October 4, 2011

Becoming the Mountain: The Mountain Origins of Yoga.

This is Part I of a three part series posted in a 3-week period.

Yogis who practice the Teaching of the Path Profound,

Dwell always in caves and mountains;

Not that they are cynical or pompous,

But to concentrate on meditation is their self willing.

~ Milarepa


The Mountain Origins of Yoga

In his introduction to the first English translation of the biography of Tibet’s most celebrated Yogi, Milarepa, the anthropologist W. Y. Evans-Wentz likened mountaintops to spiritual broadcasting stations, from where the solitary hermit yogin transmits the accumulated merit of his meditative vocation as grace-waves of beneficence to the rest of humanity. Through the virtuous action of their visionary meditation and yogic practice, mountain yogis become the conduits of an enlightened intentionality that acts upon the world in unseen ways. Milarepa himself stated how the relationship between the layperson and the yogi renunciate was mutually beneficial. He sang:

The great yogin meditates in the rocky cave,

And benefactors bring him food.

These two interacting lead them together toward Enlightenment.

And the essence of this interaction lies in sharing merits.

Through their offering of alms in support of the practitioner, ordinary householders are believed to receive the blessings and benefits of the saint’s attainment of extraordinary meditative states and, eventually, enlightenment. While many Western materialists consider this to be a magical thinking or religious superstition that places its hope in a kind of spooky-action-at-a-distance. There is however compelling evidence to support the ecological significance of this system of symbiosis between the professional yogi or yogini in their cave retreat and the generosity of their patrons.

For the relevance of mountain locales to the modern yogis, we need look no farther than the legendary life of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, guru to both B.K.S. Iyengar and Sri. K. Patthabhi Jois. Krishnamacharya’s well-known sojourn to Tibet in search of the Guru Rama Mohan Bramachari resulted in an eight year mountain retreat with his teacher at the base of Mt. Kailash. Mt. Kailash, the holiest mountain in South Asian mysticism, is central to the cosmology of both Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism. It was through his strict discipleship in the Tibetan hermitage at the base of that mountain, known as the abode of Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, that Krishnamacharya learned the yogic system that would become the hallmark of modern postural yoga of the 20th century. If we are to invoke lineage to attempt to establish the transmission and continuity of our popular forms of yoga today, we must also embrace the Himalayan mountain provenance of the flourishing of yoga. So too, our modern yoga is mountain yoga. But the recurrence of mountain ecology in the tradition of yoga harkens back far beyond the initiation of Krishnamacharya by his Tibetan guru.

Through their practice of the various psychotechnologies of yoga and meditation in remote forest hermitages, the yogi or yogini become emissaries of the wilderness, and catalysts of our collective spiritual evolution. In this article I will attempt to explore the ways in which remote mountain environments have been viewed historically as uniquely suited to the development of a profound mystical experience. We will examine contemporary ecological concerns that mountains face, through the lens of the mythical mountain archetype found in the symbols and practices of yoga.

By understanding this fascinating heritage of mountains yoga, we may strive as practitioners to support conservation efforts in mountainous terrain throughout the world. As practitioners of yoga, rooted in the mountain culture from which our practices hail, we may become stewards of sacred mountains, like the renowned yogis and yoginis of history. Understanding the mountain heritage of our yogic culture, we may learn to return to the mountains at the center of our own personal mandalas, as power places of transformational change for ourselves and our society. In this we can begin to explore the mountain as a repository of the divine.

The Mountain as a Repository of the Divine

The importance of mountains in our global ecosystem has been established by ecologists as being essential to human life on earth. The headwaters of mountains play a vital role in the hydrological system providing fresh water to more than half of the earth’s population. Mountains are also thriving sanctuaries of life, supporting diverse ecosystems of plant and animal species and providing an abundance of natural and geological resources including food, water, valuable minerals, and plant medicine.

However, mountainous regions are increasingly faced with the catastrophic effects of climate change and environmental degradation. This is largely the result of unsustainable practices of clearcutting land for farming and ranching, as well as invasive terraforming mining techniques such as mountaintop removal. The environmental impacts of industry and agriculture on mountains have had catastrophic consequences for life on earth. Erosion of mountain soil results in devastating avalanches, landslides, flooding, food shortages, the poisoning of the water table, and the extinction of wildlife. As these habitats are threatened, indigenous mountain peoples are faced with displacement to urban lowlands, along with the disappearance of their native languages, cultures, and traditions. Our emerging ecological understanding of the importance of mountains for balance of life on the planet has long been understood by the indigenous populations of mountainous regions, whose livelihoods are been dependent on their balanced relationship with the mountain terrain.

