Friday, March 28, 2014

Guest Blog #1: Yoga - Vijay Panchia.

I count myself blessed to know, and count as friends, a fair number of other people on the path; humans into the same type of things I am interested in, here at Physical Alchemy - but approaching it from their own unique viewpoint, and with their own skill-sets and teachings.

I would like to feature these people on my blog; getting them to distill an aspect of the knowledge base that they specialize in, or, an insight they have gained from training.  That type of thing.  I am really looking forward to this myself, as I will learn much from my peers posts.

So, without further ado, my inaugural Guest Blog post is by my recently gained good friend and fellow explorer Vijay Panchia.

I met Vijay at the Steve Maxwell Mobility Conditioning Seminar that I reviewed a number of posts back.  Our initial conversation jumped around all types of interesting things: movement training; physical cultivation; Thai, Burmese, Indian, Chinese and Brazilian martial arts; Dharma; sanskrit (which Vijay studied at Oxford); shaivism; various types of obscure (but awesome) strength training methods - you know, all the same stuff I like.  It seems somewhat inevitable that we would meet.

The guest blog post for today is a general introduction to the word  yoga.  I had to stop Vijay from writing a mahabharata-esque epic, so I am hoping to get him to expand upon a number of things in future posts. 

Vijay Panchia

What is Yoga?

Is it what we find in our local fitness clubs?

Is it something of myths?

Is it something only for Indian Holy Men?

Is it a form of ancient gymnastics?

Or is it something else?

When confronted with writing on the topic of the yoga by my friend Dave, I had to really think about what I was going to write about. It is a truly vast topic. But before specific areas are covered I thought best that I express what yoga is to me. You are entitled to disagree with what I have to say but this at least gives a starting point.

Yoga is a system or path for means of spiritual fulfillment or enlightenment. It provides the practitioner with direct perception with the spiritual or divine.

There are a multitude of physical systems in the modern western world that are called yoga however few really present anything which can to be used to reach such goals or at least accordance with what we find in early yoga texts.

The earliest Vedic texts to make reference to such practices include the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad-gita (which is a chapter of the Mahabharata, more often read isolation) and Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali. What is presented by such texts could be said to be a practice of mental science or alchemy, where the yogi distills the mind in order achieve his spiritual goal. There is no mention of the acrobatic like postures and stretches that we see in the common practices in the West.

What are mentioned are the asana or posture of keeping the body, neck and head erect, and the practice of pranayama or breathing exercises. These are the assistant exercises for the yogi to his goal. No mention what so ever of being able to put your legs behind your neck (not that I’m saying there isn’t any merit in this).  What is also interesting is there is no detailed explanation on the practice of pranayama.  The greatest emphasis is put on how one is to think and perceive the world.  One might say “how to navigate the mind”.

This way or path of thought is possibly best expressed or at least most accessible by the teachings of Lord Krishna and his discourse with Arjuna found in the Bhagavad-Gita.  This is a masterful teaching on the mind. He presents different paths of yoga, making accessible to all some practice of yoga. It could be said he is presenting a single path of yoga but giving various start points to fit with the aptitude of the practitioner.

Rather than going into the specifics of the Bhagavad-Gita, I would suggest tracking down a good copy of it and reading it yourself. Everyone seems to take away something different from it and it would be clumsy of me to even try to match Krishna in a blog post. There are many translations of the Gita available and all with have their own bias.  The Winthrop Sargeant translation is not a bad place to start and even has the transliteration of the Sanskrit.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is the text often perceived as the quintessential work on yoga and teaches the eight fold path refered to as Ashtanga. This is not to be confused as a reference to the work of Pattabhi Jois. It is divided into the four parts: Contemplations, Spiritual Disciplines, Divine Powers and Realizations. Like many Indian works, it is intended be used along with direct teachings of a guru, and does not provide a complete discourse on practice.  It is very readable for the most part but be wary that there are many translations of the text with much variance. With the original Sanskrit, Patanjali has used very intricate and dense vocabulary. Hence it is hard to give a recommendation to any single translation. But don’t let this deter you from reading this work.

The Upanishads are regarded as part of the Veda. The Veda is divided into  four parts: the Rig, the Sama, the Yajus (which comes in two forms, known as shukla and krishna, light and dark) and the Atharva. Each of these four is in turn divided into four types of material, which are the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. The Upanishads are the philosophical discourse on Vedic philosophy, giving an explanation to the nature of this world. There are many texts given the title of Upanishad however it said there are ten primary texts which are based on commentary by Advaitan Philosopher, Sankaracharya (AD 780 to 820). These “other” texts often deal specifically on the topic of yoga, however as they are not primary sources and from a much later date, I will leave them from this discussion. Of the ten primary Upanishads, the Katha Upanishad and Shvetashvatara Upanishad offer the most obvious statements on what we consider to be yoga. These are more challenging works and some background knowledge or guidance may be necessary. 

The Mahabharata is the great Indian epic poem, much like the Odyssey and Iliad. However the Mahabharata, being three times the size of the Bible, dwarfs these great Greek works in size.  Even more amazing this work is from an oral tradition, meaning it was originally transmitted by being put to memory.  The original author attributed to this work is the Indian sage Vyasa, whom is said to have split the Veda into its four divisions and authored 18 of the major Puranas. It was written to summarize the Vedic teachings. It is a story of the Pandava and Kaurava princes and the rivalry and war that breaks out between these cousins. Various discourses are given through out the text on yoga and the metaphysics behind it. One we have discussed already is the Bhagavad Gita.

Something that really needs to be made clear about Indian thought is that it is an open conversation where one does not have to agree with everything in a text. However you need to well versed in order to engage in this ancient dialogue. Indian systems more often than not are based on logic and experience, hence dogmatic practice is a misdemeanor.  Also I would like to say that being well versed in these Yoga texts does not make you a yogi or yogini, and they may not even be necessary to achieve the elevation or mastery of the mind discussed.  A big part, if not the most important aspect of transmission of this knowledge, is through the direct oral teachings of a master of these practices. To establish whether or not someone even is a master of this spiritual path, the knowledge from these texts may be very useful.

If one wanted to delve deeper into these texts I would like to suggest seeking out the online courses offered by my friends at the Oxford Centre for HinduStudies. These are academic level courses put together by the brightest academic minds on Hindu thought. They offer specific courses on the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and a general course on Yoga among others. 


Useful links

Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies
They offer online courses and many of the texts discussed. There is
also free mp3 lecture downloads on many of the different topics that
make up Indian Thought

The Bhagavad Gita - trans. by Winthrop Sergeant

The Upanishads
Very accessible translations of the ten primary Upanishads by scholar
Patrick Olivelle.

Sacred Texts
A free online resource with translations of the texts discussed.

Yogas Sutra of Patanjali trans. BonGiovanni
Offers a free pdf of the Bhagavad Gita as well as other early Hatha Yoga texts.


  1. Simon T (of Ancestral Movement) posted some links of fb, too:


  2. An excellent overview and (agreeing with DW) an excellent springboard for future posts. Thank you.


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