Chapter 1: Yoga

The first chapter presents a range of definitions of yoga and characterisations of the yogi, as well as various systems of yogic ‘auxiliaries’ (aṅgas) which prepare the practitioner for higher practices or states of yoga, and examples of a common medieval four-fold typology of yoga. Also included here are some criticisms levelled against yoga from prominent figures within the Vedic orthodoxy, as well as censure of particular types and practices of yoga across sectarian yoga-practitioner lines. These criticisms are especially interesting for the negative snapshot they provide of extant yoga practices of the period.

Chapter 2: Preliminaries

These passages are all concerned with conditions that must be fulfilled before one begins the practice of yoga proper. These include obstacles to yoga practice such as mixing with bad company and pride; and aids to yoga practice, ranging from the establishment of a suitable dwelling and a proper diet, to listening to philosophical discourses. All texts agree on the necessity of a qualified guru for success in yoga practice and we include several passages on that topic. The Haṭhayogic bodily purification practices are also represented here, as are the rules (yama) and observances (niyama) that make up the first two auxiliaries in eightfold (aṣṭāṅga) systems.

Chapter 3: Posture

Chapter 3, concerns the postural practices that have become almost synonymous with yoga in the world today. In early texts, the term āsana indicates a sitting position, in which other practices (such as breath control and meditation) are carried out, and the same is true for tantric texts of the first millenium, which do not foreground postural practice. As our selection of texts show, with the advent of Haṭhayoga, we see the emergence of more complex postures (including non-seated postures), and from the seventeenth century onwards there is a marked increase in the number of postures listed in texts.

Chapter 4: Breath Control

If posture (āsana) is the most prominent feature of contemporary transnational yoga, it was breath control (prāṇāyāma) that was the defining practice of physical yoga methods in pre-modern India (chapter 4). Such is prāṇāyāma’s importance, indeed, that in some texts other branches of yoga practice—such as fixation and meditation (cf. chapter 8), and absorption (cf. chapter 9)—are said to be simply the result of extending the duration of breath control. The translations begin with some of the earliest descriptions of yogic techniques of breath control (from the Buddhist Pali canon and the Mahābhārata), and include passages on breath control as purification, as a method of liberation, and in combination with mantra (cf. Chapter 7).

Chapter 5: The Yogic Body

This chapter presents a wide range of texts dealing with the subtle physiology of the yogi. Unlike the empirical body of modern science, the features of the yogic body change according to the doctrinal or metaphysical conventions of particular sects, resulting in significant variation across texts. The translations are divided into two parts, the first dealing with channels, winds and locations (such as cakras, supports and knots) within the yogic body, and the second with the indwelling force commonly known as Kuṇḍalinī and with the life-giving endogenous liquid known as bindu. The chapter concludes with two passages in which the ascetic destruction and desiccation of the body, rather than its preservation, is the goal.

Chapter 6: Yogic Seals

The translations in chapter 6 deal with the methods of manipulating the breath or vital energies known as ‘seals’ (mudrā). The first selection, from the earliest known tantra, describes hand gestures, which are the most common type of tantric seal. The second, from a later tantric text, also presents hand gestures, alongside more unusual practices (such as howling like a jackal). The remainder of the translations are concerned with Haṭhayogic seals, physical techniques fundamental to the earliest systems designated ‘haṭha’, and whose purpose is to raise the breath or manipulate and preserve the vital energies of the body.

Chapter 7: Mantra

Although it is not mentioned in yoga’s earliest descriptions (and is notably absent from some later formulations of Haṭhayoga), mantra is nevertheless a key feature of almost all Indian religious traditions and, as the passages in chapter 7 show, it was incorporated into various systems of yoga. Repetition of the Upaniṣadic syllable Oṁ is taught in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and became an important practice in several subsequent yoga teachings. Separately, the repetition of a variety of mantras understood to be vocalised (and sometimes visualised) manifestations of deities became the defining practice of tantric yoga. The magical potential of repeating tantric mantras meant that it flourished in non-ascetic milieux where special powers (see chapter 10) tend to be foregrounded.

Chapter 8: Withdrawal, Fixation and Meditation

The texts in Chapter 8 treat the three interconnected practices of withdrawal (pratyāhāra), fixation (dhāraṇā), and meditation (dhyāna). The first, withdrawal, is closely related to very early definitions of yoga as the mastery of the mind resulting from its separation from sense objects, a meaning apparent in the texts we have selected. Some texts also present withdrawal as an aspect of advanced breath control. Fixation may refer to single-pointed concentration on an inner or outer object of choice, or, in tantric texts, a progressive concentration on (and dissolution of) the elements within the body. Finally, we present a range of translations on meditation, beginning with early Buddhism and the Mahābhārata. Also included are tantric meditations teaching the active, detailed and empathic visualisation of the deity, and texts on meditation without form or focal support.

Chapter 9: Absorption

Chapter 9 is on absorption (samādhi). Although in Pātañjala yoga absorption is grouped with fixation and meditation in a triadic cluster of practices called saṃyama, we give it a chapter to itself here on account of its status as a synonym of yoga in some systems (notably the PYŚ), and because of the wide variety of different interpretations it is given across texts. Some texts consider absorption as an extension of the meditation stage, sometimes itself conceived as a temporal extension of breath control. In tantric texts, absorption is usually (though not always) the last of the (six) ancillaries (aṅga) of yoga but is still preliminary to the goal, union with or proximity to the deity. In haṭha texts, absorption may also convey a death-like trance, and some of our selections describe the burial and revival of the yogi in samādhi as a kind of ritual display of yogic prowess. The chapter also presents passages on dissolution (laya) and the inner sound (nāda), both sometimes classified as varieties of absorption.

Chapter 10: Special Powers

The passages in chapter 10 concern the special powers that are said to arise from the practice of yoga. Although often maligned, scoffed at or sidelined, such powers have always been central to textual descriptions of yoga, as the translations in this chapter demonstrate. Yogic powers include the ability to fly, to hear and see across vast distances, to make oneself very small or very large, to have control over other people, and even simply to do whatever one wishes. Belief in the reality of the yogic powers predominates across texts, but the passages presented here also reveal a tension between yogic traditions which embrace the powers as valuable ends in themselves, and those which ultimately judge them as impediments to the higher goal of liberation (even though they may function as markers of spiritual progress).

Chapter 11: Liberation

The final, eleventh chapter of the book is on the topic of liberation (known variously as mukti, mokṣa, nirvāṇa, kaivalya etc.), the final goal and rationale of yoga practice in many (though not all) systems. As our texts show, the precise nature of liberation is subject to significant variation across metaphysical systems. The chapter begins with early descriptions of liberation in a Pali Buddhist sutta and the Mahābhārata. It also includes several accounts of liberation in the Pātañjala yoga tradition, as well as tantric accounts of liberation through accession to the deity. Several texts offer an insight into the vexed sub-category of liberation-while-living (jīvanmuktī), in which the realised yogi remains indefinitely in corporeal form, enjoying the material fruits of his yogic accomplishments. In contrast, other texts teach the liberation method of yogic suicide (utkrānti). However, such methods of exiting the physical body can also be used to possess other bodies and thus cheat death, as several texts demonstrate. Finally, we include some passages on the diagnostics of death (ariṣṭa), a key skill for the yogi wishing to overcome (or postpone) his mortality.