Honoring the Ancient Traditions of Yoga
Paying respect to traditions gives us a sense of our roots, our heritage and a sense of being. We follow tradition because for centuries our ancestors have followed the ways that encapsulate the meaning of life and how to be free of suffering caused by uncertainty and trudging down dark paths. But tradition has many faces. It doesn’t always capture the best of us. There are those who cling to traditions and refuse change, while there are those who fear traditions that are unfamiliar from their own. With the world being increasingly cross-cultural, traditions of all sorts are being exposed to many reaches of the earth. In their travel they are becoming transformed. Through their transformation, we have to find a bridge that allows for us to protect the integrity of the tradition within the roots of their purpose.
Yoga is one of these traditions. It’s origins are rooted in the soils of the Indus Valley, beneath the Himalayan Mountains, what is Northern India and Pakistan today. It’s traditions so ancient, that it’s claimed to have been practiced since the beginning of civilization. Through internationalism, the seeds of yoga have scattered, blown in the wind and spread to those who seek light. Yoga now touches upon the lives of people all over the world.
Yet the traditions of yoga have altered significantly, in their travels from South Asia. In the West, people flock to 40.6 degree Celsius rooms, to sweat it out in a session of Bikram’s hot yoga, or work their core in power vinyasa yoga classes that focus on asanas, or physical postures of yoga combined with fitness. The roots of yoga, the mantras, the Om, breathing techniques, pranayama, and the intentions of finding inner peace, and stilling the mind to single-pointed concentration in meditation are foregone in the mist of vanity to achieve one’s ideal body type.
When the tradition has diverted so far from its roots, then what do you call its modern variation? Is it time for the traditions to shift with the modern currents?
If you travel to the Himalayan regions of India or Nepal and take a yoga class, you will experience how the traditions have modernized in its birthplace. Classes are conducted with an opening mantra, an Om, and an intention, then proceeded by a series of asanas, or poses, followed by a lengthy savasana. Sometimes the class begins or concludes with pranayama, breathing exercises, and then a final meditation to use the benefits of the physical practice in stilling the body to ease into the mental practice. The local yoga instructors have been practicing as a part of their culture, their heritage. They probably woke up at 3 or 4am to do their own practice before the sun rose, and established their own equilibrium before teaching the class that you participate in. Your class isn’t glistening with brand names, like Lululemon or prAna. It’s simple. You might even find yourself on a rooftop, with the monsoon pounding it’s way in through the makeshift roof made of tarpaulin, spraying you occasionally with rain as you press into adho mukha svanasana, or downward facing dog. But you feel the wind on your face, and outside is a sea of green fields.
In the West, the yogic experience differs depending on where you practice and who you practice with. Classes are more focused on the anatomy, which is safer than in India where you’ll be put into headstands and shoulder stands without caution. Sometimes there are real gems out there, where you get the mix of modern Western and classical Eastern traditions. The class will begin with a centering, focus on the breath, an Om you can join into, a sequence of poses that gets your heart pumping while simultaneously bringing you into yourself and connecting to the core of your being. Then a calming savasana, and a final centering that reflects on the intentions of the class. These classes exist. The music played during class may not be a traditional method, but traditions can change, as long as the intention remains.
The next time you step into a yoga class, be mindful. Leave your ego at the door, and explore yourself in the ancient tradition of connecting the body and mind. Be aware of the poses that open up that connection, and go inward. The hand foot bond to the mat should be all that matters, not the mirror in the room, or the person next to you. Let go and chant Om – there’s a reason it’s called the eternal sound. Lose yourself in the history of movement and discover how it makes you feel. You will never know until you try. Yoga is a tradition of self-discovery through seeking this connection.
Finding Tradition through Intention
The origins of yoga comes from Sanskrit, to yoke, or union. This is the intention of the practice. It can be done through chanting, breathing, meditating, or physical movement. Whatever form of yoga you practice, if your intention is to create a union of the body and mind with the true nature of yourself, then you are following the roots of the yoga tradition. It doesn’t matter if you use modern music to carry you through your practice, if you laugh, sweat and shake, call the poses by their Sanskrit, or locally invented name, if your intention is pure then you are amongst the traditions of yoga. Find your path and allow yoga to become your teacher as you explore its roots, and find a tradition that remains alive and intact in each of us.
“By Yoga, Yoga must be known; Through Yoga, Yoga advances; He who cares for Yoga, In Yoga rests forever.” (Unknown source)
Kemetic Yoga: Resurrection of an African Legacy
The geometric positions and postures seen in the hieroglyphs and temple walls of ancient Egypt are some of the earliest manifestations of yoga. Discover how practicing Kemetic yoga poses can profoundly affect your health, wellbeing and consciousness.
