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).
Naljor: A Buddhist Approach to Yoga
The current popularity of yoga stands at all time high in the 5,000 years of its existence. Numerous celebrity endorsements, features in mainstream media, and the proliferation of online resources have introduced millions of people to the potential benefits of a regular practice. As a consequence, people around the world are picking up yoga mats and heading down to their local studios for weekly rounds of sun-salutations and warrior’s poses in the hopes of achieving stress relief, balance and improvements in overall health and well being.
Of course, anyone who spends time on the mat realizes that yoga is about much more than just the poses. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras define yoga as a “cessation of vacillation of thought”. Other translations include “yoking” or “union”. That which must be yoked or harnessed, according to the late yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein “is attention, which ordinarily flits from object to object”. The ability to concentrate attention is what allows the yogi to work directly with the mind and ultimately to unify the lower self with the higher self.
The Golden Statue Wrapped in Rags
Tibetan Buddhist practitioners define yoga slightly differently than their Hindu counterparts. The word yoga, according to the Tibetan Buddhist Master Namkhai Norbu is rendered “naljor” in Tibetan. According to Norbu, “nal literally means original or authentic and jor means to discover or possess this condition. Accordingly, the meaning of naljor is to discover our real condition.”
The story of the “Golden Statue Wrapped in Rags”, which can be found in Arya Maitreya’s “Uttara Tantra”, illustrates this process of inner discovery through metaphor:
A god, having discovered by the road a precious [statue] of a Tathagata [Buddha] all wrapped in smelly tattered rags, would tell someone the fact of it lying there at the roadside, so that it might be recovered. Similarly, when the Buddhas, of unhindered vision, see the very substance of the Tathagatas [Buddhas] even in animals present but wrapped within the envelope of defilement, they also show the means by which it may be set free.
Encountering The Buddha Within
In Buddhist practice, there are many Buddhas, some male and some female. However, these Buddhas are not representative of an external God or object of worship – rather, they serve as a symbolic representation of our own inner potentialities for limitless wisdom, love and compassion. Collectively these qualities are known as our Buddha nature.
Our Buddha nature is pure and beautiful – much like a golden statue. When our mind is untroubled, our body is relaxed, and our breath is calm and quiet, we can sometimes even catch a glimpse of the Buddha within. As we come to rest in the quiet of our inner space, we quite naturally and spontaneously find ourselves able to feel more open, loving and able to see things from a broader perspective.
Unfortunately, the converse is also true. When we’re stressed out or threatened in some way, or when we have a lot of mental chatter, we can also see that we have the potential for hatred, obsessiveness, ignorance and many other destructive emotions within us. In many ways, these destructive emotions are very similar to a set of “tattered rags” that obscure our inner potentialities.
If these destructive emotions become strong enough, they can make it difficult to make meaningful contact with our Buddha nature. In fact, if our minds are deeply obscured by destructive emotions, those emotions can even make us forget that we, or others, have a Buddha Nature at all.
The Buddha is Present in Every Living Being
According to the metaphor, a God, or a Buddha has the divine vision and wisdom necessary to see that the mind of every living life form is ultimately pure. Supported by this vision, the gods and the Buddhas are able to see beyond our obscurations in order to ascertain our true inner value.
According to Tibetan Buddhist teacher Thrangu Rinpoche, the Buddhas in particular remind us that we should “remove the tattered rags so the Buddha nature can manifest in its complete purity”.
How Do We Uncover the Golden Statue?
In order to “remove the tattered rags”, a yogi or yogini in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition practices naljor. In this context, naljor (or yoga) refers to the methods employed during the process of purification. In order to be considered authentic, these purification practices have to come from an enlightened source – namely a Buddha that originally achieved enlightenment through their practice.
Naljor: A Diverse Set of Practices
The yoga utilized in naljor practice can generally be categorized in three separate ways.
Practices for the Body
Many emotional obscurations can be linked to energetic blockages and damage to our energetic channels (nadis). When a yogi or yogini experiences ill health emotional disturbances, or difficulties in meditation, physical asanas can be used to move energy and repair damage to the energy system. In my tradition, these techniques are called “Mangalam Yantra Yoga”. Some schools also refer to these techniques as “Trul Khor” or the magical wheel.
Practices for Speech
Breath is life and the wind that gives voice to our speech. As such, purification of speech is heavily dependent on conscious breathing exercises (Vayu Yogas) and the repetition of mantra.
