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 groundSo 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.  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 the centre of the universe 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 serpant Ananta is curled around Shiva's neck 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

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 even gave a trishal (trident) to the great Saint Kabir as a gift in the late 1400's.  The combination of sacred story, ritual and geography continued to gain fame and notoriety for Banaras as a pilgrimage and yoga centre. 

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 brass tacks.

Warriors-saints of various sects continued to make Banaras their home and basically ruled the city's commerce as Gosains, these armed groups of sadhu warriors followed a guru shishya model and handed down their traditions teacher to disciple.  It was them along with Naths, Aghors, and other wandering saints (even the wrestlers of Banaras!) who kept the hidden tradition of yoga alive in Varanasi.  As much as Patanjali emphasised yoga was practiced for attaining the peaceful calm state of meditation, for centuries yoga was considered the forte of warriors-saints as much as it was for the hidden holy men. 

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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 householder who lived in Varanasi, from age 5 until his mahasamadhi in the 1895, and taught his disciples kriya yoga, which emphasises deep pranayamas.  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 invited him to teach in the Mysore Palace.  Eventually some of his most famous students, such as Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa), BKS Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), Indra Devi & his son, T. K. V. Desikachar (among many others) 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 in Banaras continues to be practiced by disciples of all of these great traditions. 

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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. 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 and the moon.  Active postures & relaxation.  The drawing in & release of breath. 

And 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 asana, or conditioning of body, and our chitta vritti nirodha, the reduction of mental-emotional movement, 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 the flower that springs from the roots of Banaras, the city of the Great Yogi.  We wanted to be more than just a yoga class in another studio as we see yoga as an interactive experience within the temples and narratives of the city.  We invite you to join the journey and experience yoga in Banaras with DarkLøtus.  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 asana in meditation.  It is in these sacred places, participating in ritual and experiencing the divine in action that yoga in Banaras is lived and breathed. 

Om shanti, shanti, shanti,

 

Jai & Madhu

Banaras, India

25 November 2015

Dev Deepavali / Karthik Purnima

14 Karthik 2072


darkløtus founders

Madhu

Hatha & Ashtanga Teacher

Madhu studied ballet since age 6.  She worked as a cosmetologist & masseuse for 13 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 MYSTIC/Sukhashanti in Mysore. 

Jai

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.  He 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 MYSTIC/Sukhashanti in Mysore.