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सरस्वति नमस्तुभ्यं वरदे कामरूपिणि ।
विद्यारम्भं करिष्यामि सिद्धिर्भवतु मे सदा ॥
Sarasvati namastubhyaṃ varade kāmarūpiṇi |
vidyārambhaṃ kariṣyāmi siddhirbhavatu me sadā ||
“O Sarasvati, embodiment of fulfillment of desires. I am beginning my education. Bless me to achieve success always.”
Above is a short prayer said before one’s studies, a common occurrence when reading a Sanskrit text. Similarly, many lineages of yoga offer similar prayers, as a yoga practice is, indeed, a study. I have been working on my own manuscript of research and commentary on the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā (Gheranda Samhita) for some time now. Even though I suspect it will take a few more years to shape my work to my satisfaction, I thought to share some of it with you. It is a work ever in progress. I am not offering these glimpses in any sort of order. They are, if you will, teachable moments.
(v.2.20, Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā [G.S.])
जानूर्वोरन्तरे पादौ कृत्वा च गोपयेत् ।
पादोपरि च संस्थाप्य गुदं गुप्तासनं विदुः ॥२०॥
Jānūrvorantare pādau kṛtvā ca gopayet |
pādopari ca saṃsthāpya gudaṃ guptāsanaṃ viduḥ ||20||
In my manuscript itself, I offer several translators’ interpretations of what is being said here, but for the sake of brevity (this being a blog post) and because the Sanskrit and translations are consistent and non-controversial between the various translators, I will offer one that is generally representative of the verse:
(v.2.20, G.S., Swami Vishnuswaroop)
“Keep both feet in the middle of the knees and thighs, and place the anus area between the feet. This is called guptāsana.”
A number of years ago, when I first encountered the description of this pose, I was struck by how similar it sounds to a few other poses. The Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā considers guptāsana (“hidden” or “secret” pose) to be synonymous with siddhāsana, muktāsana, and vajrāsana (perhaps a different variant of vajrāsana than what is now commonly practiced). I would add svastikāsana to the list. One might ask, “why so many similar poses?”: The first possibility concerns the fact that finding one’s best mediation pose was (and is now, as well) a big point of practicing āsana through much of history. This is likely a partial reason for the continued existence of so many similar meditative poses. With this variety, yogins of all abilities, shapes, and sizes would likely find an āsana best suited to their efforts in finding a comfortable and stable meditative pose.
A second possible reason for such a seemingly similar variety of postures concerns the manipulation of the subtle body. For example, a heel pressing on the left side of the anus could be said to be stimulating the vajra nāḍī, while a gaze at the nose tip (nāsāgraḍṛṣti) stimulates mūlādhāra cakra. So, you see, slight alterations in the details of the āsana can give it rather different purposes. The body is used as a control panel to access the subtle body. Bandhas, mudrās, placement of body parts, pressure applied here and there are like buttons that create different reactions and effects within the individual. The genesis of many poses we do today comes from this sort of context. The origins of many yogic techniques come from a very different point of view and set of goals than what many people presume is yoga at their local gym.
Viewing yoga as mere exercise and focusing on āsana alone obscures the use of these subtle elements as well as the thought provoking philosophies that go along with the physical techniques. However, people who are interested in mental training and meditation will find the subtle techniques extremely useful, whether or not they believe in the reality of the subtle body. Just as the attention needed to hold a pose keeps our busy minds engaged, a ḍṛṣti (focus of gaze) keeps us from being distracted by what we see in our immediate environment. The sound of ujjāyī prāṇāyāma keeps us from being distracted by external sounds (granted, there is more to this, but we will save that for some other time). Contemplation of the subtle body and the use of the techniques said to manipulate it gives us a world to occupy our minds with that won’t distract us from our goal of a one-pointed mind, as it is an internal world meant to help us relate to the inner-workings of consciousness.
A third possible reason for the existence of these sometimes vague or nearly identical poses likely has its root in the secretive nature of yoga (and upaniṣads) through-out history, coupled with the necessary conservative scholarly practices used to transmit and preserve such ancient knowledge. I can imagine scholars coming across vague, partial, or bastardized verses – trying to both make sense of them and conserve them for the sake of keeping an ancient text as intact as possible. Such scholars would likely keep a muddled verse for the sake of posterity, leaving it for future generations to make sense of. Sometimes a verse is preserved even though its real meaning has been lost for hundreds and hundreds of years. All sorts of tricks of scribal or oral error could occur in that time. I don’t doubt that all three of these propositions are valid concerning this verse on guptāsana. (guptasana)
Now, let’s return to the discussion of guptāsana itself: Two common forms of guptāsana exist. They are both cross-legged positions; There is the version described in the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā in which the feet are hidden, and there is the version which is not unlike a simplified form of siddhāsana (which I discuss in my book). This second version involves crossing the legs so that the heels stack on top of one another: in this case it is the genitals which are hidden (behind the heels). I agree with the opinion of many scholars throughout history that guptāsana is a sort of siddhāsana (siddhayoni āsana for women). Though it certainly echoes muktāsana and svastikāsana in my mind. Guptāsana is said to have the same benefits as siddhāsana. In short, some of the benefits of siddhāsana are the stimulation of mūlādhāra and svādhiṣṭhāna cakras. Siddhāsana (and thus guptāsana as well) provides a very stable meditation position which helps the process of reversing the flow of apāna vāyu, so that it moves up the body to meet prāṇa vāyu.
