāsanamālā
Ms. R635Y8 folio 105 recto.

The Yogāsanamālā provides no textual description of tipakār āsan. One wonders whether it is a different āsana altogether to the tapakār āsan in the Jogapradīpyakā or whether it was a mistaken interpretation of the Jogapradīpyakā’s description. It should be noted that descriptions of āsanas can be the most difficult material in yoga texts to understand. The challenge of this type of work can be seen in the illustration of the Jogapradīpyakā's tapakār āsan in the Encyclopaedia of Traditional Asanas (2013: 315). Here, the practitioner of tapakār āsan isn’t inverted, but suspended in a horizontal position with the ropes around the feet and shoulders. The ambiguity in the Braj Bhāṣā description might account for this type of misinterpretation.

Tapakāra-āsana(i) in the Encyclopaedia of Traditional Asanas
Gharote, 2013: 315.


1 The syntax suggests that this action is done the other way as well.

2 Jogapradīpyakā 179-183 (āsana 34)
atha tapakāra āsana ||
prathama hiṇḍolana khaḍā karāvai, tāke madhya rāsi laṭakāve |
dou bāṃha vici rāsi su āneṃ, dachina kandha tāsa pari ṭhāneṃ ||179||
dou pada nabha disi pasārai, rasī madhya saba tana ko dhārai |
yeka pada eka udara hī disā, aise vidhi rākhai dou rasā ||180||
dou pada soṃ rasī ju gahe, kāndhā pāṇi rasī pari rahe |
puni dou kara pācheṃ āneṃ, tinakī jugati asī vindhi ṭhāne ||181||
dachina kara ko pahoco joī vāma hasta so pakarai soī |
tana soṃ hasta lagāve nāhī, diṣṭi sthāpe trikuṭī māṃhī ||182||
dohā – so jo hoya sarīra meṃ, āsana sādhe yeha |
jayatarāma tā purakha kī nṛmala hove deha ||183||
iti tapakāra āsana ||
179a hiṇḍolana (a swing) appears to be a variant spelling of hiṇḍola, hiṇḍolā or hiṇḍolanā. In this case, it seems to mean the frame that supports the rope.
179a khaḍā ] conj. Nirājan Kafle : kharo Ed.
179b rāsi (rope) appears to be a variant spelling of rassī or rassā.
181d jugati appears to be a variant spelling of jukti.
181d vidhi ] emend. : vindhi Ed.182a pahoco (wrist) appears to be an alternative spelling for pahuñcā.
I would like to thank James Mallinson and Nirajan Kafle for their valuable comments on this passage. This translation will appear in a future article entitled “Some Observations on the History of Haṭha- and Rājayoga from the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century with a focus on inversions (viparītakaraṇī).”

3 I would like to thank James Mallinson for bringing my attention to this photographic plate of 'An Urdhamukhi Sadhu'.


Primary Sources

Jogapradīpyakā of Jayatarāma, ed. Maheśānanda, Śarmā, Sahāya and Bodhe. Lonavla: Kaivalyadhama Śrīmanmādhava Yogamandira Samiti, 2006.

Yogāsanamālā, photocopy (R635Y8) at the library of the Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute, Lonavla. Several stamps indicate the Rajasthān Prācya Vidyā Pratiṣṭhān, Bīkāner.

Secondary Sources

Bühnemann, Gudrun. 2007.
Eighty-four Asanas in Yoga: A Survey of Traditions (with Illustrations). New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Gharote, M. L., Jha, V. K., Devnath, P., Sakhalkar, S. B., & Lonavla Yoga Institute. 2013.
Encyclopaedia of Traditional Asanas. Lonavla, Pune: Lonavla Yoga Institute.

Oman, John Campell. 1905.
The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India. London: T Fisher Unwin.

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