As a boy growing up in the public housing projects on the Southside of Chicago, I was always fascinated by ancient stories of mythology, fantasy and warriors. I watched many programs about the wonders of the ancient world on public television. The most fascinating aspect of the ancient world for me had always been the mysteries of Egypt. From the first time I’d seen the pyramids and the Sphinx in documentaries, movies and in books I wanted to travel there and see them in person.
The Great Black Kings of Africa
At Catholic grade school in the 1960s, my one and only Black male teacher, Mr. Rochelle, introduced his class to books by the Black historians, including J.A. Rogers, who wrote Great Black Men of Color. This book spoke of the Great Black Kings of Africa and their accomplishments. It also revealed to us that Egypt is in Africa, is the origin of western civilization and that the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt were actually Black.
This information became even more interesting to me when I saw that in my grade school geography book that the country of Egypt (northeastern Africa) was absent from the map of Africa. The space where Egypt is supposed to be was blank.
The country of Egypt was instead placed in a separate circle in the upper corner of the page with the words “middle east” written under it.
What I learned in later years is that there has been a concerted effort on the part of western academia to take Egypt out of the context of Africa and to place it in the European/Middle Eastern area of civilization.
Mount Meru: The Origin of Humanity
DNA studies show conclusively that the original modern human beings emerged out of Africa over 3.5 million years ago. The people of India, who were originally an all-Black people called Dravidians, had DNA that originated in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is part of the African region called “Kush” that included ancient Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, all of which comprises a large chunk of Africa. In the book “Opening to Spirit”, author and Yoga master, Shola Arewa draws the connection between ancient Indian stories of the origin of humans on Mount Meru, with East Africa, where the actual mountain of Meru stands at over 15,000 feet in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Hatha and HetHeru There are many similarities between words in Sanskrit and the ancient Egyptian language as it relates to Yoga. For example, the word Hatha which designates the general system of Yoga and means “Moon” and “Sun”, similar to the ancient Egyptian word “Hathor”, which was originally pronounced “Het Heru” by the ancient Egyptians. Hathor or Het Heru is the goddess of the moon and sun.
In ancient Egypt she was personified by a cow. Interestingly the cow is held sacred in Indian culture and is never killed. The Indian cow goddess Kamadhenu, like HetHeru, represents the sacred mother and fertility.
At the age of 21, I made a conscious decision to completely leave the bad habits I had acquired growing up in the ghettoes of Chicago behind me. I stopped all drinking, smoking and the use of psychedelic drugs. As a child of the 60s I had learned to use drugs like marijuana and acid as a means of creating a transcendent consciousness. I also realized that even though these substances could be used to explore the mind that they often had negative impact on my health and wellbeing. Therefore, I decided that I would take up a vegan diet and use fasting, meditation and exercise (running and calisthenics) as my new path towards higher consciousness.
My Yogic Journey
About a year after embarking on this new path, I met someone who was into Yoga. After a great deal of hesitancy, I allowed myself to try out a Yoga class. After the first class with my one and only teacher, Dr. Asar Hapi of Chicago, a Black man, Naprapath and Chiropractor, I knew that I would make Yoga my life long path.
Though I was very stiff at the beginning, I could feel the benefits; I felt relaxed and my energy improved. I learned that physical benefits of Yoga, such as flexibility, came as a consequence of practice. My teacher, Dr. Hapi, had already adopted an ancient Egyptian name. We both felt that Yoga probably came from Egypt but we did not have any particular proof.
Revelations From King Tut’s Tomb
This changed when the King Tut exhibit came to Chicago in the mid-1970s. One of the artifacts that were found in the tomb of King Tut was a chair that contained a uniquely ancient Egyptian Yoga posture and various hieroglyphic inscriptions.
We were inspired to figure out how to perform this posture, translate the hieroglyphic writing and interpret the symbols. Our investigation of the artifact revealed the following:
- The Sun Disk at the top of the head represents the crown chakra
- The two serpents on each side of the sun disk represents the two primary nadis (energy channels) Ida and Pingala
- The hieroglyphic inscriptions make reference to eternity and the achievement of immortality
- The “person” or deity pictured in posture is called Heh or Shu and is associated with life energy, the breath and the life force found in the air (prana)
- He is seated on a platform that means “Nub” which is the ancient Egyptian word for gold. Gold is a metaphor for the highest level of consciousness that a person can reach which is the ultimate purpose of the practice of Yoga
Resurrection of Ancient Egyptian Yoga
As we explored more of the ancient Egyptian records through books it became apparent that Gods and Goddesses they called “Neteru” were actually in various Yoga postures that did not exist in the Indian system. The philosophies of Yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism were similar and in some cases identical to ancient Egyptian spiritual science. They are various examples of this:
The ancient Egyptian philosophical idea that the underlying nature of the universe is predicated on a discernable order that each individual person is obligated to strive for. According to Maat the true nature of everything is order, balance, harmony, justice and reciprocity. This principle of Maat and these attributes need to be exemplified in the way that we live our lives in order to transcend the limitation in consciousness that comes with identification with the temporal world of cause and effect. It is the over identification with the physical body and material world that gives rise to all of the problems that afflict humankind.
