Hemacandra was a court philosopher in one of India’s most famous kingdoms. His descriptions of Yoga give an early glimpse of its applications for health and spirituality, including one of the earliest descriptions of Hatha Yoga poses. He also devotes a significant amount of his text, the Yogashastra, to the practice of Pranayama, another hallmark of how Yoga continues to be practiced.
The Yoga Shastra of Hemacandra (11th century) gives extensive details on how to practice the five great vows of non-harm, truthfulness, honesty, continence, and property-lessness. According to Hemacandra, the practice of these five leads to liberation (pancabhih pancabhir yukta bhavanbhir vimuktaye).[i]
The Yogashastra also provides one of the earliest lists of actual Yoga poses, all of which entail asana in the literal sense of sitting (asana) or standing: paryankasana, virasana, vajrasana, abjasana, bhadrasana, dandasana, utkatikasana, godohikasana, and kayotsargasana.[ii] Detailed instructions are given for the performance of each. For instance:
The paryanka position conists of the lower part of the thighs being placed on the feet and the hands being placed near the navel pointing upwards (IV:125).
All the positions, except the last one, are seated postures, designed to facilitate extended periods of meditation. Hemacandra states:
Whichever posture is required for the mind to obtain steadfastness,
that very posture should be undertaken for the benefit of meditation (IV:134).
The Yogashastra describes the physical placement of lips, eyes, teeth, and countenance during meditation, and specifies that the meditator should face either east or north.[iii]
Kayotsarga, the last listed pose, carries a twofold distinction. First, it describes that the arms need to hang down (pramlambitabhujadvandam) and that one needs to stand in an attitude of equanimity toward the body (stanam kayanapeksam).[iv] Second, this pose, like the practice of the five vows, is said to deliver one into a state of bodily control:
When the body of an ascetic remains immobile as he dwells
in the posture called “abandoning the body” (kayotsarga)…
this is said to be control of the body (I:43).
Combined with the assiduous adherence to the five vows, along with equanimity and control of speech, these eight “bring up, protect, and purify the holy one’s body.”[v]
Hemacandra gives considerable attention to the five breaths, specifying their location and color. He also relates the breaths to the elements, along with their corresponding mantras.[vi] For Hemacandra, the mind and breath cannot be separated:
Where the mind is there is the breath,
and where the breath is there the mind is.
Accordingly, they both have the same activity,
mixed like milk and water (V:2).
If the practitioner of Yoga controls the breath, the mind comes under control, which is the key to liberation:
When one of the two ceases to function, the other also ceases.
When is active, the other is also active.
When both activities stop, liberation results
on account of the cessation of sensory impressions (V:3).
The centrality of breath in releasing one from discomfort and dissatisfaction (duhkha) cannot be overstated.
While the Yogashastra does not make specific health claims in regard to the performance of asana, it does make generalized statements about the health benefits of breath control. Two breaths in particular are said to be good for digestion and the healing of wounds: apana and samana. Because Western medical vocabulary does not contain correlate terms, it is helpful to examine Hemacandra’s descriptions of each:
Apana operates inside the nape of the neck,
the lower part of the back, the rectum and in the heels.
It is black and it is to be conquered through the process
of repeatedly filling and emptying the breath at every specific spot (V:16).
Samana is located in the heart, navel, and in all the joints of the body.
It is white and it is to be controlled through the process
of repeatedly emptying and filling the body
at every specific spot such as the heart (V:17).
When these two breaths are mastered, “wounds, fractures, etc. are healed, the digestive fire is kindled, excrement becomes a little less, and diseases are cured” (V:23). Hemacandra mentions other more general salubrious effects of pranayama:
In every part of the body where a person may have a harmful disease,
There one should continually employ the breaths of prana, etc.,
in order to cure it (V:25).
The author combines physical and emotional benefits of breath control, noting that through the breath one can gain “speedy movement and strength,” can cause fevers to disappear, can stave off “disease and ageing… diseases of the forhead and anger” (V:32-25).
The Yogashastra goes into great detail about using the breath for purposes of divining the time of death for both self and others. If one breathes solely through one nostril, it can predict death in six months or various other lengths of time depending upon the nostril and the duration. Breathing through the mouth can indicate “loss of friends and wealth, lack of vital power, and all kinds of misfortune” including diseases (V:77). Approximately 200 verses deal with using the breath and various omens such as dreams, palmistry, celestial events, animal portents, and inauspicious occurrences to determine the time of death.
The Yogashastra describes a mind-body continuum involving ethics, postures, breathing, and meditation. At the conclusion of the text, Hemacandra proclaims that “Once the practice [of Yoga] is completed and the spotless, undivided reality appears, the yogin, whose breathing has been entirely uprooted, shines, liberated (mukta)” (XII:46).
[i] The Yogasashtra of Hemacandra: A Twelfth Century Handbook on Svetambara Jainism. Translated by Olle Quarnstrom. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University, distributed by Harvard University Press, 2002. Verse I:19. P. 24.
[ii] Ibid., verses IV:124-136.
[iii] Ibid., verses IV:135-136.
[iv] Ibid., verse I:V 133.
[v] Ibid., verse I:45.
[vi] Ibid., chapter V.