IS Varanasi Really A Centre for YOGA?
This was the question that we asked ourselves over the years.
If Varanasi was such a centre for yoga then where are all the yoga teachers? Aren't Rishikesh & Mysore more traditional & historical yoga centres than Varanasi / Banaras? Is there any guru-student lineage linked with ancient traditions in Banaras? How can I find an authentic teacher and deepen my practice? After years of visiting and living in India as students, travelers, social workers & tour operators we learned a few things... Yoga is everywhere in India! We decided that we wanted to draw on the power and tradition of India's sacred centre.
The city of Banaras, as it is known to local residents, has many names and is steeped in myth, legend, narrative & history. The city of Varanasi, between the Varuna & Assi rivers, is also Kashi, the city of light and Mahasamsthana, the great cremation ground. So we began a long inquiry of yoga history & tradition among the travelers, residents, saints & yogis of the city. By specifically drawing on the sacred city's traditions of yoga we created DarkLøtus and registered banarasyoga.com in 2015.
All Yoga Begins with Shiva in Banaras
Tradition tells us that the roots of yoga begin with Shiva, the first Yogi, who also happens to be the founder of the 5,000+ year old city of Banaras. Shiva's city, which is alternately called Varanasi or Kashi in oral tradition and text, is considered the most holy city of India. It is a city considered to be located in the centre of the universe and where Shiva would sit in meditation when not in the Himalaya. It is hidden on the tip of his trident outside of space and time and has been a sought after location for saints and yogis from Vedic times to present day. Banaras is where Shiva first appears by bursting through the earth as a fiery post of light and it is here where Shiva lights his dhuni, consecrated fire, and sits in meditation at the cremation ground of Manikarnika. All yoga lineages flow from Shiva's ritual actions & sacred space in Banaras.
The serpent Ananta is curled around Shiva's neck, symbolically representing his conquering of ego, and Patanjali is said to be his incarnation. Patanjali, who also has a sacred site in Varanasi, is honoured in one of the famous slokas chanted by yogi's around the world.
yogena cittasya, padena vācām, malam sarīrasya ca vaidyakena yo'pā karotam, pravaram munīnām, patañjalim prāñjalir, ānato'smi
I bow with my hands together to the eminent sage Patañjali, who removed the impurities of the mind through yoga, of speech through grammar, and of the body through medicine.
HATHA YOGA & THE NATH SAINTS
All postural yoga is defined as hatha, meaning forceful, and much of yoga is hidden in the sites of Nath saints. In a story from the 8th century text Kaulajnana-Nirnaya it is told that Shiva was teaching his wife Parvati yoga on the Moon Island in the Ocean of Milk and since he had so much to say on the subject she drifted off to sleep. While she was sleeping a fish was listening to him (or alternately a man in a fish) who became self aware, learning the secrets of yoga. This man became known as Matsyndrenath (the Lord of the Fish) and was the guru of Gorekshnath, the founder of Hatha & Laya Yoga. If it all sounds a bit too esoteric for you, historically Gorekshnath established a temple in Varanasi and supposedly even gave a trishal (trident) to the great Saint Kabir as a gift in the late 1400's. This combination of sacred story, ritual and geography continued to give fame and notoriety to Banaras as a pilgrimage and yoga centre over the years.
Hatha Yogi saints continued to visit Varanasi and one of their offshoots, the Aghor founder Baba Kinaram (born 1601 CE), also made Varanasi his home. The Aghor have a fascinating (and sinister) reputation in history and certainly continued the guru-disciple yoga tradition to this day at their headquarters in Varanasi. The Nath & Aghor both venerate Shiva & Parvati in their ferocious forms of Bhairava & Kali. Another sect in the Kaula tradition, sees Kali as the supreme Yogini who resides in the cremation ground, which incidentally is the place that Shiva keeps his dhuni in Varanasi. The historical trails of yoga tradition intertwine with myth and legend and we often get lost in them... so lets get back to the story.
Warriors-saints of various sects continued to make Banaras their home and ruled the city's commerce as Gosains, who were both Vishnu & Shiva warrior-ascetics, these armed groups of sadhus also followed a guru shishya model and handed down their traditions teacher to disciple. Naths, Aghors, Dasnami, Ramanandi and other wandering saints (even the wrestlers of Banaras) kept the hidden tradition of yoga alive in Varanasi. As much as Patanjali emphasised yoga was practiced for attaining the peaceful calm state needed for meditation, yoga was also considered the forte of warriors-saints as much as it was for ascetics hidden in caves.
BANARAS YOGA: Hatha, Pranayam & AShtanga
Yoga in Banaras, with its influences by the Nath yogis, Gosain sadhus, traditional wrestlers, Sanskrit students and other spiritual figures also lingered on among householders. Perhaps you were reading the Autobiography of a Yogi and noticed the story about Yoganananda's guru, Yukteswar Giri, who met his guru Lahiri Mahasaya in Banaras! Lahiri Mahasaya was a married postal office worker who lived in Varanasi from age 5 until his mahasamadhi in 1895. He taught his disciples kriya yoga, which focuses on pranayama & kriyas. His ancestral home and shrine is still active. In fact, many of the 19th & 20th century yoga teachers from from Swami Vivekananda to Swami Sivananda Saraswati, all found themselves visiting Varanasi at some point in their journey.