Practices for the Mind
In naljor practice, meditation serves as one of the primary yogas used to purify the mind. At the initial stages of practice, one uses concentration to create a calm abiding state of mind (shamatha) to develop deeper insights into the true nature of the self and external reality (vipassana). In addition, naljor practitioners also use meditation to cultivate the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings (Bodhichitta). Typically, this is done by meditating on loving kindness, compassion and giving and taking (tong len).
At the higher stages of practice, a yogi/ni learns how to meditate directly on the Buddha within by visualizing themselves as a Buddha. It is said that by practicing visualization in this way, the immense qualities of the Buddha can arise within a practitioner within one single lifetime.
Yoga All Day Every Day
Naljor practices are designed to be fully integrated into all aspects of daily life. Some are practiced during waking hours, and others, such as dream yoga are practiced during sleep. Ultimately, when these techniques are blended with daily living, naljor becomes a 24-hour per day practice that can be extended over a lifetime.
By practicing in this way, every moment becomes an opportunity for positive transformation and awakening.
Does Buddhism Belong in a Yoga Class?
These days, most people associate yoga techniques with “Hindu” yoga practices. This is partly due to the fact that many of the modern yoga teachers responsible for popularizing the practice were Hindu practitioners, such as Parahahansa Yogananda, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. As a consequence, many people have come to think of yoga as a distinctly Hindu discipline.
While it’s true that many yoga practices can be traced to Hindu origins, there are also yoga practices with Jain and Buddhist roots. According to the contemporary Buddhist Master H.H. the Sakya Trizin, yogic practices were used by practitioners from both Buddhist and Hindu religions in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and reached their peak in India in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Fortunately, early yogic practitioners from Hindu and Buddhist lineages were not hindered by differences in their respective traditions. In fact, H.H. the Sakya Trizin states that “they were not interested in labels, any more that a nuclear physicist cares about his nationality when he compares notes with a foreign colleague.”
Since these practitioners were primarily interested in meditative realization, they regularly interacted with one another and regularly debated on the effectiveness of their methods and techniques. In fact, one of the earliest recognized figures in Hatha Yoga, the MahaSiddha Gorakshanath, is known to have practiced both Hindu and Buddhist yogas.
Thus, the exchange of ideas between Buddhist and Hindu yoga practitioners is nothing new and has been an accepted practice for centuries. In fact, it is widely known that T. Krishnamacharya himself, the teacher of both Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, traveled to Tibet in order to study yoga directly with a Tibetan Guru for over seven years in the early part of the 20th century.
Empowerment and Introduction to the Buddha Nature
Traditional naljor practices are typically done as a daily practice (sadhana). A sadhana is an incredibly powerful tool, and one of the most sophisticated methods of physical and psychological transformation ever taught. When practiced daily in its unaltered form, the potential for transformation, insight and healing that it unleashes is unparalleled.
Most sadhana practices are secret practices that are transmitted directly from a Buddhist meditation master (Vajra master) to a student in the form of a ritualized ceremony called an empowerment (abhishekha). During the empowerment, the Vajra master symbolically introduces a student to his or her Buddha nature, confers a mantra, and extends permission to undertake yoga practices associated with a particular Buddha or Buddha family.
Naljor-Inspired Yoga Practice
Traditionally, undertaking the empowerment ritual requires a formalized commitment to Buddhist practice and study, the undertaking of vows, and a commitment to serve the lineage from which the practice derives. This is not always possible for a number of reasons.
If you wish to explore a naljor practice inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, explore David’s four-video practice (coming soon).
Each video in the series begins with a simple breathing exercise to purify your speech, continues on to a set of simple physical poses designed to release physical blockages from your body and ends with a traditional meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to purify the mind.
Accessible Practices for Everyone
While the breathing exercises and physical practices contained in these videos are drawn from common, every day yoga techniques that you may be familiar with, the meditations themselves are drawn directly from Buddhist contemplations which can be found in many traditional sadhanas. Practicing these meditations requires no formal commitment, and their focus on the cultivation of very human qualities such as love and compassion makes them applicable to practitioners from all faith and backgrounds.
These profound contemplations will guide you through the process of mental purification and will connect to yourself and others in a genuine and meaningful way. Over time, these powerful practices will help you make contact with the Buddha within and will help you begin the process of uncovering the limitless love, compassion and wisdom that exists within all living beings.
May your practice bring you peace.