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).
Nada Yoga: The Yoga of Sound
The first time I went to India, little did I know that my life was going to completely change. I know, many people come back from India saying they transformed. It happened to me, too.
At that time, I was a singing student at the university in Montreal and was feeling blocked. My voice was weak and so was my morale. I heard that in India, before a concert, a singer would sometimes sing ‘om’ for almost one hour, reconnecting to their soul, before starting the performance. I became very intrigued. “Maybe I could also find a way to reconnect to my voice?” I thought to myself. I bought my airplane ticket and suspended my university studies for one semester.
I didn’t know where to go; India is huge! However, a whole series of coincidences brought me to my teachers and I started my journey. In my first class, one of them asked me to sing an “A” sound, which I did. He listened. After a few moments of silence, he said “You are not connected to your voice.” I smiled, as I thought to myself: “That is exactly why I came. I must be in the right place.”
That was the beginning of a fascinating adventure and my initiation into the Nada yoga tradition. I had no idea at the time that I would be touched in the depths of my soul, healed in places I didn’t even know needed healing. After a few months of studying with them, I came back home, and my voice was transformed and my career shifted unexpectedly. Above all, I came back humbled. Now, I spend half the year, every year since, studying in that country, deepening in this path and sharing this knowledge with people in the West.
What is Nada Yoga ?
Nada, from the Sanskrit “नाद”, means “sound”. Nada Yoga is the yoga of sound.
There are different ways in which you can explore sound on your yoga journey. While some Nada Yoga practices have been well documented and are mentioned in the sacred texts, other practices have only been passed from generation to generation, mostly as oral traditions.
Russill Paul is a contemporary Nada yogi who has written extensively on the subject, and who suggests a classification of four different branches of Nada Yoga. While this classification is not official, it helps explain the different aspects of this form of yoga.
Shabd and Shakti
The first two branches are called, according to Paul, Shabd Yoga and Shakti Yoga. Both focus on mantras and their mystical properties, but their origins and ways of practicing differ.
The third branch is called Bhakti Yoga. Bhakti means devotion. Bhakti Yoga is all about chanting devotional songs to connect to a space of grace.
The fourth branch of Nada Yoga, according to Russill Paul, is also called Nada Yoga. It uses pure sounds as a means of meditation. There are no mantras involved.
The last branch – the one in which I am specializing – overlaps with classical Indian music. Classical Indian music is a very complex, refined tradition. It is a deeply mystical art form, and although one can study this music without exploring Nada Yoga, one finds that the Nada Yoga journey lies at the very core of this art. So, a musician can develop a Nada Yoga sadhana (spiritual practice) along with their musical development.
Of course, it is not necessary to be a professional musician to benefit from these practices. I have taught Nada Yoga classes and workshops to people from varied backgrounds, and found we all can benefit greatly from it. Ultimately, this is not just an exotic form of yoga.
Nada yoga is about you and how you relate to yourself, how you inhabit your body, how you align your mind, how you express your soul.
Let me give you a taste of it. Since I’m specializing in the fourth branch mentioned above, and more specifically on voice, I will share with you a vocal exercise from that branch.
Aakar: A Singing Practice
Take a moment now. Sit in a comfortable position, ideally with the back straight. As you are reading this text, take a deep breath and scan your body: is there any tension anywhere? See if you can become a bit more aligned, a bit more relaxed in your posture. Take your time.
When you feel ready, take another deep breath, and let a simple /a:/ sound come, as in the word “spa”.
Listen to yourself as you sing this tone. Pay as much attention to the act of emitting a sound as to the act of listening to it.
Now, check in with yourself: are you afraid of expressing this sound? If yes, then see how it feels to take your space a bit more. Don’t force yourself to open up all at once. Just gently explore the possibility of taking more space around you with your voice.
Are you feeling tense, anxious? Can you hear that in your voice as well? Just observe and listen. Is your voice shaking? Let it shake. Do you feel frustrated that it is shaking? Let frustration be. Does it feel stuck? Let it be stuck. Discover the relief of allowing yourself to be, just as you are, right now.
So often in our lives we have to compromise, adjust, refrain, etc. But here you have an opportunity to create an inner temple for yourself. Give space to for your voice to be exactly as it is. Receive and give space to whatever comes up. But in your mind, remain focused, aware and equanimous. As you keep this neutral witnessing quality, you will notice that your voice will gradually settle down, open up and naturally realign itself.
Observe the Body
Continue breathing deeply, and calmly singing your “A” on the exhalations. Then, observe the body.
Keep watching your posture, so that it is aligned and keep listening to yourself. See if you can let your body become more open and relaxed, but not so relaxed that your sound becomes feeble. Find balance between tonus and relaxation. Look for that middle point. Now look at your shoulders, your neck. Necks tend to tense, especially when singing. See if you can relax that region.
Scan your chest, your face, your jaw, your eyes; bring release to these parts, too. Observe your belly and your hip area: these are areas where we often hold tension. Sing your ‘A’s as you focus respectively on each area, and bring some deeper tonus and relaxation to them. In more advanced states of practice, we can actually bring the sound vibrations to different parts of the body, but for now, let’s just focus on them, letting your voice open up as your body realigns itself.
As you explore this practice you will notice your mind wandering again and again. Bring it back, again and again. My teacher said something one time that I never forgot: “Mental power has to be developed gradually. It is not a matter of one to two hours, or one to two weeks… or even one to two years. Mental power has to be developed over a long time. What is mental power? The power to focus.”
So use this exercise as an opportunity to develop that. You will find that as you develop it, you start to reach deeper levels of perception, insight and peacefulness. It will also allow you to access deeper levels of the practice and open your voice even further.
As your mind settles you begin shining presence on your vocal expression, and it starts to transform. Imagine a channel that has been clogged for a long time. Once you pass some water through it, gently, over and over, slowly it starts to unclog. Likewise, your voice, totally welcomed as it is, united with your conscious presence and aligned posture and breath, becomes like water to your system. Slowly you are unblocking your inner pipe; you are realigning your system. With this exercise, you are peeling away, gradually, all these layers of subconscious blockages that we all carry around.
Much more could be said about Aakar practice, but this is a good introduction. If you are new to singing, practice up to 30 minutes at a time, as your vocal cords might get tired if you practice longer. Drinking water throughout your practice is also recommended to keep your throat hydrated. Now remember, breath work, body alignment and mental focus are the key aspects here. Without these the “yoga” aspect of this practice is gone.
Aakar can be very simple at first sight, but you might discover tremendous depth in it. It is one of the main exercises we do in the tradition I am studying. For in-depth work, it is recommended that you have an assisted practice, so that you can understand all the different ways in which you, personally (and often unconsciously), block your voice. But with this simple written explanation you can already benefit a lot.
The Power of Your Voice
Voice is such a great tool to guide us in our life quest, because it is a very loyal mirror of our inner reality. Our voices change every day, depending on how we feel, and how our bodies and minds are. In ancient traditional medicine systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Ayurveda, voice has been used as a tool of diagnosis. Just by listening to the voice the doctor can get information about the patient’s overall health condition.
We also can make the best use of this amazing tool, not only as a means of diagnosis like in these medicinal traditions, but as a guide to liberation. We can let our voices guide us into deeper alignment, emotional release, reconnection to our essence, mental clarity and inner peace.
It has been scientifically proven that the whole universe is made of vibrations. The ancient Indian scriptures actually affirm that the universe was created by sound. As you experiment with different Nada Yoga practices, maybe you will also find that sound is indeed a powerful doorway into the Great Mystery.
I wish you all happy explorations in your yoga journey.