Speaking of householders, even the Ashtanga Vinyasa series that you may have learned in your local studio has its foundations in Varanasi. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, whose ashtanga vinyasa adaptations are the roots of much of modern yoga in the Western world, studied in Banaras from 1906 - 1909 & on and off between 1919 - 1925. It was his Varanasi Sanskrit College Principal, Ganganath Jha, who suggested he seek out Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari in Tibet to study yoga further and it was in Banaras where the Maharajah of Mysore heard about Krishnamacharya's prowess as a yoga therapy practitioner and later invited him to teach in the Mysore Palace. Eventually some of his most famous students, such as Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi & his son, T. K. V. Desikachar watered the roots of our modern yoga practice.
By the late 1800s and early to mid 20th century a renewed interest in traditional yoga by Maharajas and upper class elites, who were also familiar with Western gymnastics and body building, began to emerge. The combination of temple body-mind disciplines, organised poses, breath-control, gymnastics/wrestling training and meditation became modern yoga. The yoga we currently see in Banaras continues to be practiced by disciples of all of these great traditions.
BANARAS YOGA WITH DARKLøTUS
In Banaras there are many stories & festivals surrounding the great yogi Shiva & his wife Parvati. In one story Parvati jumps down Shivas throat and eventually jumps out of his third eye as Kali. It is said that nothing was able to subdue the rage of Kali after she killed a self-multiplying demon, as her focused destruction of evil and ego was too pure and powerful, so the people came to Shiva and asked him to stop Kali from destroying the world and themselves. Shiva considered what needed to be done and laid himself down beneath her feet in shavasana. The moment she put her foot on him she became calm.
We too have chosen to lay down in an active shavasana at the feet of these Banaras traditions and teachers... learning yoga with both householders and sages in the narrow lanes and hidden temples of Banaras. This is why we chose the symbol of a simple Kali yantra hovering over the lotus. The lotus is the symbol of knowledge in all Hindu texts and a foundational pose in yoga. Yoga for us is about the darkness and the light. The sun as Ha and the moon as Tha. Asanas as both a seat for mediation and postural alignment. The inhaling, exhaling & retention of breath in pranayama. The dristhi, or sight, of both our physical eyes and our inner vision.
What's the deal with that 'ø'? We aren't using a Scandinavian letter. The 'empty set' is numeral in the word darkløtus. It reminds us that emptiness/fullness resides in something. The conditioning of body through asana and reduction of our mental-emotional agitation that Patanjali describes as yoga, chitta vritti nirodha, are not mutually exclusive. As a well known sloka of the Isa Upanishad relates;
purnamadah purnamidam purnat purnamudachyate purnasya purnamadaya purnameva vashishyate
That is full, this is full. This fullness has been projected from that fullness. When this fullness merges in that fullness, all that remains is fullness.
DarkLøtus is our offering which springs from the roots of Banaras, the city of the first yogi. We wanted to be more than just a yoga class in another studio. We see yoga as an interactive experience within the temples and narratives of the city. We draw on the traditions of spirituality, the legends of the city and history of yoga as we wander with you into the lanes of the city of Varanasi, Kashi, Banaras. We want to introduce you to authentic practitioners & hidden temples where we can establish our asanas & pranayamas. It is in these sacred places, participating in ritual and experiencing the divine in action that yoga in Banaras is lived and breathed. We invite you to join the journey and experience yoga in Banaras with DarkLøtus.
Om shanti, shanti, shanti,
Jai & Madhu
25 November 2015
Dev Deepavali / Karthik Purnima
14 Karthik 2072
Hatha & Ashtanga Teacher
Madhu studied ballet since age 6. She worked as a cosmetologist & masseuse for 15 years, completed an Ayurvedic Massage / Pancha Karma course in Kerala and 1st level of Reiki in Kathmandu in 2007. Madhu continues to explore dance, mind-body treatments & therapies. She has been teaching a variety of yoga classes and styles since 2009.
Madhu holds a teacher training certificate in Raja Yoga from SVASYA in Bangalore, in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga from SHTALAM8 and Hatha Yoga from Sukhashanti. She is currently training in Kathak classical dance in Varanasi.
Hatha Teacher & tour arrangement
Jai moved to New Delhi, India in 1997 as a social worker and has lived in Banaras since 2001. He is an avid student of religious tradition, narrative & bhakti who took his first yoga class at a retreat in Banaras in 2003. Jai directed an undergraduate Hindi Language & Hindu Studies program for an international university in Varanasi from 2002 - 2010.
Jai started VaranasiWalks! in 2007 to explore the history and culture of the city. Jai is a Sociology grad student with IGNOU and holds a teacher training certificate in Hatha Yoga from Sukhashanti. He is currently a group lecturer and historical tour specialist in Varanasi.