Rain and Rhino

Love Letters from the Hermitage

The Fire Altar and the Altar of Practice

Most Ashtanga practitioners learn eventually that in its early days Ashtanga consisted of four series:

  • Primary Series
  • Second Series
  • Advanced A
  • Advanced B

Primary and Second Series were almost the same as they are now. The Advanced A and B series were each quite long, requiring at least two hours each to complete. Apparently at some point in the 1970’s Patabhi Jois created the Third through Sixth Series that we know today by subdividing Advanced A and B and adding a few new postures. Some of Jois’ earliest Western students still know and practice the original Advanced A and B series. Fearing that knowledge of the original Series might one day be lost, David William produced a poster of the original four series. David Swenson, David Williams and other friends made an inspiring video recording of their A and B Series practice.

It was in the little book Elements of Yoga by Godfrey Devereux that I found a very interesting account of the original four series of Ashtanga Yoga. Devereux drew a parallel between the the series and the Upanishadic “sheaths” or layers (Sanskrit: kośa) of the human person. The Sheaths, which are mentioned in several places in the Upanishads, are:

  • annamayakośa, the “Sheath consisting of food” is the “outermost” layer: it consists of the material body. Godfrey said that the purpose of the Primary series was to purify the annamaykośa and to integrate it into the next sheath.
  • prāṇamayakośa, the “Sheath consisting of [subtle] breath” is the second layer: it consists of the subtle or energetic body—prāṇa that flows through various channels. Godfrey said that the purpose of Second series is to purify the subtle body and to integrate it into the next layer.
  • manomayakośa, the Sheath consisting of manas mind, is the third layer: it consists of the “lower” mind—the part of us that processes sense-input, for example, without much in the way of conscious deliberation or direction on our part. Godfrey said that Advanced A purifies the mind-layer and to integrates it into the next layer. Given that Advanced A contains many of intricate arm balances of today’s Third Series, I always though the association made good intuitive sense!
  • vijñānamayakośa, the Sheath consisting of vijñāna,is the fourth layer. vijñāna is derived from the verbal root jñā, “to know”, and the verbal prefix vi that indicates separation or the drawing apart of things. Thus it comes to mean such things as “discernment”, “apprehension”, “investigation” and “understanding.” One might also call it “perception”, but if so it should be understood as a more deliberative and reflective activity than the perceptual activity of the machine-like manas. Godfrey said that advanced A was intended to purify this understanding-layer, and to integrate it into the layer beneath.
  • ānandamayakośa, the sheath consisting of ānanda, “bliss”, is the fifth and innermost layer. According to Godfrey the purification of the bliss-body is accomplished not through asanas but through the practice of higher limbs of Yoga, such as meditation. Upon purification the bliss-body, along with all the other layers of the human person which have been integrated into it, resolves into that which underlies everything—brahman, the Root of All.

The origin of the above correspondences are unknown: Deveraux might have heard them from BNS Iyengar, his Ashtanga teacher, or perhaps he came up with them on his own. Be that as it may, I have always found these connections intriguing—not because I have a literal belief in the five Sheaths, but because in my own experience the first few series of Ashtanga do appear, in my own practice over the years, to have addressed—I would not go so far as to say “purified”—roughly the parts of myself that answer to the first few sheaths. (I can’t speak to the correspondence between the understanding-layer and Advanced B, simply because I haven’t made it to very many of the asanas in that series; also, after years of meditation I am unable to report anything like a resolution of myself into Brahman!)

But another reason for my ongoing fascination with Series/Sheath correspondence comes from a study of the the Upanishadic passages in which the Sheaths are discussed, and from reading contemporary scholars of Vedic/Upanishadic lore.

Come along with me and have a look at the first few sections of the brahmavallī Chapter of the Taittariya Upanishad, where the five sheaths are discussed: perhaps you too will be intrigued.

