Dan Clement of Indigo Yoga invited Carlos Pomeda to Vancouver this last weekend to present a talk on the history of Yoga and more specifically the Spanda Karikas. I have seen Carlos on his wonderful DVD series , The Wisdom of Yoga, and I had the pleasure of meeting him once in person in Japan last year. I was struck by his approach to the material, which though still academic, was so accessible and dynamic. Carlos has not only practical knowledge, gained during almost 18 years as a monk of the Sarasvati order, 9 of which he spent in India in the Siddha Yoga Ashram, but he is an academic scholar too. He holds two Masters’ degrees: one in Sanskrit from UC Berkeley and another one, in Religious Studies, from UC Santa Barbara. He is currently working on his Ph.D. These are not just old texts that he has learned to recite and decipher, but he is actually living, and loving, their teachings. Carlos’ enthusiasm is only matched by his complete sincerity.
The first night Carlos gave us a lecture on the history of Yoga and cleared away some common misunderstandings. Basically if it could not be proven through archaeological means, or was not in the old texts, then it cannot be proven and therefore we must not assume or infer things that were simply not there. Coming from a background as a social historian, I totally appreciated this approach. Carlos and I had a chat during one of the breaks about how the winner is the one who gets to write history. I told him how Japan’s name is like that- the one with written language got to write history in that case. The name for Japan is “Nihon” or “Nippon” two Chinese characters put together that mean origin of the sun…land of the rising sun. Chinese characters were brought by traders and buddhist monks from China around the 5th Century and they gave the name “nihon“- because from a Chinese perspective the sun rises in the direction of Japan. The character for China however is two characters that mean middle country ” Chu–koku“- as China was the center of the world from their perspective. The Japanese word for their country was actually “Yamato“. Similarily, colonialism has effected India’s own history having been first interpreted by Westerners and then re-interpreted by post colonial India trying to reclaim their history.
Carlos explained that most of us would think Yoga was Vedic, as coming from the Vedas, but in actuality many of the practices we think of as yogic, such as meditation and tapas, were not in the Vedas. These practices came from other groups known as Shramanas which contained Buddhism and Jainism among the surviving forms. Meditation as a practice doesn’t really show up until the Upanashads. This change seems to come from an eastern movement of the Vedas into areas where more Shramanas lived and you start to hear in the texts terms like “moksha” and “karma”- terms never seen in the early Vedas.
We then did a common meditation style which was to focus on one point. Carlos noted how many texts said to meditate “on the tip of ones nose” but how Abhinavagupta– considered one of the most reknown scholars of Kashmir Shaivism- said, ” Tip yes- but the other end of the tip” which then places the meditation point right between your eyes- the so-called “third” eye. Interesting isn’t it? So at that point of the lecture we then practiced a meditation of focus on that point. I loved this. All through the weekend every time a way to practice was brought up in the Spanda Karikas we would try it. This wasn’t just about reading the texts and understanding them at an intellectual level; it was an understanding on a personal level. All weekend rather than trying to just understand the words, I began to want to understand what that meant to me as a practioner. You can be a student , but to be a student and a practioner is a whole other level. I mean, imagine in university if every time I read a chapter of a Japanese Bunraku play I pulled out the puppets and performed it? That is just a whole other depthof knowledge; it becomes cellular. I know that is how we learn in asana but I didn’t think to apply it to philosophy and history. I don’t know if Carlos just teaches this way as natural manifestation of his personality, or if it is something he has cultivated over time as a teacher, but it truly brings a richness to the teachings. He also laughs a lot- I think we all liked that.
By the end of Friday night, we were firmly seated in where Tantra fit into this timeline and what new innovations it brought to yoga. The three major ones are : hatha yoga, kundalini and mantra. The physical asana part of yoga is therefore actually Tantric in historical development. We started the next morning by placing the Spanda Karikas in their historical context and then began to learn them one at a time. We covered 19 ( not in order) of the Karikas in four three-hour sessions.
The Spanda Karikas were written around the 9th century by Vasugupta from the Spanda school of Tantra. Spanda means ” vibration” or “pulsation”. The Spanda school’s approach to reality then is that everything is vibration: prana, mind, body. That means then that we can potentially connect to the source of that pulsation- the Absolute- by using anything… because everything is Spanda. Sounds simple dosen’t it? But it’s not.
First of all the Karikas are stanzas written in poetic metre called slokas. Thirty-two syllables per sloka written in two lines of 16 and sung in 4 groups of eight syllables. Each Karika is a complete idea. Carlos brought to our attention the genius of Vasugupta. The author had to: convey the teaching, convey the practice, argue against rival viewpoints to win practioners, kept the teachings secretive to the uninitiated, and do it all in metered form in 32 syllables. As Carlos said, “WOW! Amaz–ing!”
At first it was so hard to even grasp what the key idea was in each Karika, but Carlos showed us how to simplify it and get the essence and then work from there. The first one we all really struggled with, but as Carlos helped us decipher the text ( for example what was meant when the author said “That” and “This”- “that” refering to the transcendental and “this” referring to the material world) things became clearer. Revealing how the entire teaching was summarized in the first Karika– the invocation- Carlos made some really great comments on why we do an invocation. His comments the first night were, “Remembrance of the teachers and the teachings” and ” To open our heart and mind to be in a receptive state of mind” but the one he added during the discussion of the first Karika was “An invitation to practice“. I think Christina Sell might have said that once but it resonated with me again and my students will now hear it on a regular basis.
Carlos provided us his own translations of the Karikas but if you are studying them on your own I would recommend two books: Mark Dyczkowski’s Stanzas on Vibration and Jaideva Singh’s Spanda-Karikas: The Divine Creative Pulsation. There are other books out there but these two are the best, most accurate and complementary.
To go through all of Carlos’ humorous and insightful teachings on here would take more time than I have at the moment ( because now I really want to meditate and study more) and I want all of you to have some curiousity about what he has to offer, but there are some key points of the weekend that I would like to leave you with.
1) Learning hard things can be fun if you have a good teacher. Study with Carlos and you will see what I mean.
2) Know the source of the material you are reading. What is their background, what is their bias, what type of scholar are they?
3) Tantra opens up the possibility for everyone to meditate- you just have to find the right meditation
4)There is no such thing as a bad meditation (ok- this was HUGE for me)
5) You cannot uplift others if you are not uplifted yourself
6)You do not have to give up your life and who you are to be a sincere practitioner– we just need to polish the ruff bits ( I don’t have to be the quiet girl…just listen better!)
I hope that all of you will get a chance to study with Carlos Pomeda in the future. After one short weekend I can feel the shift in my practice. The shift is Spanda, I am Spanda and all these vibrations “are waves to ride back to the source”. I am going to meditate now.