Part V: Polar Techniques of Yoga – Classic & Tantra


Yoga has a technique; or yoga is a technique. For yoga has always stressed technique over metaphysics. Yoga itself comes from the term ‘yug’: to yoke. In the Yogic discipline one must first yoke one’s body and then one’s mind. To better understand the varieties of the techniques used in yoga, we shall compare and contrast the techniques of the two schools most at variance with each other, Classical & Tantra. In this way we shall come to know yoga’s polar tendencies and its kernel essence. We shall look at their respective techniques for autonomy individually and then both together.

Classical: Eight-limbed discipline, Astanga Yoga

Patanjali’s Classic Yoga is based on the eight-limbed discipline, Astanga Yoga. These eight limbs are the techniques whereby one reaches the highest possible mental state.

Part One: Eliminate the distraction of the external world

Astanga is divided into two parts. The first basic step is to achieve the “censorship of all the distraction and automatism that dominate profane consciousness.” [i] One begins by moral restraint, yama, which seeks to make one indifferent to the pleasures and strivings of ordinary existence. One must yield attachment to the results of this world. Second, one purifies one’s own body and thoughts, niyama, to attain an evenness of spirit and a single-pointedness of direction. At this stage one obtains an Ishtadevtaha, a personal deity, to which one is to devote his life. Third, one is to concentrate on body posture so that the body does not distract one, asana.  Fourth one controls the breath, pranayama.  In these last two disciplines the object of the disciple is not to punish or stop body functioning, but instead is to even its flow so completely that it no longer distracts one.

Fifth one is to unlink the senses from the objective world. In the fifth discipline, one is so immersed in each sense capacity that one experiences the sense capacity in its entirety. In so doing, all becomes a blur or roar, where the senses are no longer linked to the particulars of the environment. [ii] One’s senses are unlinked, pratyahara.  One is not to obliterate one’s body, but to become the body in such a way as to not be distracted by it. The final goal is to have such one-pointed attention (ekagra) that one is drawn into being with another object. Eventually after becoming one with the object, one transcends objectness altogether, existing in the bija-less world. The final goal is transcendence of the world.

Part 2: Destruction of ordinary consciousness thru tapas, heat

The whole goal of these first five steps is to eliminate the distraction of the external world. With this accomplishment, one proceeds to the systematic destruction of the ordinary consciousness, citta. Citta consists of Buddhi, Ahamkara, and Manas.

“Now, for Yoga, this suppression of normal consciousness is not something easily attained. In addition to gnosis, the darsana, it also implies a practice, an ascecis (tapas).” [iii]

This tapas is ascetic heat or energy. This heat or fire allows the Yogi to burn off his transient consciousness for a supernatural consciousness. One passes from consciousness of something, to the state of conscious awareness itself [iv] . This is called asamprajnata samadhi, i.e. without a seed. At this point the subject/object duality is transcended.

The goal of this yoga is “the cessation of the transformations of consciousness.” (Yoga-sutra I:2) The goal is to reach the end of this phenomenal world of change and constant transition. The goal is to finally be in a state of permanence beyond change.

“By reason of the pains of change, anxiety, and habituation, … all indeed is pain to the discriminating, … The conjunction of the knower and knowable is the cause of avoidable pain.” (Yoga-sutra II: 15-17)

Change causes pain; escape from change is possible only through identification with consciousness. Hence in Classical Yoga, transformation comes thru the mind. In Tantra, transformation comes thru the body.

Tantra: transformation through the body

In Tantric Yoga, a heavy emphasis is placed on the mystical physiology.

Wake up the Kundalini serpent by clearing the channels, the nadis

“The texts insistently repeat that, in the uninitiate, the nadi’s have become ‘impure’, that they are ‘obstructed’ and must be ‘purified’ by asanas, pranayama, and mudras.” [v]

These nadi’s are veins or energy channels. For pure consciousness to be reached the susumna vein must be unclogged. This vein leads up from the bottom of the spine to the essence of consciousness at the top of the head. This vein is blocked by Kundalini, the serpent, who sleeps at the base of the spine. The goal of tantric yoga is to awaken the serpent and drive him through the various chakras, psychic energy centers, to the center of consciousness at the top of the head.

Channels cleared by arresting bodily properties

Arresting the bodily properties awakens kundalini. [vi] “In tantrism immobility is simultaneously realized on three planes of ‘movement’, - thought, respiration, and seminal emission.” [vii] If activity is not arrested long enough, Kundalini doesn’t rise all the way to sahasrara, the thousand petaled lotus at the top of the skull, the crown chakra. [viii]

Channels also cleared thru yogic ecstasy

The tantrics also use the yogic ecstasy as part of their method. In the later developments of tantrism the ecstasy is used to purify the nadis, the psychic channels or veins. Kundalini passes up the susumna vein to the crown chakra. The ecstasy of samadhi then serves as a purification device.  The experience of oneness purifies the clogged veins. With purification one sees more clearly the nature of reality. Seeing more clearly, increases one’s control of reality. In Tantrism the attainment of samadhi is then a technique by which the magician-yoga might attain super-human powers. It is not an end in itself. However samadhi is, in some sense, addicting, for once one has attained samadhi all secondary interests such as power, fades in the all-consuming desire for samadhi.

