Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I came across copies of Sir John Woodroffe’s books Sakti and Sakta, Kundalini Yoga, and Mahanirvana Tantra back in 2006 at the Community Resource Center in Encinitas.

The CRC is one of my favorite thrift stores in the world, if only because the books were (and, to my knowledge, still are) between $1 and $2, which means I spent $4.50 for all three.

It wasn't until this year, however, that I finally got around to reading these dense and weighty books. They are chock full of gems. I’ve been especially inspired by Woodroffe’s analysis of the differences and similarities between Samkhya Yoga, Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, and Shakta Tantrism.

One of Woodroffe’s explications of an aspect of Mantra Sadhana, or practice, was especially relevant to those of us who practice the breath/movement-based practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa:
“Japa is recital of Mantra ... One of the great Mantras is the physical act of breathing. As this is done of itself so many times a day, now through the right, and then through the left nostril automatically, it is called the Ajapa Mantra — that is, the mantra which is said to be without Japa or willed effort on man’s part.”
(page 454, Sakti and Sakta)
As Dr. Douglas Brooks has mentioned, to add the prefix “a” before a Sanskrit word often means “not” or “without.”

So to add an "a" to “vidya” or knowledge, for example, turns the word into its opposite, “avidya,” or ignorance.

However, occasionally, as in the case of japa/ajapa above, the prefix “a” can also mean “never without.”

Dr. Brooks cited “ghora” and “aghora.” If ghora means terrifying, why then is Kali, considered the most terrifying, called aghora? She is not "without terror." In this instance, she is “never without” absolute terror.

As Woodroffe states, the breath is considered Ajapa because it is continuous, and we are “never without.”

In the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, the volume of the breath is turned up ever so slightly using the ujjayi breath technique, and as a result, attention comes to one place. In so doing, the breath comes to have specific meaning and intentionality during the time we have chosen to turn up on our Yoga mats.

The Japa of the ujjayi breath allows engagement in Nyasa. As Woodroffe says:
“Nyasa ... means the “placing” of the hands of the worshipper on different [body parts], imagining at the same time that thereby the corresponding parts of the body of her Istadevata are being there placed. It terminates with a movement, 'spreading' the Divinity all over the body.”
(page 454, Sakti and Sakta)
The idea that the asanas, and the transitions between them, are the process of the "meaningful application" — or vi-nyasa — of my intentions and Japa onto my body is one that adds an expansive and progressive richness to my own Ashtanga Vinyasa practice.

Woodroffe is quick to observe that Brahman/Absolute/Source/Istadevata — or the archetype, quality, or icon of choice — is, of course, not something that can be physically spread:
“[W]hat may be and is spread is the mind of the worshipper, who by his thought and act is taught to remember and realize that she is pervaded by Divinity, and to affirm this by bodily gesture.”
(page 454, Sakti and Sakta)