On a gross physical level, an āsana such as guptāsana creates greater control and flexibility in the hips and lower back. This can alleviate some hip, knee, and lower back problems. Guptāsana provides people with an alternative to padmāsana (lotus position); however, if you have particularly acute issues with your knees, hips, or lower back, or have a hernia I suggest an even more gentle position such as sukhāsana, or perhaps even sitting in a chair. Remember, once you have become comfortable in guptāsana, it may or may not (depending on the individual and circumstances) be prescribed to apply additional techniques such as jālandhara bandha, khecarī, or nabho mudra, etc.
I hope you have found this excerpt of my larger work edifying, or at least interesting. Admittedly, I consider this all to be in rough draft phase. I provide more detailed explanations of many things mentioned in this post in my book, and have not particularly striven to explain every little thing in this post you have read. I chose to share this with you for the general teachable moment I came across when first writing this in my book. If this has sparked your curiosity, I suggest you seek out the publications of Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, James Mallinson, Swami Vishnuswaroop, Chandra Vasu and many others who have done so well at shedding light on yoga, or you can arrange an appointment with me – or just wait a couple years for my book to come out!
For most of my life yoga has been a private affair, which I didn’t really share with anyone else until I started teaching. Being a very introverted person, I never entangled with the yoga community beyond my own teacher; when I started teaching in studios I was frankly quite surprised that many people in the local yoga community seemed to think yoga hadn’t been written about much throughout history, and that there wasn’t much information to glean other than going to asana-only classes.
I am here to tell you there is an enormous amount of information out there, and much of it is absolutely free. Around about the middle of the 19th century India started translating and disseminating a great deal of its philosophy, art, religion, and so forth into English to try to show the world India as an advanced culture with much to offer. This was, in part, in hopes of being freed from the imperial designs of Britain, were the world to see that India deserved more than a place of servitude and submission.
Many of these translations are on the internet for free now, often with multiple translations to choose from. Many people don’t know how to proceed to become more literate in yoga, it’s history and philosophy, so here, I will point the way: Swami Nikhilananda’s translations of the principal Upanishads are a great start. I suggest you read at least Kathopanishad, and the Mandukya Upanishad along with the Guadapada Karika. Not only is it free, but these are very clear solid translations. I also suggest the Shiva Sutras of Vasugupta and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali....there are many many different translations out there. Chandra Vasu’s translations of the Shiva Samhita and the Gheranda Samhita. You can also find the Goraksha Samhita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika free online.
I am here to tell you there is an enormous amount of information out there, and much of it is absolutely free.
It is important to realize to understand one book, you often have to read many. If more than one translation is available, read them all. This is the way it is when you are reading something in translation, especially the more different the time, culture, and place of the text. To make it even easier for the local yoga community, I have done a lot of the heavy lifting for you, and am now teaching many of these books in my yogic textual studies series.
Adishesha, the naga king, is often pictured as a snake with a thousand heads. He is known by a number of names, such as Ananta (endless) and Sesha (remaining), a reference to a snake shedding its skin. The name Sesha evokes both the ideas of karma (the remnants of our actions have a lasting effect on us) and the atman (the True Self, the idea that when we die some essence of us is undestroyable, and thus remains). Patanjali, the author of The Yoga Sutras, is sometimes thought of as an incarnation of Adishesha.
In The Yoga Makaranda by Krishnamacharya (the forefather of much of modern yoga), it’s stated that everyday before practicing yoga one should repeat the prayer, “Jivamani Bhrajatphana sahasra vidhdhrt vishvam/ Bharamandalaya anantaya nagarajaya namaha.” Krishnamacharya goes on to say, “do namaskaram (salute) to Adishesha, preform the relevant puja (ceremonial rites), meditate on Adishesha and then begin the practice.” Naturally, Krishnamacharya was writing to an audience of Hindu Indians at the time he wrote this. Even though many of us who practice yoga are not this audience, it’s respectful to the long history of yoga to have some appreciation for its native Indian roots. Here is a short version of one of the stories of Adishesha:
Adishesha had a mother named Kadru and a stepmother named Vinata. Their rivalry started when Kadru had wished for an strong army of one thousand snakes for sons, while Vinata asked for just two sons, but ones more powerful than Kadru’s one thousand put together. Kadru fomented a deep hatred toward Vinata after this. Kadru saw her chance for revenge when Vinata said she saw the magical flying horse Ucchashravas. Kadru bet that Vinata could not tell her the exact color of the magical horse, and to which ever one of them guessed correctly, the other would have to be her servant forever. Vinata of course guessed correctly right away, and said Ucchashravas was pure white; However, the next time the flying horse came by, Kadru had her snake sons coil around the horse’s tail, making it appear black. Thinking she had lost the bet, Vinata became Kadru’s servant.
Adishesha however was disgusted by his mother’s dishonesty, and the cruelty of his brothers for going along with it. He refused to take part, and began to preform penance to Brahma, the supreme god, in order to atone for the evil of his family. Adishesha went into deep meditation, forgoing food and water, until he began to shrivel and dry up. Brahma was so moved by his sacrifice that he offered Adishesha a wish. Adishesha asked for the ability to control his mind, so he could do more penance. Brahma granted him this, and then asked him a favor, he said, “The world of humans is unstable, please go to the underworld, the abode of Vishnu, and spread your cobra hood to support the world of men. This Adishesha gladly did.
As you can see, Adishesha’s request of being able to control his mind has its connection to yoga. In yoga, we are attempting to use meditation to control the fluctuations of our emotions and faulty perceptions. Yoga is for everyone in the world, but it is also nice have an appreciation for the culture in which it has its roots.