The passage begins with a description of the outermost Sheath:

sa vā eṣa puruṣo ‘nnarasamayaḥ ।
tasyedameva śiraḥ । ayam dakṣiṇaḥ pakṣaḥ ।
ayamuttaraḥ pakṣaḥ । ayamātmā ।
idam puccham pratiṣṭā ॥

My translation (checked against that of Patrick Olivelle, The Early Upanishads: Annotated Text and Translation, Oxford University Press 1998) is as follows:

  • sa vā eṣa puruṣo ‘nnarasamayaḥ: “This here person is made of the essence of food.”
  • tasyedameva śiraḥ: “This is his head.” (Olivelle says that in the Upanishads the speaker, by way of explanation, would have pointed at his own body parts.)
  • ayam dakṣiṇaḥ pakṣaḥ: “This [is] the right side.” dakṣiṇaḥ pakṣaḥ is literally “southern wing” – the speaker would have been facing East, the standard position of one engaged in Vedic ritual.
  • ayamuttaraḥ pakṣaḥ: “This is the left side.” (uttaraḥ pakṣaḥ, is “northern wing”.)
  • ayamātmā: “This is his torso.” (Olivelle translates of ātman, “self” as “torso”.)
  • idam puccham pratiṣṭā: “This is [his] bottom [puccha, “tail”, [his] foundation.” (puccha, “tail”, is rendered here as “bottom.")

The use of bird-terminolgy is curious, but we’ll get to that later. For now let’s just summarize the other four sheaths. Each successive sheath is said to be “different from, and lying within”, the previous sheath, and it “suffuses” the previous sheath completely. Furthermore, it is sad that “since he has the appearance of a man”, each layer assumes a “man-like appearance”, having the same five bird-like parts. The five sheaths, with their parts, are as follows:

Sheath Head Right Wing Left Wing Torso Tail
Material This head Right Side Left Side Torso Bottom
Energetic Out-
Inter-Breath In-Breath The Aether Earth
Mind Yajur Veda Rig Veda Sama Veda Ritual Instruction Atharva Veda Hymns
Understanding   Faith The Correct The True The Ritual Performance The Festival
Bliss Pleasure Delight Thrill Bliss Brahman

If you would like to read a full passage—it’s worthwhile, as the description of each layer is capped by a numinous verse—you could consult this link: head to the Brahmavalli Chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad, roughly sections 2 through 6. Caveat: There is no indication that the site has permission to reproduce the entire Olivelle text!

The delineation of the five sheaths is typical of many Upanishadic passages, in that it attempts to forge connections between three different spheres of human experience:

  • the Cosmic Sphere, represented here by the Aether and the Earth, and perhaps by some other elements;
  • the Personal Sphere, represented here by the breaths, Faith and perhaps some other elements;
  • the Ritual Sphere, represented here by the four Vedas, ritual instruction, performance, the Festival (and possibly Faith, as traditionally understood to be accompanied by a strong intent toward sacrificial action)

In the Upanishadic Age the making of such esoteric connections helped practitioners experience Vedic ritual as deeply meaningful: salvific for the universe as well as for the individual person. In addition, the disposition to connect the ritual and personal spheres may have both explained and further enabled the move away from external Vedic sacrifice and toward asceticism and contemplation, since these latter practices could now be justified as interiorizations of the old rituals, producing their own inner Heat (tapas) as powerful and effective as any altar fire. In fact the drive to forge these connections is so pervasive that scholars now believe that in the Upanishadic texts the very term upaniṣad refers to an esoteric connection between a pair of elements from two distinct Spheres.

But the connections made in the the passage under study seem a bit ragged, and it does not help to try to understand them in terms of a connection between the Sheaths of the Personal Sphere and the series of an Ashtanga practice. That latter connection, after all, was made by Ashtangis in recent decades, not by Upanishadic sages. In order to make sense of the upaniṣads in our Taittariya passage, we have to think about that curious bird-imagery.

In an end-note, Olivelle provides the relevant clue: “the description of a man in this and the subsequent paragraphs relates also to the fire-altar built to resemble a bird with extended wings.” Indeed a reader in Upanishadic times would have instantly recognized the passage as describing the agnicayana, the Fire Altar that played a central role in much Vedic ritual and which was the focus of extensive esoteric speculation in the Brahamanas. This Fire Altar consisted of five layers of over 10,000 bricks, each layer in the shape of an eagle complete with head, wings, torso and and tail. The head of the Fire Altar always faced East, so the Southern Wing would literally have been on its right side and the Northern Wing on its left. Hence expression such as “this here person” in our passage may be understood not only as referring to the human speaker but also referring to a literal Fire Altar to which the speaker is pointing. Thus the passage suggests a coherent connection between the Personal Sphere (the five Sheaths) and the Ritual Sphere (the five layers of the Fire Altar).