There is a precedent for the importance of mountains in ecology in the general occurrence of the reverence for mountains throughout human spiritual history. The mountain archetype is one that has always been firmly embedded in the human psyche as an emblem of the sacred precinct throughout history. It was as though we find within the human mind an innate awe, humility, and inspiration when standing before the grandeur of such elevations. This is perhaps why in the various world cultures where mountains form part of the physical geography we find them universally associated with mythologically divine and immortal beings, as places of communion and of sacrifice. The stature and altitude of these mountains regions brings them into both literal and metaphoric proximity to the gods and celestial denizens of the heavens. In numerous examples from many world mythological systems, mountains recur as the dwellings place of the deities and spirits, as the intersection between the numinous and the mundane.

The historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, in his classic text on the nature of the religious sentiment, The Sacred and the Profane, describes the mountain as a common representation of the navel of the earth, or axis mundi. Eliade describes how the world’s structure is commonly divided into three principle levels, including the heavens, the earth and an underworld, all bridged by the ladder or pillar of the holy mountain. He also describes the structure of the temple as a symbolic recreation of the cosmic mountain, as an intersection between the earth and heaven. (Eliade, 1987:37)

While the veneration of the mountain has been explored elsewhere by Birnbaum and others, this article focuses primarily on the preeminence of the mountain as the world-axis in South Asian cosmological models. Textual instances of sacred mountain geography begin as early as the Rig Veda, ca. 1700-1100 BC which describes “all mountains as supernatural beings, possessed of the power of flight, until Indra, the king of gods, clips their wings.”(White, 2003:167) In popular Hindu mythology, the god Siva himself portrayed as mountain dweller, is married to Parvati whose name means “daughter of the mountains.” In later medieval texts this mountain theme evolves into its greatest expression in the tantric and hatha-yogic methods inward exploration, where the body’s physiology becomes homologous to the entire cosmos. The body, as Eliade writes, “like the cosmos, is a ‘situation,’ a system of conditioning influences that the individual assumes. The spinal column is assimilated to the cosmic pillar (skambha) or to Mt. Meru; the breaths are identified with the Winds; the navel or heart with the Center of the World, and so on.” (Eliade, 1987:173)

The homology of the human body as a microcosm is a recurring schemata, variations of which are prevalent in many ancient cultures. In India, ideas of the embodied cosmos begin early in Vedic times, with numerous examples to follow throughout Epic and Puranic literature (Eliade, 1969). Later in the Tantric movement we begin to see the highly systematized culmination of this trend toward the specific interiorization of the Hindu sacrificial universe. Historian David Gordon White writes, “It is at this intersection of cutting-edge medieval cosmology and soteriology that the Tantric internalization– of the entire cosmic egg into the subtle body of the microcosm – was first theorized” (White, 2003:186-87).

Central to this homology of the cosmos and the body is the axial mountain that stands at the intersection between the world of gods and demigods and the earthly realm, where the mystical yogis and siddhas engage in ritual transactions with these various divine beings. The Abhidharmakosha, a compendium of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy written by the 5th century scholar Vasubhandu, describes an Indian model of the universe that places Mt. Meru at its center. The pivotal Mt Meru stands surrounded by the various continents, encircling mountains and lakes in a mystical mapping of the cosmos. This world-mountain has its microcosmic equivalent in the subtle body map as the central channel of the body’s spinal column. White states:

It is perhaps incorrect to state that the Hindus made no explicit identification between their alchemical wizards or immortals, their alchemical apparatus, and their sacred mountains. The sanskrit term dhara, generated from the root dhr, means, as has already been noted, “bearer” or “recipient.” Another sense of dhr, however, is ‘to support,’ a meaning that generates another reading of dhara: a mountain (dhara) is that which supports (dhr) the earth or the mineral riches within the earth. In this case, vidyadhara may be read as “Mountain of Wisdom,” while the Vidyadharas, the Wizards, may be considered to be not only the denizens of such mountains, but also the mountains themselves. What we are suggesting here is that behind the medieval Indian cults of divine Siddhas and Vidyadharas as denizens of mountains there lay a more archaic cult of these mountains as a group of demigods… and what is a mountain cave, if not the macrocosmic replica of the cranial vault of the meditating yogin, the tumulus (samadhi) in which the deceased yogins are interred, or the upper chamber of an alchemical apparatus within which the alchemist transforms himself into the opus alchymicum? As in the Taoist case, the Möbius universe of the Siddhas is so constructed as to permit its practitioners at once to identify cosmic mountains with their own subtle bodies and to enter into those mountains to realize the final end of their practice, the transformation into semidivine denizens of those peaks.

The vertical axis of the human body’s spinal column is thus the microcosmic equivalent of that world-pillar of the divine mountain at the center of the model of the mystical universe, also often portrayed in sacred and ritual texts or liturgies as the mandala. The mandala is a cosmographical template that is employed frequently in the philosophy and practice of tantra as an essential tool in the repertoire of the yogi. Mandala cosmography is a highly developed and sophisticated system involving precise methods of astrological measurement and correspondence. The strata of the mandala form a link between the interiorized cosmos of the subtle body such as that of the yogi and the grand cosmic body of the universe. The various energetic loci or chakras of the astral nerves that combine in various ways throughout the subtle body are governed by celestial influence through their sympathetic valences with the stars and planets.  As such, the cosmic-psychic body of the yogi is an uplink to the universal mandala, as one acts upon the other in a variety of ways in the both the governance of the universe as well as the quest for the attainment of supernatural powers or siddhi as well as enlightenment. It is through this interaction “that the yogi could attain and exercise absolute control over the whole universe in that he controls the energy currents within his mystic body he controls the cosmos” (Trimondi, 1999). In this systematic approach to the occult practices of hatha yoga, we again see the recurrence of the divine topography reflecting the importance of both inner and outer mountains. From the early origins in the local and regional archaic cults of mountains to the sophisticated cosmologies of the Abhidharmakosha and the tantras, we find the mytheme of the mountain as the intersection between the human and the divine.

Having considered the preeminence of the mountain in the history of yogic practice, we begin to understand how those revered saints and mystics of the yoga tradition have proclaimed mountains as places of power and as specifically sought-after sites at which miraculous abilities and mystical insights can be attained. In the lives and legends of the great yogis of both India and Tibet, we find numerous accounts of mountain-based mystical apotheosis and transformation. Throughout religious history, the mountain offers itself as a locale that is uniquely suited to the practice of yoga and meditation.

The remoteness and altitude of many of the retreat hermitages and caverns that dot the sacred mountains of the Himalaya are the vestiges of a receding wilderness-based contemplative culture. As our wild places face increasing ecological concerns, the mountains which stand as the last reserves of the tradition of the forest hermit-yogi, are also threatened. This presents contemporary Western yoga practitioners and teachers with a unique opportunity to align themselves with this history and values of traditional yoga by developing initiatives that aim to preserve the traditions of the hermit-yogi practitioners as well as the native mountain cultures and environments that support them. Practitioners of yoga can begin to foster an understanding of the value of the role of the forest-contemplative who serves society by standing apart from it through both direct participation in these traditions, as well as through sponsorship. Modern yogis and yoginis in the West must become the stewards of the world’s mountains if the indigenous mountain contemplative traditions are to prosper.

Sacred Mountain Yogis Video
Directed by John Allen Gibel

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York, 1996; DeMichelis, Elizabeth; Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. San Diego, 1987; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Website: http://www.fao.org/forestry/mountains/en/); Harris, Sam http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/how-to-meditate/; Merton, Thomas. Seeds. Boston, 2002; Merton, Thomas. When the Trees Say Nothing, Writings on Nature. ed. with an introduction by Kathleen Deignan, 2003; Milarepa, “The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, vol. I”, trans. by Garma C. C. Chang, Boulder, 1962; Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. New York, 1969; Trimondi, Victor and Victoria. The Shadow of the Dalai Lama. Düsseldorf and Zurich 1999; White, David Gordon. Alchemical Body. Chicago, 1996; Wilber, Ken. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New York, 199; Phüntsog, Rinchen. Source of Auspicious Good Fortune. trns. by Ari-ma, 2003

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