Ganga, Yamuna, & Saraswati
The images of river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna (Jamuna in Hindi) often flank the entrances of Hindu temples. Just as the sacred Ganges River flows from its source in the Himalayas to irrigate its plains, so has Mother Ganga descended from Heaven to give life to the dead and purify the living — whether virtuous or sinful.
At Allahabad, west of Varanasi, the Ganges joins her sister river, the Yamuna. When Yama, Yamuna’s twin brother, was banished by their step-mother to rule the underworld as the god of Death, Yamuna’s tears of grief formed the Yamuna River. By bathing in the Yamuna River one is spared a painful death.
The confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers is defined as a tri-veni, triple braid, because it also joins with the long-ago dried up Saraswati River. The serene river goddess Saraswati also represents purification, as well as the path of jnana, knowledge, that leads to Self-Realization. Her “waters” are transformative, carrying the pilgrims from bondage to liberation.
Ganges, Yamuna, & Saraswati: Ida, Pingala, & Sushumna Nadis
The yoga sadhaka (practitioner) is an internal pilgrim who immerses himself in these sacred qualities of the river — purification, compassion, and enlightenment. This internal ritual is expressed in B.K.S. Iyengar’s statement, “The body is my temple. The asanas are my prayers,” an expression of the macrocosm of the universe within the microcosm of the body:
In the tantric physiology of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the Saraswati rivers are metaphorically recreated in the ida (left), the pingala (right), and the sushumna (center) nadis, the three main channels in the spinal cord. Ida terminates at the left nostril and corresponds to the coolness of the moon. Pingala terminates at the right nostril and corresponds to the warmth of the sun. The sushumnanadi terminates at the top of the head.
Furthermore, as the river flows from the mountain to the sea, the internal geography of the nadis embodies a specific physical direction; that direction determines the flow of practice towards involution, and ultimately, enlightenment:
HYP III.109 Between Ganga and Yamuni lies Balaranda [“young widow”], a tapasvini [ascetic]. She should be seized by force. That [leads to] the supreme seat of Vishnu [her spouse].
HYP III.111 That sleeping serpent (Kundalini) should be awakened by seizing her tail. Then, that Shakti, throwing off her sleep, rises up with force [of hatha].
Union of Shiva and Shakti in Tantric Metaphysics
Besides the Saraswati River analogy, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika employs other analogies to describe the function of the sushumnanadi — Balaranda, Kundalini, and Shakti. References to deities, such as Shiva and Shakti, are actually rare in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika; their personifications portray the principle of tantric correspondences common to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as opposed to a strictly parochial theology.
In tantric cosmology, the entire universe is sustained by the union of two fundamental forces, Shiva and Shakti. Shakti represents the ancient Samkhya concept of prakrti (nature). She seeks union with her consort Shiva, or purusha (Self). Without Shakti’s power, the pure consciousness of Shiva is but a shava (corpse). Thus, when this text was composed in the fifteenth century, the “union” of Shiva and Shakti was emphasized.
“For tantric metaphysics, both Hindu and Buddhist, the absolute reality… contains in itself all dualities and polarities, but reunited, reintegrated in a state of absolute Unity (a-dvaya [literally, “non-duality”]). The creation, and the becoming that arose from it, represent the shattering of the primordial unity and the separation of the two principles (Shiva-Shakti, etc.); in consequence, man experiences a state of duality (object-subject, etc.) — and this is suffering, illusion, ‘bondage.’ The purpose of tantric sadhana [practice] is the reunion of the two polar principles within the disciple’s own body.”
Even Patanjali’s dualist yoga embraces aspects of this underlying unity — such as the “macrocosm embodied in the microcosm” of the body — that is so prevalent in Indian thought.
Balaranda Seeks Vishnu: Tapasvini Seeks Purusha
The reverse flow of the Saraswati River towards its source, representing yogic involution towards the Seer, requires great effort. In the “young widow” analogy, Balaranda’s longing for “union” with her dearly departed “spouse,” Vishnu, drives her to practice her tapas, or austerities.
In yoga practice, tapas begins with the steadfast, “effort, energy, and enthusiasm to still the mind”— the definition of abhyasa, practice, in the Yoga Sutras. Ultimately tapas evolves into a dharma (duty); only when practice has reached its most-refined state can the then completely purified chitta (mind) “unite” with purusha, the Seer.
