Am having a great time reading David Gordon White‘s The Alchemical Body (here also) – an incredibly in-depth exploration into the interplay of yoga with spirituality, alchemy and the local political economics of India from 1,500 years ago and even earlier.
Man, there is just so much to learn about the early history of yoga and the origins of the rituals and practices of today.
One basic and central theme that emerges early in the book is that ancient religious practices are rooted in a fundamental notion of “body-world”, “spirit-world” and various “in-between” or “transitionary” states. This 3-fold view of the world is rather universal to human cultures and perhaps extends very far back in human history – perhaps emerging early in our evolutionary tree as humans/neanderthals evolved a mental capacity to recognize and contemplate their own mortality. For instance, evidence for religious behavior and burial rites reach as way far back as 300,000 years ago in the Middle Paleolithic seems to suggest that early humans acknowledged “something” beyond the physical earthy body.
So it seems that the concepts I personally contemplate in my own practice – my inner self, reaching for a deeper connection to something beyond, etc. – are the very same issues that our ancient ancestors struggled with as well. Clearly the contemplative practices – like those borne out in yoga are old – Mohenjo-daro old – which makes it hard to know their ancient history. In some way though, it feels wonderful to partake in this very old, very primal tradition – to push my gaze inward as humans have been trying to do for millennia.
With a recognition of our mortality in mind, many contemplative and religious practices – just like yoga – are very much centered around making transitions or connections from the earthly body to the more pure and immortal spirit world. White points out that for millennia, one universally intuitive way that humans would make such bridges was via ritualized sacrifices. By offering animal, blood or other types of sacrifices to spiritual beings, early human cultures attempted to open a connection, offer appeasement or other intermediate linkage with the spirit world.
Interestingly, what seems to have happened at some point on the way to our modern yoga is that ritualized sacrifice morphed from the outward slaughter of an animal to an inward-looking type of self-sacrifice. From Chapter 1 of TAB:
Within a few centuries of the composition of [the Satapatha Brahmana], a revolution in Indian thought would issue into the notion that humans too could internalize the sacrifice and thereby entirely bypass the mechanism of external sacrifice. This inward turn, which would ground the entire gnostic and nondualist project of the Upanisads, also sowed the seeds for the innovation of a body of techniques for internal bodily transformation – i.e. for the practice of hatha yoga.
And from Chapter 9:
Of vital importance to the yogic tradition is the fact that the sacrificial fires in question are gathered together in one’s body. There they serve as both a cremation pyre – by which the now-obsolete mundane, social body is shown to have truly died to the world – and, in the post-crematory existence of the sannyasin (the “renouncer”), as the seat of sacrifice, which has now been internalized. It is here, in the inner fires of tapas, which fuel the offerings of one’s vital breaths in the inner sacrifice known as the pranagnihotra, that the practice of yoga very likely had its theoretical origins.
So perhaps at a very deep, very primal level, my yoga practice is a type of sacrifice – an ancient, hopeful attempt to make a connection with a spirituality or something larger and more everlasting than my flabby, aging body. To recognize – most poignantly during “corpse pose” – that I am mortal, but wish not to be so.