A woman sitting on one folded leg with spine twisted and arms extended personifies Maat. The arms have wings attached which signify the ability to heal and for the spirit to take flight or rise metaphorically. Maat wears a feather on her head.
In the ancient Egyptian funeral rites, the heart of the of the deceased person Wwas symbolically weighed: it had to be lighter than the feather in order for the person to achieve immortality.
The Greeks called him Hermes but the ancient Egyptians called him Tehuti or Thoth. Thoth was the great spiritual teacher of ancient Egypt who was the inventor of writing, knowledge and wisdom. Hermetic philosophy speaks of methods of achieving immortality through the practice of techniques that allows the mind to disassociate with identification with the material world. This idea of disassociation and transcendence was referenced in all of the earliest Yogic writings from India. This process depended upon the practice of contemplation and meditation rather than the performance of hundreds or even thousands of Yoga postures that characterizes modern Yoga. Thoth delineated 7 primary principles that became the foundation of what was later to be called Hermetic philosophy and gave rise to Free Masonry, Theosophy and many other modern “new age” philosophical movements.
The Seven Principles of Hermetic Philosophy
The seven principles are:
- The Principle of Mentalism: The All if Mind and the Universe is Mental
- The Principle of Correspondence: As above, so below, as below so above
- The Principle of Vibration: Nothing Rests, everything moves, everything vibrates
- The Principle of Polarity: Everything is dual, everything has poles, everything has its pair of opposites, like and unlike are the same, opposites are identical in nature, but are different in degree, extremes meet, all truths are but half-truths, all paradoxes may be reconciled.
- The Principle of Gender: Gender is in everything, everything has its masculine and feminine principles, gender manifests on all planes
- The Principle of Rhythm: Everything flows out and in, everything has its tide, all things rise and fall, the pendulum swing manifests in everything, the measure of the swing to the right is measure of the swing to the left, rhythm compensates
- The Principle of Cause and Effect: Every cause has an effect, every effect has a cause, everything happens according to law and chance is but a name for law not recognized, there are many planes of causation but nothing escapes the law
For those who are familiar with the philosophy of Yoga, the similarities with Maat and what is called Hermetic philosophy are intuitive.
However, there are key differences in the approaches of Yoga as it was understood and practiced in ancient Egypt and India. A fundamental aspect of ancient Egyptian spiritual science (which is identical across Africa) is the connection to ancestors. In ancient Egypt, which is properly called Kemet (Egypt is the Greek version of the word), connecting with the spirits of the ancestors through meditation, prayer and ritual is a pillar of Kemetic Yoga practice. The purpose of meditation is not only to transcend the boundaries of the material world but also to connect and communicate with the living spirits of those who have gone before us.
About two years after I started my practice of Yoga with Dr. Hapi, he informed me that he was going to focus his attention on his healing practice and that I should continue to develop and teach the system of ancient Egyptian Yoga. Though I really only wanted to practice Yoga for my own development, I eventually started to teach it more regularly. I decided to use the term Kemetic Yoga because it is the correct Egyptian term. Over the years I have done more original research into the philosophy and practice of Kemetic Yoga through traveling to Egypt, studying ancient texts, deciphering symbols and introducing new movements and postures into the system.
Kemetic Yoga Poses
We perform many of the movements and posture or asanas that are found in mainstream Hatha Yoga because many are seen in the record of ancient Egypt and are also represented among the practices of traditional African societies. Some of the postures and movements that are uniquely ancient Egyptian are:
- The Pose of Immortality
- The Pose of Auset/Maat
- The Pose of Min/Sekhmet
- The Teken Pose/Teken Sequence
- The Sesh Poses
- The Pose of Anpu (Peaceful Warrior Pose)
- The Maat Ka Sequence
- The Pose of Selkhet
- The Pose of Ausar
- The Pose of Geb
The YogaSkills Method
I have synthesized the practice of Kemetic Yoga into a system called the YogaSkills Method. YSM is based upon two concepts called Rule of Four Breathing (RFB) and Geometric Progression. RFB simply means that each breath should be mindfully divided into four parts: Inhalation, Pause, Exhalation, Pause. This is simply to allow the mind to stay focused and so that energy can move properly through the body. GP or Geometric Progression means that we are moving the body through postures in a manner that is consistent with physical and spiritual anatomy and that allows energy to flow through the channels (nadis).