In this union, Lord Vishnu’s purity corresponds to a pristine state of being at the vi-suddhi [literally, “complete-purification”] chakra in the throat region. We believe that what B.K.S. Iyengar has written about the purification of prakrti through its association with purusha in the Yoga Sutras applies here to Balaranda’s “union” with Vishnu:
“[Practice] takes prakrti to its pristine state, bringing an end to the appearance of the seer [purusha] as a distorted or sullied entity. At this state the prakrti adores the purusha, and the purusha adorns the prakrti with purity.”
That Balaranda must be “seized by force” [balatkarena grihniyat] to consummate the “union” refers to hatha yoga requiring willpower and tapas to redirect the chitta (mind) towards enlightenment. In the language of our first metaphor, the waters of the Saraswati River carry the pilgrim from bondage to liberation by reversing the flow of the Saraswati River.
Flow of Kundalini Shakti & Prakrti Shakti
As the Saraswati River requires an unobstructed flow, so does the Kundalini Shakti require a straight path to ascend in the sushumna nadi. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika verses III.110-111 cited above, Shakti in the body exists in a kunda, a bowl or pot, at the base of the spine. Thus, Shakti is the potential energy personified by the coiled serpent Kundalini. According to B.K.S. Iyengar, “kundalini is a divine cosmic energy (divyashakti) in a latent form.” It is “a power of pure intelligence.”
As we stated at the outset, tantra’s embodiment of internal geography requires a specific direction to achieve enlightenment: To this end, certain mudras and bandhas “straighten out” the sushumnanadi so that the coiled serpent Kundalini, when struck, straightens itself out, like a staff. From this we have derived that, along with purification of chitta, an actual physical alignment is necessary to straighten the spine to allow the kundalini shakti to ascend.
Fifteen hundred years earlier, the Yoga Sutras described the same latent Shakti using different terminology: “According to Patanjali,” writes Guruji Iyengar, “prakrti [nature] has divine power (shakti)” that can afford a transformation in one’s state — described as prakrti-apurat (nature-inflow) in Yoga Sutra IV.2, below. Normally this prakrti shakti (nature power) is veiled by vikrti (a distortion of prakrti, such as illness) shakti in the unenlightened:
PYS IV.2 jati-antara parinamah prakrti-apurat
In tantric physiology, upon enlightenment, the uncoiled, kundalini ascends through the chitra nadi, a divine but not physical nadi, that resides in the seat of the soul (atmasthana) at the spiritual heart. One end of the nadi extends down to the reproductive organ, the other up to the Brahmarandhra, the “aperture of Brahma” at the crown of the head above the sahasra chakra; it is located at the very center of the susumna nadi. The chitra nadi shines with the luster of AUM, and is pure intelligence (shuddha-bodha-svarupa), from which jnana is derived. In turn, the Brahma nadi is inside the chitra nadi.
However, kundalini shakti does not ascend in the common man: “In reality, only true saints have had their kundalini awakened by divine grace.”
Prakrti: Efficient Cause in Patanjali Yoga Sutras
Just as ritual bathing in a sacred river liberates and energizes the pilgrim, so does yoga sadhana liberate the Seer and energize the yogi. Most commentators interpret the parinama (transformation) cited in Yoga Sutra IV.2 with a focus on reincarnation: they believe that the repository of past kleshas (causes of suffering), samskaras (imprints), and virtuous or vicious actions become the “efficient cause” of the new body. Then prakrti (nature) “fills in” or “impenetrates” (apura) the new form.
But, as Guruji Iyengar points out, “A true yogi will never think of an incarnation.” Instead the sadhaka (dedicated practitioner) seeks precision, purity, and perfection in practice — what were characterized as “divine” qualities in ancient times.
The effect of prakrti-apura (nature-inflow) is that “The energy in a perfect yogi flows abundantly… everywhere in the body.” Shifting the focus to the power of prakrti shakti redirects the emphasis of the sutra from the effect of reincarnation to its cause — which is the subject of the next sutra:
PYS IV.3 Nimitta (efficient cause) does not impel prakrti (nature) into motion. It only removes the obstacles, like a farmer (irrigating a field: nature impenetrates by itself when the hindrances are removed).
Whereas the Hatha Yoga Pradipika requires a physical prerequisite — uncoiling the sushumna nadi — to activate potential kundalini shakti, Patanjali bases yoga on a more broadly inclusive behavioral purification necessary for liberation. “Efficient cause” is purging the a-dharma (vice) that obstructs the flow of prakrti: prakrti can then supply that energy. Sage Vyasa, in his commentary on Yoga Sutra IV.3, posits that dharma (virtue) pierces [bheda] the veil of a-dharma (vice). When dharma suppresses a-dharma, it is compared to weeding the field so that the crop may sustain itself. Swami Hariharananda explains that when a-dharma, which is hostile to prakrti, is destroyed, “the innate prakrti [impelled by purusha, the Self] will impenetrate the organ and shape it.” The key concept is that purusha is the underlying cause because, as Yoga Sutra II.18 states, “[prakrti] exists eternally to serve purusha.”