Self-identification with Sakti, the Divine Mother

In Tantric yoga, one must keep in mind that every ritual activity occurs on many levels simultaneously. At the same time that one attempts to awaken Kundalini, one is also attempting to identify oneself with Sakti, the Divine Mother and Prakrti.   As Kundalini rises higher and higher through the chakras, the Yogi becomes increasingly aware of his identity with Sakti. At the level of the brow chakra, one actual sees Sakti, but is still aware of the difference between her and self. At the crown chakra, one is actually aware existentially of the identity between self and Sakti. Initially subject and object still exist; then only a cosmic awareness of oneness; and finally just being exists. [ix]

Tantra makes a distinction between different types of samadhi. Samadhi with support relies on identification with Sakti, while samadhi without support is the realization of Being, without intermediary. In one form of tantra, the true lover of Sakti does not seek liberation or even hope for its attainment. For what is the use of salvation if it means complete absorption.

Yantras and Mantras to aid identification

To identify more completely with the god, images, mandalas and yantras, are contemplated and assimilated into the body. One also chants mantras, which can be the name of a god or a symbolic sound representative of a particular chakra. The purpose of each of these techniques is to allow a more perfect identification with the divine aspect of reality.

Goal of tantra to reach the state of non-dualism, moksa

The goal of tantric yoga is to reach a “state of ‘nondualist’ realization.” [x] In this state the basic oneness of all is realized. Consciousness and substance become one. “The polarity of moksa and the trivarga is transcended and dissolved not in the introverted realization alone, but in living feeling as well.” [xi] One realizes that the highest levels of union and lower states of attachment are even one and the same.

Transcendence & one can partake in 5 forbidden things without pollution

When one reaches moksa, the ultimate release, the duality has been so transcended that the five forbidden things of dualistic reality are partaken in. This shows that the Yogi has so transcended ordinary reality that the polluting things of ordinary reality do not even affect him.

Purusha & Prakrti one, not two

Through this realization that all is one, the tantrics first of all place a heavier emphasis on nature, Prakrti, in that in the final analysis it is one with consciousness, Purusha. Second of all they realize that all men are one; because of this they see that any technique, which has union as its goal, will still lead to moksa. Ritual and procedure both assume a heightened significance, as easier ways to the same goal. Ritual becomes the way for the ordinary man, who is incapable of mastering the higher stages of meditation.

Comparison Classical Yoga and Tantra

Similarities of form

In comparison of classical and tantric yoga, we find that both employ similar techniques. Both have purification in mind. Both employ mantras to steady the mind. Both use breath and posture control to attain a mastery over the body, The sense capacities are experienced and mastered in each system. The final goal is even similar on a gross level, the identification with consciousness. In both forms there exists a samadhi with and without support. The first is characterized by the awareness of the subject and object. The second is the state of oneness, where no distinctions continue to exist. So, on the level of form tantrism and classical yoga are very similar. They both even rely on a god for aid.

Practice and emphasis exceedingly different

While the form is similar, the practice and emphasis of each yoga is exceedingly different. While classical yoga attempts to control the body so that it no longer distracts, the tantrics only seek to arrest its functions in order to awaken Kundalini. The basic difference here is that classical yoga seeks to ignore the body, as it belongs to the painful phenomenal world of matter, while Tantric yoga seeks to use the body. The Classical Yogi seeks to distinguish most thoroughly the difference between nature and consciousness. The Tantrics seek to use the body to yield mystical enlightenment. For them, too, Prakrti is changing and transient, but it is also one with consciousness, Purusha.

Classic regularity, Tantric stopping

This difference is manifested in their attitudes towards pranayama and asana, breathing and postures. While the classic Yogi attempts to put their body in a non-distracting positions to achieve regularity in breathing, the tantrics assume unusual body positions, asana & mudras, and attempt to hold their breath. The classic goal is regularity of bodily functions, while the tantric idea is to arrest activity of the functions.

Classic - no sex or meat: Tantra - sex as spiritual technique

This basic difference is further manifested in the ideas of the two towards sex and meat. For the classical Yogis, one is to abstain from both absolutely, For the tantric both are permissible in the divine state of realization of the oneness of all. Some branches of Tantra used sex, maithuna, ritual intercourse, as a Yogic technique to attain samadhi. Moksa, release, is said to be analogous with the orgasm. “Sexual union is documented in the Vedic religion, but it does not become a mystical technique until after the triumph of tantrism.” [xii] The Tantrics base their whole spiritual reality around the ultimate physical symbol of sex.