But the reader in ancient times would also have been familiar with other connections, adumbrated in earlier texts such as the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, between the Ritual Sphere in the form of the Fire Altar and the Cosmic Sphere. The detailed prescriptions for the building of the Fire altar inevitably call to mind a creation myth from the Rig Veda, in which the world comes into being from the dismemberment of an Original Person. Indeed, when Prajāpati—the creator deity of Vedic lore—made the world, he was “exhausted” (vyāśramsata, literally “fallen apart” into multiplicity), and lived on as five separate “bodies”: hair, skin, flesh, bone and marrow. The five layers of the fire altar are connected to the five pieces of Prajapati, so that in assembling the Fire Altar the sacrificer is restoring Prajapati to wholeness, and—since, as the text discusses at considerable length, the sacrificer integrates himself into the Altar—saving himself, too. (See Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 6.1.1 for the account of Prajāpati’s falling-apart and his eventual reconstituion through the Fire-Sacrifice.)

So when taken in combination the various Fire Altar texts set forth an elaborate set of connections by which we may understand that participation in the ritual of Fire Altar unites “all of the worlds”—Personal, Ritual and Cosmic—in a single coherent action that restores and heals—in all Spheres and on all levels. The modern connection—the modern “upaniṣad”, you might say—between Ashtanga practice and the five Sheaths in essence identifies Ashtanga practice as a new Fire Altar, albeit an interior one. This identification resonates, I think, with the inchoate sense that many practitioners have of the Practice as rejuvenating in a way that addresses the whole person and that seems also to extend beyond the individual to the healing of the world at large. In Upanishadic parlance (where veneration, upāsana, of X as Y expresses one’s knowledge of the esoteric connection between the two of them) we might say that “one should venerate the fiery Ashtanga Practice as the Fire Altar itself.”

I do not mean to imply that that simply because the modern Sheath/Series upaniṣad resonates deeply in one’s personal experience that it thereby must have been handed down from ancient times though a lineage, nor less that it proves some real connection between a private practice and the healing of the world, especially if such a practice never ensues in direct acts of service and justice. Modern scholarship suggests that connections in the form of views and practices that pass down essentially unchanged through unbroken lineages are not likely to be met with. And we have no reason to believe that a deep feeling of connection generates a real connection ipso facto. No, the connection here arises from reflection upon one’s own lived experience of spiritual practice, and is enhanced by an attempt to encounter the old texts on their own terms as much as possible: it consists in the discovery that we are not alone in our longings. We come to our practice out of a deeply-rooted desire for restoration and wholeness, and hopefully also a desire to include the world in our own healing through a total commitment of ourselves to our practice. To discover that others living in a much earlier time and operating out of very different world views nevertheless had similar longings is the perhaps the deepest upaniṣad of them all, and to realize such a connection is to greatly expand one’s understanding of what it means to be human.

The Fire Altar practice—in the sense of an integration and restoration of the Personal and Cosmic Spheres in a coherent Ritual act—can be thought of as an archetype, and as such we can expect to find manifestations of it not only in ancient times but also here and now. To recognize, appreciate and emulate these other manifestations will further deepen our “upanishadic” connection with the human family.

In light of this would be very worthwhile at some point to think about non-violent civil disobedience in the tradition of social activists such as Mohatma Gandhi—as particularly compelling modern manifestations of Fire Altar Practice. If we were to reflect on the iconic acts of civil disobedience in the past century—Gandhi’s Salt March, the march to Selma, Plowshares Actions for nuclear disarmament, etc.—then I think we would be able to identify the Fire Altar elements of ritual action, personal sacrificial commitment on the part of the activist, and a connection between the action and the healing of the world at large that is experienced by the activist as essential to her own healing and liberation. Gandhi himself was said to be a great karmayogin—it may well be that the social activists are some of the greatest yogis of our day.