Yoga Sutras IV.2-3 explain how asana practice “builds strength.”
When I was young, I watched Guruji Iyengar perform Adho Mukha Svanasana for fifteen minutes in his daily practice without breaking a sweat. I assumed it required great physical strength, as I could stay in the asana for barely three minutes.
Decades later, I have come to understand how the yogin cultivates his “field” of body and mind like a farmer to accrue that strength: He skillfully removes the obstacles or “irrigates his field” by “piercing the dyke” of a-dharma, to channel the flow of prakrti, nature’s energy, into him. The resulting impenetration forms the asana.
Although it takes many years of gross physical effort to perfect asana, there are incremental signs of the impenetration of prakrti along the way — it’s easier to hold the correct pose for a longer period of time, with less fatigue. Whether the lack of fatigue is a result of correct “spacing and placing,” or improved circulation that comes with mechanical alignment, it was historically subsumed under the spiritual mystery of “union.” And, by the way, this impenetration of prakrti fundamentally distinguishes asana from calisthenics, which are initially weakening.
In Brick Setubandha, the jalandhara bandha acts as a “dyke” both to prevent the outflow of energy, as well as to specifically direct the flow of energy within. It’s easy to feel the flow of energy into the throat region when it descends and relaxes to the sides, just as the energetic Balaranda reunited with Vishnu at the throat area. The inflow of prakrti creates space that is described as shunya, void, in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Often we think of the ida, pingala, and sushumnanadis (channels) only in pranayama, but they also play a part in asana practice. The following instruction helped me understand the correct action in Adho Mukha Svanasana some twenty years ago. Although it employs the imagery of the three rivers, one should not presume that it can uncoil the latent kundalini shakti.
Three Rivers of the Spine: Adho Mukha Svanasana
- Supporting the crown of the head on a brick, stretch the arms and paraspinal muscles, Ganga on the left and Yamuna on the right, up towards the sacrum to first lengthen the torso. (The spine must first be elongated to facilitate the uncoiling of the kundalini shakti.)
- Then allow the spine itself, the River Saraswati, which is silent and runs underground, to lengthen and descend towards the head without losing the lift of the paraspinals. Without lifting the head, lengthen the arms by lifting the triceps to maintain the length and lift of the torso.
- These actions also apply to Sirsasana. Similarly, the spine must also maintain its extension without shrugging the shoulders in Paschimottanasana and Ustrasana, etc.
Concluding Thoughts on Kundalini Shakti
As we have explored, the analogy of the rivers-representing-nadis is based on an understanding of tantric metaphysics; how to direct the energy is based on Patanjali’s view of cause and effect. B.K.S. Iyengar’s unique insight is that precision, purity, and perfection in practice can direct that inflow of energy into the body, despite pre-existing samskaras [“impressions” that cause limitations]. This not only gives us hope, but also provides us with the tools to relieve our own suffering.
© Bruce M. Roger 2014
B.K.S. Iyengar, Core of the Yoga Sutras: the Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga, London: HarperThorsons, 2012.
B.K.S. Iyengar, “Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga: London 8-29-87 Lecture,” Astadala Yogamala v.2, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2001.
B.K.S. Iyengar, Iyengar, His Life and Work, Timeless Books, Porthill, Idaho, 1987.
B.K.S. Iyengar, “Pearls of Yogic Wisdom,” Astadala Yogamala v.1, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2000.
B.K.S. Iyengar, “Section V — Kundalini,” Astadala Yogamala v.7, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2008.
B.K.S. Iyengar, “The Guru Who Is Just A Family Man,” Astadala Yogamala v.4, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2004.
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama, New York: Crossroad, 1994.
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993.
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, New York: Schocken Books, rev 1979.
B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Decennary Celebrations [typed manuscript], Pune: RIMYI, 1985.
Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, SUNY Press, Albany, N.Y. 1983.
Carol Cavanaugh, “Interview with Dr. S.V. Karandikar,” Iyengar Yoga Institute Review (of San Francisco), Vol. 4, No. 3; February 1984.
Columbia University, Photo of Descent of Ganga bas-relief, Mahabalipuram, ca. 7th c. C.E.: <http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routesdata/0600_0699/mamallapuram/descent/descentmod2.jpg>
Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Princeton: Bollingen Foundation / Princeton University Press, 1958. rev. 1970.