Tantra stresses physicality mandala and mantra. Classic stresses non-physicality

This contrast between classical and tantra is likewise reflected in the tantric’s stress on the mandala and the mantra. The yantra is a mandala that represents the mystical structure. This structure applies equally to mental or physical reality. “Yantra is an expression of the cosmic manifestations, beginning with the primordial unity.” [xiii] Yantra equally represent the “unfolding of sacred speech” [xiv] . The mantra is this sacred speech. Its very physicality touches an archetypal chord whose subtleties are revealed in the deepest states of the sadhana. The particle of sound “probably expressed states of consciousness ‘cosmic’ in structure and hence difficult to formulate in secular terminology.” [xv] In a like fashion the mantras lead one to the rediscovery of language, returning one to the “primordial situation”, in order to shatter temporal awareness. Each of these techniques, mantra and yantras, relies, initially, on its very physicality to trigger the higher realizations. This contrasts with the Classic Samkhyan Yoga stress on pure consciousness and non-physicality.

In Classic Yoga samadhi with a seed precedes samadhi without a seed

While Classic Yoga stresses pure consciousness or awareness as its ultimate goal, Patanjali’s yoga stresses the need to reach samprajnata samadhi, samadhi with a seed, before reaching asamprajnata samadhi, samadhi without a seed. In samprajnata samadhi one becomes one with an object, the tip of an incense stick, a god, or the universe itself. In the higher states of meditation one assimilates the structure of the universe in a realization of oneness. This is samprajnata samadhi. This feeling of oneness precedes the absolute awareness of asamprajnata samadhi, where the one disappears into the all, by becoming it.

Classic - Insight: Tantra - Direct experience

The classical Yogis rely on insight and discrimination to reach samadhi.

“That which flows on to perfect independence (kaivalya) down the plane of discriminative knowledge is named the stream of happiness.” from the Yoga-sutra II:14

He wishes to discriminate each characteristic of existence so purely that it ceases to exist except as pure reflection of Purusha. All is separated into parts in order to realize oneness with consciousness. The tantrics, in opposition, rely on direct experience and stress the unity of this world of nature. In tantrism one is to consummate sexually with the universe. The tantrics, then, base their symbolism on the most earthly passion.

God: Tantra - Union with Sakti everything, Classic - God another Purusha

This dichotomy between tantrism and classical yoga manifests itself on the respective levels that they view God from.

“In Tantra the theistic attitude practically obliterates the abstract ideal of the Formless Brahman (nirguna brahman).” [xvi]

In tantra the world of form yields a god of form. Union with Sakti is the highest of possible meditations. For classical yoga, the god Isvara is only another Purusha whose goal it is to help Yogis to be united with their own Purusha. [xvii] Their goal is to realize union with their own abstract consciousness. An abstract permanence devoid of life and change is the only goal pure enough for a classical Yogi.

Both seek control of citta, the Person

In this dichotomy the Polar tendencies of Yoga itself are revealed. The Yogi aims for transcendence of the human condition. The Tantrics seek salvation through the body while the classical Yogi seeks it through the mind. The only requirement demanded is a rigid discipline over the citta, the body and mind complex, the person. Control is needed; the Yogis only disagree over which is the best way for control.

Classic Yoga for elite: Tantra for masses

Yogic thought extends only to the elite in Classic Yoga, while Tantra extends it to include the masses. The elite are given elaborate instructions on how to reach kaivalya, union with Purusha. The ordinary man, not having time for such elaborate practices, is given simple rites and rules by which he can order his life. He is told to serve god, bhakti yoga, and devote his results to god, karma yoga. He is given a word to repeat or a ritual to follow. Classic Yoga has the tendency to base its technique around a philosophy, as contrasted Tantra, which emphasizes technique to reach liberation. Yogic thought eventually includes all humans in its schema.

[i] Eliade, p.47

[ii] Basically the idea is to transfer consciousness from the dominance of the verbal left-brain to the holistic right brain, where the world is experienced in its entirety rather than through words and names. One sees the same aim in Taoism, the Buddhi of China.

[iii] Eliade, p.36

[iv] Instead of being conscious of Being thru Mind’s verbal filter we realize our true nature as Being.

[v] Eliade, p. 239

[vi] Zimmer, Philosophies of India, p.584

[vii] Eliade, p.258

[viii] Eliade, p.248

[ix] We see this same distinction in the Bardos of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Most of us dwell in the land of subject and object, the Sidpa Bardo.

         Some of us devote our lives one-pointedly to God, the Chikhai Bardo

         A higher level is to spontaneously manifest God, the Secondary Clear Light of the Chonyid Bardo.

         In the highest level we are Being itself, the Primary Clear Light of the Chonyid Bardo.

[x] Zimmer, p 573

[xi] Zimmer, p 571

[xii] Eliade, p 254

[xiii] Eliade, p. 219

[xiv] Larson, Lecture 10-9-70

[xv] Eliade, p 231

[xvi] Zimmer, p568

[xvii] Eliade, p73


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