Srinivasa Iyangar, The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama with Commentary Jyotsna of Brahmananda, Madras: Adyar Library and Research Center, The Theosphical Society, 1893. Revised 1972. Because I have not found a downloadable version of this, I have listed Sinh’s translation, below.
Pancham Sinh, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Delhi: Sri Satguru Publ., (Allahabad, 1915). Reprinted 1984. <https://archive.org/details/HathaYogaPradipika-SanskritTextWithEnglishTranslatlionAndNotes>
Michael W. Meister, “Yoga as Architecture: Yoga and Visual Culture,” Freer and Sackler Galleries: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, November 22, 2013: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PzCKBQtpwao&list=PLC8Yzyqd-urBN0GhecAovLvE1jh7PrNH->
 Political historians believe that the motives of the Rashtrakuta kings — who built the Ellora cave temples from 600-1000 CE, having conquered a 650,000 square mile area from the Gangetic plains in the north to the southern tip of India — concentrated more on establishing their southern geographical legitimacy by including carvings of the northern deities Ganga and Yamuna than just representing purification and compassion.
 Allahabad is the site of an annual winter mela, convocation of pilgrims, that extends back at least 2000 years. Every twelve years, when the underground Saraswati River “rises to the surface” to join her sister rivers, the great kumbha mela occurs, attracting thirty million bathers seeking to wash away their sins and liberate themselves from rebirth. The celebration is named for the kumbha, or pot, that contained amrita, the nectar of immortality. When the gods and demons battled for the pot of nectar, four drops splashed to earth — at the sacred sites of Prayaga (Allahabad), Nashik, Hardwar, and Ujjain.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Iyengar, His Life and Work, Timeless Books, Porthill, Idaho, 1987. P.495
 “In the Kala-cakra-tantra the Buddha revealed [in 880 B.C.E.]… that the cosmos is contained in man’s own body.” Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970. P. 204
 Brahmananda Jyotsna III.53 The five srotas (subtle channels) are the many nadis — ida, pingala, sushumna, gandhari, etc., which stand for the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Narmada, etc.
“Here, within the body, is the Ganges and the Jumna,” is first attributed to Sarapada (c. 900 C.E. founder of the Mahamudra sect of Vajrayana Buddhism and the first poet in Oriya): Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Princeton: Bollingen Foundation / Princeton University Press, 1958. rev. 1970. P. 227, citing S. Dasgupta, Obscure Religious Cults, Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1995.
 During the fourth century C.E. tantra gained popularity with ascetics and yogins, becoming a pan-Indian vogue from the 6th century onward: “In a comparatively short time, Indian philosophy, mysticism, ritual, ethics, cosmology, and even literature were influenced by tantrism. It was a pan-Indian movement, for it was assimilated by all the great Indian religions and by all the ‘sectarian’ schools. There is a Buddhist tantrism [c. 400 C.E.] and a Hindu tantrism…. Jainism too accepts certain tantric methods, and strong tantric influences can be seen in Kashmirian Shaivism, in the great Panchratra movement (c. 550), in the Bhagavata Purana (c. 600), and in other Vishnuist devotional schools.” Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970. P. 201
 Eliade writes, “… for the first time in the spiritual history of Aryan India, the Great Goddess acquired a predominant position. Early in the second century of our era, two feminine divinities made their way into Buddhism: Prajna-paramita… an incarnation of Supreme Wisdom, and Tara, the epiphany of the Great Goddess of aboriginal India. In Hinduism the Shakti, the “cosmic force,” was raised to the rank of Divine Mother who sustains not only the universe and all its beings, but also the various manifestations of the gods.” Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970. P. 202
 B.K.S. Iyengar, “Pearls of Yogic Wisdom,” Astadala Yogamala v.1, Mumbai: Allied Publ., 2000 P. 261
 In this context, the desire for “union” with God represents a pan-Indian ideal. It can be compared to the Christian saying, “He’s gone to meet his Maker in Heaven,” a euphemism for death. Although derived from Christian theology, it symbolizes the death of a “good” person. Agreement that he led an exemplary life is not contingent upon accepting specific theological principles of Judgment, creation, or Heaven.
 Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970. P. 206
At the 1984 Annual Day at RIMYI, Guruji Iyengar had me explain the polarities of yin and yang from Taoist philosophy. He then compared them to the ida and pingalanadis.
 VB I.13 Absence of fluctuations (vrittis) or undisturbed calmness (santa) of mind is called sthiti, or tranquillity. The effort (prayatna), the energy (virya) and the enthusiasm (utsaha)… for attaining that state is called abhyasa, practice.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Core of the Yoga Sutras: the Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga, London: HarperThorsons, 2012. P. 113-116 Cites PYS III.13, III.56.
In Patanjali’s dualist yoga, chitta can not actually “unite” with purusha, even though it may appear to be a beautiful sentiment. Instead, when chitta becomes so refined and so pure, it no longer obscures the light of purusha. Having fulfilled its function, chitta is reabsorbed into mahat, the universal intelligence from which it evolved. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika uses a non-dualist Vedanta analogy to explain the absorption of the mind into sat-chit-ananda: HYP IV. 59 The mind dissolves like camphor in fire and like salt in water. HYP IV.61 … absorbed [into sat-chit-ananda; a synonym for Brahman], only atma remains behind….
 HYP IV.70 When the Brahma granthi (“knot” in the heart; in the anahata chakra) is pierced (bhedo ) through by pranayama, then a sort of happiness is experienced in the shunya (void) of the heart…. See PYS III.35 By samyama on the hrdaye (heart), (the yogi acquires a) thorough knowledge of chitta.
HYP IV.73 When the Vishnugranthi (“knot” in the throat; the visuddhi chakra) is pierced (bhedat ) [by the union of prana and apana, or jivatman and paramatman] there is… supreme bliss. See PYS III.31 Samyama on the kantha kupa (pit of throat)… conquers hunger and thirst and results in sthairyam (stability).
HYP IV.76 When the Rudra [Shiva] granthi is pierced, and the [prana] enters the seat of the Lord (the akasha space between the eyebrows in the ajna chakra), then the perfect sounds like that of a flute and vina are produced. See PYS III.33 Samyama on the murdha jyoti (light of the crown of head)… results in visions of siddhas (perfected beings).
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Core of the Yoga Sutras: the Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga, London: HarperThorsons, 2012. P. 46
 seized by force…: Reversing the natural downward flow of a river requires great effort. It reverses the pra-vrtti marga path of evolution and leads to the ni-vrtti marga path of involution.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, “Section V — Kundalini,” Astadala Yogamala v.7, Mumbai: Allied Publ., 2008 P. 223, 236
 HYP III.11-12 Contract the throat [kanthe bandham; e.g. Jalandhara Bandha in Mahamudra] and hold the breath (vayu), directing it upward (urdhvata through sushumna nadi). In the same way a serpent that is beaten with a stick takes the form of a stick [danda-hatah sarpo danda-akarah prajayate]…. so does Kundalini shakti becomes straight at once [rijvi-bhuta… sahasa]. Then the other two nadis (ida and pingala) become lifeless (because the prana has gone out of them). [Some have suggested that removal of prana from ida and pingala is metaphor for the cessation of duality, not actually death itself.]
 B.K.S. Iyengar, “Section V — Kundalini,” Astadala Yogamala v.7, Mumbai: Allied Publ., 2008 P. 223, 236
 B.K.S. Iyengar, “Section V — Kundalini,” Astadala Yogamala v.7, Mumbai: Allied Publ., 2008 P. 226-27
 Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970. P. 238
 B.K.S. Iyengar, “Section V — Kundalini,” Astadala Yogamala v.7, Mumbai: Allied Publ., 2008 P. 236
 B.K.S. Iyengar, “The Guru Who Is Just A Family Man,” Astadala Yogamala v.4, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2004 P. 78
 B.K.S. Iyengar, “Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga: London 8-29-87 Lecture,” Astadala Yogamala v.2, Mumbai: Allied Publishers, 2001 P. 140
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: 1985 Decennary Celebrations [typed manuscript], Pune: RIMYI. P. 56
 Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, SUNY Press, Albany, N.Y. 1983 P.349
 Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, SUNY Press, Albany, N.Y. 1983 P.349. impenetrate the organ and shape it: organ collectively refers to the body, mind, intellect, and senses.
 Carol Cavanaugh , “Interview with Dr. S.V. Karandikar,” Iyengar Yoga Institute Review (of San Francisco), Vol. 4, No. 3; February 1984, p. 4
 HYP IV.73 When the Vishnugranthi (“knot” in the throat; the vishuddhi chakra) is pierced (bhedat ) [by the union of prana and apana, or jivatman and paramatman] there is… supreme bliss.
 B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, New York: Schocken Books, 1979, rev.
 I learned this at an Intensive Course taught by Sylvia Prescott, one of Guruji Iyengar’s first English students: 7-28-91 Jr. Intermediate Asana Class, Norwich, England
 HYP III.124 This middle nadi becomes straight (sarala: straight, upright) and firm (drdha: firm, stable) by steady practice of asana, pranayama and mudra (asana-prana-samyama-mudra-abhih)of the yogin.